Dick Eastman is wrong

On second thoughts actually no, Dick Eastman is right. The other title is just grabbier.

On third thoughts, maybe he’s both right and wrong.

The man who is wrong. Or right.

What am I talking about? I’ve just heard Dick speak on the future of genealogy at the wonderful Clare Roots Society conference in Ennis. (In case you don’t know, Dick is the prime guru of North American genealogy and has been for more than two decades. His slides for the talk are here. ) At the nub of his predictions was the idea of collaboration, in particular the notion of sharing research and connecting it with the research of others.

This isn’t a new idea. Twenty years ago it was already clear that making your tree available online was a very good way of attracting people interested in the same interconnecting families, thereby flushing out mistakes, new connections and earlier branches. The network effect was and still is at the heart this idea: as more people do it, it becomes exponentially more useful. I’m all in favour of it.

What has changed in those two decades is the rise of the social media behemoths, FaceBook, Google, Twitter … All operate under the same implicit deal: give us information on yourself that we can sell to advertisers and you can send email, message, stay connected for free. You’re paying nothing, so you’re the product, but people aren’t stupid and they know that’s the deal.

When it comes to genealogy, Dick seemed to be enthusing about genealogical social media. The crucial difference is that he makes the presumption it will happen on already-existing genealogy sites such as ancestry.com, findmypast and myheritage.

But hold on. They’re all subscription sites. So we’re supposed to pay them to host the information which makes them more valuable to us? That’s one heck of a business model:  the customer pays to supply the raw material that the company sells back to the customer.

MyHeritage offers to host your family tree.

To me, this sounds more like a three-card trick or shell game than a service.

Dick is right, I think, that the sheer scale of network-creation now happening will make collaborative genealogy more and more important. He’s wrong, I hope, that this will be done through the subscription sites.

Ireland’s public-service approach of making genealogy information free online already puts us gloriously out of step with Anglo-American commercial genealogy. There are signs that collaborative genealogy could turn out the same way – IrelandXO is just one example of a number of groups in Ireland already combining local history, genealogy and community volunteering to knit the descendants of emigrants back into their extended family.

On the giant scale that now seems possible, these could turn out more like the free-but-data-mined approach of Google and FaceBook than the walled reservations of ancestry.com or myheritage.

So Dick is wrong, but maybe only about the Irish.

Punch Drunk.

This is ridiculous. First, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht releases probably the most significant batch of Irish genealogical records ever seen online. Then, just a week later, the National Archives sees the Department’s bet and raises it by the entire pot. Six separate record collections, each of which alone would be a major gift to researchers have been published at once.

To go through them:

  • ship-premier-out-of-arklow
    The crew’s list for the Premier, sailing out of Arklow in 1872

    There are 536,413 individual records between 1860 and 1921 in the Crews and Shipping lists. They cover very port now in the Republic: a godsend for anyone with mariners in their tree.

  • The Catholic Qualification & Convert Rolls comprise two similar but distinct sources. The Convert Rolls list 5,866 people who converted from Catholicism to the Church of Ireland between 1703 and 1838. The much larger Catholic Qualification Rolls record 45,722 individuals who remained Catholic but took an oath of allegiance to the Crown in order to avail of rights newly restored under late 18th-century Catholic Relief Acts. They date from 1788 to 1845. I suspect many of both groups had their fingers crossed behind their backs.
Charles Bianconi qualifies in 1831
  • Almost all of the old Public Record Office’s pre-1858 collection of official probate records was destroyed in 1922. All the bits and pieces that happened to be outside the Record
    The 1707 prerogative will of Pharrell Cooke of Garrangibbon, Tipperary

    Treasury when it was pulverised are now on the site, covering 15,560 individuals. There are plenty of other, non-official, testamentary sources, but these are wonderful.



  • The collection of marriage licences 1623-1866 records 217,850 individuals, almost all in marriages that were in destroyed Church of Ireland parish registers.
  • After 1858, district probate offices made copies of all the wills they probated before sending the originals to the PRO. So, although the originals were destroyed, there are 179,048 copies, now fully imaged and searchable.
  • And most significant of all are the 1,366,275 Valuation Office records. These are the notebooks used by the VO’s army of valuers and surveyors to create Griffith’s
    Evictees from Boolakennedy townland in 1847
    Evictees from Boolakennedy townland in 1847

    Valuation. They predate Griffith by anything up to twenty years, at a period when the country was going through the massive upheaval of the Famine. In the hardest hit areas, they can reveal entire villages that had been wiped out by the time the full Valuation was published.



Marvellous. But there’s a bit of fatigue setting in. What’s next? The government handing everyone of Irish descent a personalised 10-generation parchment pedigree?

Please, a break. All the conga lines are exhausting.leprachaun-conga

Welcome to the Promised Land

Since last week’s additions to IrishGenealogy’s birth, marriage and death records, I’ve been wallowing around in the site, as happy as a pig in … a toy-shop. I’ve spent almost all my working life dealing with these records, or rather fishing for them through the tiny keyhole provided by the printed indexes. Suddenly we’ve been handed the key itself.

There should be conga-lines of genealogists dancing down O’Connell Street.

Some background: The General Register Office system for registering births, deaths and marriages in Ireland was (is) a perfect Victorian pyramid. The already-existing Poor Law Unions, catchment areas for a workhouse located in a large market town, were drafted in for double-duty to be used as the geographical basis of registration, and given the additional title “Superintendent Registrar’s District”. Most of them were already subdivided into local health areas, “Dispensary Districts”, which then also became  “Registrar’s Districts”.

The registration system pyramid



It  was the job of the local registrar to record births and deaths (marriages were always a bit different) in pre-printed registers. Every three months these registers were passed to the Registrar’s boss, the Superintendent Registrar. He then had copies made of all the local registers and sent them to his superior, the top of the pyramid, the Registrar General.

One of those blasted indexes

The Registrar General then had these copies indexed, producing printed indexes, covering births, deaths and marriages for the entire island, one volume per year until 1877, four per year thereafter. These are the indexes available in the General Register Office Search room in Dublin, until now, in theory at least, the only legal route of access to the historic registrations: the keyhole.

FamilySearch made a digital transcript of these indexes freely available more than five years ago, right up to 1958. In 2015, IrishGenealogy put up the GRO’s internal digital index (slightly more informative), but restricted to more than 100 years old for births, 75 for marriages  and 50 for deaths.

Kanturk, 1913. Many John Murphys.

What’s happened now is that IrishGenealogy has added online digital images of the copy-registers that its indexes point to. If you think your ancestor was one of the 25 John Murphy births registered in Kanturk Union between 1873 and 1876, up to now the only way to check full details of the entries was to buy print-outs of the images, a cool €100 in the case of the bould John. Now you can simply (and for nothing) click through each index entry and see full details: address, father’s occupation, mother’s maiden name …

Of course there are quibbles. Only the birth record images are complete. The marriage images start in 1882 and the deaths in 1891, so it’s still necessary to buy print-outs for marriages and deaths before those years. O and Mc surnames are treated very strangely in the indexes after 1900. The way the image digitisation was done makes it unnecessarily difficult (but not impossible) to reconstruct the local registrars’ records, an obvious treasure-trove for local historians. And some of the early registrations don’t seem to be imaged – Mary Scully in Abbeyleix Union in 1864 seems to have fallen between stools, for example. The FamilySearch transcript has much more information – an object lesson in the value of multiple transcripts.

But these are just tiny examples of that familiar occupational hazard, NGS, Nitpicking Genealogist Syndrome. What our Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has just done is simply extraordinary.

Ireland, a notorious black spot for family history less than a decade ago, is now a world leader in access to genealogical records.



Nobody went from Ireland to America

Nobody ever left Ireland just to go to America. Pat Naughton left Ballinasloe to go to his cousin John in Roxbury, Boston. James McCurdy went from Rathlin to Lubec, Maine, for a job promised by his mother’s uncle. Father Bud Sullivan brought rakes of other Sullivans out from Allihies to work for Marcus Daly in the copper mines of Butte, Montana.

Butte: the boys from Allihies dug this
Butte: the boys from Allihies dug this

It’s an exaggeration, of course, to say there was absolutely no blind mass migration.  In the hopeless years of the Famine and after, plenty of people fled, desperate to be anywhere but Ireland. And there have always been a few brave or reckless souls willing to throw themselves across the Atlantic just to see what happens.

But mass emigration, then as now,  was almost always part of the accumulation of tens of thousands of individual and family decisions. Identifying and unravelling those decisions can bridge centuries and oceans and re-knit extended families. And the painstaking micro-study of migration clusters is the way to do that.

There are some excellent individual works – Bruce Elliott’s Irish Migrants in the Canadas, A New Approach, (2nd ed. McGill-Queen’s University Press 2002), which details 775 Protestant smallholder families who migrated from North Tipperary to the Ottawa Valley, is the founder of the genre and still a shining example. Peter Murphy’s Together in Exile (New Brunswick, 1990), a superb reconstruction of migration from Carlingford to Saint John, New Brunswick, is not far behind.

As far as I’m aware, though, no central guide exists to the clustering of Irish migrant origins and destinations. Genealogical anecdotes certainly abound, with dozens of unlikely pairings: Abbeydorney to Westbury;


Kilskeery to Charlestown, Mass.; Dungarvan to Yonkers. But there is nothing systematic. Ireland Reaching Out has begun a series of migration stories, but there’s a long way to go.

In any case, if you want to have a go for your own locality, there are now some excellent online tools.

The wonderful Steve Morse (stevemorse.org) allows precise reconstruction of Ellis Island origins and destinations – have a look at bit.ly/1tYA0Cq for the 2000 people from Athlone who passed through between 1892 and 1924.

For the mid-19th century, the Boston Pilot “Missing Friends” ads (infowanted.bc.edu) supply even more circumstantial detail.

And the Irish Emigration Database at www.dippam.ac.uk/ied/ is another excellent resource, even if heavily weighted towards Ulster.

The reason for bringing all this up is two upcoming conferences that I’ll be performing speaking at. The first is a free conference run by Galway County Council’s indefatigable Heritage Officer, Marie Mannion. Entitled ‘Emigration and Our Galway County Diaspora’, it takes place in the unique setting of the Clarenbridge Oyster Festival Marquee next Thursday September 8th. More information here.

The second conference is ‘The Diaspora of the Wild Atlantic Way’, organised by the Clare Roots Society and taking place  in Treacy’s West County Hotel in Ennis over two full days, September 23rd and 24th. (Brochure here)

As ever, the Society is punching well above its weight, bidding to make this the pre-eminent genealogical conference in Ireland, bringing in heavyweight international speakers and applying its usual dedication and attention to detail.

I’m certainly looking forward to it.

There are no genealogical records on the internet

There are no genealogical records on the internet. There are garbled extracts, inaccurate transcripts, more-or-less complete copies with (if you’re lucky) an accompanying image. But there are no actual records. For anyone doing research online, this is a very basic point, but one that can be difficult to grasp. The original records are all offline, “reality-based” as Donald Rumsfeld used to say, in archives and manuscript repositories and presbyteries and books.

Bantry July24 1825
An accompanying image: Bantry RC registers July 24, 1825, with the Earl of Bantry’s indiscretion handled very discreetly.

The reason to keep this in mind is the seductive ease of access that the internet allows. This can mask great gulfs in apparently continuous runs of records, or transcription errors compounding record-keeping errors, not to mention large gaps in the search interfaces themselves.

This is most apparent to anyone searching the (otherwise wonderful) Latter-Day Saints’ site, familysearch.org: records are lumped together and described with the broadest of brushes, making it difficult to be sure what exactly you’re looking at. Have I really searched all Irish marriages up to 1898? (No) Are these three separate records of three different events or three different transcripts of the same record?

Luke Roche 1869
According to FamilySearch my great-grandparents had triplets. And named them all Luke.

And the same problems crop up on every record site. Parish registers that are listed as transcribed and searchable are somehow missing from search results, while General Register Office records not listed somehow appear in search results (rootsireland.ie). “Mc Dermott” and “McDermott” are treated as completely unrelated surnames (irishgenealogy.ie). Record images exist online, but for some reason remain untranscribed (census.nationalarchives.ie).

The only solution goes back to the very first principle of all research: know absolutely, precisely, exactly what records you’ve searched, their dates, page numbers, locations, shelf references, gaps, original purposes … If you don’t, and you find nothing, you will certainly end up searching the same records all over again some time. If you do find something, and don’t have details of the record source, it becomes impossible to interpret. And you will certainly end up searching the same records all over again some time.

I know.  I have been both of those researchers.

The rule is very simple: If you don’t know what you’ve searched, you don’t know what you’ve found.

Three cheers for the weirdo obsessives

One of the  virtues of genealogy is the fact that it’s almost impossible to industrialise. Every family is different, and the differences multiply exponentially with each generation back. Mass-production is impossible.

Hence the importance of do-it-yourself record collecting. Every Irish researcher depends inordinately on record collections created by stubborn individuals who just refused to give up.

Sliabh Luachra people are different
Sliabh Luachra people are different

The granddaddy of them all was Dr. Albert E. Casey, an Alabama pathologist who had ancestors from Sliabh Luachra on the Cork/Kerry border. If you know the area, you might understand Casey’s intense fascination – it is an extraordinary place, saturated in traditional Irish music, song, dance, poetry, and culture.  Sliabh Luachra people are different, and if you had some in your ancestry, you’d want to know more too

Dr. Casey’s response to the black hole of Irish records was simple and awe-inspiring. He collected and transcribed every single record of any description for the region and adjoining parts, an area roughly bounded by the towns of Mallow, Killarney, Tralee and Newcastle: parish registers, civil records, property records, court proceedings, will indexes, newspapers, townland maps, gravestone inscriptions …everything.

Dr. Albert E. Casey (from durrushistory.com)
Dr. Albert E. Casey (from durrushistory.com)

And he didn’t stop there. He collected anything he could find relating to all of Cork and Kerry before about 1825, everything on Munster before 1625 and an extraordinary assortment of early printed and manuscript works covering medieval Ireland as a whole. The whole compilation was published in 16 giant, indexed volumes over the 19 years from 1952 to 1971, with the strange title O’Kief, Coshe Mang, Slieve Lougher and the Upper Blackwater in Ireland. You can see a full list of the contents at the Rootsweb Kerry site. His parish transcripts at least are searchable on the main Mormon website, www.familysearch.org.


O'Casey had opinions
O’Casey had opinions

One of Casey’s own medical articles reprinted in O’Kief suggests the depth of his desire to know where he came from. His “Odyssey of the Irish” compares a worldwide series of blood group and skull-shape measurements with those of the people of Sliabh Luachra and concludes that, unlike the rest of the population of Ireland, they originated in the Caucasus Mountains.  As I said, different – the last of the Fir Bolg, perhaps?

As result of his work, research on one of the most poorly documented parts of Ireland became much easier.  And it also began the modern tradition of Irish genealogical weirdo obsessives, in which I proudly claim my own place.




A high chiefs-to-Indians ratio

The lure of blue blood is a perennial hazard in genealogy, and by no means confined to Ireland. Witness the “Order of the Crown of Charlemagne in the United States Of America” (charlemagne.org) or indeed the Confucius Genealogy, claiming to go back more than 2,500 years and supposedly listing more than two million of his living descendants.


The basic mechanism is simple: someone looks into their heart and sees innate nobility, then looks around at their daily life and sees very little nobility indeed. The mismatch can only be accounted for by a mistake, a forgotten blood link to the truly noble. For most people, this is just a grown-up version of an eight-year-old girl’s Princess fantasy, but it can still be powerful enough to warp all logic and common sense.

In Ireland, the affliction usually involves a half-remembered family tradition – “my granduncle’s brother-in-law’s neighbour told me .” – or simple geographical proximity. Your ancestors were called Kelly, and came from South Roscommon, so they must be descended from the O’Kellys of Uí Máine. If you can just stretch your own family history back five generations and stretch the O’Kellys forward another five … Dealing with stuff like this sets any experienced researcher’s hair on end: you just can’t know the answer before you start the research.

O’Kelly of Uí Máine

A classic jibe of Victorian Ireland against the Gael was that every dirt-poor Irish tenant claimed to be a descendant of the old Gaelic aristocracy. The irony is that
there was probably more truth to the claim than Victorian superciliousness could allow. Medieval Ireland had an extremely high chiefs-to-Indians ratio, so there were enough nobles to guarantee that pretty much everyone had (and has) kings and princes in their family tree. It’s just impossible to prove. That warm glow of innate nobility will have to suffice.

And don’t forget that the tree still has a lot more Indians than chiefs.

Follow the farm

The Macra na Feirme publication “Land Mobility and Succession in Ireland” (a good bedtime read, available here) reports that in 2011 a mere 0.3% of agricultural land in Ireland was put on the open market. It is an extraordinary figure. In effect, there is no buying or selling of farms in this country. Elsewhere in the developed world, most agricultural land is part of the normal stock of capitalism: invest capital to produce food to make a return on capital. Not in Ireland.

macraThe historic reason lies in the colossal transfer of ownership from landlords to tenants that happened over the century from 1870. The biggest single change came in 1903, with the Wyndham Land Act, which made land transfer very attractive for both sides. The government paid the difference between the landlord’s asking price and the tenant’s offer and then lent the purchase price to the tenant. The new loan repayments were so close to the old annual rent that, for little or no difference in outlay, you went from being a tenant to being an owner. It was an offer almost no-one could refuse.

After generations of tenancy, the sweetness of that ownership created a ferocious attachment to the land, making it unthinkable that it could ever be simply sold off. Nearly all transfers had to take place within the extended family.

Which makes it possible to trace extended families in rural Ireland by following their property.

The Valuation Office records all changes to the holdings first surveyed by Griffith in the mid-nineteenth century and they remained the basis for local property taxes (“The Rates”) until abolition in 1977.

Anyone in occupation then (and now) is overwhelmingly likely to be related to the original purchaser. Second or third cousins twice removed, perhaps, but related. The revision books and maps for the twenty-six counties are open to the public at the Office premises in the Irish Life Centre in Dublin, with excellent guidance provided by the staff. The books for the six counties of Northern Ireland are free online at the wonderful Public Record Office of Northern Ireland site.

Weak Brain, Narrow Mind

A truism of research is that every transcription of a set of records introduces its own layer of mistakes. In precisely the same way, every individual absorbing and reporting family information is liable to omit or mistake something, conflating different events or mixing up individuals. Eventually errors like these can encrust even the most carefully guarded family story, like a multi-generational game of Chinese Whispers. The only real protection is the trusty defence of every genealogical researcher, deep and abiding scepticism. But it can also help to be aware of the most typical way distortions occur.

The wonderful Willie Dixon

When someone speaks, the default expectation of a listener is that he or she will understand what is being said. This expectation is extremely difficult to defeat, and one result is that unfamiliar names are distorted to make them familiar. So “Grenham” is heard as Grennan or Grehan or Graham (repeatedly). After five generations, the place of origin of an Irish-American family mutates from “Carracastle” to “Kerry Castle”.

In Ireland itself a family of immigrant Italian origins, the Rolleris from Parma, all become O’Learys. This impulse, to tame and familiarise what is strange, is primarily responsible for the garbled surnames and place-names that plague research on the families of Irish emigrants. The notion that immigration officials at Ellis Island handed out fresh surnames to the new arrivals is a myth. What changed the names was the pressure to become familiar.

I recently came across a transcript of the lyrics of the wonderful Willie Dixon song, “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind“, and discovered the power of such wishful distortion. A couplet I had treasured for years – “If your brain is strong and your mind is broad/ You’ll have more women than a drinkin’ hog” – actually turned out to be “more women than a train can hold”.


Coca-Cola hurt my self-esteem

Whinging about globalisation is part of my stock-in-trade: A trans-national corporation stole my lunch money; Coca-Cola hurt my self-esteem. You get the idea.

John Grenham Jan 1 2015
Globalised man of mystery

So it’s a tad bemusing to find myself globalised. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been recording a series of talks about Irish genealogy (available here). Nothing strange in that. But I give the lectures to a PC in my front room in Dublin; they’re recorded and edited in a studio in Massachusetts; sit ready for download on a server in Arizona; and  their main market is Australia and New Zealand.

Cagney white heat2
Would you like eggs with that, Mr. Cagney?

My feelings are mixed. There is a touch of megalomania in the thought of what I’ve done spanning the globe – “Look at me, Ma! Top of the world!”. On the other hand, I’m sitting on my own in the front room.

My experience running the website without the protective cocoon of The Irish Times makes me think this combination of mass connection and personal atomisation is the new normal, at least in the developed world. Like it or not, know it or not, we’re all globalised.

One aspect of orating at a computer screen was fun, though. The bunch of five-year-olds who play in the cul-de-sac outside my front window had a ringside seat: that weirdo neighbour waving his hands around and talking very loudly to himself for hours. They learnt a lot about Irish genealogy.

And I didn’t steal their lunch money.