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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
John O’Hart (1824 -1902) is probably the single best-known writer on Irish genealogy. His most widely-available work is Irish Pedigrees (or the Origin and Stem of the Irish Nation), first published in 1878, with at least eight subsequent expanded editions.
O’Hart had an extraordinary appetite for work and appears to have read and absorbed every single Irish pedigree published before the 1870s. He was also a passionate nationalist, and this passion shaped and distorted what he wrote. The primary aim of Irish Pedigrees, as its subtitle shows, was to demonstrate the homogeneity and racial purity of the Irish. To this end, O’Hart takes the legendary Milesian origins of the Gaels, extends them back to Adam, via Magog, Japhet and Moses, grafts onto this root every published medieval Irish genealogy, including all of the descents listed in the Annals of the Four Masters, and then extends them all into the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
The result is extraordinary. Every Gaelic Irish family is shown to descend from a single forebear, but only by constant jumbling of sources, unacknowledged guesswork and judicious omissions. And as a piece of wonderful inverted Gaelic snobbery, he even demonstrates the Milesian descent of the British royal family.
If this was all the book consisted of, it would merely be a historical curiosity, about as interesting as phrenology. The real tragedy is that it includes much information based on sources that no longer exist.
As the scope of the work expanded through its various editions, O’Hart began to incorporate material relating to the non-Gaels, taken from the original sources in the Public Record Office that were destroyed in 1922. But since he gives no details of the sources, it is almost impossible to sort fantasy from fact. If ever there was an object lesson in the importance of academic citation, Irish Pedigrees is it.
At 9 am this morning, I got a note from a neighbour telling me that Vera from across the road had died suddenly and the funeral was at 10 am. So at 10 am, I was at a funeral mass with several hundred others, in my best sober shirt and tie.
I’d known Vera distantly for 15 years and spoken to her (weather only) maybe a dozen times. She seemed a perfectly nice person, with a passion for her front garden, but I never got to know her in any but the most superficial way.
So why did I drop everything at twenty minutes notice and hare off to her funeral? Because in Ireland a funeral trumps everything.
The country still operates in a forest of mutual obligations, of favours given, owed and received – the “round” system, which notoriously forces everyone in a group in an Irish pub to buy a drink for everyone else, is only the most egregious example. And funerals are probably the most important mutual obligation of all.
“I’ll go to your funeral if you come to mine”? A bit too Irish. No, the duty is to the survivors, the extended family and friends, other neighbours, the entire network of connections that allows us to recognise each other: kin, in the very broadest sense. Being there certainly conveys solidarity with the bereaved, but it also reconfirms membership in that broader group for everyone who attends.
One result is that records of funerals are uniquely important in Ireland. Visitors can be bewildered at the half-hour-long lists of deaths and funeral arrangements that constitute prime-time broadcasting on local radio. One of the most visited Irish websites is rip.ie, providing a country-wide database of funerals. Newspapers still have full pages of “the deaths”.
And all of these include lists of immediate family, in-laws and grandchildren, with addresses, cemeteries, places of origin … everything needed for family history. When I looked up Vera’s death notice on rip.ie after coming home from the funeral, I found out more about her than in the fifteen years of being her neighbour.
The standard story of globalisation is that economies of scale, accumulation of ‘talent’ and creative use of international tax law permit giant transnational corporations to reach extraordinary levels of profitability, which are then used to out-compete smaller local players and either crush them or absorb them.
How does this apply in genealogy? In Ireland, on first sight at least, the standard story seems to be in action. Ancestry.com and FindMyPast, the Coke™ and Pepsi™ of global genealogy, are indeed using their technical know-how, deep pockets and extraordinary marketing muscle to carve out territory and stamp their brands on Irish records.
For bread-and-butter research, there’s no doubt it’s working. I now use both services almost every day, in a way that I would have found inconceivable even two years ago. The range and depth of digitised records they offer is beyond the capacity of even the most dedicated Irish public or private institution and there is no doubt that they are swimming with the tide of economic history.
So should we all just accept our fate? They’re certainly not going away any time soon. But I think there are flaws in the way they can work that actually feed the ecosystem in which local record providers can thrive.
First, the sheer, cussed, devil-in-the-detail gnarliness of genealogy means that the more the service is standardised, the less it actually meets the needs of researchers, and standardisation is the be-all and end-all of globalised corporations. Believe me, there is no frustration like the frustration of knowing a source, knowing the information it might hold, and being forced to fish through a keyhole for it by a one-size-fits-all search interface (FindMyPast, I’m looking at you).
Second, the drift towards monopoly that seems to be an inevitable feature of globalised tech corporations means that intelligent usability is often an afterthought. The people making crucial management decisions are managers and marketers, with their attention on stockholders and the competition, not on the genealogists who are their customers. The business model seems to consist simply of hoovering up as many record-sets as possible, with no concern for making them intelligible (Ancestry, step forward).
To put it bluntly, the more databases they add, the stupider they get.
Contrast this with the (belated but very welcome) agility of a small, purely Irish commercial service like rootsireland. In the last year, it has dropped prices, allowed precision research using surname only, introduced a place-names search in church registers and added swathes of new civil and church records. The service is unrecognisable from the one that existed two years ago, largely, I think, because of the impact of the global genealogy giants.
On the public service side too, gorgeously non-standardised searches proliferate, allowing the slicing and dicing of information from censuses, directories, church and civil records in ways simply not available in the global giants’ services.
Alfred Henry Hunter is the Dubliner long known to be the model for the hero of Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. In 1904, after rescuing Joyce from a drunken fight, Hunter took him home and showed him a paternal sympathy that resonated deeply with Joyce, who originally planned Ulysses as a short story based on the incident. It expanded enormously between 1914 and 1922, and the figure at its centre changed from the kindly Hunter to the Everyman Bloom.
The James Joyce Centre’s website (jamesjoyce.ie) still refers to Hunter as “an elusive figure”. Not a bit of it. With all the records now online, his life is an open book.
Here he is in Mount Street in 1901, with his wife Marion Bruére Hunter (née Quin). He gives his occupation as “Gentleman”, and then crosses it out. But Marion remains a “Lady”. Very Bloom-like.
In 1890, Hunter even registered a patent of an invention “for facilitating the unlacing of boots and shoes and corsets and such like articles of wearing apparel”, as reported in The Weekly Irish Times of November 14 1890. And at least one other patent exists, for a cuff fastener. Bloomier and Bloomier.
Given Joyce’s penchant for using identifiable individuals, an intriguing question is why Hunter had to be re-imagined as Jewish. Perhaps Everyman as a Northern Protestant was a step too far, even for Joyce.
And what about the model for Molly, Leopold’s wife? It turns out that Alfred’s wife is just as accessible, and even more interesting.
First, like Bloom’s Molly, she was christened Marion. The baptism took place in the Church of Ireland Mariners’ Church in Dún Laoghaire on May 19 1864, with her full name given as Marion Bruére Quin. She was the daughter of Francis Quin, a professor of music, and Menella (née Wilcox). Molly’s musical bent, so important in Ulysses, clearly has a background in Marion’s family.
Her mother’s side are even more intriguing. The Wilcoxes, from just outside Sunderland, were cousins of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen-name, Lewis Carroll. As an adult Dodgson regularly visited – he composed “Jabberwocky” while staying with them – and corresponded frequently with Marion’s mother, Menella. He also took an interest in Menella’s daughters, encouraging Marion’s elder sister Elizabeth Menella (“Minna”) Quin in her acting career, for which she used the stage-name “Norah O’Neill”.
Marion herself also knew Dodgson very well. In 1897, he gave her a hand-written facsimile of “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground”, the original of what was to become Alice in Wonderland, inscribed “Marion Quin, with the Author’s Love”.
In later life, after the death of Alfred in 1926, she appears to have fallen on hard times. She sold the facsimile at auction in London in 1938, and lived her final years in a North Dublin tenement, sharing 14 Upper Rutland Street (now Seán O’Casey Avenue) with at least six other households.
There is no doubt that the original from which Joyce drew most of Molly’s character was his wife, Nora Barnacle. But he borrowed from everything and everybody in the Dublin he knew. And he clearly knew (or knew of) Marion Bruére Hunter.
Dodgson was friendly with Marion and her sister, the actress Elizabeth Menella (“Minna”) Quin, and in 1897, shortly before his death, gave Marion a personally-inscribed gift of a facsimile of the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground – see Christie’s description.
One of the most common questions people ask me is “What Irish genealogical records are online?” Years ago, on the old Irish Times version of the site, I did a single page giving a quick-and-dirty overview to answer the question.
The curse of 1922 still looms. The destruction of the Public Record Office in that year certainly simplified Irish research, but in the way Cromwell simplified Ireland. On the bright side, (repeat after me: “the glass is half-full, the glass is half-full”) virtually everything of universal relevance to Irish genealogy is easily visible: Census/GRO/Griffiths/Church/Tithes.
Which in turn makes it relatively easy to get a grasp of what bits are searchable online and what’s still only offline.
From that Olympian perspective, a few things are clear.
First, offline territory is shrinking rapidly, mainly due to advances by global genealogy giants Ancestry.com and FindMyPast.
Second, many records are being transcribed multiple times on different sites. What a waste, cries the naive researcher. Not at all. Every transcription adds a fresh layer of mistakes, but different transcriptions have different mistakes: using them together provides a level of accuracy they can’t have on their own.
Third, digitisation is stretching that simplified set of universally relevant records. When you can search a century of newspapers, or an entire set of burial registers, or decades of city directories at the click of a mouse, their relative importance changes completely.
And last, but not least, Irish genealogy online remains a lot more fun than in most other places. You have to rummage right down to the bottom of the Irish drawer to get at the good bits.
When I started doing Irish genealogical research thirty-odd years ago, I stumbled across A Census of Ireland circa 1659 (ed. Séamus Pender, Irish Manuscripts Commission, 1939) in the National Library reading room and my heart leapt. A published census? From 1659? Hallellujah!
But of course Pender’s Census is nothing like a census. (The decision to give it that name was not Pender’s: the manuscript in the Royal Irish Academy had been known as a ‘census’ since the mid-nineteenth century. So forgive him.)
Two classes of people are recorded. The first, ‘tituladoes’, are so called because they claim title to the land they occupy and because that title is in question. The OED defines titulado as “A thing that has only a nominal existence.” Their names and townland addresses are given in full. Because they represent the tiny property-owning class, their numbers are few.
More interesting is the second class, “Inhabitants”. These are described as English, Scotch or Irish, their surname (or a rough version of their surname) is supplied, along with their number. These numbers are for baronies, so the areas they cover are much larger than for the tituladoes.
Clearly, the ‘Census’ was part of the preparatory work for the mass confiscations that took place under the Cromwellian Commonwealth. Although the returns differ in format from one part of Ireland to another, they were designed to answer two simple questions: Who is in possession of the land? (the tituladoes) And who is likely to oppose or support their dispossession? (Numbers of English, Scotch or Irish)
Even on its own terms, the ‘Census’ is flawed. It is missing all of counties Cavan, Galway, Mayo, Tyrone and Wicklow, most of Meath (nine baronies) and four baronies in Cork. The Inhabitants of Fermanagh and Leitrim are recorded in composite groups of parishes, not baronies as elsewhere. And the recording of surnames is inconsistent beyond belief.
This much said, Pender’s ‘Census’ has one unassailable virtue: It exists. Almost no other records survive for the Ireland of this period.
The 1939 edition is available online at the IMC website. An updated version with more modern analysis by William J. Smyth, was published by the IMC in 2002. A good plain transcription, lacking the academic apparatus, is at the Clann O’Lochlainn website.
All of which finally brings me to the point for this post. I’ve spent the past few months extracting the Inhabitants’ surnames and the corresponding baronies to produce maps showing surname distribution and numbers in the mid-seventeenth century, now part of the surname search. Have a look at Whelan, for example.
Making the maps produced a little queasiness, I have to say. They do show just how long-lived is the connection in Ireland between particular surnames and places, but their implied pinpoint precision is very misleading. Treat them with caution.
[This post was first published on May 23 last. From May 30, the reason you couldn’t be reading it is that I deleted the entire johngrenham.com site by accident on that day, and my most recent backup was from May 16. Web-publishing is very like riding a unicycle on a tightrope over Niagara Falls. While juggling chain-saws. With a family of acrobats standing on your shoulders.]
I’ve always had a liking for the paradox of Eubulides, now nearly three millennia old. He simply said: “What I am saying now is a lie.” If he was telling the truth, then he was lying, in which case he was telling the truth. And so on round and round.
You can’t help the sneaking suspicion Eubulides’ granny was a Murphy. We Irish specialise in wonderful paradoxical non-sequiturs, from the self-evident direction: “If you want to get there, you shouldn’t start from here” to Phil Lynnott’s immortal “Man, when I tell you she was cool, she was red hot” from “The Boys are Back in Town.
My favourite sign in Dublin used to be D’Olier Street’s “Ears Pierced While You Wait”. So much more convenient than dropping them off. And the picture is of a (very nice) ad for an optician currently working in Drumcondra. The target market for the poster is … people who can’t see it.
The reason for all this Irish bull is that the Irish Times/Irish Ancestors site at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor is switching off this morning and redirecting its 30,000 daily page-views to this site. Which I expect by now has crumbled under the assault.
Last week I got a call from the producers of ‘The Real Housewives of Orange County’. Really. They were in Ireland filming, and needed an emergency genealogist. One of their housewives had Irish ancestry, could I whip up her family tree and get back to them in 10 minutes?
Whoooah there, Neddy. That’s not how it works. First off, what does she already know?
She already knew quite a bit, it turned out. An uncle had done some serious research and, on the basis of an emailed tree, I was able to connect her with actual parish records and Griffith’s and come up with some great grand-aunts and uncles in 1901 and 1911.
Then they had me come down to their hotel, Powerscourt just outside Enniskerry, to spring the results on the unsuspecting housewife. Reality TV, you see. So far, so good.
Things got a little strange after that. Her nineteenth-century ancestors were O’Tooles, with the forename Phelim recurring in every generation, all based in Greystones, just 3 km down the road from Powerscourt. And of course the O’Tooles of Powerscourt were notorious/renowned for their part in the sixteenth-century rebellion against the Tudors, when their leader was … Phelim O’Toole of Powerscourt.
At this point the word “karma” crept into the conversation.
Real Powerscourt. Not real housewife.
Finding O’Tooles in north Wicklow is the genealogical equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, so I laughed it off and joked that if she wanted to meet a living relative, she should just go down to Greystones, tap anyone on the shoulder and they’d be her fourth or fifth cousin. Big mistake. Californians (and Californian TV producers) tend towards the literal.
That night, in Johnny Fox’s pub in Glencullen, they put out the word they were looking for O’Tooles. Naturally, a family stepped forward who claimed direct descent from Phelim of Powerscourt. Naturally, I was asked to authenticate the connection between them, Phelim and the real housewife.