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.
I recently had an Ancestry DNA test done. The process is clean, well-designed and private: 10ccs of spittle in a plastic container sent off in a pre-addressed package identifiable to the testers only by a reference number. Once the test is complete – only a matter of weeks – the results are available using the reference number.
Until recently, most genealogical DNA testing focused on the Y chromosome for direct male father-to-son descents, or mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) for mother-to-daughter descent. In both cases, the tests seek out small inherited mutations. By comparing the results of large reference groups, it is possible to infer roughly when and where each mutation first arose and, by extension, the most recent common ancestor of everyone whose DNA includes that mutation. The rate of change on the Y chromosome is much faster than for mtDNA, and the inheritance from father to son mimics European surname inheritance, so Y DNA testing has long been the most genealogically useful.
What Ancestry does is different. It is an autosomal DNA test, taking samples from across the entire genome, all 23 chromosomes, rather than just part of a single sub-chromosome. They test 730,525 points, over 7% of the entire genome. Even three years ago, industrial DNA-testing on this scale was barely imaginable, and it makes possible broad-brush comparisons on a completely new scale.
What do those broad-brush comparisons tell you? Ancestry uses the results in two ways. First comes an “ethnicity estimate”, giving a percentage match to each of 26 ethnic groups. Second is a search across other Ancestry test results to uncover unsuspected 2nd, 3rd and 4th cousins.
So when I got the email saying my test was complete, I was like a child on Christmas morning. Would I be 40% Iberian, 10% Eastern European, 20% Finnish? Third cousins in Hawaii, please, please, please.
No. Apparently, I’m 98% Irish. After trying to choose which of my treacherous Brit fingernails to pull out in order to make the 100%, I took a closer look at the way the results are created. There’s a margin of error of +/- 5%. So I could actually be 103% Irish – Hiberniores Hibernicis ipsis, more Irish than the Irish themselves. Wrap the green flag round me, boys.
More seriously, that 98% points up the limits of autosomal testing. It is very broad, but also very shallow, its accuracy limited to four generations, great-great-grandparents. This is because you get half your DNA from each parent, who each got half from their parents and so on, halving with each generation. As a result, the amount you share with any of your great-great-grandparents is just 6.25%.
I already know who all my great-great-grandparents were and where they lived, all along the Galway/Roscommon border, God help them. Not a Finn or a Polynesian among them. So Ancestry was telling me nothing I didn’t know.
Ethnicity is also much slipperier and more dangerous terrain that Ancestry seems to realise. In the US, being “Irish” or “Italian” or “Polish” is an interesting twist on basic American-ness: it might be pistachio or vanilla, but it’s still ice-cream. In Europe, we spent most of the 20th century fighting genocidal wars that revolved around a toxic mix of ethnicity and nationalism. Not ice-cream at all.
The second part of the Ancestry DNA experience is genuinely useful, though. On Ancestry itself, I found four third-cousin families, all of whom have extended family histories about which I knew nothing.
And when I uploaded my results to the open-source GedMatch.com, I found even more, and closer connections.
The Ancestry test costs £99 and is well worth it, especially if your main interest is the broader extended family. Just take the ethnicity side of things with a grain of salt.
On Saturday I loaded up on all the scepticism I could muster and headed down for a sneak preview of the Epic Ireland visitor attraction in the CHQ building on Dublin’s Custom House Quay. (Full disclosure: the reason for the invite is that the Family History Centre attached to Epic has licensed some of the software from my site)
Custom-built “visitor attractions” are not generally high on my wish-list: being told what to see, even in velvety PR-speak, gets my hackles up. And after all the fruitless ballyhoo a few years back over a National Diaspora Centre, I was afraid this private-sector version might go for the paddywhackiest of paddywhackery. So I entered the CHQ vaults with a clenched heart and some trepidation.
And two hours later emerged with my heart melted, a lump in my throat and my eyes out on stalks. The place is simply extraordinary. First, and most important, it is honest. The reasons for leaving and the lives left behind, the individual stories, the huge chronological and geographic span of migration from Ireland, are all
But the wonderful use of touch-screens, hi-definition projectors, motion-sensors and especially of the barrel-vaults of the building itself make it possible for a visitor to skim or go deep, to linger over the role of the Irish in Bordeaux wine-making or the battle of Fredericksburg, to whip through Riverdance or be hypnotised by the spectacular animations illustrating the history of Irish science.
In the end, it was one of the most moving museum experiences I’ve ever had. I suspect anyone with Irish blood will find it just as emotional.
Quibbles? Of course: There’s not enough about the awkward Other Irish, Northern Presbyterians, responsible for the winning of the American War of Independence, a fact worth bigging up. I found the passport to be stamped as you go from section to section just a tad on the hokey side. The sheer scale can be a bit overwhelming. And there is some mission creep – it covers aspects of contemporary Ireland with only the most tenuous links to the Diaspora.
But, all in all, it is breathtaking.
Epic Ireland opens to the public on Saturday next, May 7th. I’ve been to the current top attraction in Dublin, the Guinness Storehouse, and Epic is much better. If there’s any justice, it will be a runaway success. And so will the Family History Centre.