Dermot’s buried treasure

Dermot Balson is an Australian researcher with the same predilection as myself for juggling large Irish record-sets: the information underlying my 1901 and 1911 census maps came from him. He’s also passionate about spreading knowledge of Irish records as far and wide as possible. So this post is all about his collection.

The University of Southampton’s ‘Enhanced Parliamentary Papers on Ireland’ at (from a time when the UK parliament actually functioned)  has long been a difficult source to mine. Dermot has laboured long and come up with a whole bunch of hidden gems. The 1851 Census Report on deaths in Ireland ,  for example, includes nearly 300 pages of weather/illness/celestial phenomena dating back to the beginnings of Irish history, culled from a variety of sources, many now gone. See page 41 onward of this document. (Links are to Dermot’s cloud-stored copies.)

Workhouses and the Poor Law

His collection of enquiries, committee reports and publications on workhouses and the poor-law is superb, covering more than just the EPPI, and includes a series of inquiries and reports on the state of the poor, mainly in the 1820s and 1830s, but also an inquiry into congestion (aka poverty) in the early 1900s. The inquiries include thousands of pages of verbatim evidence from people on the ground in all parts of Ireland. In addition, he has the Reports of the Poor Law Commissioners, both English and Irish, starting from before the introduction of the poor law to Ireland. The 5th to the 13th English reports have an Irish section which details the introduction of workhouses to Ireland, after which the Irish reports take over. There is a huge amount of detail in these reports. They also include the progress of smallpox immunisation from 1840.

Research and Statistics

His Research and Statistics section   includes the Registrar General’s annual reports on births,  marriages and deaths  from the 1860s to 1920; a whole series of reports on the Famine, including fascinating correspondence with workhouses; a plethora of statistical and explanatory material, including such rarities as the 1852 US census report, which includes some interesting stats on Irish immigrants.


This section includes  dozens of official inquiries and reports, many detailing the conditions migrants faced from the 1820s on. He has also gathered together the advice being given to them before they left.

Personal accounts

These are some 50 or so travellers’ accounts from different dates, always a great way to find out what was really happening. The classic “Ireland’s welcome to the stranger” is in here. Most books have indexes telling you where they went.

All in all, Dermot has assembled what is without doubt the best online library of sources for Irish history I’ve ever seen. Enjoy.


What do we lose when records are digitised?

The gains from digitisation are obvious: vastly widened accessibility; flexible and precise search tools; in many cases, transparency where before there was only opacity. And of course the welcome chance to stay at home in your dressing gown in front of your computer.

But even where records are free to search in the monetary sense, there is a cost. And as in the real world, the buyer needs to know exactly what the price is. As the first law of Fish-In-A-Barrel economics states: “Unspecified prices can only rise”.

So picture this: a giant set of Irish administrative records is created, with thousands of people involved. There are plenty of unavoidable human omissions and mistakes. This record-set is then transferred to an archives. Inevitably, a few of the originals fall down the back of the sofa. The surviving records are then microfilmed. Well, most of them are microfilmed. A finding aid is then created to the microfilms. Well, to nearly all of the microfilms.

Looking for missing census returns down the back of the sofa

Years later, these microfilms are digitised, but only the ones covered by the incomplete finding aid. The images are then transcribed – with just a few missed – by people who have never heard of Ireland or Irish surnames and don’t speak English. Then the transcripts are turned into a searchable database by techies who know nothing about administrative records and couldn’t give a hoot about history.

The wonder is that anything useful could emerge from such a process. But this is a description of the creation of the single most important Irish genealogy website, the one that sparked off the revolution that we’re still living through,

The explosion of online access to records is unambiguously wonderful, but it comes at a cost. Every human intervention adds another layer of error, with incremental losses to accuracy and completeness. It is almost always a price well worth paying. But we should never forget that we are paying it.

Multi-barrelled surnames

One repeated irritation of indexing family records  – I’m working on the 1899 Dublin Burgess Rolls at the moment- is the double-barrelled surname. If a hyphen is supplied (“Day-Lewis”), the computer’s solution is simple: Day-Lewis goes between Dawe and Daz. Inevitably, however, this is in direct conflict with established indexing practice, in Burke’s Irish Landed Gentry for example, which indexes the second name. Long-term, my money is on the computer.

Hyphens make things too easy. Most clergymen shun such frivolous vanities, leaving the problem in the lap of future generations. A full-text search, though crude and imprecise, can finesse the problem. But for a transcriber there are still repeated quandaries. Does ‘William Leigh Clarke’ include two forenames or one two-part surname?

Dickie Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville (1823-1889). Outright absurdity.

These are trivial obstacles compared to those that will face future researchers. Thanks to perfectly reasonable feminist objections to only the paternal surname being inheritable, more and more children are being registered with double surnames. A small problem for this generation, but what happens when two of these double-surnamed individuals have children themselves? And what about their quadrupled-barrelled children’s children? It is not possible for a surname simply to grow generation after generation – once past two words in a name, at least in English, there is a growing sense of outright absurdity. A common joking reflex among Irish surname buffs on hearing the name Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor was to keep going: “-Walsh-Kelly-Byrne-Doyle-” .

A proposal does exist that second-generation double surnames should comprise the paternal grandfather’s and maternal grandmother’s names. This is a bit cold-blooded and counter-intuitive, but it is at least sustainable for more than one generation, preserves some continuity and avoids outright silliness.

Speaking of outright silliness. The Dublin practice of naming shops with the forename of the owner and a business description seems to on the wane, but it has produced what look like very strange double-barrelled surnames. It’s impossible not to imagine the names of the children of, say, Felicity Hat Hire and Peter Hair Creation. At least they’d be conspicuous in the records.

Private Eye, that last surviving outpost of English common sense, has an ongoing series where readers submit imagined marriages to produce wonderful multi-barrelled surnames. My favourite: If Wanda Ventham had married Howard Hughes, divorced him and married Henry Kissinger, she’d be … Wanda Hughes-Kissinger now.

Tricks I was afraid to mention in case they stop letting me do them

In the course of grinding one’s way through online haystacks in search of ancestral needles, shortcuts and workarounds sometimes … become evident. Quite often, it’s not clear that these are known to the website owners themselves, so I’m always a bit nervous about broadcasting them. But what the hey … here are are two of my favourites.

Heavy users of the civil records on can get very irritated by being regularly forced to jump through this particular hoop:

An tArd-Chláraitheoir is the Registrar-General, who of course spends most of his day examining the lists of users. “Hmm, I see Grenham is on the go again.”

No. The form is pure civil-service territoriality, the Registrar-General marking these records as belonging to him and not to the Dept of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht who run the site. My dog does something similar to gateposts and trees every time I take him for a walk.

Just enter anything in the two name fields, tick the box and you’re past: “a “->Tab-> “a”->Tab->spacebar->Enter. It takes about a second, can be rattled off without even lifting your hands from the keyboard and hey presto.

My other favourite is a spectacularly powerful wild-card search available on, still the only absolutely indispensable Irish genealogy subscription site.   Like most search sites, it is apparently necessary to enter a minimum of information, usually at least one surname. So if I want to see everyone with  forename John in Ballinlough registration district, it’s theoretically impossible:

But entering four wild-cards – percentage symbols – in the Townland/Address field gets around this:Which produces:

The uses are endless: reconstructing causes of death in an area over decades from civil death records; picking out all baptisms with the same godparents as evidence for extended family; looking at patterns of use of unusual forenames to pick out wider social or family connections. The world is your oyster.

As long as they don’t decide to stop allowing it.

How I work

Not underwater

Two incidents gave me pause last week. First, at the swimming pool, a stranger approached me and said “You must have put a lot of work into that last edition”. Half-blind without my glasses and almost completely naked, I did not feel inclined to debate. I just submerged.

Second, I had a very pleasant Q & A session in Dublin with a tour group run by the New England Historic and Genealogical Society. But the tour leader introduced me as just plain ‘God’. Now I’m plenty vain (aw shucks), but that’s getting a bit uncomfortable.

The implication of both is that I labour mightily in the vineyards of genealogy, when in fact I don’t work much at all. A large part of my time is spent staring into space, with the occasional upgrade to staring at a wall.

Like most lazy people, I’m a passionate believer in the Twofer, making a single piece of work serve more that one purpose. Back when I was being paid to train National Library staff to run the first incarnation of the genealogical consultation service, I took my innocent charges to the Public Record Office in Belfast. I also took five accumulated research files that needed work done in PRONI, so they got to see what research could be done there by watching me do the research. I still remember the pleasure. Sweet.


Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed the Twofer principle at work in this blog. Quite a few posts bear a strong family resemblance to columns that appeared in The Irish Times some years back.

And Twofer certainly defines the relationship between Tracing Your Irish Ancestors and this site. I spend seven years accumulating new references and slotting them into the forest of pigeon-holes that make up the site’s databases. Then I decant the whole thing into the next edition of the book. Sweet.

To be fair to myself, other talents are also required, in particular a very high boredom threshold, honed, no doubt, by all that staring into space. It stood me in good stead this week as I combed through all the Rootsireland and Representative Church Body listings for any changes.

It takes all sorts, I say. And I’m definitely an AllSort.

It’s alive!

Forty years ago, when I asked my mother about her grandparents, her response summed up the Irish outlook of those days:

“What do you want to know about them for? Sure aren’t they all dead?”

This is not to say that family was unimportant. Far from it. My mother and her sisters could spend hours knitting together second and third cousins and neighbours and the in-laws of in-laws. In a tribal society nothing is more important than who your relatives are. Obviously, common ancestry determines the relationship, but that’s its only importance.

This makes for a peculiar relationship with the past. On the one hand, we’re drenched in it. Every rock in every field has its own name, history and controversy, and the issues that fueled politics and rebellion two centuries ago still underlie Irish politics today. For better or worse, history is no bewigged pageant here.  It’s alive.

An Englishman encounters Irish history.

On the other hand, we have very little sentiment about what we inherit. In the space of little more than a century, we’ve shed a national language and a national religion, two national currencies, as well as membership of a kingdom, an Empire and a Commonwealth. In the last decade alone we’ve re-invented ourselves as business moguls, four-hour commuters, consumerist party animals, abortion-friendly LGBT celebs … Who knows what’s next?

With change at this pace, eventually even the strongest roots begin to shrivel, and the past acquires the rosy glow of distance. For most Irish today, the tribe is not as straightforward as it used to be, and one way the difference is showing is how Irish genealogy is seen in Ireland. It’s no longer the preserve of the blue-rinsed or the tartan-trousered.

So fear no more. When you tell someone Irish you’re researching your ancestors, they’re no longer likely to question your sanity.

The normal laws of space-time do not apply

How much can we rely on family oral traditions? The question attracts a horde of ifs, buts and maybes.

Take the undying belief of large numbers of families in the west of Ireland that one of their ancestors was a survivor of the wreck of the Spanish Armada in 1588. As many as 24 ships were indeed wrecked on the Irish coast, but the conditions that greeted anyone who made it ashore were hardly conducive to settling down and raising a family. The English military force in Ireland, too small to fight off an invasion, compensated with savagery, slaughtering every Spaniard who couldn’t be ransomed. The native Irish did not show much hospitality either.

An envoy of Phillip II sent to Ireland in 1596 to seek out survivors could find only eight individuals.

But hold on. What about those eight? If just one of them had two surviving offspring who stayed in Ireland, who in turn each had two offspring – a very conservative survival rate – and this rate of reproduction continued in each of the 13 or so generations down to the present, that single survivor would now have 8192 descendants, plenty to provide a basis for a family tradition. Though, of course, the tradition remains impossible to prove.

That’s the difference between genealogy and academic history. Because we focus on individual stories, the strangest statistical flukes crop up again and again. The wonderfully conspicuous Balthazar McGuffin will appear nowhere in the records of the 1870s, where you expect him. But dozens of Balthazar McGuffins will then begin to crop up in the records of freed slaves, or medieval guild rolls, or at the court of Catherine the Great. “Black swan” events like these give historians attacks of the vapours, and very understandably.

As for quantum physics, so for history: at the smallest level, the normal laws of space-time do not apply.

The intersection of Touro and Marais in New Orleans. Also the centre of the universe

Early Irish newspapers

Early Irish newspapers are a much under-appreciated source, at least for that small minority to whom they are relevant. That minority was literate (in English), almost all belonged to the Church of Ireland and they were geographically concentrated enough to provide sufficient readers. So the main areas of publication were Dublin (from about 1720), Belfast (1737), Cork (1750), Limerick and Clare (1750), Carlow/Kilkenny (1768) and Waterford (1770).

William O’Neill disavows the debts of his wife Alice in 1801

Given that so many early Church of Ireland parish registers have been destroyed, the usefulness of family announcements is obvious. In some cases they will be the only surviving record. More interesting for hunters of closet skeletons are the ‘advertisements’ and business announcements. Many of the former consist of husbands publicly disowning their runaway wives’ debts; many of the latter are bankruptcy notices.

Finns Leinster Journal Saturday August 13 1791

One reason why these newspapers are underused is that they are not digitised to the same extent as nineteenth-century publications. The London Stamp Office began passing copies of the publications it regulated to what is now the British Library only in 1822, which means that the Library’s collection (being digitised at  is quite patchy for newspapers before that year. There is a decent collection on (image-only, for some reason) and the Irish Newspaper Archive has a good run of the Freeman’s Journal, The Belfast News Letter and Finn’s Leinster Journal.

One of Rosemary’s cards

But for years the only decent large-scale shortcut into these papers has been Rosemary ffolliott’s vast and painstaking ‘Index to Biographical Notices Collected from Newspapers, Principally Relating to Cork and Kerry, 1756–1827’ and ‘Index to Biographical Notices in the Newspapers of Limerick, Ennis, Clonmel and Waterford, 1758–1821’. As well as her legendary thoroughness, Rosemary brought a nicely tuned sense of humour to the task. Here are two index entries transcribed from her Cork and Kerry index:

C[ork] C[onstitution] Thu 6 Nov 1767 married last Sunday Mr Harding Daly of Whitehall near Kittmount to the agreeable widow Fleming of Hamon’s Marsh with a fortune of £800”.

Followed immediately by:

C[ork] C[onstitution] M 9 Nov 1767 the paragraph mentioning the marriage of Mr. Hardng Daly to the widow Fleming appears to be without foundation”.

Evidently Mr Harding Daly was chancing his arm.

I’ve been banging the drum about the ffolliott indexes for years, hoping someone would digitise them. My heart leapt last month when I saw that FindMyPast had put up a transcript. Off I trotted to track down the images for Harding Daly and the agreeable widow Fleming. No sign of them. So I started to poke about and some serious peculiarities showed up. A newspaper (from Portuguese-speaking Ennis?) called the Clare Journao. Also the Cloneml Advertiser, the Xlonmel Gazette,  Rinn’s Leinster Journal, the Limerick Chhonicle,  the Limerick Evening Postl. And a periodical called Fitzgerald Penrose. Wha?

Browsing the transcripts threw up even stranger oddities. A single transcript from the Cork Constitution where there are almost 13,000 from the Limerick Chronicle. Eight transcripts from the Cork Journal, as compared to 800 from the Waterford Chronicle. Only 131 entries for the whole of Cork, with 1587 for Limerick.

So it would appear that only the Limerick, Ennis, Clonmel and Waterford index is actually there. It would also appear that nobody bothered to look at the transcripts before putting them online.

The moral, once again, is that you should give all online sources a good poking before trusting them.

More on newspapers in the browse section. Also county-by-county listings of dates and location.

Digits, orifices and appendages

I saw my first actual Protestant at the age of ten, when he joined fifth class in St. Paul’s National School in Castlerea. After making sure that he wasn’t trying to enslave me, steal my land or force me to speak a foreign language, I counted his all digits, orifices and appendages. Astonishingly, he had precisely the same number as me. His name was John Smith, but his father was the heroically exotic Houston Wells, the lead singer of our local Country-and-Irish showband, the Premier Aces.

Castlerea, 1963. I’m there between Peter Doherty and Turlough Finan.

That deliriously confusing early lesson in cultural diversity came to mind as I watched TV coverage of the most recent Irish citizenship swearing-in ceremony. More than 3000 people from dozens upon dozens of nationalities became Irish. Chilean-Irish, Nigerian-Irish, Moldovan-Irish, Pakistani-Irish … For someone my age, brought up in the weird inbred monoculture of 1950s and 1960s Ireland, it should have felt bewildering. But no, it was actually very moving.


Anyone with a sense of the seismic convulsions Ireland’s population has undergone over the past three centuries knows that what’s happening now is another great change: Castlerea in 1963 was vastly different from Castlerea in 1913, which was vastly different again from 1853 … Where we are now seems to be an immigration sweet spot, the cusp of the next great shift, with large (but not too large) numbers of immigrants coming from so many different places that it’s not possible for ghettoes to form or prejudices to congeal.

Not yet, anyway. In 2053, when Brazil are playing Latvia in the All-Ireland hurling final, things might be different. Diversity is all very well but, personally speaking, I wouldn’t want too many of them Roscommon people living near me, with their strange clothes and funny-smelling food and peculiar accents.

The Premier Aces

Ancestor! Cure your erectile dysfunction now!

Holding onto your sanity can be tricky when your occupational raw material consists of the legions of the dead. So genealogists have to develop techniques to try to retain that little spark of normality, or at least to try to pass for normal. It’s time to share a couple.

First, keep things in proportion. At all costs, avoid ancestor worship. A single living person is worth every forebear you have – genealogy is not a matter of life or death, only the latter. Don’t place too much trust in history. The past is not a reliable guide to the future. The fact you haven’t died so far doesn’t mean you’re immortal.

And never forget that, however absorbing it can be, there is something inherently ludicrous about pursuing traces of the long-gone through mountains of decaying paper. Here’s one way I use to keep that sense of genealogy’s absurdity alive.

Familiar, no?

One of my jobs when I ran the Irish Times Irish ancestors subsite was to manage the main email address, This appeared on hundreds of pages across the site and was, of course, repeatedly harvested by spammers. In an effort to disguise their obnoxious shysterism, these people often take the first part of an email address, hoping that it is a personal name, and shoehorn it into the email subject line to try to personalise their pitch. In this case, the first part of the address being “ancestor”, some lovely incongruities resulted.

I collected them, God help me. Along with the census mistranscriptions, they have made a small but a significant contribution to whatever sanity I have left. Some of my favourites:

– Ancestor, reverse the signs of ageing.
– Ancestor! Fix your garage door now!
– Ancestor – let’s get together for lunch next week.
– Your background check is now available online, ancestor!

Not forgetting the evergreen:
– Ancestor! Cure your erectile dysfunction now!