Mary John Mary John Mary John Mary

Historic Irish forenames have a reputation for being dull and repetitive to the point of madness. Mary John Mary John Mary John Mary John Mary …

It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of a John Sullivan in Kenmare in 1840 with fourteen first cousins, forty second cousins, two uncles and six great-great grandparents all called John Sullivan who thought it might be a good idea to name his son … John Sullivan. But he did. And  his fourteen first cousins, forty second cousins, two uncles and six great-great grandparents also called their sons John.

Bartholomew Ahern became Bertie because Dublin ears couldn’t cope with such a richly Corkonian first name.

Look more closely and the picture gets more nuanced. There are  strong local associations between some forenames and specific localities. You’ll almost never find a Cornelius or a Jeremiah or a Bartholomew or a Hanorah outside Munster.  Sabina (or Sally) is heavily associated with Galway and Connacht. A Philip is most likely from the Cavan/Monaghan/Fermanagh area. (But most Phillip McCabes had fourteen first cousins, forty second cousins, two uncles and six great-great grandparents all called Phillip McCabe). Gobnait is almost excusive to the Caherciveen area. Festus or Festy is only found in west Galway, around Clifden.

Knowing there were bound to be instances like this that I’d missed, I set off to mine the civil birth records 1864 to 1913. And ended up mapping them all.

As always, a visualisation makes some things jump out. Kieran is almost exclusively a Westmeath/Offaly name. But spelt ‘Kyran’, it’s almost exclusively Kilkenny.

Kierans: Birr, Athlone, Ballinalsoe
Kyrans: Kilkenny



Abigail is common only in two distant areas, around Belfast and in south-west Cork. Roger appears almost only in Connacht and Munster.

The main insight, especially from browsing the names, is that mis-spellings and mistranscriptions are depressingly common. And that some names are so numerous your computer will explode if it tries to map them all, so I left them out.  A full list, with the mind-boggling numbers of registrations, is below.

You can play with all of these for free yourself in the Names section of the site. Enjoy.

The most common Irish forenames 1864 to 1913

Note “Unknown” at No. 10 with almost 200,000 registrations. Many Lying-in Hospitals in urban areas block-registered newborns with surnames only. Be warned.

Rank Name Number
1 Mary 622,622
2 John 462,084
3 James 303,156
4 Patrick 290,455
5 Margaret 263,951
6 Thomas 241,965
7 William 239,271
8 Michael 215,226
9 Bridget 207,127
10 Unknown 187,657
11 Catherine 181,431
12 Ellen 156,439
13 Elizabeth 117,622
14 Anne 111,725
15 Sarah 95,600
16 Joseph 86,304
17 Robert 82,974
18 Edward 63,956
19 Jane 55,845
20 Daniel 55,790
21 Eliza 54,221
22 Annie 51,903
23 Peter 49,537
24 Kate 48,902
25 Francis 47,216
26 George 46,505
27 Samuel 42,136
28 Julia 39,788
29 Martin 39,499
30 Charles 39,429
31 Johanna 37,966
32 Hugh 36,411
33 David 36,134
34 Richard 35,456
35 Henry 35,170
36 Denis 33,688
37 Agnes 33,297

The kindness of strangers

Wil. E. Coyote

I’ve often wondered about those individuals who run out of their own ancestors but just refuse to give up. Sometimes they seem like Wil E. Coyote, who runs over the edge of the cliff and just keeps going. But many turn to transcribing records  to scratch that itch, and in the process provide the rest of us with invaluable shortcuts for often-obscure sources.

The granddaddy of them all was Dr. Albert E. Casey, an Alabama pathologist who had ancestors from Sliabh Luachra on the Cork/Kerry border. Dr. Casey’s response to the lack of records was simple and breathtaking. 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 Newmarket: parish registers, civil records, property records, court proceedings, will indexes, newspapers, townland maps, gravestone inscriptions – everything.

And he didn’t stop there. He went on to collect 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 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 the full awe-inspiring list of contents at .

The Granard census

Now someone else has stepped up to the plate. John McDonald Pepper evidently has Longford ancestors – he has produced meticulously painstaking transcriptions of two Longford Catholic parish censuses, for the parish of Granard in 1834 and the parish of Streete in 1856. He approached me for advice about making them available, so I offered.

Initially, I was going to disassemble them into database tables, but the care John has taken to reproduce the precise written formats deserves to be preserved, so instead I converted them to searchable PDFs.

Enjoy: Granard (1834) and Streete (1856).  And full credit to John.

Trust none of them, use them all

I was irritatingly curious as a child, not to say obnoxiously nosy. Even the experience of sticking my five-year-old fingers into a live electricity socket didn’t cure me. So when RootsIreland, the Irish Family History Foundation website, put up transcripts of Catholic registers from west Cork and Kerry, I immediately wondered where they came from. All the other parts of RI are anchored firmly to a local centre, but the Kerry records are just sort of … hanging there. And Mallow, the East Cork centre, is closer to Limerick than to some of the parishes in deepest West Cork now in its catchment area. No IFHF indexing centre exists for the area the records come from.

Everyday life in Drumcondra
Checking out Rootsireland’s sources

They’re certainly not transcribed from the National Library of Ireland microfilm site – the end dates go well past the 1880 cut-off used by NLI.

So did they come from  The start and finish years do match remarkably well, and that Catherine Mruphy daughter of Denis Nmruphy is there in both transcripts of Allihies. But there are peculiarities. In a simple copy-and-paste job, there shouldn’t be any differences, but there are:  In Kenmare, IG has Ellen Mc [sic] on 25 May 1812, while RI has her as Ellen McSweeney.

So they don’t seem to be copied. The one clear thing about all the records is that they’re from the Catholic diocese of Kerry. There was an IFHF transcription centre run by that diocese in Killarney back in the 1990s. When it split from the IFHF, it gave its records to the Dept of Arts, which used them as the basis of … IrishGenealogy.

So is it possible that some early version of the transcripts was still in the possession of the IFHF? That might explain why not all of the IG transcripts are there. The Diocese of Kerry certainly seems unaware of any change.

Teasing aside, a few weeks after the Cork and Kerry transcripts Rootsireland put up a wonderful fresh batch of Church of Ireland and Presbyterian transcripts for Armagh, all apparently based on the PRONI microfilms. Hurray.

And keep in mind: the RI surname variants are different to the IG variants, both infinitely superior to the and variants and all of them have transcription errors and none of them have the same ones. The more transcripts there are to play with the better. Trust none of them completely but use them all.


Don’t tell my publisher

For a while, the guides to Irish records in the free Browse section of the site have been looking more and more grizzled and long in the tooth, based as they were on the 2011 edition of Tracing Your Irish Ancestors.

Lockdown grizzled. Also long in the tooth.

So a nice long lockdown seemed like the perfect opportunity to dig in and update everything. It was a bit of a slog, though in a nicely mindless way, and now it’s finished. The entire text of the 2019 edition is up, with completely new sections on starting out and graveyards, along with new short accounts of researching Irish ancestors in the Army, attorneys and barristers, clergymen, teachers, policemen and doctors.

The 2019 edition was actually finished in August 2018, due to the long lead-in time for publishing a book. So I’ve also added in all the updates to records since then, the extra years of civil marriages and deaths on, the Galway burial registers, the new transcripts on FindMyPast and Ancestry and Rootsireland. It was particularly satisfying to include direct links to everything rather than just printing them. And good fun to lash in loads more illustrations.

Esther Johnston to Dean Swift (1718) Memorial 20 431 11148

My favourite new illustration is the 1718 deed where Esther Johnston sells her life companion Jonathan Swift “the messuage or tenement commonly known as Talbot’s Castle in the town of Trim in the county of Meath“. She got £200 out of him.  Anglo-Irish pragmatism at its finest.

But Murphy’s Law rules, even in pandemics. So naturally as I was finishing the updates last week, I got word from my publisher that the ebook versions of the 2019 edition would shortly be appearing on Kindle and Apple Books. Ulp.


Accentuate the negative

I recently overheard a bar room theology session end with a triumphant “But you can’t disprove that God exists!” Unfortunately, the logic works both ways: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but it’s not much good as evidence of presence either.

Research in Irish records means constantly confronting such uncertainties. Irish genealogy’s motto should be “Absence of evidence”.

Evidence of Absinthe

Not long ago, I took on what looked like a very straightforward search for the baptism of a James Holohan, born to a Holohan/Molloy couple around 1850 in Kilkenny. The Catholic baptismal records of the county are good for the period and, in my experience, the Kilkenny transcripts at are very accurate. So there should have been no problem.

But there was no matching baptism 1840 to 1860. No baptism for other children of the couple 1830 to 1870. No matching baptism with mother’s name missing. No parents’ marriage. No baptism outside Kilkenny. An absolute blank on every single front.

This was more than annoying, it needed explanation. Even if one baptism was missing or mis-transcribed, siblings’ records or a parents’ marriage record should be providing enough bites of the cherry to identify at least a general area of origin.

So I listed all parishes in Kilkenny with both Holohan and Molloy households in Griffith’s in 1849 and then checked the status of the Catholic records for these parishes (all here, of course). For the parish with the single largest number of households, Ballyragget, all of the parish registers between 1807 and 1855 were missing.

Does this prove my James Holohan was from Ballyragget? Not at all. Without the records, it’s simply impossible to know. All I have is a possible explanation of why it’s impossible

So Irish researchers just have to cultivate what Keats called “Negative Capability”, the capacity “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

And don’t mess with Mister In-Between.

How the Public Record Office burned

The central event for anyone researching Irish history is the destruction of the Irish Public Record Office in 1922. For the previous century-and-a-half, Ireland had been methodically measured, counted and recorded unlike anywhere else in the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, precisely because it was contested territory. We had the first censuses, the earliest systematic maps, the first centralised police force, the first uniform property taxes, the first island-wide legal system.

The Public Record Office in 1914.  The Reading Room is in the section with the portico. The Record Treasury, with the large rounded windows, is behind.

And from 1867 we had a wonderful state-of-the-art Public Record Office to secure the records of all that activity.

The interior of the Record Treasury c. 1920.

The broad outlines of what happened in 1922 have long been clear. The opponents of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty occupied the Four Courts campus (which contained the Public Record Office) in April 1922. Their aim was to force the Treaty signatories, their former comrades-in-arms, to choose between upholding the Treaty and starting a civil war or resuming the war against Britain.

On June 28 1922, after an ultimatum was rejected,  the pro-Treaty forces began an assault and bombardment of the Four Courts that resulted in the complete destruction of the PRO and all the contents of its Record Treasury three days later, on Friday June 30.

Bombarding the Four Courts from the south Quays. One of the artillery pieces had originally been placed across the river, took a shot at a sniper in the dome, missed and landed the shell in grounds of the British Army HQ in Kilmainham.

There followed almost a century of tit-for-tattery over who was to blame. Anti-Treaty zealots who mined the entire complex and wanted history to restart from Year Zero? Or incompetent Free-Staters using British Army artillery they couldn’t control?  Take your pick: Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael?

And there was always a convenient haziness around the exact sequence of events over that week in June 1922. No more. Michael Farmer’s The Battle of the Four Courts: the first three days of the Irish Civil War (Head of Zeus, 2019) is a meticulous work of micro-history that assembles the story hour-by-hour  weighing maps and photographs against eye-witness accounts to reconstruct an utterly convincing version of what happened.


As Fewer tells it, there is plenty of blame to go around. The Anti-Treatyites stored their huge supplies of munitions in a building adjacent to the Record Treasury (the “Headquarters Block”) and booby-trapped it with fire-bombs.  The Free-Staters breached the defences of the complex by blowing a large hole in the Church Street side of the PRO Reading Room and attacking through it.  The attack triggered the booby-trapped munitions and the resulting explosion was immense.

The breach in the Church Street side of the Reading Room.
The Headquarters Block explosion

The explosion demolished most of the block and started a ferocious fire. It did not destroy the Record Treasury, but blew out all of the vast glass windows and left the records at the mercy of the holocaust.  It took hours for them to be consumed, while the Dublin Fire Brigade looked on helplessly, unable to intervene for fear of further explosions. After it had burnt itself out, everything in the Treasury was gone.

The Treasury after the fire

The simple fact is that neither side cared a damn about the records. They were young men prepared to kill or die for their beliefs about the future. What did the past matter?

There are some positives from what happened, if you squint really hard. First, 1922 simplified Irish research, though perhaps only in the way  that Cromwell simplified Ireland. It is also one of the main reasons so much basic Irish material (the bits that survived) is so widely available for free on Irish government websites such as, and Never underestimate the power of institutional shame.

There are also attempts to put things right. The successor to the PRO, the National Archives, is very gingerly restoring some of the burnt bits in time for the centenary. And Beyond 2022 is aiming to repopulate as many of the empty Treasury record bays as possible. Good luck to them.

Whatever happened to Hindenburgh McHugh?

One of the first lessons you learn as a genealogist is that all names are equal. So you keep a straight face when you come across ‘Gelida Winterbottom’ or ‘Annette Curtin’.

Dublin voters, Glenbeigh Road 1939

Still, there are names that stick in the memory. I first came across Hindenburgh McHugh about ten years ago doing quality assessment on the Dublin city twentieth-century voters’ lists. There he was at 10 Glenbeigh Road in Cabra in 1939, large as life. Clearly, he had been christened during the First World War by parents who were not on the side of the Allies –  Paul von Hindenburg was the commander of the German Army from 1914 to 1918. This was a noisy raspberry blown in the face of Britain, the equivalent of calling a child “Winston” in Nazi Germany.

Hindenburg, not McHugh

A name like that should jump out of the birth registrations. But no, not a trace. So I asked myself how else would someone use a registration for protest. Insist on the Irish language? Sure enough, there he was on February 15 1915, ‘Hendenburg Michaél Mac Aodha’, son of Michaél Mac Aodha, Linotype operator, and Eilis née Ní Dubhda. Two noisy raspberries to Britain.

An Irish-speaking anti-British printer in Dublin in 1915? You can almost smell Sinn Féin. And there in the pensions collection was a 400-page file relating to the battles of Michael’s widow to secure a pension. He died in 1924 from TB contracted when he was imprisoned at the end of the War of Independence, having fought in North King Street in the Easter Rising. Her campaign was eventually successful and the process produced enough material for a full-scale biography.

His piano lessons, billed to the Military Pensions Board

But what of Hindenburgh himself? The name appears only once in the voters’ lists, in the very earliest surviving volume. But a ‘Michael McHugh’ appears in Glenbeigh Road later in the 1940s. The Second World War was very different to the First. Perhaps it might have been more politic not to have the name of the man who had invited Hitler to become Reichskanzler. Or maybe he just got fed up with the hassle. The Johnny Cash Boy-Named-Sue school of child-rearing can be very tiresome.

A search of death records up to the 1960s turned up a Michael McHugh of about the right age registered in 1964, listed as “Manager, Case room, Irish Press”. The Irish Press obituary (at included a photograph and a full account of his own life and of his father’s part in the War of Independence. No mention of his first name, though.

There are two lessons. First, if you want your descendants to be able to find you easily, call your children something conspicuous. I suggest “NotDonald” or “NotBoris”.  Second, I appear to have too much time on my hands.

Travellers through Time

[ A guest post by Tony Hennessy, a friend and a colleague in Accredited Genealogists Ireland who specialises in magnificent bespoke family trees. See the end of this post for an example. His work deserves to be much better known and he should be stinking rich. More at his FaceBook page.]

Once upon a time, not so many years ago, it was believed by some that to have a family history worthy of exploration one must be in possession of a large country estate, a glorious military career or at the very least a double-barreled surname and a magnificent moustache.  Happily we have discovered in more recent times, with the help of television programmes and the wonders of the internet, that every family has a story to tell.  That being said, many stories simply remain untold and become lost to posterity.

1950s Traveller camp

I’ve been engaged of late with a group of Traveller men from Pavee Point, investigating their family histories and recording the results in the form of large family tree charts.  While the process is both enjoyable and fascinating, the business of researching Traveller genealogy can also be challenging, to say the least.  Where a ‘countryman’ like myself may expect to find their ancestors firmly ensconced in the parish and townland of origin for two, three or more generations a Traveller family might include ten children baptized in six different parishes in four different counties!  And don’t expect to find them in the 1901 or 1911 censuses.  Only the most zealous of census enumerators ventured forth beyond the confines of bricks and mortar to include those living in barrel-top wagons and makeshift shelters in camps and along the byways of Ireland.

Another challenge is the limited amount of surnames – and first names too.  How many Martin McDonaghs or John Reillys can one family contain…?!  It may be for this reason that Travellers might refer in conversation to ‘Mikey’s Martin’ or ‘Oul Davy’s Mainey’s John’, not unlike native speakers of the Gaeltacht areas, the name becoming a miniature family tree in itself. For the same reason nicknames are also quite common and so I’ve met Bullstail, Fewsticks, The Needle Collins and the Longtail Quinns and others along the way, all of whose soubriquets we’ve included on the family trees.

Those who died in tragic circumstances or children who died in infancy are so often part of a family’s story, whether they be Travellers or settled people, and while their names may be rarely spoken they – and maybe their photograph – can find a home on a family tree. As well as a genealogical record of one’s ancestors, a family tree becomes a Document of Remembrance.

It is a striking fact that over the course of just one generation the traditional nomadic way of life of the Travelling people has simply ceased to exist.  Today’s older generation, whose lives have straddled two very different worlds, are a rich repository of living history and folk memory – and a wonderful source when compiling a family tree – and it is important that their first-hand accounts of Traveller life from that earlier period are not lost as time inevitably rolls on.  The story of the Irish Traveller is an intrinsic part of the Story of Ireland itself.  On 1st March 2017 the status of the Travelling community as an ethnic minority within the Irish Nation was finally recognized by the State.  And there is a Bill currently working its way through the Dáil which, if passed as expected, will include the teaching of Traveller heritage and history as part of the school curriculum.  These are big steps along the road to a more understanding and inclusive society and are very much to be welcomed.

Collins family tree compiled in partnership with Michael Collins, son of Hughie Collins

At the request of the National Library of Ireland the three completed family trees will be presented to the NLI.

Post-traumatic rain amnesia

We Irish tend to feel, with some justification, that we’re more informed about the past than most other races. Many very old issues are unresolved here. We still have a lot of unfinished history. Knowing that history, and having opinions about it, is part of every Irish person’s base culture.

But there is one area of the past for which we have a deep, wilful blind spot. We suffer from rain amnesia, in particular the virulent sub-variant, post-traumatic summer rain amnesia. On principle, we refuse to recognise that it rains here between May and September. Apart from the occasional hillwalker, no one in Ireland owns rain gear, and very few have waterproof clothing of any description. In a warm pub on a rainy July day, the  smell of wet wool can be overpowering.

Oh God will it ever stop

We loathe wet summers. We take them as a personal insult, and are deeply, bitterly disappointed when it rains in August, even though it always rains in August. So we repress the memories of a lifetime of rainy summers and, come May, expect glorious baking sunshine.

Autumn, when rain is grudgingly accepted, is almost a relief. But not quite. The most common weather conversation remains:

“Grand day”.

“Ah sure as long as it’s not raining.”

As a result, weather forecasting here has to be part psychotherapy. The profession has developed its own jargon, full of defensive euphemisms: “fresh and blustery”, “organised bands of showers”, “scattered outbreaks of drizzle” and, particularly common, “unsettled”.  Unsettled means frequent rain. Irish weather is “unsettled” like the Black Death was an outbreak of acne.

Comparing Irish and English forecasts shows just how touchy we are about this. On the BBC, the forecaster will tell you how much, where and when it’s going to rain, perhaps with a rueful shake of the head. On RTÉ, it can never be told straight. A glimmer of desperate hope – “It might be dry in Munster on Thursday!” – is essential before the sheepish revelation of an approaching deluge.

Maybe some things are better repressed. If we remembered accurately, we’d realise that Irish rainfall is always above average.

We might be starting to face up to our problem. The Irish Met Office is starting to recover past weather, digitising reports made daily since 1840 in the Phoenix Park (though the results are not yet public). They also have an excellent guide to the locations of historic Irish weather archives and a very interesting day-by-day reconstruction of the weather of the week of the Easter Rising in 1916.

The Four Masters complain about the weather in 4000 years ago

Professor John Sweeney of Maynooth has also done an excellent summary of our historic obsession, including a description of the earliest reference to a meteorological event in Europe, a description in the Annals of the Four Masters to Lough Conn ‘erupting’, allegedly in 2668 BC. We’ve been at it a long time.


A glory and a wonder

I recently finished digitising the 1899 Dublin Municipal voters’ lists (the fruits are live on the Dublin City Library and Archive site). This was the ninth year I’ve done, with 1908 to 1915 already live. Believe me, it doesn’t get easier.

These are the gnarliest of gnarly records: four categories of voter, each listed separately in a different format in fifteen voting wards, with an supplementary list in three of the four categories, also separate inside the wards. So 4 * 15 + (3 * 15) for a grand total of 105 individual sub-lists. And of course the wards cut across streets and the voting categories cut across households. Capel Street, for example, is partly in three different wards, Inns Quay, North City and Rotunda. So to get a complete listing of voters in that street, in the printed original you’d have to look at 21 separate sub-lists, seven for each ward. There are no indexes.

Israel Shumlovitz, a lodger in his father’s house in Portobello. And hence a voter.

In other words, the printed originals are virtually unusable.

Digitising them involved disassembling the 105 sub-lists and then re-weaving them into a database searchable by name and street, a slow and cumbersome process. But with the reconstruction complete, the records become extraordinarily accessible.

The right to vote was gradually expanded in the UK in the late nineteenth century , in particular with the creation of an entirely new class of voter, the “inhabitant householder”. This person qualified simply by being the head of a household with a stable address in a property valued more that £4 annually. The designers of the system probably thought the £4 valuation would exclude Paddy Stink and Mickey Muck.  They’d never walked past the reeking tenements of Gardiner Street, with its hundreds of decaying Georgian houses, each valued well over £4 and each holding more than a dozen households. Paddy and Mickey got the vote.

They were part of the vast standing army of Dublin’s crushingly poor manual workers, clinging precariously to casual dock-work, street-selling fruit or flowers, driving delivery carts.

The great circle of Dublin tenements

And here they are in these lists as in no other record of the time, living in the great belt of city-centre slums that arced around from East Wall, Monto and Summerhill through North King Street, over to the Liberties and down through York Street to the Quays: household by household, room by room, year after year. Joyce’s Dublin emerges vividly, stinking, dingy and overcrowded to a degree that is impossible to imagine now. The genesis of Dubliners and Ulysses becomes much clearer when you grasp the terrible, inescapable intimacy enforced by these teeming streets.

After doing nine of the things, some other aspects are clearer. The numbers recorded are very consistent, hovering around 45,000 voters for the entire period between 1899 and 1915.  Of the four categories, one comprised more than 90% of all listings over the whole period, the inhabitant householders. The Mucks and the Stinks had a majority. The supplementary lists, naming those entitled to vote only in local elections, include large numbers of women, the first stirrings of female suffrage. While very useful in giving a time-lapse view of Dublin over almost twenty years, the lists are definitely not a full census. There were 331 voters listed in Capel Street in 1899, but 1605 inhabitants in 1901.

And no matter how many volumes I cover, each one turns up a consistent 500 or so surnames never encountered before. Put that in your statistical model and smoke it.

Everything you could want to know on the background to the lists is here.

DCLA have eight remaining volumes, 1900 to 1907. They need rebinding and conservation, but the plan is to digitise one a year, as budgets allow. The full set will be a glory and a wonder.