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.

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