The first batch of 1901 and 1911 census corrections, all 15,962 of them, went live on census.nationalarchives.ie on Thursday last and great sighs of relief were breathed all round. Well, by me anyway.

For the past two months I’ve been working my way back through the user-submitted emails, checking them against the images and separating them into saints and sinners. At the same time, along with NAI’s IT staff and developers, I was working on getting the validated corrections live, a more complex operation than you’d imagine. Because the census data is static, it makes perfect sense to have the live version as a set of indexes rather than a transactional database – no moving parts, so much more stable, as well as faster to search.

Moving parts

That means, in order to add or change anything, the indexes have to be rebuilt from scratch. Not impossibly complex to do (he said, not having done it himself) but not something you’d want to be doing every day either. In the tables of personal information alone, there are approximately 10 million records, each with twenty items of data. Turning all of those into a static index produces almost 200 million index entries.  So carefully does it.

Those 15,962 represent all emails received between October 25 2016 and September 11 this year, the date I started. If you submitted between those dates, your correction should now be live, provided I agreed that it was accurate. If you don’t see it, have another go and make me look again. And of course I’ve made my own mistakes , slated for correction the next time round. The aim now is to have a regular monthly batch update.

In the course of working eyeball-to-eyeball with the emails it’s hard not feel I’m getting to know the submitters. Some people seem to be swept away by the urge to correct. Having found a mistake in their own family, they just can’t stop: suddenly it’s four in the morning and they’ve sent off a hundred emails. Others, by the look of their email addresses, are spending most of their work day actually correcting the census. Tut tut. And I feel for the poor soul who discovered that his ancestors had recorded their religion as Baptist and retrospectively converted them to Presbyterianism.

East Galway. Where they send the same email more than once

One enterprising crowd in east Galway seem to have got together with the aim of completely correcting every single entry for the area. Good for them. Except that part of their agreed procedure appears to have been to send each correction at least three times. Just to be sure. Thereby ensuring it takes at least three times as long for the corrections to be validated. Grrr.

Another group I can’t help empathising with are the transcribers. What a strange and wonderful place early twentieth-century Ireland must have seemed to them, a land where people had jobs as coco drivers, boot owners, professors of surging, pork rangers, where children could be sixty years older than their parents and gender-roles were so fluid you would commonly find mothers-in-law who were male labourers aged 30. It feels a shame to be erasing that parallel Ireland.

Eoin MacNeill. Garlic would have improved his disposition.

Wouldn’t we all live in a much more interesting place if Eoin MacNeill really had been the secretary of The Garlic League?

Does genealogy make you a better person?

In the middle of a recent panel discussion,  the words “genealogy makes you a better person” emerged from my mouth. My fellow-panellists, and a fair number of the audience, looked at me as if I had just announced that the moon was made of cheddar, politely ignored the remark and moved on to saner topics.

He got the halo by finding his granny. Click for more detail.

Nobody was more surprised by the remark than myself. It has depressing echoes of the hoary adolescent debate about the utility of art. Does reading and appreciating a great poem have any moral effect? A long time ago, after half a decade spent in the company of third-level teachers of literature, I came to the conclusion that the answer was No. If anything, spending your professional life immersed in great writing appears to have the opposite effect. Pettiness and spite seem to be pettier and more spiteful among specialists in literature than anywhere else.


A common effect of genealogical research

And, on the surface, genealogy is hardly much better. Cranks and shysters make up a disproportionate number of us. Our committee wars are acrimonious and interminable, following the axiom “the smaller the teacup, the bigger the storm”. The goal of our research is not disinterested truth but more information about ourselves and our families.

And yet the very process of family history research, its sheer amateurishness, does have a strong positive effect, at least on some people. It teaches that we are all mongrels, providing a powerful antidote to snobbery and racism. It shows that history is not a simple competition between good guys and bad guys and, by extension, that neither is the present. It provides a powerful emotional antidote to social atomisation.

Maybe some nuance is needed: the study of ancestors won’t make bad people good.  But it can make decent people more decent.

Sir William Betham

Sir William Betham

One of my record-keeper heroes has long been Sir William Betham (1779 -1853). He arrived in Dublin for a brief visit in 1805 and by chance found himself wading through the chaotic collections of records held in Dublin Castle. As a result, he went about acquiring authority over the Bermingham Tower records, by getting an appointment as Deputy Ulster King of Arms.

Ulster’s Office was the heraldic authority for the island of Ireland, responsible for providing confirmation of their social status to the Anglo-Irish elite: the right to bear arms was (and is) purely hereditary and thus an indicator of supposed good breeding. So as well as putting order on the Office’s existing records, Betham set about creating a new reference collection covering the propertied Anglo-Irish, the Office’s clientele.

By far the richest source of family information on the propertied Anglo-Irish was the collection of prerogative wills held at the Prerogative Office in Henrietta Street. A prerogative will was one with property worth more than £5 in two probate districts ( Church of Ireland dioceses), meaning they tended to cover the top end of the social scale, the Office’s main market.

In 1807, Betham began to transcribe all the family information recorded in these wills, coming from 1536 right up to 1800. The project took him a full twenty-one years to complete, by which time he had become Ulster King of Arms himself. With the information from the wills, he then created a series of volumes  of sketch pedigrees that provided ready-made pigeon-holes for any subsequent information that turned up. These volumes, more than forty in all, are in the Genealogical Office, the successor to Ulster’s Office, now part of the National Library of Ireland and are being digitised superbly through NLI’s online catalogue.

The Stearne sketch tree, Vol. 26, St.-Sw
Vol 62 S 1721-1747. The Stearne family will used to create part of the sketch

The original notebooks Betham used for the transcriptions were purchased by the National Archives of Ireland in the 1930s and microfilmed by the LDS in 1969. And as part of their program of enhancing online access, those microfilms are now freely available online to signed-in users.

Vicars, showing the Ste[a]erne entries
One of Betham’s successors, Sir Arthur Vicars, published an index to Irish prerogative wills in 1897, which is now also freely available online. It matches Betham’s work perfectly. Any pre-1800 entry recorded by Vicars will have a full transcript of all its family information in the notebooks, and a possible expanded version in the GO manuscript volumes.

The transcripts are a magnificent source for eighteenth-century Irish ancestors, not only because we blew up all the originals in 1922, but also because the social range covered by the wills is much broader than Betham’s original intentions implied. Shoemakers, ironmongers and small tradesmen of every description are also included.  If  you lived near a diocesan boundary, it was very easy to have £5-worth of property in more than one diocese.

On the back of the LDS release, FindMyPast have come up with a transcript which I have to say I find a little puzzling. It gives no indication of where the originals are, that the images come from LDS microfilm or that the notebooks are part of a wider set of records. And then lumps the will transcripts in with Marriage Licence Bonds extracts.

But (with a bit of ingenuity) it is possible to use the index to zero in on particular entries in the notebooks, cutting out some of the to-and-froing  necessary on FamilySearch. Small mercies.


Holding on to the Dead

One of my party pieces remains a performance of this, complete with lederhosen-slapping. Please click.

IN the 1980s I lived in northern Italy, up near the border between the provinces of Trentino and Alto Adige, the latter known to most of its German-speaking inhabitants as Sud Tirol. There was a point on the road about 10k from my house north of which gnocchi turned into dumplings, lederhosen hung on the washing lines and speaking Italian in a shop or café would get you no service, just a glare.

I was teaching English in a language school where the majority of other teachers were from the UK and (like many Irish in Europe in those pre-Riverdance days) we Irish regularly had to fend off the irritating presumption than we were British. Gradually, though, we were forced to look at just how much Irish and British culture overlapped:

Tiroler Speckknoedel!

language, food, sense of humour, currency, television, shops … Compared with the chasm between German and Italian civilizations just 10k north, the Irish and the Brits were practically joined at the hip.

But there was one area that was then and still is utterly distinctive, and that’s the attitude to death and the rituals of death. Very little survives in Ireland of the pagan Celtic culture that created Samhain, the festival of the dead that underlies Halloween  – here it’s now an just Anglo-American holiday, mixing cartoon ghouls with Guy Fawkes fireworks. But the dead are still a much more important part of everyday life in Ireland.

First, there is an absolute obligation to be physically present at the moment of death of a family member, almost as if the death has to be caught and preserved. Then, funeral attendance trumps every other social duty, even for remote acquaintances. With funerals held extraordinarily close to death, within three or four days at most, which means dropping everything at very short notice. And a good time tends to be had by all – my uncle Paddy used to prefer funerals to weddings, because you didn’t need an invitation to a funeral.

And then there’s the removal, the lying-in, the wake (now more usual after the funeral), the death notice, the memorial announcements, the mass cards, the month’s mind … While many other Irish customs and traditions have withered, those surrounding death are as tenacious as ever.

Just a snippet from the Irish Independent deaths section Jan 4 1979

Which is good news for those of us who track the Irish dead (aka genealogists). Because getting to funerals is so important, the Irish newspaper death notice is absolutely essential and at its most florid can give a picture of entire extended families and social circles as well as home addresses and burial places. From about 1940, it’s a very rare funeral that didn’t have a death notice, and they’re now all searchable online at the subscription site www.irishnewsarchive.com (25% off with the discount code JGDISC25). They can provide superb evidence of living relatives. And for the past 10 years, www.rip.ie provides a free online version. There is, needless to say, no such thing as www.rip.co.uk or www.rip.com.

One other feature of Irish funeral rituals is that we’re very proud of them. I once boasted about them to an American psychotherapist and genealogist and she responded “Yes, I’ve noticed that the Irish have problems letting go.”

Food for thought. Perhaps eventually ceasing to grieve for the dead is not a betrayal, just an acceptance that they’re gone.

Bosthoons, Looderamauns and Brehenies

Anyone who researches nineteenth-century Irish families quickly becomes aware of what is unspoken behind many records. Despite the fact that the Irish language, Gaelic, was the majority tongue in many areas until well past the middle of the century, not one state or church record writes down a single word of Irish.

“Some Tipperary bosthoon endangering the lives of the citizens. Runaway horse.” Ulysses

Think about what that meant for the people being recorded: the language in which they lived their lives was utterly worthless to the bosthoons and looderamauns running official Ireland. No wonder so many made the stark choice to abandon Irish in order to survive.

The implications for research are unavoidable. Imagine that baptismal record from the 1830s as it must have seemed to the parents. Their names are being written down, often phonetically, sometimes (mis-)translated,  in a language they don’t understand and which they almost certainly couldn’t read even if they did understand it. You may care how your surname is spelt. Your ancestors certainly didn’t.

One result is that the slow evolution of names out of Irish and into English happens before your eyes. In West Cork Catholic baptismal registers, the many Fowlues (from Ó Foghlú, derived from foghlaí,  meaning ‘robber’) transmute decade by decade into the contemporary English ‘Foley’. In other cases, the changes are dizzyingly abrupt. In North Mayo, I’ve seen the first children of a family baptised as Mulderrig (Ó Maoildeirg,

Antonio Vivaldi. A red-haired priest

‘grandson of the red(-haired) priest’, with the younger ones all ‘Reddington’, a common attempt to shoehorn the colour red into a perfectly respectable but completely different surname from the north of England. The Leitrim surname Breheny (from Bhreithiúnach, meaning ‘lawyer’ or ‘judge’) starts off in the 1830s as Breheny, becomes ‘Abraham’ and ends up’ Judge’.

Another shadow language is also there. We didn’t just take on the English language. We took it on and banjaxed it. Hiberno-English is a wonderful stew of Gaelic and medieval English, flavoured with intense local accents. If you’re wondering why you can’t find your Deane ancestors, that’s because they’re in the records as ‘Dain’ (‘Cup of tay, anyone?’). Likewise with Geaney (‘Ganey’).

And all your Grenhams are Grinhams.

The Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland

Joe Lee’s review

Professor Joe Lee recently gave an extraordinary review to the new Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland ( ed. Eugenio Biagini and Mary Daly, CUP, 2017). Glowing isn’t the word: it was positively radioactive.  So of course I jumped straight in.

And he was right, it is a remarkable piece of work. Its thirty-three essays are divided into three sections, ‘Geography, Occupations and Social Classes’, ‘People, Culture and Communities’ and ‘Emigration, Immigration and the Wider Irish World’. Clearly ‘social history’ is a very broad church, ignoring the boundaries of local history, human geography, anthropology, linguistics and many more apparently separate disciplines. That’s all to the good. The more perspectives, methods and opinions are applied to the Ould Sod, the clearer and more wonderfully complicated our ancestors will be.


The really novel feature of the work, not remarked on by Professor Lee, is the weight given to what used to be called ‘The Irish Abroad’. A full third of the volume deals with the histories of Irish communities in North America, Australasia and Britain, a remarkable and welcome change of focus, that finally puts emigration at the centre of the Irish experience. The stand-out essay in the book, for me, is part of that section, Kevin Kenny’s magisterial ‘Irish Emigrations in a Comparative Context’, a masterpiece of eagle’s-eye summation and cool authority that I can see myself rereading over and over again.

Another reason I was interested in the book is that one of the people incuded once told me casually that she’d like to wring the neck of every genealogist on the planet. (Her name is available only after a few pints). I don’t think she meant me personally, though I did feel a tad nervous. It was the bluntest example I’ve come across of academic anger at the Laity (that’s us) getting in the way of the Priesthood (that’s them). I just smiled and nodded and backed away.

In one sense, of course, she was right. Genealogy can never be a truly academic discipline – it just doesn’t have the requisite dispassion and disinterest. On the other hand, a Priesthood is pointless without its Laity.

The dead are no longer entitled to secrets

Say Hello to great-aunt Attila

A widespread assumption among people who haven’t done any family history, and a reason often advanced for not starting, is that there’s a dreadful skeleton somewhere in the family past that mustn’t be brought out into the open. I used to think this was just Irish Catholic guilt seeping out of our collective unconscious but it seems to be present in almost all cultures: De mortuis nil nisi bonum, ‘Of the dead, speak nothing but good’, was first coined more than two-and-a-half millennia ago.

In Ireland, that suspected skeleton almost always boils down to a suspicion of a birth out of wedlock somewhere a couple of generations back.

It’s very hard now for us to grasp just how shameful illegitimacy was, even a few decades ago, and shameful not just for the mother (fathers usually managed anonymity or just decamped), but for the child and even for later generations. There were sem-racist overtones, hints of tainted blood and multi-generational stains. Some of the outraged comments in the baptismal entries of children born outside marriage in nineteenth-century church registers make it clear just how grievous the offence was.


My favourite outraged clergyman

The possibility of descendants suing for the insult to their ancestry was one of the main reasons the Catholic Church was so little reluctant to have their records digitised as recently the 1980s. Now, though, there is no shame: one man I did some research for was very hurt to find out about his mother’s illegitimacy after her death. But the hurt was only because she had not trusted him enough to tell him while she was alive.

Austrailian crown jewels

Similar reversals of attitude have happened in other areas. Convict ancestry was once something Aussies kept quiet about. It’s now a badge of pride. Having a relative who entered a workhouse used to be a disgrace for the entire family, a feeling that probably accounts for the loss and deliberate neglect of most Irish workhouse admission registers. Nobody feels like that now.

Today, we have different taboos. All our empathy is for the destitute pauper, the poor convict, the single mother and child. Skeletons are Halloween jokes.  And the dead are no longer entitled to secrets.

Correcting the 1901 and 1911

If you’ve noticed an uncharacteristic silence from me over the past while, it’s not that I’ve run out of opinions. Fat chance. No, I’ve just signed a contract with National Archives of Ireland to deal with their backlog of user-submitted corrections to the 1901 and 1911 census transcripts. So I’ve been deep in the entanglements of a decade of emails.

It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. Some of the work can be automated, albeit with lots of convolutions. Inevitably though, a fair amount of squinting at the images is involved.

So here are some preliminary observations from that squinting.

Not in Ireland in 1901 or 1911

The submitters take the process surprisingly seriously. I had expected to find dozens of corrections to ‘M. Mouse’ and ‘D. Duck’ . Not at all. People seem to feel that what appears on the site is in some way a public memory of their family and they just want that memory to be accurate. Many people also want to take the chance to correct the mistakes their ancestors made. On occasion, long-running grievances are discernible – a head of household’s claim to be the father of children disputed vehemently by a submitter, for example. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Whatever appears on the census form – reversed surnames and forenames, forgotten spouses, misspelt occupations, outright lies – is what has to appear in the transcript.

A disproportionate number of corrections come from particular places and classes. Cork people seem especially fussy, as are descendants of members of dissenting sects. Though it’s hardly being fussy to want ‘Independent Rolehash not Connected with any Denommation’ corrected to  ‘Independent Protestant not connected with any denomination’.

My favourites are the mistranscribed occupations. Prawn dealer for ‘piano dealer’, terrace lotto worker for ‘terracotta worker’, sister of the Mr Suline order instead of ‘sister of the Ursuline order’, hawker of Irish  for ‘hawker of fish’.

And straight from Alice in Wonderland: ‘Instire of the Peacly Tea Merchant‘. Which of course should be ‘Justice of the Peace, Tea Merchant’.

Clearly some people get a little obsessed with the corrections – the same emails crop up again and again: You know who you are. Actually I’m one myself. I’m now dealing with my own emails, which feels a bit ironic.

Finally,  some advice if you’re submitting corrections.

Putting the correction in ALL CAPS will not get attention any sooner. Nor will multiple submissions of the same correction. Nor multiple multiple submissions of the same correction. And outrage, though sometimes understandable – ‘They’re all nuns, for God’s sake!‘ – won’t get the changes made.


US Civil War ‘Widows Pensions’


A month back, in my enthusiastic review of Claire Santry’s new book (which, by the way, is now seriously outselling my own on Amazon – D’Oh), I mentioned a record-set she highlighted that I was only vaguely familiar with, US Civil War widows’ pension applications.

Irish-Amercian recuitment poster

I’ve now had a good root through them and they are truly extraordinary. Pensions were not just paid to widows, but to any dependents of those who died for the Union side in the US Civil War – elderly parents, those taking care of orphans, dependent siblings, anyone who could show that the death of the soldier had imposed financial suffering.

Why should they be especially useful for Irish research? Huge numbers of Irish emigrants fought in the War, by some estimates as many as served in the British Army in World War I. Most were Famine emigrants, some were post-Famine chain migrants and quite a few were recruited in Ireland specifically to fight. They all died in their tens of thousands.

New York Irish Brigade 69th Regiment

Getting a pension wasn’t easy. The Army Veterans Administration was the mother of all bureaucracies and the hoops to be jumped through were mind-boggling, with files ranging up 200 pages and decisions often taking more than a decade. Which is good news for researchers. Marriages, births, service histories, dependent relationships – all had to be authenticated, usually by multiple sources, giving precise dates and places, and often with eyewitness affidavits from friends and neighbours.

Because almost all the soldiers were first-generation emigrants, many claimants were actually still in Ireland and many of the marriages and births reported are Irish, in some cases reaching as far back as the early decades of the nineteenth century. This is particularly useful because large numbers of emigrants left from Western counties – Donegal, Mayo, Sligo, Galway – for which few early parish registers exist. I’ve already come across a marriage in Achonry parish in 1828, with townland addresses. That’s four decades before the start of the surviving Achonry registers.

Lord Leitrim’s notice to quit

The files are even more useful for fleshing out family stories. Take the case of Unice and John Coyle, living in the townland of Muineagh in Clondavaddog, Donegal, parents of Hugh Coyle who died on June 24 1864 in Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp. Their application went through the US Consul in Derry and included letters from Unice giving painful detail of their circumstances and health, even attaching an original ‘Notice to Quit’ from the notorious Lord Leitrim. They got $8 a month. God bless America.

The only online access to the files is on fold3.com, a site set up by Ancestry.com and, unsurprisingly, not covered by an Ancestry.com subscription. At least they’ve taken the chance to rethink the ridiculously clunky Ancestry search interface. Fold3’s is clean, intuitive and fast, making it simple, for example, to pick out all files that mention a particular Irish county.

For a detailed case history using the files to reconstruct the social history of Cruit Island in Donegal, see Damian Sheil’s excellent blog. Damian has also done maps of the locations mentioned in the files for Britain and mainland Europe, but not for Ireland.

Hmm. There’s an idea.

What a Recent Survey Told Me

A recent episode of RTE’s “The Week in Politics” once again left me frothing at the mouth. This time, though, it wasn’t the politicians. As a bit of light relief, RTE had invited a geneticist and a political scientist to discuss the results of their study into the connection between genetic inheritance and political allegiance. Worthy as that sounds, what they were actually looking at was the hoary old chestnut about Fine Gael being Anglo-Norman and Fianna Fáil Gaelic Irish. Unsurprisingly, they found that FG supporters were indeed marginally more likely to have Anglo-Norman roots.

                    Ed Gaelick, insurance specialist

But how did they discover this? They tested politicians’ surnames, of course. This is the point where I turned purple. Exactly what scientific test did they perform on the surnames to determine their level of Gaelickery or Anglo-Normanosity? Did they carefully take swabs from the insides of the surnames’ cheeks? Did they culture the surnames in their lab?

The truth is that Irish surnames are utterly unreliable as markers for cultural inheritance. Yes, ‘Fitzgerald’ sits at the other end of one particular spectrum from ‘O’Brien’. But what about a venerable Fianna Fáil Kerry surname like ‘McEllistrim’, “Son of Alastair [Fitzgerald]”?  Or the apparently impeccably English ‘Higgins’, from a diminutive of the understandably widespread peasant name ‘Hick’. Which in Ireland can be an Anglicization of either Ó hUiggín, from Uiggín, Gaelic for ‘Viking’, or Ó hAodhagáin, grandson of big ould Hugh. Put that in your political science petri dish and smoke it.

President Michael D. …Viking? Hick? Red Hugh?

Before they are anything else, surnames are words, embedded in language and mutating under the pressure of history like all other words. Maybe, once upon a time, they started out as badges of tribal identity but those badges have long been distorted beyond all reliability by the twists and turns of Irish history and individual Irish family histories. Reducing them to a quick political litmus test is just plain dim.

Leo Varadkar receiving his orders from Henry ll

The real joy in the programme was seeing the scathing scepticism of the Fine Gael politician they asked for a response, none other than the delightfully-monikered Leo Varadkar. His people came over with Strongbow, you know.


The real lesson is that scientists are only marginally less likely to peddle bunkum in return for publicity than non-scientists. I read that in a recent survey.