Genealogy back to front

A final round-up of sources to help track living relatives.

Backwards, sideways and upside-down as well

Most obvious are those that provide time-lapse records, with periodic snapshots of a family or place. Valuation Office revision books are the best example, but anything with recurring amendments can be useful, from used cheque-stubs to old football programmes. Below are some of the most useful.

Voters lists: The right to vote was dependent on property and gender up to the middle of the nineteenth century. From the 1860s on, municipal and local authority elections began to broaden their constituencies until by the late 1890s local suffrage was wide enough to include working-class householders and (some) women. The only significant year-by-year collection is for Dublin city and is online at the Dublin City Library and Archive heritage database site. See this earlier blog post for more detail.

1938-39 voters Shandon Park, Cabra

When (relatively) universal suffrage was introduced in 1918, annual voters lists became seriously useful.  The biggest collection is again for Dublin city in DCLA and runs from 1938 to 1964. They used to be wonderfully searchable online at the DCLA site but a ludicrous kerfuffle about data protection means that the app is now only available onsite in the Reading Room.  God forbid anyone should know where your granny lived in 1964. Hopefully common sense will eventually win out.

There are also more piecemeal undigitised collections in the National Archives, National Library and some county libraries. And the current register – – can be useful in confirming a family’s present location.

Thom’s Directory, Brunswick street North 1877. From

Urban street directories. From the late 1830s, annual Dublin directories included a street-by-street house-by-house listing of householders. Over the course of the following 190 years, coverage expanded and was revised for each year. The most comprehensive collection (and the easiest to follow year after year) is on open shelves in DCLA. There are excellent but incomplete online collections on Ancestry and askaboutireland. Much rummaging is required.

There are also good online collections of Belfast and Cork city directories. Unfortunately, they don’t have the regular year-to-year revisions of Dublin, but they’re still very useful.

Funeral notices: Funeral attendance is not optional in Ireland, even for the remotest of acquaintances. So a compulsory part of arranging a funeral is the newspaper death notice, which can include names, addresses, nephews, cemeteries … Notices became universal in the 1940s and full runs in national and local newspapers are online at Since 2006, provides an online-only version.

DNA: One of the most common wrong-headed questions I’m regularly asked is whether there’s an Irish genealogy DNA-testing company. My answer is “Yes, of course. It’s called”.

So many Irish went to North America over the past century, and so many of their descendants have done Ancestry DNA tests, that probably 90% of the Irish national genome is already there. Find a relative who knows more than you (GEDmatch is also good) and bingo, you’re back in Ballydehob.

And if you need someone to disentangle your alleles from your centimorgans, there’s always the marvelous Dr. Maurice Gleeson.

The latest YouTube goes through all of this.



Sideways genealogy

Strictly speaking, “reverse genealogy” should mean searching out your distant descendants. Good luck with that.

What it usually means is sideways-and-forward genealogy, taking collateral family and tracking them forward to trace living relatives. And that really is close to peering into the distant future. You’re going against the grain of time and causality: your ancestors’ records show what they had done, not what they were going to do. Crystal ball time.

That much said, the appeal is obvious, especially to the descendants of those who left Ireland five or six generations ago. If you do manage to reconnect it can mean a whole new family and community to belong to, a wonderful thrill.

Reverse, no tears

The producers of a genealogy TV show I once worked on were always hunting for that money shot, the revelation of family connections rediscovered, with the resultant outpouring of telegenic tears.

So it’s worth doing, and it can be done, but only with extra dollops of Irish genealogy’s two best friends, luck and persistence. Here are some of the main tools:

      •  Valuation Office Revision books: Griffith’s Primary Valuation is the greatest cadastral survey ever carried out in Europe. Its purpose was taxation, so it needed updating whenever the property occupier changed.  In the 26 counties of the Republic, Griffith’s remained the basis of local tax up to the 1980s and 1990s and in Northern Ireland up to the 1930s. Which means there is a continuous record of every single property listed in the original published Griffith’s. Find someone in the 1850s in the Primary Valuation and there’s a good chance whoever is on the land now is connected, especially if the family were there when small-holders were subsidised to buy out their holdings between 1890 and 1914, a period conveniently framing the 1901 and 1911 censuses.

You can follow the changes decade by decade through the Valuation Revision Books (aka “Cancelled Books”).  In the Republic the Books are still only available in the Valuation Office itself. Bring a copy of the Griffith’s page and a good camera(-phone). Sometimes the records can be hard to disentangle and having something to chew over at your leisure is vital. The LDS Family History Library also has microfilm copies.

Valuation Office revisions and purchases, 1903-1914

Even if none of your people were from (what’s now) Northern Ireland, it’s still worth having a look at the marvellous job PRONI have done on their Revision Books. They understood perfectly that the usefulness of the Books is in the time-lapse picture of holdings and occupiers and have organised their online copies to make that clear. The pity is that they end in the 1930s. As my father used to say, God never opens a door but he closes a window.

      • GRO records: The other major sources are the civil registration records at Through them you can find marriages for those who stayed behind and then their children births and their children’s marriages and their children’s children’s’ children … Not that simple, of course, but there are plenty of workarounds. Use the Revision Books to get prima facie evidence of inheritance which might lead to a will. Use marriage indexes on other sites that include fathers’ names – rootsireland, FamilySearch, FindMyPast. Skip forward to 1901 and 1911 to see if there’s any evidence of extended family in the same area. Concentrate on more distant relatives with prominent names or occupations.

Just don’t try any of this with a Murphy.

If you do manage to reconnect, you can expect a much warmer welcome than forty years ago. Then, people here were wary of Yanks turning up on the doorstep, asking awkward questions about the plot of land left to their Grand-uncle Paddy that no-one in Ireland ever bothered to tell him about. We’ve chilled a bit.  Now that the statute of limitations has run out.

More on records for living relatives next time. If you’d like to see a walkthrough of one case, there’s one in this week’s YouTube video.

No wands, no pointy hats

One aspect of genealogy I’ve always loved is that it can’t be mass produced. When you get past one or two generations, possible family connections mushroom with head-spinning speed. This is the very definition of scientific chaos theory: a butterfly flaps its wings in Venezuela and suddenly you have more fourth cousins than the entire population of New York.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped people (corporations) from trying. One of my earliest involvements in genealogy was with an American tour company advertising mass-produced family trees as part of a package tour of Ireland. It lasted one season, after the hapless tourist reps had to fend off outraged visitors waving their single-page reports and wanting the tour coach to go simultaneously to Cork (the Crowleys), Longford (the Kiernans) and Donegal (the Gallaghers).

IFHF researchers find a Murphy in 1990

Even the group behind the wonderful, the Irish Family History Foundation, started life as attempted mass tourism, a network of centres where the tour coaches were supposed to pull up for the tourists to file past researchers in white coats busy printing out their ancestry from giant bleeping computers.

And that little ad probably flashing at the bottom of the page even as you read this?  Just enter a surname and have their AI get your lineage back beyond Adam? Mar dhea.

Such ads also embody the belief that things have to be constantly simplified for researchers, which is the source of endless problems as sites try to shoehorn everything into the same over-simple framework. No! Complicate things!

The wizard start page

This much said, I’m partly guilty of something similar. The step-by-step wizard on this site is an attempt to take whatever someone knows about their Irish ancestor and produce an nonthreatening summary of sources and links to get research going. It’s modest enough, just trying to apply the trigger-dates and locations to the information entered. A gentle kick-start, in other words.

The latest YouTube video walks through the wizard a few times with different information. It’ll give you a sense of how much (and how little) the thing can do.

No wands, no pointy hats.

Wonderful Albert-Casey-itis

After my last post about mistrusting databases, Dermot Balson commented with a discreet little link to a chart of his that deserves to be brought out and displayed proudly to the wider world. Here it is:

It charts the number of people recorded at each age in the 1901 and 1911 censuses and confirms beautifully what most researchers in the censuses have long suspected. The rounded years (30, 40, 50, 60 and so on) are wildly over-represented – most people born before 1870 simply didn’t know their age. Not surprising, given that they never saw a calendar or celebrated a birthday.

Look at the chart longer and other things become clear. The drop in total population between 1901 and 1911.  The bumps around the mid-decade ages (35, 45, 55 …), indicating that many of these were also just guesstimates. And my favourite, that improbable leap in numbers aged between 70 and 80 in 1911. The Old Age Pension was introduced in 1908 for people over 70, immediately making it very important to be at least that age. By the look of it, at least 30,000 individuals promptly suffered accelerated aging.

I contacted Dermot to ask his permission to use the chart and also if he had more. Look at a sample of what he came back with:

Causes of death, Mourne, 1864-1921
Age distribution of deaths, 1864-1921
Literacy 1861-1921
Pregnancy timing by occupation 1864-1921 (a proxy for seeing when different occupations were busiest)


The latest YouTube video talks through all of these.

Dermot suffers from an advanced case of Albert-Casey-itis, where a researcher (usually descended from an Irish emigrant) runs out of ancestors but can’t stop.  So he moves on to his ancestors’ neighbours, then to his ancestors’ neighbours’ neighbours, then to the entire locality … A truism of Irish research is that the border between genealogy and local history is very flimsy.

Like Casey, Dermot concentrates his record-collecting on the area his ancestors came from, the Kilkeel area in South Down. But as you can see, what he does is vastly superior to the Casey  pile-em-high approach. A retired actuary, his spreadsheet skills are awesome. As he explained to me, he collects “transcriptions of all record sources in a single spreadsheet (with over 40 sheets), standardizing names so you can actually find records when you search, and linking births, deaths, marriages and censuses together, so that given a name, I can immediately find their marriage, a list of their children, their census records, any family deaths, newspaper references, and parent information where available, each of those with direct links to online scans.”

The end result will be the ultimate local and family history resource for the area. As a sample, Dermot has sent me a screenshot of part of his Excel file:

Master spreadsheet

He’s anxious to spread the gospel far and wide and to share his data- here’s an extraordinary downloadable PDF of his analysis of Mourne death records.

There is at least one doctorate here for someone collaborating with him. Any Irish third-level institutions interested?

Beware Mr Smarty-Pants Database

The most common mistake made when starting research online is surprisingly counter-intuitive: too much precision. The fact is, the more detail you include when you query a genealogical database, the less likely you are to find anything useful.

Just think. You know your Michael Barrett was born on March 17th 1868 (March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, being the most common birthday for the nineteenth-century Irish), married Mary Murphy on September 14th 1890, had children John (1891), Mary (1893), Michael (1896) and Delia (1898), and lived all his life in the townland of Ballybeg, Co. Mayo. Carefully enter all of this  into a search form and you are guaranteed to find nothing.

All it takes is a single non-matching item: in the originals, (the page recording Michael’s birth was used to light a fire in 1898); in the database transcripts (the transcriber had a late night and dozed off over the marriage record); a single item misreported by the family (John was actually born in 1890 and there are four  Ballybegs in Mayo). The response from Mr Smarty-Pants Database will be the same for all: No Match.

Nothing like some birth records to get a good fire going

Don’t get me wrong. Knowing these details may eventually provide evidence to unlock the truth. But to start off, you need to cast the net as wide as possible. How many Barrett births are registered in and around all of those Ballybegs between, say, 1864 and 1870? How many Michaels? Can you identify the precise marriage registration, using only the names, not the reported date? What are the ages given in the 1901 and 1911 censuses? Do they match each other, or the ages you think you know? (Unlikely.) Are there other Barrett households in and around Ballybeg in 1901 and 1911? Any with heads of household of an age to be siblings of Michael ?

The biggest sites –,, – all funnel their users like this, starting off broad and ending narrow, because it’s by far the most productive way to use their records. Their search interfaces force you into it. They know what they’re doing. They know their databases are stupid.

If you’d like an even more ranting version of this, I’ve gone on (and on) over at YouTube.

Say hello to cousin Boris

Emigration has long been a sore spot for the Irish. A favourite lame excuse was the one the late Brian Lenihan came up with in the 1980s: “Sure isn’t it a small island? We can’t all live on it.”

My own moment of shame from that era happened when I was returning from Italy to Ireland for Christmas 1980. I had to pass through London and on the Underground between Gatwick and Euston a grizzled, freckled, oul’ fella with a nearly empty bottle of whiskey came up to me:

“Yer Irish, arnchya? Have a dhrink.”
“No, no, no.  You’re mistaken. I’m not Irish at all.”

Peter denying Christ can’t have felt guiltier. Though maybe responding:
“Yes, yes, I am Irish but I don’t want any of your whiskey. That bottle looks dirty” might not have been sensible.

Since then we’ve got much more comfortable with our emigrants and their descendants, celebrating our cousins the Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians, Irish-Argentinians, even British-Irish. But there’s one step we still can’t take, any more than I could on that Tube train in 1980.

England’s green and pleasant land

“English-Irish” still sounds impossible, a logical contradiction, like describing a colour as “Black-White”, even though over the past four centuries more Irish have migrated to England than to any other destination.

A major reason is that we’re far closer than we like to admit, and not just geographically. For more than 1000 years, we’ve been marrying them and fighting them and fighting for them and writing masterpieces in their language. In return, they’ve been marrying us, stealing our land and, above all, misunderstanding us.

Wave to cousin Boris, children

But they are our cousins. One thing that 1980s teaching stint in Italy showed me was the extraordinary cultural overlap between the English and the Irish. We understood their sense of humour, their politics, their accents, their class problems (though they still didn’t understand us, which we kind of liked). They were (are) almost us.

What sparked these thoughts was my growing realisation of the importance of English records for Irish research. Now that those records are easily searchable online, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that they hold  solutions to many of the gaps created by the gaping holes left by the destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922. Quite simply our extended families were there and are listed.

Finding them in English records is another thing. I’ve just put up a video that dips a toe in their censuses. Enjoy.


Black Prods, Beige Prods and little Papes

I grew up in Castlerea in north Roscommon in the 1950s and 1960s. It was mono-culturally Irish Catholic to an extant almost impossible to imagine now.

Fourth class. St Paul’s boys National School, Castlerea, 1963. Chilblains.

We were very tolerant of Protestants, though, because there weren’t any. In their absence we had to dream them up. As I recall, in the Irish Catholic mind of that era there were basically two templates, the harmless ones, usually on horseback, and Black Prods, generally found Up North. Only the Black ones were liable to bite.

What brought this all to mind is a book I’ve just finished, Reformation: Europe‘s House Divided 1490-1700 (Penguin 2004), by Diarmud McCulloch. It’s an astonishing work, a detailed region-by-region, controversy-by-controversy account of how Europe (and Castlerea) divided into Papists, Beige Prods and Black Prods. The depth of my ignorance about the Reformation was jaw-dropping. I suspect that was one of the aims of a traditional Irish Catholic education.

As McCulloch tells it, Martin Luther’s original rebellion had as much to do with local German politics and questions of political authority as with theology. Lutheranism became rooted in German-speaking areas of the Holy Roman Empire and in Scandinavia, in states where local kings or prince-bishops supported it and made the clergy state employees. It retained much of the liturgical tradition of the pre-Reformation Church.

John Calvin

The “Reformed” Church was very different. Following such leaders as John Calvin, it broke much more completely with the existing Church. In particular it stressed predestination, the idea that redemption is purely the gift of God and He (always a “He”) has chosen from the beginning of time those who will be saved. The “elect” can only contaminate themselves by contact with the pre-damned majority, a notion that sits uneasily with the injunction to love thy neighbour, unless of course you redefine “neighbour” to mean only other members of the elect. To put it another way, the Black ones were liable to bite.

In England, the split from Rome was originally entirely about political authority. Under the Tudors and the Stuarts, the Church of England (and Ireland) evolved into a hybrid state church, retaining some aspects of Rome, bishops in particular. Hence “Episcopalianism”, from episcopus, a bishop. Ultimate power derived from the monarch, though. To the Reformed, such a mash-up was anathema: Cromwell and the wars of the 1640s were the outcome. The ultimate victory of the hybrid Anglican state church in the 1690s (after William of Orange invaded England) was defeat for the Reformed, whatever the marching bands in Larne on July 12th might proclaim.

Like all great books, Reformation casts light in all sorts of unexpected areas. Negotiating with Northern Irish Unionists, mostly Reformed Presbyterians, is bound to be difficult. How can they compromise with the infectious damned? The same tradition of the elect closing themselves off with other like-minded elect might explain some at least of Trump’s appeal to US evangelical Christians, as well as their impermeability to political argument. Salvation trumps Democracy.

Anyway. A more mundane reason for bringing all this up is to point you to a video on my YouTube channel outlining ways of accessing historic Irish Presbyterian records. As you might expect, difficult and awkward. But no biting.

A new tool for searching institutions in the 1911 census

One of the delights of the National Archives of Ireland census site is the wonderful flexibility of its search interface. Within the modestly-labelled “more search options” section, you can search on any of the pieces of information collected by the census or any combination of them. So if all you know about your Mary Ryan born 1871-1881 is that by 1911 she had had five children and four were still alive, you can immediately reduce your possible candidates from more than 600 right down to 10. Of course it also provides superb scope for endless idle snooping.

A price was paid for this flexibility, though. Returns for non-standard households, in particular institutions, had to be treated as slightly second-class, unavailable to search in the same detail. As a result they all (Barracks, College and Boarding-Schools, Hospitals, Prisons, Lunatic Asylums, Workhouses and the rare and exotic “Return of the sick at their own homes”) became harder to find, even when using the Browse section. A few years ago, in order to find the returns for a hospital in North Dublin, I had to track down the name of the Director in Thom’s Directory for 1911, find him and his family in the census and then browse the returns around the area where they lived.

So there’s always been a little itch there to improve access to the institutional returns and I’ve just scratched it. I attended an event a few weeks back put on by the Sensible Code Company, a Belfast outfit whose flagship product “Cantabular” specialises in handling the online publication of data that requires detailed care about confidentiality. Recent censuses are the obvious example.

Cantabular showing Irish-only speakers by DED in 1911

They picked the Irish 1911 census to demonstrate publicly just how minutely their software can slice and dice a census and present it in all sorts of revealing maps and tables. Statistician’s heaven. You’ll find a detailed blog post on the process here and a recording of the full event at

A by-product of their hands-on demo was a technique for extracting details on all the non-standard returns, Forms C, D, E, F, G, H I and K. So I mapped them all and the map is now free here on this site,  and via the maps navigation in the Browse section.

Barracks returns in 1911

A few things have become clear. A large majority of the institutions covered are barracks. The map makes it clear just how heavily policed Ireland was in 1911. The same return was used for police and army barracks, making it hard to see from the returns just where the British Army was concentrated. The map now gives a clear idea of the numbers in each barrack, showing where big army centres were located. Although the instructions specified that only initials should be given, quite a few military barracks give full names, Tipperary town and Victoria Barracks in Cork city to give just two examples. The fact that it’s possible to root through the returns more easily will throw up more insights, I’m sure.

And there were a mere four Returns of the sick at their own homes.

A cautionary tale

Here’s a horror story from the front line.

The Irish Times ran a story a couple of days ago about the unveiling at the Chicago Irish consulate of a painting of Mother Jones, the firebrand union activist who was called “the most dangerous woman in America”. She was co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, an indefatigable strike organiser, all-round nuisance to big business and (no surprise) a Corkwoman.  Born c. 1837, she emigrated to Canada and then moved south to the US in the 1850s. After the loss of her husband and children and the subsequent destruction of her dressmaking business in the Great Fire of Chicago, she threw herself into union work and remade herself as the little Irish Mammy from Hell.

The little Irish Mammy from Hell

I’d never realised she was Irish, so started idly looking her up. Wikipedia records her as baptised Margaret in Cork in 1837 to parents Richard Harris and Ellen Cotter. So straight onto the transcription sites to have a look. No Richard Harris/Ellen Cotter entries in On IrishGenealogy, there’s one Richard Harris/Ellen Cotter entry for the baptism of a Richard in Iveleary in 1835, a marriage for the couple also in Iveleary in 1834, but nothing else.  No Margaret.

On to FindMyPast, on the familiar basis that their mistrancriptions will be different to the others.  A Mary to Richard Harris/Ellen Cotter in 1846 in St Mary’s, North Cathedral, but no Margaret. The family had obviously moved into Cork city by then, but why did the earlier two searches miss this particular baptism? Because it’s in the wrong diocese for Rootsireland, Cork & Ross not Cloyne, and IrishGenealogy skipped it because they were told there’s already a transcript done locally. Which indeed there is, but not online. So the only online transcript is the one from the NLI microfilms done by Ancestry and FindMyPast.

So far, so convolutedly typical. But why no Margaret? Back to FindMyPast to search for baptisms confined to North Cathedral with a Richard and Ellen as parents between 1835 and 1846. And there’s a “Mary Hayes” in 1837 with a Richard as father and Ellen Cotter as mother. When you look at the original image of course it’s the bould Mother Jones herself, Margaret Harris, mistranscribed.

Mother Jones (easy to mistranscribe)

Lest you think I’m just beating up on FindMyPast for the fun of it, exactly the opposite happened the day after. I went looking for a Thomas Healy, son of Thomas and Mary Cavanagh born in Dublin in the 1850s on IrishGenealogy. No dice. Siblings aplenty, but no Thomas. Back to FindMyPast and there he is in St Michan’s in 1856, clear as day.

Thomas, son of Thomas Healy and Mary Cavanagh

Why nothing on IrishGenealogy? When I looked, the entry was transcribed twice and in reverse:

Thomas, son of Thomas Healy Healy and Cavanagh Mary


The records may be convoluted but the moral is simple. If you don’t find something in a transcript, never take that as the last word.

Irish or Gaelic? Or Erse?

I’ve just finished reading Charles Townshend’s recently-published The Partition: Ireland Divided, 1885-1925 , which includes everything you could possibly want to know about the politics and violence that led to the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921. Like his masterwork Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, (Penguin 2015), it’s lucid, meticulous and dispassionate. At times, he goes into a bit more detail of conversations between the likes of Lord Birkenhead and Andrew Bonar Law and Hamar Greenwood than most people would want to know. But if you do want to know, this is where to look.

Birkenhead, Bonar Law and Greenwood. Not a barrel of laughs

Slightly scary is the extent to which the pre-1921 era he describes mirrors our situation today. We’re currently having the same dialogue of the deaf, with Northern Unionists hearing every mention of a united Ireland as a threat to slaughter them in their beds and Southern (though not Northern) Nationalists blithely ignoring the fact that Unionism will never negotiate to unify the island.

As ever with Townshend, though, some of the most interesting parts of the book are the throwaway details. One that particularly caught my eye was a few sentences about the politicisation of the phrase “the Irish language” in the early 1900s.

When speaking to non-Irish audiences about Irish surnames, I repeatedly have to make the point that most of them have non-English-language origins in “Irish”. This is the name for the language used by everyone in Ireland today. But after saying it, to allay the puzzlement, I then have to add “by which I mean Gaelic”.  For a long time, I’ve been mildly irritated by this: Would ye not bleddywell learn the difference between Ireland and Scotland and call the language by its proper name?

Irish spoken in 1871

Townshend puts a stop to my gallop. Describing the Gaelic League (still its name today, note, not “The Irish League”), set up in 1893 as a non-sectarian, non-political organisation to promote and defend the language, he writes “Early in the new century, Gaelicists began to talk of ‘the Irish language’ rather than Gaelic, automatically (and deliberately) rendering those who did not speak it as less Irish and those who did not even acknowledge its status as non-Irish”. This may be over-simple. The language had been called “Irish” as well as “Gaelic” for centuries. But he’s right about the exclusionary implication in the carefully-coined phrase “the Irish language”: this is the (only) language of anyone who’s Irish. The League had been captured by Irish Irelanders using the language as a marker of national purity.  That’s why “Irish” is now the standard term in Ireland (including Northern Ireland – I checked in the Belfast News Letter) and “Gaelic” has West Brit overtones.

Of course, if that vision of linguistic national purity had come about, I’d be writing this in Irish. And, to put it in Dublin English, I am in me Erse.

1913 Poster for Seachtain na Gaelige,  “Irish  [Language] Week”.