Painted History

Received wisdom has it that the Irish are verbal, not visual, and it’s certainly true that there are many more songs, stories and poems about Irish history than there are paintings. So the “decade of centenaries” presented a bit of a problem for the National Gallery of Ireland.

John Lavery (1856-1941): Michael Collins (Love of Ireland), 1922 Dublin City Gallery

It could have assembled a dozen or so  paintings loosely connected to 1916 and the War of Independence, by John Lavery, Sean Keating and Jack Yeats, but that would have looked pretty thin. So instead, very smartly, the Gallery took the opportunity to stage a full-scale exhibition of Irish history painting. Or perhaps more accurately, Irish history in painting. It’s called “Creating History”, it’s free at the Gallery in South Leinster Street in Dublin until mid-January, and it’s wonderful.

James Barry (1741-1806): The Baptism of the King of Cashel by St Patrick c.1800. Nationa Gallery of Ireland
James Barry (1741-1806): The Baptism of the King of Cashel by St Patrick c.1800. National Gallery of Ireland. The rosary followed.

There’s no shortage of Irish history, and no shortage of painterly opinions about Irish history. From St. Patrick making Irish Catholics out of the heathen Gael, to Brian Ború driving out them foreign Vikings in 1014, through the foundation myths of Irish Unionism, the siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne, they’re all here.

Samuel Watson, The Battle of Clontarf, 1844, O’Brien Collection

And all wear their hearts on their sleeves. “Tendentious” seems to have been a kind of oil paint. But the deeply sectarian politics they embody has become irrelevant, and its melting away has made the paintings themselves stranger and more beautiful. And most of them are huge – visiting in person is the only way to get a full sense of their scale.

Jan Wyck (c.1645-1700) The Battle of the Boyne, 1693 National Gallery of Ireland

Perhaps the most poignant are the works depicting nineteenth-century visits to Ireland by British monarchs, deeply self-important at the time and now competely forgotten.  My favourite is the painting of the hordes who turned out at Kingstown to see off George IV in 1821. Or maybe they were out in their thousands in astonishment that the sun was setting due North, right over Howth.

William Turner De Lond (fl.c.1820-c.1837) George IV leaving Ireland, embarking at Kingstown, 3 September 1821, 1821  National Trust

The only disappointment is the absence of Daniel Maclise’s deliriously lurid ‘The Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow’, depicting in detail all seven centuries of sorrowful Irish history springing from the union of the Gael Aoife with the Norman Strongbow. I suspect the only reason it’s missing is that they just couldn’t get it in the room. At 10ft by 16ft, it’s the size of a large billboard. Appropriately enough.

Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife, National Gallery of Ireland

A Snowfall of Chalk

Reading the Irish Landscape

One of the hardest things for the mind to grasp is the sheer scale of the timespans that surround us. I recently came across something in Frank Mitchell’s classic Reading the Irish Landscape (Dublin, 1987, 2nd ed. 1997) that illustrates that scale very vividly. He is writing about chalk and its place in the geological make-up of Ireland. Chalk is white limestone formed from the compressed skeletal remains of single-celled sea-creatures just thousandths of an inch in diameter. Hundreds of millennia of warm shallow seas are needed to build up even a small deposit of chalk. But Mitchell points out that around 100 million years ago a layer of chalk more than 100 metres deep covered the whole of Ireland. Imagine that slow, invisible snowfall of tiny skeletons and then the sheer length of time required for it to produce and then compress a 100-metre-deep deposit.

And that layer of chalk has itself now vanished almost completely – outside the extreme north-east the only evidence it ever existed is a deep pit of chalk at Ballydeenlea near Farranfore in Kerry, apparently preserved when the limestone on which it was sitting collapsed.


Otherwise every trace of the layer has gone. How much weathering, over how long, was needed to scour away such massive quantities of chalk?

For any geologist this all happened yesterday. There are changes in the rocks around us that record events 500 million years ago, a billion years ago and more. The oldest surviving civilisation on the planet is in China, whose culture can trace itself over at least 3,000 years. Some Chinese families have traditions that follow their ancestors over more than 60 generations.

To our shallow Western sense of the past, this is extraordinary. But it is not long enough for even the lightest fall of chalk.

The Wonderful Dublin Merchant Guild Rolls

Sometimes you come across a source that shows just how shallow genealogy really is. We’re just scratching around in the very, very recent past.

The original roll

Dublin City Libraries and Archive have just put online the Dublin merchant guild rolls, dating from about 1190 to 1265. These are the records of admission to the merchant guild of Dublin city over that 75-year period, more than 8,500 entries recording names, occupations, places of origin and (in some cases) fathers’ names.

The first thing to be said is that the records are useless for genealogical research: they are just so far over the horizon of other documentary material as to be completely out of reach. So far out of reach, in fact, that I hereby offer a reward of €250 to anyone who can document a modern descent from anyone named in the rolls.

Walter the steersman

But they are still hypnotically wonderful. When they start, Dublin had been in the possession of the Normans for less than four decades, barely a generation. Already, though, their pan-European trading networks had absorbed the city. Those enrolling in the guild in order to trade in Dublin include merchants from places all over Germany, Italy, Spain, France, England, Scotland and Wales, and of course Norman Ireland.

The early locations of Norman settlement in Ireland are spelt out with crystal clarity in the origins of the merchants: Castledermot, Drogheda, Carlingford, Arklow, Wexford … There’s even a solitary trader from Achill.

Nevin from Connacht

My favourites are the four merchants enrolled from Rinndown in Roscommon.  This walled town flourished briefly in the early 13th century as a trading outpost with the Gaels of Connacht, having Lough Ree as a handy escape-cum-trade-route at its backdoor. William the Northerner, Robert the Seaman, William of Hereford and just plain Ivor all gave Rinndown as their home when they enrolled.

There are also Gaels in the records. Kellach Mac Inidi (McKennedy) seems to have been one of a number of Kennedy butchers trading in the city. Others include Mac Keyvin, Mac Scanlan, Mac Gilleroth. This period is four or five generations after the beginning of the adoption of hereditary surnames by the Irish and it is striking how the only surnames in the lists appear to be Gaelic. The Normans are still identified only by a place of origin, or an occupation or their father’s name.

The harp of Thomas le Harpur

All of this is visible only because of the extraordinary transcription done by the late Philomena Connolly. Originally published by Dublin City Council as the First supplement to The Calendar of the Ancient Records of Dublin in 1992, this republication online (with the addition of the spectacular images of the original vellum scrolls) has opened up the records to all of us.

It’s not genealogy, but I love it.





In Praise of Rootsireland

Rootsireland then

For a long time, rootsireland had a very bad reputation among Irish family historians. It was impossibly expensive and seemed designed to restrict research access to the absolute minimum. Small wonder that a cottage industry sprang up devoted to ways of extracting information from the site without paying.


As a result, vitriolic criticism of the site is still very easy to find online.

Rootsireland now

The problem is that it’s no longer justified. Over the past eighteen months, the site has been transformed out of all recognition, guided by what looks like a very good understanding of research and researchers.

First, the clunky pay-per-view unit-based subscription is gone. Now the site offers the online standard, time-based subscriptions, ranging from a year for €225, to (stock up on the black coffee) €10 for 24 hours. Instead of zeroing in on just a few important records, you can now range up and down collateral branches, picking up the kind of secondary information that sheds important sidelights on a family.

And it’s much, much easier to search. The number of obligatory search fields has been slashed. It’s no longer necessary to enter dates, making it possible to retrieve every single record for a surname (and variants) from every record-set on the site in one go: trawl broad, then winnow.

Show me all deaths in Cappayuse townland 1864-1902

In some circumstances, it’s not even necessary to enter a surname. When in one of the county sections, you can retrieve every record that lists a particular townland or address, irrespective of the family it records. And you can use wild-cards (“%” not “*”) to do that. So it’s possible, for example, to extract every death in a particular townland between 1864 and 1920, or to find place-names that were ignored by the Ordnance Survey but are recorded in rootsireland’s early baptismal registers.

The range of records on the site also continues to expand – it looks as if the threat to its effective monopoly from Ancestry and FindMyPast has galvanised it into action. There are still black spots – Fermanagh, Clare, Wexford, those pesky missing thirteen Catholic parishes in East Galway – but the areas that are good are very, very good indeed. And the chance to test the quality of the Catholic transcripts against Ancestry and FindMyPast has seen rootsireland win again and again.

Even the recent addition of the General Register Office record images to IrishGenealogy has only boosted the usefulness of rootsireland’s database transcripts of local registrars’ records: they are two different records of the same events, each with its own mistakes, but each different to the other’s mistakes. And rootsireland’s version is a searchable full(ish) transcript, not just a name index.

Of course, there are still many flaws. The forename search doesn’t use variants, so searching for a Bridget won’t find you a Brigid. There are undocumented holes in some collections, and unlisted records in others – west Galway appears to have the civil marriages for most of its areas online, for example, but they’re not in the sources-list.

That darn map

The practice of filling in the county on their map when they have any records at all online is also deeply misleading: Clare appears identical to Sligo, when Sligo has completed almost everything but Clare has just seven sets of baptismal registers.

And above all, there is no library subscription, an option that would democratise access for the many people who just can’t afford their full prices.

Still, no Irish genealogy site is without its flaws.

I’ve never been a booster of rootsireland. In fact, for a long time they saw me as one of their chief tormentors. Now, though, if I’m asked what’s the one essential commercial genealogy site for Irish research, the answer is rootsireland.

BTOP and a(nother) rant about ethnicity tests

Genealogists are shy, retiring creatures, averse to daylight. Seeing so many of us at Back To Our Past over the last few days, all out in the open, blinking nervously at each other, was just a tad disturbing.

No genealogists. Not daylight-averse

But, as ever, it  was very worthwhile.

Yes, the event is full of ordinary, decent punters driven a little doolally by FoMO (Fear of Missing Out), as they try to collect every last piece of free paper from every single stand in the RDS. Yes, the corporate pitches can be teeth-grindingly high-powered. Yes, there’s always a vague but persistent sense that it’s all pointless but you still have to be there.


But you do have to be there. Nowhere else is there anything even remotely similar, with the entire gamut of those involved in genealogy in Ireland on display, from the to the humblest of crumbs-from-the-table self-publishers.

This year again the Genetic Genealogy Ireland conference ran as a welcome symbiote, and drew packed houses. I only managed a few of the talks, but got some of the best and worst. One jargon-filled hour interpreted in excruciating detail new methods of identifying chromosome subgroups within subgroups within subgroups. It reminded me of  Lord Rutherford’s classic remark: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” This was stamp-collecting on steroids.

On the other hand, Paddy Waldron’s talk “The Ups & Downes of atDNA matching” (available here) was complex but a model of clarity, using case studies to show just how useful a tool autosomal DNA matching can be when mixed with existing research sources and trustworthy family trees. It persuaded at least one sceptic (me) that, in the right circumstances, atDNA can be a powerful clarifier of family history beyond the horizon of documentary research.

One aspect of the corporate selling of genealogical DNA tests got no attention at the conference. The ethnicity calculator used (especially by Ancestry) to sell its tests will tell you you’re 12%  Native American, 60% Irish and 38% Viking. When challenged, the corporate PR response is to describe this as a harmless piece of fun. It’s not.

Ethnicity testing has become one of the main selling points of the phenomenally profitable genealogical DNA testing industry.  It is pitched at and attracts many people with no interest in genealogy, who think they’re getting a scientific breakdown of their ethnic makeup. That’s just not true. It is pseudo-science at its worst, running on the unspoken but still queasy implication that race has some scientific basis – see here for a summary of the truth.

Apartheid South Africa used to have a test for distinguishing Blanke from Nie-Blanke. If your hair was curly enough to hold up a pencil, you were Nie-Blanke.  Scientifically and ethically, DNA ethnicity testing is its contemporary equivalent.

Rube Goldberg genealogy

I’m a great fan of the eccentric machines cartooned by Rube Goldberg in the US and Heath Robinson over here. They are wonderful parodies of the supposed benefits of automation, the little man blowing a raspberry at the pomp and self-importance of the Machine Age.

How the wizard was written

They also sum up pretty accurately a fair amount of my working life, at least on the software development side. Most of it still feels like having to stand on my head in order to comb my hair. But there is a genuine satisfaction in seeing one of my software contraptions chug into life like a piece of homemade clockwork.

The reason for going on about this is that I’ve finally put up a step-by-step wizard on this site, taking whatever someone knows about their Irish ancestor and producing an unthreatening summary of sources and links to get research going.

The old Irish Times/Irish Ancestors site had something like this, popular enough, but dating from 2012, the era when dinosaurs roamed the landscape of Irish genealogy. When I started re-coding for this present site, the wizard was high on the to-do list but it’s been in production on and off for more than a year.

The wizard start page

The problem was that records were coming online faster than I could incorporate them into the wizard. And every new set of records changed the relative importance of all the others. Rube Goldberg on steroids.

Over the past week, I’ve found myself tinkering with bits of punctuation and wording and realised it’s time to make the thing public. It will always be a work in progress (a euphemism for Rube Goldberg if ever there was one) but it has to be tried out by real researchers.

So give it a go. Try to break it. Make it come up with ludicrous suggestions. Just let me know when you do.

Wills, wills and more wills

An Irish genealogist digesting the new online records

The digesting of last month’s vast info-dump continues.

Among the most spectacular sections of the new material are the two new collections covering wills. To appreciate what they consist of, some background is needed.

The old PRO

The old Public Record Office of Ireland had a huge collection of original wills, divided into pre- and post- 1858. Before then, the Established Church had responsibility for probate. From that year on (as in the rest of what was then the UK) the state assumed responsibility. In the 1870s, the PRO gathered up all the pre-1858 material they could find – original wills, transcript books, administration bonds, finding aids, correspondence – catalogued it all, created indexes, and stored the lot with fanatical defensiveness in the most secure record vault on the island, the PRO Treasury.

From 1858, by law every probated will or intestacy was a public record. So within a few years of probate, all the original wills and grants were passed to the PRO. Where they were carefully catalogued, indexed and stored with fanatical defensiveness …

And then, on June 30, 1922:

Shelling the Four Courts from Winetavern Street, June 30 1922
Shelling the Four Courts (and the PRO)  from Winetavern Street, June 30 1922

Everything in the Treasury was obliterated. All that survived was Reading Room finding aids or material that hadn’t made it back to the Treasury. So the indexes to the old pre-1858 wills survived (and are now newly online here), along with a few other bits and pieces, but the wills themselves didn’t. You can see a will existed, but that’s the only evidence left. “Frustrating” doesn’t come near.

Lots more survived for the post-1858 period. Every will had been calendared, so there’s at least a basic description of its contents. And the District Will Registries outside Dublin kept their own transcript books, into which they transcribed every will before sending the original to the PRO. These comprise the second collection newly online, more than half-a-million full wills probated between 1858 and 1900. Whoopee.

The one thing that’s missing is NAI’s own card index. Over the years since 1922, the Archives has assembled a mixum-gatherum of things that might make up for the enormous loss of testamentary material  – solicitors’ records, genealogists’ abstracts, papers found in Auntie Gertie’s attic – and included them in the Reading Room card index. The only online version of this index is the one created by Eneclann more than ten years ago and now available at FindMyPast.


Roadmap of the Promised Land

How best to use all the new records we have at They consist of:

  • images of 6.2 million births 1864-1915;
  • images of 1.2 million marriage records, 1882 – 1940;
  • images of 4.2 million death records, 1891 – 1965.
Search with nothing in the boxes …

Why am I harping on about images and not just records? Because they are precisely images only. There is no searchable database transcript that would, for example, allow you to pick out only Presbyterian marriages, or narrow your search for deaths to a particular townland. The only route of access to the images is the index, which simply points to the image of the page on which the indexed event is recorded: for all recorded births, starting in 1864, and for marriages and deaths from 1882 and 1891 respectively.

… and get every record they have, including the non-imaged

(Incidentally, I think the absence of the early deaths and marriage images has produced a perverse increase in the numbers buying printouts; the easy availability of the later images has made the earlier ones all the more desirable.  Download the request form here if you really need that itch scratched. )

The IrishGenealogy index is not the only route into the record images, however. The Mormons’ FamilySearch has a full copy of a (flawed) transcript of the old paper indexes, right up to 1958, very useful for twentieth-century births and marriages. And they also have a part-transcript of the birth registers from 1864 to the first quarter of 1881. Which means you can search on both parents’ names on that site and then use the results to see the full original image on IrishGenealogy.

Rootsireland provides another way in. They have plenty of transcripts of local registrar’s records, of which the IrishGenealogy records are copies, many of them coming right up to 1920. Counties with significant numbers are Armagh, Derry, Donegal (excellent), Galway, Kilkenny, Leitrim, Limerick, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo, Tipperary, Waterford. As always with Rootsireland, keep a close eye on what you are and aren’t searching and don’t be put off by their categorising records into local Registrars Districts rather than the  larger Superintendent Registrar’s districts used by IrishGenealogy. You can see which local districts are in the Superintendents’ districts via the map here. Logainm has detailed maps showing the locations of the local districts.

And of course Rootsireland has its church baptism, marriage and burial transcripts, useful proxies for a civil registration index, especially where a surname is common. The site, it should be said, has improved out of all recognition over the past year. It remains the only essential Irish genealogy subscription site.

For areas now in Northern Ireland, the General Register Office of Northern Ireland’s is also extremely useful, especially for periods not yet imaged on IrishGenealogy. For imaged periods, their database transcript is excellent for pinpointing records, though most users will then slink off to IrishGenealogy for the free image rather than pay on the NI site. It wasn’t very neighbourly of our Department to drive a tank through GRONI’s business model without any warning, but the result is wonderful for researchers. Neighbourliness be damned.

If you’ve ever managed to get your hands on the original local registrar’s volumes, you’ll know just how useful it can be to go through a local area page by page, volume by volume, year by year. Patterns emerge that aren’t apparent anywhere else – pairs of siblings marrying each other, local epidemics, occupations clustering in a particular village.

So is it possible to use these new images to reproduce the original volumes? Yes, though with difficulty. This is what you see at the top of a register page-image:  civil_url_barThat final number “2253803” is the one you need to change in order to navigate. Add 1 to move a page forward, subtract 1 to move a page back. By doing this you can browse the local registrar’s records. But only for a single three-month period, because the records were copied to the central GRO every quarter. After that you need to find the next quarter, not always easy because there appears to be no discernible pattern to the way the imaging took place: it’s not alphabetical by SRD nor RD nor county.

So there is a job of work to be done here, mapping the locations of the start pages of each quarter for each RD. And it’s a big job of work. For births alone there are 61 years, multiplied by four quarters, multiplied by 865 Registrar’s Districts, for a total of 211,060 points to map.

Get cracking.



Dick Eastman is wrong

On second thoughts actually no, Dick Eastman is right. The other title is just grabbier.

On third thoughts, maybe he’s both right and wrong.

The man who is wrong. Or right.

What am I talking about? I’ve just heard Dick speak on the future of genealogy at the wonderful Clare Roots Society conference in Ennis. (In case you don’t know, Dick is the prime guru of North American genealogy and has been for more than two decades. His slides for the talk are here. ) At the nub of his predictions was the idea of collaboration, in particular the notion of sharing research and connecting it with the research of others.

This isn’t a new idea. Twenty years ago it was already clear that making your tree available online was a very good way of attracting people interested in the same interconnecting families, thereby flushing out mistakes, new connections and earlier branches. The network effect was and still is at the heart this idea: as more people do it, it becomes exponentially more useful. I’m all in favour of it.

What has changed in those two decades is the rise of the social media behemoths, FaceBook, Google, Twitter … All operate under the same implicit deal: give us information on yourself that we can sell to advertisers and you can send email, message, stay connected for free. You’re paying nothing, so you’re the product, but people aren’t stupid and they know that’s the deal.

When it comes to genealogy, Dick seemed to be enthusing about genealogical social media. The crucial difference is that he makes the presumption it will happen on already-existing genealogy sites such as, findmypast and myheritage.

But hold on. They’re all subscription sites. So we’re supposed to pay them to host the information which makes them more valuable to us? That’s one heck of a business model:  the customer pays to supply the raw material that the company sells back to the customer.

MyHeritage offers to host your family tree.

To me, this sounds more like a three-card trick or shell game than a service.

Dick is right, I think, that the sheer scale of network-creation now happening will make collaborative genealogy more and more important. He’s wrong, I hope, that this will be done through the subscription sites.

Ireland’s public-service approach of making genealogy information free online already puts us gloriously out of step with Anglo-American commercial genealogy. There are signs that collaborative genealogy could turn out the same way – IrelandXO is just one example of a number of groups in Ireland already combining local history, genealogy and community volunteering to knit the descendants of emigrants back into their extended family.

On the giant scale that now seems possible, these could turn out more like the free-but-data-mined approach of Google and FaceBook than the walled reservations of or myheritage.

So Dick is wrong, but maybe only about the Irish.

Punch Drunk.

This is ridiculous. First, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht releases probably the most significant batch of Irish genealogical records ever seen online. Then, just a week later, the National Archives sees the Department’s bet and raises it by the entire pot. Six separate record collections, each of which alone would be a major gift to researchers have been published at once.

To go through them:

  • ship-premier-out-of-arklow
    The crew’s list for the Premier, sailing out of Arklow in 1872

    There are 536,413 individual records between 1860 and 1921 in the Crews and Shipping lists. They cover very port now in the Republic: a godsend for anyone with mariners in their tree.

  • The Catholic Qualification & Convert Rolls comprise two similar but distinct sources. The Convert Rolls list 5,866 people who converted from Catholicism to the Church of Ireland between 1703 and 1838. The much larger Catholic Qualification Rolls record 45,722 individuals who remained Catholic but took an oath of allegiance to the Crown in order to avail of rights newly restored under late 18th-century Catholic Relief Acts. They date from 1788 to 1845. I suspect many of both groups had their fingers crossed behind their backs.
Charles Bianconi qualifies in 1831
  • Almost all of the old Public Record Office’s pre-1858 collection of official probate records was destroyed in 1922. All the bits and pieces that happened to be outside the Record
    The 1707 prerogative will of Pharrell Cooke of Garrangibbon, Tipperary

    Treasury when it was pulverised are now on the site, covering 15,560 individuals. There are plenty of other, non-official, testamentary sources, but these are wonderful.



  • The collection of marriage licences 1623-1866 records 217,850 individuals, almost all in marriages that were in destroyed Church of Ireland parish registers.
  • After 1858, district probate offices made copies of all the wills they probated before sending the originals to the PRO. So, although the originals were destroyed, there are 179,048 copies, now fully imaged and searchable.
  • And most significant of all are the 1,366,275 Valuation Office records. These are the notebooks used by the VO’s army of valuers and surveyors to create Griffith’s
    Evictees from Boolakennedy townland in 1847
    Evictees from Boolakennedy townland in 1847

    Valuation. They predate Griffith by anything up to twenty years, at a period when the country was going through the massive upheaval of the Famine. In the hardest hit areas, they can reveal entire villages that had been wiped out by the time the full Valuation was published.



Marvellous. But there’s a bit of fatigue setting in. What’s next? The government handing everyone of Irish descent a personalised 10-generation parchment pedigree?

Please, a break. All the conga lines are exhausting.leprachaun-conga