New marriage maps

In Irish research, birth, marriage and death records are most definitely not created equal. State death records capture only incidental family information, births give just a single generation, but a marriage record supplies both fathers’ names and occupations, the couple’s ages, addresses and occupations, their witnesses, the clergyman’s name, the church …  Loads and loads of loverly threads for us all to follow.

Marriages are also the earliest, starting in 1845, and the easiest to find, with two big bull’s-eyes, bride and groom, both appearing in the indexes, begging to be cross-referenced.

So happy days.  We’ve now got the Latter Day Saints transcripts of Irish General Register Office marriage indexes 1845-1922 mapped and available on the site. Check out Hession, for example .

In the great gappy jigsaw puzzle that is Irish research, there are only four universally useful record-sets:

  • Griffith’s,
  • Parish registers,
  • 1901 and 1911 censuses
  • GRO birth, marriage and death records.

These new marriage maps are our final piece of that puzzle. It’s only taken us ten years.

Before setting out on the map-coding

Because the records are a bit different, we’ve treated them a bit differently. You can search using a forename, and the double surname search offers an option to check for actual marriages between the two surnames on IrishGenealogy. Calloo, callay, oh frabjous day.

If you detect a certain hesitancy in the enthusiasm, it’s because time spent cloistered with these records has once more provided a close-up of their imperfections. Again, numerous records are skipped, duplicated and mangled. Whoever was responsible for the 1890s once again used their spreadsheet fill-down function as a shortcut for duplicate records. Except that many many are not duplicate, and so are just plain wrong. And of course the same problems here and on FamilySearch are also in the licensed copies on Ancestry and FindMyPast. Sup with a very long spoon.

Looking at the indexes up close

Before getting involved in mapping their marriage (and death) indexes, if you’d asked me what I thought of the FamilySearch validation process, I’d have said it was pretty good. Years back, I signed up online to be a transcriber for them (just being nosy) and it seemed like a serious business: double transcripts automatically checked against each other, with conflicts resolved by a third party. Mar dhea.

And what do I think of the FamilySearch validation process now? It would have been a good idea.

 

 

Grief and genealogy and ‘The Lost Words’

Grief is one of the drivers of genealogy, whether we acknowledge it or not, and a reason why most of us are middle-aged or older: only after losses brought by age do you feel the need to slow the decay involved in forgetting. So grief can be put to use. It can even be beautiful.

What brought an odd thought like this this to mind was listening to a folk-song, “The Lost Words Blessing”, part of a musical version of the children’s book The Lost Words.  A 2017 collaboration between the nature writer Robert Macfarlane and the painter Jackie Morris, the book was a response to the exclusion of twenty names for everyday nature from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, due to their underuse by contemporary children. The lost words included such ordinary things as Acorn, Wren, Hare, Otter, Lark … Their omission from the Dictionary was simply recognition that nature  has receded farther and farther from the lives of children, a tiny poignant symptom of the vast extinctions happening around us in the natural world as we consume more and more of it.

The paintings and poems in the book are extraordinary, and I have no doubt they succeed in their aim of intriguing children into love of these wonderful ordinary creatures who are leaving us forever. But the book is necessarily an elegy for the natural world it celebrates, with some of its beauty coming from that elegiac tinge.

In the song, that atmosphere becomes almost unbearably intense. The words bless a child entering into the world and pray for the child to recognize and take on the natural qualities of the heron and the kingfisher and the otter, even as the animals themselves are ceasing to exist. They will somehow survive in that way, as an afterlife, a glint of light in a starling’s eye reflected out into the universe “past dying stars exploding” – “Like the little aviator, sing your heart to all dark matter”.

It is a kind of survival, but only in the sense that our ancestors survive in a family tree. It is making beautiful use of grief.

As you might gather, I found the song very moving. That might have been due to listening to it on Hogmanay with a glass of whiskey in my hand and hearing a Scottish singer wonderfully rhyme Otter with Water. See what you think yourself. Song here, words here.

Happy New Year.

Where the bodies are buried

Of all the records sources I try to keep track of, by far the slipperiest are gravestone inscriptions. Graveyards change name, vanish and can be impossible to pinpoint. The transcripts themselves can be re-transcribed multiple times, often under different cemetery names, and can be partial, inconsistent and generally annoying.

And among gravestone sources there is one monumental collection I’ve never even attempted to master. The baroquely-titled Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland was published for over 47 years between 1888 and 1934 and records a vast volume of inscriptions, many of which no longer exist.

There are multiple problems in using it. The Association started out as a pastime for the genteel Anglo-Irish, akin to butterfly collecting. Not surprisingly, many of the inscriptions transcribed were from the headstones of the genteel Anglo-Irish. So the selection, at the outset especially, is a little skewed.

In addition, the content of the Journals is eclectic and unpredictable, not to say downright eccentric, ranging from pull-out pedigree charts to laconic one-liners. The division into volumes, years and sub-parts of years became more inconsistent as publication progressed, making it progressively harder to follow the indexes. Which changed format completely in 1909. And the collections held in various libraries are not identical, with sequences of pages varying from one collection to another.

Little wonder they haven’t been more widely used.

Now however, thanks to the work of genealogist Ciara Chivers, it is at last possible to get an overview of what the Journals contain, where there are copies online, and which bits are indexed where. Her website, Memsdead.com, is a wonderful example of the clarity that single-minded focus can achieve. In particular, her directory of the full set,  complete with direct links to everything that’s online, will be the go-to guide for years to come. Well done.

And no more excuses for me.

The Irish way of death

In Ireland we like to congratulate ourselves on the way we deal with death. Or, more precisely, with other people’s bereavements. There aren’t many places on the planet where the funeral of a cousin’s mother-in-law, taking place two days after she dies, will demand instant attendance, take priority over work, family, health, weather and money and necessitate a hell of a party.

A wake

I remember how, three decades ago, my mother and her sisters scrambled across to England in full funeral-emergency mode within twenty-four hours of her brother Paddy’s death. They then kicked their heels in East Anglia for ten days as the English side sat around with long faces talking to the undertakers. And not a party in sight. My poor mother thought she was on Mars.

That profound difference in funeral culture between the two islands can sometimes have more serious effects. One of the reasons English police were convinced of the guilt of the Birmingham Six was that five of the men were hightailing it to the funeral of a Belfast neighbour, who just happened to be an IRA man. They were only following the advice of my (other) Uncle Paddy: funerals are better than weddings because you don’t have to be invited.

Apart from the party, the main impulse underlying Irish funerals is, I think, simple tribal solidarity. The bigger the crowd around the grave, the smaller the burden to be carried by the immediate family.

Or at least that’s the theory. In practice, as an American psychotherapist (not my own, I hasten to add) once told me, many Irish people have trouble grieving properly. Maybe all that solidarity makes it harder, not easier, to let go of the dead.

In any case, our intense focus on obsequies has produced a uniquely Irish record source, the death notice. Since about 1940, a public announcement of the time and place of removal and burial has been a compulsory part of every Irish funeral, and often also includes the names of surviving next-of-kin, place of death and cemetery. Checking “the deaths” remains a ubiquitous social necessity. And checking old death notices is an excellent way of tracking distant cousins and forgotten addresses and burial places.

The original and still largest sources are newspapers, The Irish Press and The Irish Independent in particular, with local newspapers also very good. The single best collection of twentieth-century Irish newspapers is at www.irishnewsarchive.com, a subscription site.

More recently, www.rip.ie has become a standard part of funeral announcements, free and fully searchable from 2006. It should also be a standard part of the toolkit of every Irish private eye genealogist.

 

 

Six habits of the highly effective researcher

1. Lose the blinkers. You need to keep trimming away your own presumptions, because otherwise they’ll just grow back. No, not all Cholmondeleys were Protestant. Yes, some nineteenth-century families moved back to Ireland from the US. No, we’re not all descended from Milesius.

2. Gnaw. If you can’t find what should be there, don’t give up. Look at records for adjoining areas, look at earlier and later records, try different spellings, different forenames, different families in the same area.
You are a dog and this is your bone. Grrrr.

3. Know where the devil is. In the detail, of course. For example, that the date of your great-grandfather’s arrest for public drunkenness was the day after your grandmother’s birth. He was out celebrating.

4. Turn off the computer and go down to the library or archive. What’s online may be wonderful, but it’s still only a small fraction of what survives.

5. Stare at records. There is nearly always something more to be learned from a record, no matter how well you think you know it. Recently, I noticed on my grandfather’s familiar 1901 census return that the head of the household in the shop where he was an assistant had recorded him as a “cusion”. Tracing her family showed he was in fact her second cousin, and revealed a plethora of related lines. Welcome to the extended family, all you Flynns, Shines, McManuses and Seerys.

6. Think sideways. Your family were all small tenant farmers, with no property and hence no reason to leave a will. But what about their uncle the priest? Maybe he left one? And every testamentary record after 1858 is an open book at genealogy.nationalarchives.ie.

If the genealogist implied by all this is a sceptical, hard-bitten picker of nits …  Oh well.

Bleedin savages

How did Scandinavians go from being the most bloodthirsty warriors in European history to the very models of a well-behaved citizenry?

No flatpacks, still happy

Viking society contained very little in the way of humane prisons, flat-pack furniture or Lego. Drunkenness, extreme violence and hyper-masculinity is what got them their territory, power and wealth.

A recent reading of Patrick O’Donnell’s hair-raising Irish Faction-Fighters of the 19th Century (Dublin 1975) brought that transformation to mind. Like the Scandinavians, we have plenty of violence in our own past, though, as O’Donnell tells it, we were less goal-directed than the Vikings.

For about six decades after 1780, a craze for mass public fighting, usually at fairs or markets, swept across Munster and Leinster. In 1827 alone, 1001 “riots” were reported to Dublin Castle. Huge crowds could be involved, with opposing sides sometimes numbering several thousand, all armed with at least a good ash-plant or blackthorn stick, while some also carried guns and knives.

The vast majority of the fights were pre-arranged, and aimed for nothing more than the sheer joy of combat. And they came replete with their own ritual and ceremony. The set-piece taunting was especially rich: “Rams’ horns, rams’ horns, there’s nothing crookeder than rams’ horns” would come from the leader of one side. To which the other would respond: “I know something’ll be crookeder by tonight. Your skull”. The violence was anything but ceremonial, though. At Ballyeagh on the Kerry coast on a single day in June 1834 more than twenty people died and hundreds were seriously wounded.

From such casual ferocity to Ireland’s current doe-eyed docility is just as peculiar a change as the metamorphosis of Vikings into socially responsible feminists. It’s impossible to say precisely what caused these radical transformations, but I think at least two simple ingredients are involved: lots of time and more comfort. Given a few generations and decent central heating, everyone calms down.

But we should never forget just how alien the past can be.

They did in their sh_te

Hard-bitten data wranglers know full well that the price you pay for corralling research data into a database is a certain amount of wastage. The grinding boredom of record transcription creates tempting opportunities to doze off, take shortcuts or just make things up. Believe me, I know.

Data wrangling

So when we started work on the database transcripts of Irish General Register Office marriage and death indexes supplied to us by FamilySearch, the website of the Latter-Day-Saints, we were prepared for a certain amount of mistranscription. And we certainly got it. For all its size, FamilySearch essentially depends on volunteers, so allowances need to be made.

More interesting than the gory details of omission and commission (for some of which see below) is what happened to the transcripts when they were licensed to the fully commercial sites Ancestry and FindMyPast. Surely they checked the data before putting it live? They did in their sh*te.

Some examples: A FamilySearch volunteer used the “Copy down” function in Excel as a shortcut in the 1880s and 1890s, meaning that they copied their mis-transcriptions  and then spread them around. Here are six non-existent “O’Flaberty deaths” from FamilySearch in sequence in 1888, on Ancestry and on FindMyPast. Here are the eight non-existent “M’Cood” deaths from 1892. On Ancestry and FindMyPast, and as they should be on IrishGenealogy. Here are the Earins who should be Eakins, the Gamas who should be Garas, the Hehies who should be Hehirs …

Maybe I’m being harsh about individual mistakes, but there are larger issues as well. The whole of 1886 is in the death index (and on FamilySearch and Ancestry and FindMyPast) twice. There are huge numbers of duplicate death records in 1882. Extra copies are a nuisance, to be sure, but not fatal in terms of findability. Much more serious are the gaping holes. Three index volumes for 1897 marriages are just omitted completely, almost 65% of the total.  Quarter 1 of 1900 marriages is listed under 1899, making those 15,000 marriages unfindable. The same for Quarter 1 of 1900 deaths. And don’t look for a death in Quarter 3 of 1898 or Quarter 2 of 1903.

This goes well beyond normal error rates. There seems to have been a breakdown in quality control for at least some portion of the FamilySearch digitisation process. Maybe, given the nature of FamilySearch, this could be forgiven.

What’s not forgivable is that no attempt was made by Ancestry and FindMyPast to check the data they got. The contempt for researchers is palpable.

Stiffs ‘R Us

Back in 1998 when we were casting around for a title for the soon-to-be-launched Irish Times ancestry sub-site, one of the suggestions was “Stiffs ‘R Us”. Needless to say, it was vetoed. But it’s always stayed in the back of my mind, awaiting the right moment. And that moment has come.

‘R not us

We’ve just launched surname maps of all Irish death records 1864-1922. Have a look at Buggy, or Mungovan,  or Scahill. All precisely where they should be.

These maps are a little different from the others on the site. The data that underlies them comes from the old printed General Register Office indexes, specifically from the transcripts of those indexes made by the FamilySearch.org website of the Mormon Church. They very kindly shared a copy with us, the only quid pro quo being free access to our site in LDS Family History Centres.

In all the other maps, the links on the map will take you back to the original records they’re based on. Linking back to images of the printed indexes would be pointless, though. So these death entries point back to the full death records on IrishGenealogy. But … the IG records use a fresh set of indexes, not the old printed volumes.  So there are discrepancies – 70 Scahill entries in the old index, 72 in IG, 127 Finns in Boyle as opposed to 129 and so on. As ever, there are mistakes in both indexes, but they’re not the same mistakes.

Once again, I got a real kick from seeing these things work and from the way visualising the information brings it to life. So to speak. More and more, though, I feel the most important aspect is the list of surname variants that also appear in the original records. Forty years doing this stuff and I’m still astonished at the new ways record keepers torture names out of shape. And looking at the Grenham variants, I found the long-missing death of my own great-great-grandmother tucked away under an obscure misspelling.

So roll on up. Enough deaths for everyone in the audience.

And a video at https://youtu.be/LzkleVE_hF8

The rabbit-holes outnumber the rabbits

The hundredth anniversary of our destruction of the Record Treasury of the Public Record Office of Ireland fell a week ago and the dust has now settled on the launch of  www.virtualtreasury.ie, our response to that catastrophe. For the past few years, the project was trailed (“beyond2022.ie”) as a reconstruction of the collections burnt in 1922. The PR-fueled headlines on Irish media were that “technology” (whatever that is) was going to restore everything lost a century ago: just don your immersive headset and swim off through the 1821 census, mar dhea. Anyone with a titter of wit (a group that apparently doesn’t include many Irish news editors) could see this was just smoke-blowing.

The original Treasury
The VR version

So now that it’s live, what’s the verdict? On the Virtual Reality side, the first thing to be said is that the reconstruction of the Treasury building is superb. To be able to wander through the magnificent galleries and empty spaces that held all those records is awe-inspiring and not a little sad. The second thing is that the “Treasury View”, a VR doll’s-house view of the locations of records inside the building before 1922, is just silly.  This is the part of the site closest to that blown PR smoke. For anyone trying to access records it’s useless,  an online exhibition maybe, certainly not a restoration or reconstruction.

Vacant Treasury Bay

The real meat is buried away in the emphatically non-VR Browse section. Not “Browse All”, which is a dutiful and impressive listing of partner institutions and their records, the other one, “Browse PROI Catalogue”. This makes it clear that the heart of the project is to take Herbert Wood’s massive 1919 published listing of PROI holdings (helpfully included at the bottom of the page) and use it as a vast series of pigeonholes for substitutes, copies and abstracts of those destroyed holdings. The sheer chutzpah required even to attempt this is just jaw-dropping. Hats off: there are several lifetimes’ work here.

This approach creates its own problems, though. The main one is the huge warren of sub-sub-categories inside sub-categories, a large majority of which ultimately lead to a bald “Destroyed”.  The rabbit-holes vastly outnumber the rabbits. Another is that Wood’s record hierarchy is deeply unintuitive for researchers a century later. “Extinct Jurisdictions” gets a top-level listing, while the giant 19th-century census holdings are stuffed away down in sub-section 9 of “Miscellaneous documents”. The priorities of Edwardian gentlemen record-keepers are emphatically not ours.

Still, there are gems all over the place: Digital copies of the National Archives of Ireland’s Church of Ireland registers (some of them, at least);  The best account I’ve read of the 1766 census, with surviving transcripts all in the one place; links to the details of individual tenants under the Land Acts;  A transcript of the 1831 census for Inishtioge in Kilkenny; The minute book of the Corporation of Brewers and Maltsters of Dublin; Herbert Wood’s wonderful  account of Certain Registers of Irregular Marriages Celebrated by Unlicensed Clergymen, Known as Couple-Beggars.

But trying to get at the gems can be excruciating. A little less software engineering and a little more focus on the research experience would help. By which I mean a simple, regularly-updated plain text listing of all the transcripts and images on the site. Please?

More at https://youtu.be/b-FAfkJBX-o

A needle in a haystack of needles

In Myles na gCopaleen’s wonderful parody of Gaeltacht autobiography, An Beál Bocht (The Poor Mouth), the narrator, Gaeilgeoir Bonaparte O’Coonassa, describes his first day at school.

The teacher demands, in English: “Phwat is yer nam?” The response, in Irish, begins: “Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen, son of Thomas’s Sarah, grand-daughter of John’s Mary, grand-daughter of James, son of Dermot.” Whereupon the teacher calls him to the front of the class, hits him over the head with an oar and screams: “Yer nam is Jams O’Donnell!”

An oar

When he regains consciousness, Bonaparte discovers that every other child in the class is also officially Jams O’Donnell.

In some parts of Ireland genealogical research involves distinguishing one Jams O’Donnell from another. For Byrnes in Wicklow, Sullivans in south Kerry, Dohertys in Donegal, or Bradys in Cavan, the problem is not finding a needle in a haystack. It’s finding the right needle in a haystack of needles.

A plethora of Bradies in Cavan

When people with ancestors like Jams O’Donnell ask a genealogist for advice, we rarely do the honest thing and tell them to find a new hobby. Instead, they’ll hear a long description of the process of reconstructing and comparing families, getting the right children in the right birth order, painstakingly accumulating circumstantial evidence that just might, eventually, with luck, identify the right people.

I was recently hoist with my own petard, trying to find one particular Ryan family in Caher parish in south Tipperary with only the children’s names as a guide: John, Michael, Mary, Margaret, James and Catherine, God help me.  I identified all 53 Ryan families in the parish baptising a child with at least one of these names between 1828 and 1838, then retrieved all other children baptised outside those years to the same couple and then reconstructed all the families. It was a long and painful process. And there was not a trace of the family I wanted. Serves me right.