The Poor Law is still with us.

From Britain’s point of view, the 1800 Act of Union was primarily a defensive measure to secure its western flank against the French. But after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the London government found itself in charge of a country of which it was profoundly ignorant. So, with true industrial-age logic, it set about creating official machinery to quantify Ireland and make it governable. Almost all surviving early 19th-century research sources emerged from this process: the Ordnance Survey, the Valuation Office, the censuses of 1821 and 1831 and much more.

Birr (Parsonstown) Workhouse

One part of that administrative machinery, the Poor Law, is still with us. In 1838, 135 Poor Law Unions were created, covering the entire island. Each Union had an urban workhouse at its centre, responsible for providing the most basic and grudging short-term relief to the utterly destitute.  The Unions were designed to be self-financing. The obligation to be pay for themselves overrode all others, and that is why they ignore county and parish boundaries – the area each one covered had to produce a similar amount of tax.

Property-owners in each Union paid the tax and in return could elect representatives to the Union’s Board of Guardians to oversee spending. So from the start, the Unions were geographically a hybrid of health service catchment area and electoral constituency. And, weirdly, that geographic hybrid exists even now.

For elections, the Unions were subdivided into District Electoral Divisions (DEDs), the areas used for the 1901 and 1911 censuses: those DEDs are still unchanged and in use in contemporary elections in rural areas.

Then, when universal registration of births, deaths and marriages began in 1864, the public health service took on the job. So subgroups of the DEDs were gathered into local registrar’s districts or “dispensary districts”, with anywhere from five to ten DEDs in each one. The Union was euphemised as a “Superintendent Registrar’s District”.

Poor Law Unions in 1898

The Department of Health is still in charge of civil registration today. And after almost 200 years, its Superintendent Registrar’s Districts still largely cover the areas laid down by the old Poor Law Unions.  They haven’t gone away, you know.

Peter Higginbotham’s wonderful will tell you more.

I went on the Guinness

You may have noticed the absence of a post last week. I’d like to be able to say that I was deep in my vast library thinking profound thoughts about the future of Irish genealogy. But no, the sun came out so I took the dog to the beach.

I wasn’t completely idle, though. I went on the Guinness.

At a professional development presentation organised by my accrediting association, Accredited Genealogists Ireland, and delivered by Guinness archivists Alex Marcus and Fergus Brady. It was a revelation.

Like most researchers, I’ve long been aware of the archive’s online catalogue (also available on Ancestry) and have found it interesting but a bit scanty. With 8,697 entries, it is obviously not a listing of all employees, and each result leads only to a very bare-bones record.

The archive itself is something else entirely. It holds more than 20,000 personnel files relating to deceased employees. For the majority of these, tradesmen or labourers, the files can include dates of birth, addresses, references, education, accident reports, changes of job, pension forms, medical information, physical descriptions, widows and orphans allowances, details of wives and children, even birth and baptism certificates.  For the expanded family history of anyone who worked in Guinness’s in Dublin after the 1870s, these records are a goldmine.

A week after the Easter Rising, this discreetly-redacted 46-year-old drayman dropped a barrel on his foot and bruised his big toe.

One of the most interesting parts of the presentation was the explanation of the reasons behind the lack of online detail. Guinness was a spectacularly benevolent cradle-to-grave employer. Once a family got a foothold, they tended to bring in other members, with children, grandchildren, great-grand nephews following each other into the firm (see the remarkably guff-free Cillian-Murphy-narrated ad on this). So even the files of those who died a century ago might hold sensitive information relating to living people.

But there are no Germanic GDPR-style prohibitions. The archivists just check the files you’re interested in and apply good old-fashioned common sense. They’ll do this by email, but there’s no substitute for handling the files onsite yourself, and they welcome visitors (by appointment).

Apart from the files, the archive also holds a spectacular digitised set of the in-house publications, in particular The Guinness Harp Magazine, which documents the extraordinary range of extracurricular activities sponsored by the company, from choirs to chess clubs to tug-of-war teams, complete with professional-quality journalism and photography.

Brewery People from The Harp magazine

And there’s also a lovely collection of the customisable labels used to reassure drinkers that the pub-bottled stout they were drinking was genuine Guinness.


My lifetime supply can be parked just outside the house, please.

Genealogy and the Golden State serial killer

Most people will have heard about the recent arrest of the so-called Golden State serial killer, responsible for 50 rapes and 12 murders committed across California in the 1970s and 80s. He was identified by matching his DNA with samples taken from the crime scene, as in many other cases. What really caught my attention was the role genealogy played.

Police uploaded the crime-scene DNA to GEDmatch, the open-source genealogical DNA website, and compared it with the three-quarters of a million samples already on the site. This identified what looked like some third- and fourth-cousin matches. They then followed the accompanying family history information on the site and used it to build out more than twenty-five multigenerational family trees, using the research techniques any genealogist would.

Unlike a genealogist, though, they were aiming to winnow the family trees down to men living in the right areas at the times the crimes were committed. This is what ultimately led them to Joseph James DeAngelo in Sacramento. A covertly-taken sample of his DNA matched that from the crime-scene.

Joseph James DeAngelo

By all accounts the crimes were horrific, and if DeAngelo committed them, it’s wonderful he has been caught, and equally wonderful that genealogy helped do it.

But one of the problems that bedevils familial DNA matching is the number of false positives. My own test results are up on GEDmatch and I regularly get approached by people who see a distant match but have absolutely no discernible connection to my family. And that happened in this case. Before finding DeAngelo, at least one and almost certainly more than one suspect was compulsorily tested and ruled out. In the United Kingdom, a 2014 study found that just 17 percent of familial DNA searches resulted in the identification of a relative of the true offender. Which means four innocent suspects for every guilty one.

And that’s not the most troubling part of the story. By putting my sample into a publicly available database like GEDmatch, I have made the DNA of hundreds of related people also available for searching. I consented, they didn’t. The same is true for the tens of millions connected to the other GEDmatch profiles.

Finding a serial killer is a wonderful, exceptional case. But what about a health insurance company using these records to weed out the potentially ill across extended families? What about being flagged as a suspect for a crime you have no connection with, because someone very distantly related has uploaded their DNA? What about employers screening for the “right” kind of family background?

As evidence in the most serious crimes, familial DNA should certainly continue to be available to police, with safeguards. But the kind of no-rules access to DNA samples provided by GEDmatch looks increasingly unwise.

I don’t know whether to leave my sample there or not. I suspect that cat is long out of the bag.


FindMyPast’s unmarked elephant traps

Last March I wrote about the fresh transcripts of historic General Register Office birth and marriage records that had appeared on FindMyPast and issued my usual cheery “Come on in and thrash around, sure aren’t there mistakes in everything?” Now that I’ve been using them for a while, it’s time to advise a little more caution.

Apart from the peculiar transcription errors pointed out by Claire Santry, there also seem to be great gaping holes in the records. For the births, there appear to be no transcripts at all from the following Superintendent Registrars’ Districts:

Clogher, Clones, Clonmel, Coleraine, Cookstown, Cootehill, Croom, Dungannon, Dunshaughlin, Edenderry, Ennis, Enniscorthy, Ennistymon, Fermoy, Glin, Kildysart, Killala, Kilmallock, Kilrush, Limavady, Lisburn, Londonderry, Macroom, Magherafelt, Mallow, Manorhamilton, Middleton, Mitchelstown, Mohill, Mountmellick, Newcastle West, Omagh, Oughterard, Portumna, Rathdown, Rathdrum, Rathkeale, Scarriff, Schull, Skibbereen, Sligo, Tralee.

That’s 43 out of a total of 163, a whopping 26%. I haven’t actually checked every image on against the transcripts – hey, I have to take the dog out for a walk occasionally – but none of these SRDs appear in the FindMyPast filters and any record from these areas that I’ve checked on IrishGenealogy is missing in the fresh transcript.

The marriages seem to be relatively less flawed, missing only the SRDs of Dublin North, Ennistymon, Gortin and Strokestown. Relatively less flawed. Dublin North alone has 54,297 images on IrishGenealogy not transcribed here.

Every set of transcripts has its flaws and there’s nothing wrong with putting up partial datasets. But there is something very wrong about putting up partial datasets without any indication of what’s missing. It’s the equivalent of blindfolding users and having them cross a landscape riddled with giant unmarked traps.

What’s all the more peculiar is that one of FindMyPast’s signal virtues has long been the detailed information it supplies about its sources. It’s possible that the mistake is with the site’s coding, not the transcription, I just don’t know. But as things stand some serious background detail (and a health warning) are needed.


John O’Donovan’s glorious letters

There aren’t many Irish sources that can give you a from-the-horse’s-mouth account of the country between 1830 and 1850. And there really really aren’t many such sources that are poorly known about, underused and free online. Two parts of the Ordnance Survey Ireland archive are just that.

The Ordnance Survey Name Books and the O’Donovan topographical letters are both by-products of the massive attempt between 1828 and 1848 to record and standardise Ireland as a prelude to taxing it. The Name Books are parish-by-parish alphabetical listings of the place-names that were to become the standardised English versions on the first Ordnance Survey six-inch maps in the 1830s. The entries include much technical detail linking them to the maps, but also some worm’s-eye-view descriptions of rents, landlords and tenants, adduced as evidence for the names.

John O’Donovan (1806-1861)

The O’Donovan letters are of broader interest. They consist of formal correspondence to or from the man in charge of the Ordnance Survey topographical department, the antiquarian John O’Donovan, and often provide superb summaries of local place-name lore, even down to the most minute detail: the entry for Darver in Co Louth includes a description and drawing of “a silver ring which Mr Duffy found near his house”. For anyone interested in local history in rural Ireland they are a boundless treasure trove. And they give the lie to the notion that the OS process of standardisation and anglicisation was brutal, Anglo-Saxon and stupid. See the full OSI archive listing at the Royal Irish Academy.

The page from O’Donovan’s letter about Tara in Meath

Both Name Books and O’Donovan Letters are available for free on, where the versions used are typescript copies of the originals made in the 1920s. Most users become aware of them as links on the OS maps that accompany Griffith’s search results, and it has to be said that there are serious drawbacks to this approach. But they are also browsable page by page, revealing all their gnarled glory, with folk-tales, principal families, ruined churches, annal entries, saint’s biographies and more. Many county library websites (e.g. Clare, Galway and others) also have copies of the Letter books online.

The voice of O’Donovan himself is also there, and strangely modern. At the conclusion of the second volume of Galway letters, he writes: “I have now done with the territories in the county of Galway and though it has cost me many an hour of severe application to lay down their boundaries I fear no one will have the patience to grope their way through my lucubrations.”

He shouldn’t have worried.

Viking surnames

There is no such thing as a Viking surname.

A helmet-type never ever worn by a Viking

True hereditary surnames were only introduced in Scandinavia in the late 18th century, more than 700 years after the heyday of Viking expansion. Hereditary surnames still don’t exist in that most Viking of countries, Iceland, where personal names continue to last only a single generation. In Iceland, my son Herbert would be Herbert Johnson and his son John would be John Herbertson.

So why does Sean de Bhulbh’s magisterial Sloinnte na héireann: Irish Surnames list no fewer than 97 Irish names that have Norse or Viking roots? All the stranger when you consider that surnames only began to be widely adopted in Ireland from the 11th century, well after Viking power in Ireland was broken.

Highly cultured looters and pillagers

But there is no doubt about the origins of these names: McAuliff, son of Olaf; Groarke, Mag Ruairc, son of Hrothkekr; McBirney, son of Bjorn; Reynolds, Mac Raghnall, from the Norse first name Ragnall. Some might have originated with Gaels imitating their neighbours, but the simplest explanation is that Viking settlers adopted Gaelic naming practices, dropping their own single-generation names.

Other Norse-origin names provide evidence of the importance of those naming practices. Doyle is Ó Dubhghaill, from dubh, “dark”, and gall, “foreigner”, a descriptive formula first used to describe the invading Vikings, and in particular to distinguish darker-haired Danes from fair-haired Norwegians. O’Loughlin and Higgins both stem directly from words meaning literally “Viking”, Lochlann in Irish and Uigínn, an Irish version of the Norse Vikinger. These names were public badges of otherness, the equivalent of arriving in England with a passport saying “Johnny Foreigner”. But families were perfectly prepared to adopt and endure them, a measure of just how intense was the need to have a hereditary and patronymic surname in medieval Ireland.

We adopted them early and we adopted them with gusto. Extended family networks were the very essence of Gaelic society: what better way of flagging your network than embodying it in your name?

Which is why there are no Viking surnames except for Irish Viking surnames

Norman surnames

The Norman arrival in Ireland in 1169 was just one end-point of their extraordinary expansion out of Flanders and northern France between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries.

Superior military technology, deployed with ruthless brutality, allowed them to conquer and settle a vast swathe of the medieval world, from Byzantium in the east through parts of Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain, as far west as the Canary Islands.

Strongbow marries Aoife, thereby causing the Northern Troubles

When they got to Ireland, they were not yet using true hereditary surnames. The eldest-son-takes-all practice of feudal primogeniture meant younger sons had to go off and fend for themselves, one of the factors that drove their expansion. Perhaps that fracturing of Norman elite families weakened the need for hereditary names to signal wider family and tribal connections.

But the Gaelic Ireland they overran was in the middle of an explosion of hereditary surname-creation, with great networks of extended family names budding and sub-budding off central stems as families grew or waned in importance. The grandchildren of Brian Ború, High King of Ireland and victor at the Battle of Clontarf,  understandably wanted to flag up their connection, and adopted Ó Briain. But the sons of one of those grandchildren, Mathghamha Ua Briain, picked their own father as an origin point and became (in modern Irish) Mac Mathúna, McMahon, son of Mahon. Four generations later, Constantine (Consaidín) O’Brien, bishop of Killaloe, was the source of the Mac Consaidín line, the Considines. A great multi-generational flowering of names was taking place.

As they did wherever they settled, the Normans eventually integrated. They out-Irished the Irish when it came to fissiparous surname adoption. Just a single family, the de Burgos of Connacht, spun off dozens of familiar modern names: Davey, Davitt, Doak, Galwey, Gibbons, McNicholas (Mc)Philbin, Gillick, Jennings, McRedmond.  All stemmed from the forenames of prominent de Burgos, and all followed precisely the Gaelic Irish O and Mac tradition.






The upshot is that almost all so-called Norman surnames were created and adopted only in Ireland. “Hiberno-Norman” is little grudging. They are Irish surnames.

The best popular account of Norman surnames in Ireland that I know of is by my colleague in Accredited Genealogists Ireland, Dr Paul McCotter MAGI, available online at

Ancient DNA: Who We Are and How We Got Here

David Reich’s new book Who We Are and How We Got Here (OUP March 2018) is a revelation. Reich is a professor in the department of genetics at the Harvard Medical School, and runs a specialised lab that focuses on ancient DNA as a tool to study ancient populations and human evolution. His book is a readable popular science account of the extraordinary advances in the understanding of human prehistory that have taken place in just the last half-decade, and the full-scale revolution that is about to take place.

The techniques he describes are remarkable, involving what Elizabeth Kolbert has described as “reassembling a Manhattan telephone book from pages that have been put through a shredder, mixed with yesterday’s trash and left to rot in a landfill”. This is a long way from a simple cheek swab. Try disentangling 40,000 years of bacterial and fungal rot from a finger bone.

But Reich and his peers have mastered those techniques. The number of labs producing whole-genome ancient human DNA results is already growing rapidly and is set to grow exponentially over the next decade. The best analogy is one Reich makes himself, with radiocarbon dating. The ability it provided to accurately date any piece of organic material had a profound and continuing impact on archaeology, to the point where there are now more than 100 specialised radiocarbon dating labs in the world. As the number and location of ancient DNA results expands in a similar way, the prehistory of human population groups will come into focus ever more clearly.

Already, some of the findings he presents are startling. Western Europeans and Native North Americans share significant stretches of DNA, showing a relationship predating Columbus by thousands of years. Reich demonstrates unambiguously how both descend from the same ancestral population, dubbed “Ancient North Eurasians”, some of whom migrated across the Bering land bridge around 15,000 years ago, while others moved westward to contribute to European ancestry.

Even earlier, he uncovers clear evidence of our mixing with other variants of human, Neanderthal, Denisovan and undoubtedly many others, after we emerged from Africa around 70,000 years ago. All present-day non-Africans carry some of their genes. Evidently, we interbred with and exterminated them on our way to planetary dominance.

A bottle-neck Y-chromosome event sounds like a euphemism for a bar-fight. Reich describes these as recurring mass reproductions, where a single male and his offspring have vastly more descendants than their contemporaries. Examples in historic times would include the large numbers descended from an individual in fifth century Ireland, speculated to be Niall of the Nine Hostages, or the vast numbers across the thirteenth-century Mongol Empire bearing genes derived from another individual, speculated to have been Genghis Khan. These “Star-clusters” as they are known, happen again and again in prehistory. Though the mighty warlords’ memories have vanished, bits of their Y-chromosomes live on.

One aspect of Reich’s work rightly worries him. “Race” has been a sore topic in science for decades, and for good reason. Scientists have been enthusiastic enablers of some of the worst atrocities carried out in the name of racial purity. A denial of the significance of race or anything resembling is now obligatory in the social sciences.

The good news is that Reich buries the notion of racial purity six feet under and dances on its grave. Every ancient genome shows intense and repeated mixing of populations. “Whites”, for example. descend from a mixture of four ancient populations that lived 10,000 years ago, each as different from one another as Europeans and East Asians today. We are all mutts, to the  Nth  degree.

The bad news is that as DNA testing becomes ubiquitous it will simply no longer be possible to ignore average genetic differences between distinct populations. Jews have won over 200 Nobel Prizes, more than 20% of the total, despite making up less than 2% of the world’s population. Athletes of West African ancestry hold 95% of the top times in sprinting. Roll a barrel of beer into a roomful of Irishmen and 98% are guaranteed to start singing.

This is nothing like racism, any more than saying that men and women are different is sexism. People are different, groups of people are different and the important question is what we choose to do about that difference. Celebrate (and sing about) it, maybe?

Where’s me granny?

I recently filmed a segment  for an upcoming episode of “Who Do You Think You are?”  – don’t ask, can’t tell – and found the old itch acting up. Years back, I did two series of “The Genealogy Roadshow” on RTÉ and that same old urge is still there to jump up and down and shout, “Look at me, Ma! Look at me!”

“Look at me, Ma!” Out-take from The Genealogy Roadshow

Thinking back, watching the finished shows was very different indeed to making them. Stories that had been just problems to be solved or lines to be remembered during filming became intensely touching when the camera showed the depth of the feelings produced in the participants. I’m thinking of the astonishment and joy of the American family meeting a completely new branch of their family in Ireland, of the woman seeing a photograph of her grandfather for the first time and recognizing her own face in his, of the family finally imagining in dramatic detail how their grand-uncle fought and died in the First World War.

The real lesson of the series was one already known to anyone who has done any genealogical research, a lesson not treated with enough respect by shows that depend on celebrities to hold the viewers’ interest. There is an endless variety and a recurring fascination in the family stories that stretch back behind absolutely everyone, however humble. To retrieve and reconstruct these stories can evoke the dense skein of everyday history as if it were our own experience and let us feel its detail in ways that no other form of research can match.

On a personal note, though, I remember being a little disappointed. Years ago, children in Dublin used to annoy cyclists by shouting out helpfully as we pedalled past, “Hey Mister! Yer back wheel’s going round!” I had been hoping to hear some of them in the street shouting after me, “Hey Mister! Where’s me granny?” No such luck.

FindMyPast smuggles out birth and marriage records

If you do any research on Irish records you soon become aware of the great mosaic of online transcripts of what purport to be the same records. The National Library microfilms of Cork and Ross Catholic registers, for example, are transcribed on, and But IrishGenealogy didn’t transcribe the records of St Mary’s (North Cathedral) in Cork city, because they were doing their level best not to tread on the toes of any existing transcript-holders and the church itself has a transcript. Ancestry and FindMyPast need not be so bleeding-heart sensitive: the only online transcript of this huge collection of Cork city records is with them.

IrishGenealogy treads on the toe of Abdul Abulbul Amir

Similar part-overlapping record collections are also common in the state records of births, marriages and deaths. FamilySearch has a copy of the full all-island indexes up to 1922 and the Republic up to 1958, completely different, naturally, to the freshly-created indexes (to 1916, 1941 and 1966) on IrishGenealogy. FamilySearch also has a part-transcript of the first seventeen years of birth registrations, up to 1881, making it possible to search on the mother’s maiden name. Which you can only do on IrishGenealogy from 1900. But the register images on IrishGenealogy make it possible to trawl by hand through all your search results, only not before 1870 for marriages or 1878 for deaths. Clear?

And then, of course, has full transcripts of some of the local registrars’ records, different to the central copies used for IrishGenealogy and FamilySearch. And the Northern Ireland GRO has complete searchable transcripts of the local registrars’ records for areas now in Northern Ireland (to 1917, 1942 and 1967). Which overlap both some of rootsireland’s and some of IrishGenealogy’s transcripts. Whew.

Now FindMyPast has added to the merriment with a massive set of transcripts of IrishGenealogy’s register images for births and marriages.

They’ve transcribed the entire record. Any chance of a townland search?

There are flaws – Claire Santry recently pointed them out – but I still think they are seriously to be welcomed. Apart from adding another transcription (with mistakes and omissions, to be sure, but different ones), they open up the birth records before 1900, transcribe the entire record, not just personal names, and make it possible to confine a search to a local registrar’s district, a much more precise area than the Superintendent Registrars Districts available on IrishGenealogy itself. A boon if your Muphys married Murphys.

Most importantly, the service is free to anyone who registers with them.  This is one aspect of FindMyPast that isn’t nearly well enough known. Lots of their records are free, in particular the parish register transcripts and records digitised in collaboration with the National Archives of Ireland. As far as I can tell, nowhere on the site lists what’s free and what’s subscription-only.

I suspect the FMP researchers are trying to sneak free stuff out past the FMP lawyers and moneymen. So thank you, Brian and Fiona.