How I got into this mess

Anyone working in genealogy is regularly asked “How did you first get involved?” which I translate as “How the hell did you get into this mess?”

Here’s the long version of my response.

Forty years ago, I had been living in Italy for four years, teaching English as a foreign language in private language schools and had become deeply Italianised. Italy has everything – food, culture, style, history, landscape, weather … I thought Italians had completely mastered the art of living well. I wanted to be Italian.

But TEFL in a private language school anywhere is not the most fulfilling or lucrative way to earn a living, so I decided to come home to do the Ph.D. which would then enable me to get a university job in Italy.

Grotesquely badly-dressed and inexplicably happy Irish people, 1981

Back in Ireland (which to my Italianised eyes then seemed to be full of grotesquely badly-dressed people eating grotesquely terrible food but all having a great time), I had to fund myself. A friend’s partner with a degree in history was doing piece-work for the Genealogical Office. Though like everyone else in the country at the time, I thought of professional genealogy as a form of intellectual jarvey-ism, the piece-work side suited perfectly. I could make the rent in a day or two, then switch back to the doctorate.

The friend said his partner wouldn’t mind helping me start (without bothering to ask her first, sorry about that Anne), so I turned up at the GO office in the National Library, picked up a research file, wandered out into the Reading Room and fell flat on my intellectual face.

Eventually, I learnt the ropes and discovered to my surprise that I had an aptitude for it, which mainly consisted in having a very high boredom threshold. The amount of research required to make a living escalated steadily until I was completing more than a dozen research files a week, had settled down happily and was beginning to look for ways to climb the genealogical food chain. But that’s a different story

What about the Ph.D? Big mistake. First, for all my Italianisation, I hadn’t realised that it’s impossible to get work in Italian third level education without being part of a well-established mutual back-scratching network. Second, I made a disastrous choice of subject for the Ph.D., the poetry of John Ashbery. Yes, the John Ashbery who died a year ago at the age of ninety. The John Ashbery renowned for his productivity, who published almost thirty books of poetry, most of them after I started my thesis on him. He just outwrote me.

My early induction into Irish genealogy

And the short version of my response is that I was cursed in my cradle by an evil fairy.

Is the Golden Age of Irish genealogy over?

Golden Age? What Golden Age, you might ask.

All things are relative. For decades, Irish research fumbled awkwardly around the great smoking crater that was the destruction of the PRO in 1922.  Genealogists were viewed askance by Irish archives, and not without reason: one of my most vivid memories is of watching a colleague speed-search a box of original 1911 returns, creating a tiny blizzard of 80-year-old paper fragments in air around her. A few more speed-searches like that and there’d have been no 1911 left.

Before digitisation

We were groping in the dark, finding the same nothing again and again. No wonder our hearts leapt when the first digitisations began – the old, deeply-flawed CD-ROM index to Griffith’s, the fuller Eneclann/National Library transcript, the early 1911 censuses for Dublin, Belfast and Kerry. (Why Kerry? Because the Minister for Arts at the time was from Kerry. Whatever made things happen.)

And then the dam burst: the Catholic registers, all the surviving censuses, and post-1858 wills, rootsireland’s collection going online and finally the mother-lode, the General Register Office’s birth, marriage and death collection at (See here for a rough list of what’s currently online.)

After digitisation

Four sources are almost universally relevant for Irish genealogy, the GRO records, the surviving censuses, the surviving church records and the two nineteenth-century tax surveys, Griffith’s and the Tithe Books. All four are now online, substantially complete and mostly free to search.

For a few years, it seemed like every six months brought another wonderful breakthrough. If those years were a Golden Age, it is certainly over. There’s plenty still to be done improving what’s there, and filling in what’s missing – Church of Ireland registers, estate papers, the Land Commission records and much more. But the big beasts have been slain.

It was a Golden Age that made our ancestors findable at last. Now all we have to do is actually find them.

Genealogy is just not that interesting.

Ok, I only wrote that to get your attention.

But … there is some truth in it. The stamp-collecting side of family history, adding name after name and pasting them into the album, can be compulsive, but it’s a little dull. As my mother used to say, “What are you interested in them for? Sure aren’t they all dead?”

John Lennon’s not very interesting stamp album

So why do I do it? First off, the research can be good fun. A lifetime of mislaying car keys has left me with a passion for finding things. Fitting them together once they’re found can also be deadly – all those gnarly little puzzles entangling records and families.

More seriously, a lot of genealogy involves reknitting broken family connections and uncovering forgotten family members. I remember one woman telling me about a family photograph from the early 1900s from which her great-grandmother’s face had been cut out. This was the only picture of the woman that survived and the family had long wondered if this was revenge in some long-forgotten feud. Then, clearing out a deceased grand-uncle’s attic, she found a locket with the cut-out photo. Far from revenge, it was love that had taken the face.

And genealogy is also the business end of microhistory, famously defined by Charles Joyner as the ‘search for answers to large questions in small places’. All of the written histories that have stayed with me are small scale with great ambitions: Iris Origo’s mesmerising reconstruction of the life and character of a run-of-the-mill thirteenth-century Florentine trader, The Merchant of Prato; Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, three decades of a medieval French village brought stunningly to life; Frank Dikotter’s monumental evisceration of Mao and his legacy, The Tragedy of Liberation, Mao’s Great Famine and The Cultural Revolution, all done with local archive material and eyewitness accounts, creating an unanswerably detailed mosaic of everyday horror.

In Ireland too, small places have raised large questions. The townland of Ballykilcline in north Roscommon was the scene of a violent rent war in the 1840s. The end result was the dispersal and emigration of almost its entire population. Two wonderful matching microhistories tease out the causes and consequences. Robert Scally’s The End of Hidden Ireland (1997) describes the conflict, resulting evictions and mass emigration, and Mary Lee Dunn’s Ballykilcline rising: from famine Ireland to immigrant America (2008) takes the story up on the other side of the Atlantic.

One thing all microhistories have in common is that they always, rightly, show lives as ever more complicated, always unfinished, with no simple moral tally.

So in future, when people ask me what I do, I’ll tell them I’m a microhistorian. All 5’6″ of me.

Geeky negative proof

A recent research project took me to a headstone in Terryglass in north Tipperary ( It was erected by a Daniel Hogan in memory of his father John, who died in 1856, and it included mothers’ maiden name, siblings, ages at death – wonderful stuff that took the family well back into the 18th century.

Griffith’s Cappanasmear

My focus was also Daniel Hogan, listed as occupying 40 acres in the townland of Cappanasmear in Terryglass in Griffith’s Valuation, published for this area in 1852. Could they be the same person?

Circumstantial evidence is all that survives. So first, I needed to check how many households in Terryglass were headed by a Daniel Hogan between 1827 and 1857. The baptismal registers ( show no fewer than 12 separate Hogan families headed by a Daniel. Not good news. But the Cappanasmear Hogans seem to have been the most prosperous, so there was still hope.

Valuation notbook, 1845

The Griffith’s manuscript notebooks for Terryglass from 1845 were next. Daniel was there, but the difference with the published record showed the effect of the Famine on the townland. In the seven years to 1852, three of his neighbours’ holdings had vanished.

Because the Valuation was a tax record, it had to be updated regularly.

1857 revision

The first revision in the Valuation Office, dated 1857, showed the ongoing catastrophic impact of the Famine. Of 21 houses listed in Cappanasmear in 1845, by 1857 only 11 remain. And Daniel is gone, his house demolished, his land absorbed into neighbours’ holdings. This doesn’t look like someone who was erecting a carefully-carved gravestone commemorating a death that took place in 1856.

1855 Chili, Monroe, NY

Where did the family go between 1852 and 1857? An 1855 state census shows four of them in upstate New York. And Daniel’s wife, Ann, records that she arrived in the US two years previously and has been a widow for a year. So my Daniel could not have been in Terryglass in 1856 and could not have put up that wonderful headstone.

Negative outcomes can be just as important as positive ones. But I still cling to the hope that something will disprove my disproof.


Why your descendants won’t be researching you from their home on Proxima Centauri B

Since I first borrowed A for Andromeda  from Castlerea public library in 1964, I’ve been a regular reader of science fiction. It provides escape and reassurance in equal measure,  distorting the present in safe but stimulating ways, projecting well-worn history onto future landscapes. Space opera, á la Star Trek, is especially good at this.

Make it so.

But one aspect of genealogy has made it increasingly difficult for me to suspend the disbelief needed to keep space opera readable. As DNA studies expand knowledge of our deep ancestry, it has become crystal clear how interrelated we all are. And by “we” I don’t just mean human beings. We’re descended from the same original microbe as every living thing on earth. Those trees are your umpteenth cousins, umpteen times removed. The bacteria in your intestines helping to digest your food are more distant maybe, but still part of the family, still harking back to gtn-gt-granddaddy, the Methesulah microbe.

You want a real family tree? We’re Eukaryotes

The point is that we’re not just related, our existences are utterly intertwined. We have spent 2.8 billion years co-evolving, depending on the peculiar seasonality of this planet, on the slow accumulation of soil, knotting ever-deeper symbiotic links between living things.

Not known for its exploration of outer space

Human dependence on Earth is total. Our immune systems, our brains, our muscles all rely for their day-to-day existence on the intermeshed family trees that comprise life on the planet. To think about extracting one element of this whole, human beings, and throwing them through space to other planets is utterly absurd. It makes as much sense as sending a steak and kidney pie to the moon and expecting it to set up a colony.

That’s why I can’t watch Captain Picard any more. And that’s why your descendants won’t be researching you from their home on Proxima Centauri B.

A cautionary tale

A recent research case I had involved a woman called Christina Vance. Nicely unusual surname and forename, I thought. And sure enough there was her marriage in 1928, supplying her father’s name, and there was her death in 1936, supplying her age, 27. Subtract 27 from 1936 and you get 1908/09 as a year of birth.

Christina Vance’s birth duly popped up in 1908, daughter of Joseph, a signalman and Julia née Buggle. And there was the family in 1901, with sister Mary Vance, bridesmaid at the wedding. And there was the marriage of Joseph and Julia in 1894, fathers Edward Vance stationmaster and Patrick Buggle farmer. Johnny, said I, you may award yourself the Golden Egg of Self-Satisfaction.

The Golden Egg of Self-Satisfaction

And then when I came to write the report, a little fly dropped into in the ointment. The marriage record gave her father as Robert, not Joseph. Hmm. Better check this. No Robert Vance death, no Robert Vance marriage, no Robert Vance in 1901 or 1911. No other Christina in 1901 or 1911. Had she (or the priest) made a mistake with the father’s name? Maybe. Or maybe not.

So I set out to check out Joseph’s family more closely.   His death is listed in 1936, evidence that he wasn’t Robert, who was dead in 1928 according to the marriage record. And there, in 1929, was the marriage of his daughter Christina to Christopher Keane. A completely different Christina, unrelated to my Christina who married a year earlier just down the road also in north Dublin.

Back to the drawing board. Using my trusty wild-cards, I found the death of Robert Vanse in 1925, the birth of his daughter Christina Vanse registered in 1907, the family’s 1911 return mistranscribed as “Vause” in Summerhill, the marriage of Robert (again as “Vause”) in 1906, Christina staying with her granny in 1911 and mistranscribed as “Vanne” …

The moral? Trust the records. Distrust yourself. And make sure you really deserve that Golden Egg of Self-Satisfaction.

Catherine Corless

A few days ago I heard a full half-hour radio interview with Catherine Corless, the local historian responsible for tracking down the 796 death certificates of young children in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home between 1925 and 1961.  It was riveting.

She described in detail the first stirrings of curiosity about a place she had passed every day on her way to and from school as a child and the utter silence in official records about what had happened inside its walls. She had to go door-to-door, for all the world like a private detective, to recover local memories of the place and in the process came across a story of young local boys stumbling upon human remains. They were in what she found out was the abandoned septic tank of Tuam Workhouse that the Bon Secours nuns had used to store the remains of the children who died.

From then on, she was possessed by the idea of recovering the memory of those forgotten children and would let nothing stand in her way. The interview makes it plain that she had plenty of help – from the Galway Registrar’s office, who cut her a deal on the 796 certs, from Galway archivists and from locals in Tuam – but it is also clear that the passion fuelling the research was hers and hers alone.

Catherine Corless at her conferring

The occasion of the interview was Catherine’s conferring with an honorary doctorate by Trinity College, and there has never been a more deserving recipient.

The interview sparked a few thoughts. First, if she were doing the work now, all the death records would be at her fingertips online. In March, I wrote about how her work could be replicated for other Mother and Baby homes. Just as an example, here’s a single page from Castlepollard death records from April 1947. Of the ten deaths recorded, eight are of infants from the Manor House Mother and Baby Home.

Second, her zeal for the full DNA-assisted identification of the children is awe-inspiring, but not unproblematic. It is certainly possible to recover substantial amounts of DNA from the children’s remains, but identifying them involves comparing that DNA with existing test results. These would almost certainly be genealogical tests, probably on or Ancestry, as in the case of the Golden State serial killer. Which means that the families of these children would more than likely be identified via descendants of their North American emigrant great-grand-uncles and aunts, with extended family trees leading (eventually) to likely parentage.

From listening to Catherine speak, I have no doubt she feels that these children have an absolute right to a proper burial, with each individual named and rescued from oblivion. But there is no way to do this without a massive state-sponsored programme of genealogical research. Apart from the expense, such a programme would almost certainly infringe the privacy of the extended families of the mothers who were incarcerated in these homes, as well as the privacy of the mothers themselves, many of whom would now be in their seventies.

I’m not sure how the balance will be struck, but it will have to be.

Wild-cards are a geneal*gist’s b*st fr*nd

Wild-cards, – usually an asterisk (‘*’) representing any series of characters and a question-mark representing a single character – are one of the most important (and under-appreciated) tools in any online researcher’s toolkit. The garbled English versions of original Irish-language surnames and placenames we work with in Ireland make them doubly important. Here are a few hard-earned lessons.

All surname variant systems are flawed. Try searching for Callaghan on Rootsireland and you’ll get a faceful of Gallaghers. FindMyPast appears to think all surnames starting  “O'” are variants of each other. And years back I came across a Brien recorded as Breen and made them variants of each other. Which they’re not really.

So you should never rely completely on any site’s built-in variants system. The best – IrishGenealogy and FamilySearch come to mind – allow maximum flexibility, running all the way from  returning all variants of any name matched anywhere in the search, through all wild-carded versions of both forename and surname, to exact matches only. At the other end of the spectrum, AskAboutIreland’s Griffith’s search will just put invisible wild-cards around the surname if you tick the “similar names” box. And in between come:

  • no variants, but wild-cards you can sprinkle like snuff at a wake;
  • Ancestry:  no wild-cards and a very peculiar variants system;
  • Rootsireland: wild-cards (“%” and “_”) only in the placename field when searching a local centre’s records, but a generally good surname and forename variants system.

Most sites that allow wild-cards have restrictions. For example, a search with a wild-card as initial letter is usually verboten, because of the strain it puts on the server. Not me. I proudly strain my CPU in your service – *or?m Most also specify a minimum number of characters. Again, not me.

So, for example, ‘B*urk*’ will find Bourk, Bourke, Burk, Burkett …  Remember that consonants tend to be more stable than vowels. Very often simply replacing all the vowels in a search term with asterisks will provide a useful list of candidate results.

Above all, experiment with wild cards. Would you like to see all Rootsireland baptisms in Carndonagh between 1865 and 1875 with a godmother called Mary? No problem:

Note the redundant “Surname required” warning

Remote and alien pagan babies. And 1916

One of the joys of genealogy is coming eyeball to eyeball with the past in all its weird particularity. It produces two apparently contradictory effects. On the one hand, you get to appreciate that a century ago (or twenty centuries ago) human beings everywhere were just as human as we are, with all the fears and desires that we have. On the other, you realise how alien and remote the past can be. It is just not possible to recapture what it felt like to live inside the elaborate warrior-dominated caste system of pre-medieval Ireland or to be forced out of a WW1 trench knowing you face instant, certain death.

Alien and remote: Irish Independent Apr 1, 1939

So when I saw the tag-line for the GPO 1916 museum in Dublin – “So real you almost smell the gunsmoke” – my hackles rose. What about the smell of gangrene? Or the dead horses rotting out on Sackville Street? The museum (full title “The GPO Witness History Museum & Visitor Centre“) has won international awards, provides a nice day out and does what it does very well indeed. But what it does is provide immersion in a sanitised past, a theme park version of history carefully relieved of anything truly strange or upsetting.

This obligation to immerse seems to be part of a bigger trend in the leisure sector, of which history and genealogy are now minor branches. So 3D cinema is no longer enough, we’re now on to 4D. Which apparently involves splashing water on everyone when a boat appears, puffing out scent to accompany flowers and (one can only hope) eventually disembowelling an audience member live during ‘Halloween 39: Great-Grandson of Freddie’.

Immerse yourself

The Spanish Flu and Irish family history

Over the course of 52 months, the First World War killed around 16 million people. In twelve months, the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million, and possibly twice that number. It was the greatest medical holocaust in history, destroying more lives in 24 weeks than AIDS in 24 years, and more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century.

Camp Funston, Kansas, 1918

Why does it not loom larger in our historical awareness? One reason is official suppression of its scale. Although the earliest known outbreaks were among US troops in Kansas and near Étaples on the Western Front, wartime censorship blocked  reports of the pandemic in the countries at war. Because Spain was neutral, the pandemic’s effects could be freely reported. As populations sickened and died, they heard more about the effects in Spain than in their own countries. Hence “Spanish Flu”.

In Ireland, it came in three waves. The first recorded outbreak was on the troop carrier the USS Dixie off Cobh in May. That early wave was relatively mild – those who survived acquired immunity to the two later waves. The most lethal of these came in November 1918, just as the War ended, and a last, less deadly wave arrived in spring 1919.

What does any of this have to do with genealogy? One of the great successes of recent genealogy in Ireland has been to recover, family by family, the suppressed histories of the Irishmen who fought in the First World War. Perhaps something similar needs to be done for those who died in the Spanish Flu.

The tools are already at our fingertips and perfectly adapted. The civil death records on IrishGenealogy provide detailed causes of death, day by day, district by district, and can be minutely examined using the site’s “more search options“.

An example of what can be done by a local historian is Dermot Balson’s brilliant work on Kilkeel in Down. His two charts, based on these death records, show just how brutally the flu impacted on the area between October 1918 and March 1919, and how young adults died disproportionately.

A single page from the death registers of Athlone No. 1 district between December 12 and 19 1918 shows why a genealogist might also be interested. Out of the ten deaths listed, nine are influenza related. And the second last is the death of my grandfather’s first wife at the age of 30. He remarried two years later, to my grandmother.