There are no genealogical records on the internet. There are garbled extracts, inaccurate transcripts, more-or-less complete copies with (if you’re lucky) an accompanying image. But there are no actual records. For anyone doing research online, this is a very basic point, but one that can be difficult to grasp. The original records are all offline, “reality-based” as Donald Rumsfeld used to say, in archives and manuscript repositories and presbyteries and books.
The reason to keep this in mind is the seductive ease of access that the internet allows. This can mask great gulfs in apparently continuous runs of records, or transcription errors compounding record-keeping errors, not to mention large gaps in the search interfaces themselves.
This is most apparent to anyone searching the (otherwise wonderful) Latter-Day Saints’ site, familysearch.org: records are lumped together and described with the broadest of brushes, making it difficult to be sure what exactly you’re looking at. Have I really searched all Irish marriages up to 1898? (No) Are these three separate records of three different events or three different transcripts of the same record?
And the same problems crop up on every record site. Parish registers that are listed as transcribed and searchable are somehow missing from search results, while General Register Office records not listed somehow appear in search results (rootsireland.ie). “Mc Dermott” and “McDermott” are treated as completely unrelated surnames (irishgenealogy.ie). Record images exist online, but for some reason remain untranscribed (census.nationalarchives.ie).
The only solution goes back to the very first principle of all research: know absolutely, precisely, exactly what records you’ve searched, their dates, page numbers, locations, shelf references, gaps, original purposes … If you don’t, and you find nothing, you will certainly end up searching the same records all over again some time. If you do find something, and don’t have details of the record source, it becomes impossible to interpret. And you will certainly end up searching the same records all over again some time.
I know. I have been both of those researchers.
The rule is very simple: If you don’t know what you’ve searched, you don’t know what you’ve found.
One of the virtues of genealogy is the fact that it’s almost impossible to industrialise. Every family is different, and the differences multiply exponentially with each generation back. Mass-production is impossible.
Hence the importance of do-it-yourself record collecting. Every Irish researcher depends inordinately on record collections created by stubborn individuals who just refused to give up.
The granddaddy of them all was Dr. Albert E. Casey, an Alabama pathologist who had ancestors from Sliabh Luachra on the Cork/Kerry border. If you know the area, you might understand Casey’s intense fascination – it is an extraordinary place, saturated in traditional Irish music, song, dance, poetry, and culture. Sliabh Luachra people are different, and if you had some in your ancestry, you’d want to know more too.
Dr. Casey’s response to the black hole of Irish records was simple and awe-inspiring. He collected and transcribed every single record of any description for the region and adjoining parts, an area roughly bounded by the towns of Mallow, Killarney, Tralee and Newcastle: parish registers, civil records, property records, court proceedings, will indexes, newspapers, townland maps, gravestone inscriptions …everything.
And he didn’t stop there. He collected anything he could find relating to all of Cork and Kerry before about 1825, everything on Munster before 1625 and an extraordinary assortment of early printed and manuscript works covering medieval Ireland as a whole. The whole compilation was published in 16 giant, indexed volumes over the 19 years from 1952 to 1971, with the strange title O’Kief, Coshe Mang, Slieve Lougher and the Upper Blackwater in Ireland. You can see a full list of the contents at the Rootsweb Kerry site. His parish transcripts at least are searchable on the main Mormon website, www.familysearch.org.
One of Casey’s own medical articles reprinted in O’Kief suggests the depth of his desire to know where he came from. His “Odyssey of the Irish” compares a worldwide series of blood group and skull-shape measurements with those of the people of Sliabh Luachra and concludes that, unlike the rest of the population of Ireland, they originated in the Caucasus Mountains. As I said, different – the last of the Fir Bolg, perhaps?
As result of his work, research on one of the most poorly documented parts of Ireland became much easier. And it also began the modern tradition of Irish genealogical weirdo obsessives, in which I proudly claim my own place.
The lure of blue blood is a perennial hazard in genealogy, and by no means confined to Ireland. Witness the “Order of the Crown of Charlemagne in the United States Of America” (charlemagne.org) or indeed the Confucius Genealogy, claiming to go back more than 2,500 years and supposedly listing more than two million of his living descendants.
The basic mechanism is simple: someone looks into their heart and sees innate nobility, then looks around at their daily life and sees very little nobility indeed. The mismatch can only be accounted for by a mistake, a forgotten blood link to the truly noble. For most people, this is just a grown-up version of an eight-year-old girl’s Princess fantasy, but it can still be powerful enough to warp all logic and common sense.
In Ireland, the affliction usually involves a half-remembered family tradition – “my granduncle’s brother-in-law’s neighbour told me .” – or simple geographical proximity. Your ancestors were called Kelly, and came from South Roscommon, so they must be descended from the O’Kellys of Uí Máine. If you can just stretch your own family history back five generations and stretch the O’Kellys forward another five … Dealing with stuff like this sets any experienced researcher’s hair on end: you just can’t know the answer before you start the research.
A classic jibe of Victorian Ireland against the Gael was that every dirt-poor Irish tenant claimed to be a descendant of the old Gaelic aristocracy. The irony is that
there was probably more truth to the claim than Victorian superciliousness could allow. Medieval Ireland had an extremely high chiefs-to-Indians ratio, so there were enough nobles to guarantee that pretty much everyone had (and has) kings and princes in their family tree. It’s just impossible to prove. That warm glow of innate nobility will have to suffice.
And don’t forget that the tree still has a lot more Indians than chiefs.
The Macra na Feirme publication “Land Mobility and Succession in Ireland” (a good bedtime read, available here) reports that in 2011 a mere 0.3% of agricultural land in Ireland was put on the open market. It is an extraordinary figure. In effect, there is no buying or selling of farms in this country. Elsewhere in the developed world, most agricultural land is part of the normal stock of capitalism: invest capital to produce food to make a return on capital. Not in Ireland.
The historic reason lies in the colossal transfer of ownership from landlords to tenants that happened over the century from 1870. The biggest single change came in 1903, with the Wyndham Land Act, which made land transfer very attractive for both sides. The government paid the difference between the landlord’s asking price and the tenant’s offer and then lent the purchase price to the tenant. The new loan repayments were so close to the old annual rent that, for little or no difference in outlay, you went from being a tenant to being an owner. It was an offer almost no-one could refuse.
After generations of tenancy, the sweetness of that ownership created a ferocious attachment to the land, making it unthinkable that it could ever be simply sold off. Nearly all transfers had to take place within the extended family.
Which makes it possible to trace extended families in rural Ireland by following their property.
The Valuation Office records all changes to the holdings first surveyed by Griffith in the mid-nineteenth century and they remained the basis for local property taxes (“The Rates”) until abolition in 1977.
A truism of research is that every transcription of a set of records introduces its own layer of mistakes. In precisely the same way, every individual absorbing and reporting family information is liable to omit or mistake something, conflating different events or mixing up individuals. Eventually errors like these can encrust even the most carefully guarded family story, like a multi-generational game of Chinese Whispers. The only real protection is the trusty defence of every genealogical researcher, deep and abiding scepticism. But it can also help to be aware of the most typical way distortions occur.
When someone speaks, the default expectation of a listener is that he or she will understand what is being said. This expectation is extremely difficult to defeat, and one result is that unfamiliar names are distorted to make them familiar. So “Grenham” is heard as Grennan or Grehan or Graham (repeatedly). After five generations, the place of origin of an Irish-American family mutates from “Carracastle” to “Kerry Castle”.
In Ireland itself a family of immigrant Italian origins, the Rolleris from Parma, all become O’Learys. This impulse, to tame and familiarise what is strange, is primarily responsible for the garbled surnames and place-names that plague research on the families of Irish emigrants. The notion that immigration officials at Ellis Island handed out fresh surnames to the new arrivals is a myth. What changed the names was the pressure to become familiar.
I recently came across a transcript of the lyrics of the wonderful Willie Dixon song, “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind“, and discovered the power of such wishful distortion. A couplet I had treasured for years – “If your brain is strong and your mind is broad/ You’ll have more women than a drinkin’ hog” – actually turned out to be “more women than a train can hold”.
Whinging about globalisation is part of my stock-in-trade: A trans-national corporation stole my lunch money; Coca-Cola hurt my self-esteem. You get the idea.
So it’s a tad bemusing to find myself globalised. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been recording a series of talks about Irish genealogy (available here). Nothing strange in that. But I give the lectures to a PC in my front room in Dublin; they’re recorded and edited in a studio in Massachusetts; sit ready for download on a server in Arizona; and their main market is Australia and New Zealand.
My feelings are mixed. There is a touch of megalomania in the thought of what I’ve done spanning the globe – “Look at me, Ma! Top of the world!”. On the other hand, I’m sitting on my own in the front room.
My experience running the website without the protective cocoon of The Irish Times makes me think this combination of mass connection and personal atomisation is the new normal, at least in the developed world. Like it or not, know it or not, we’re all globalised.
One aspect of orating at a computer screen was fun, though. The bunch of five-year-olds who play in the cul-de-sac outside my front window had a ringside seat: that weirdo neighbour waving his hands around and talking very loudly to himself for hours. They learnt a lot about Irish genealogy.
John O’Hart (1824 -1902) is probably the single best-known writer on Irish genealogy. His most widely-available work is Irish Pedigrees (or the Origin and Stem of the Irish Nation), first published in 1878, with at least eight subsequent expanded editions.
O’Hart had an extraordinary appetite for work and appears to have read and absorbed every single Irish pedigree published before the 1870s. He was also a passionate nationalist, and this passion shaped and distorted what he wrote. The primary aim of Irish Pedigrees, as its subtitle shows, was to demonstrate the homogeneity and racial purity of the Irish. To this end, O’Hart takes the legendary Milesian origins of the Gaels, extends them back to Adam, via Magog, Japhet and Moses, grafts onto this root every published medieval Irish genealogy, including all of the descents listed in the Annals of the Four Masters, and then extends them all into the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
The result is extraordinary. Every Gaelic Irish family is shown to descend from a single forebear, but only by constant jumbling of sources, unacknowledged guesswork and judicious omissions. And as a piece of wonderful inverted Gaelic snobbery, he even demonstrates the Milesian descent of the British royal family.
If this was all the book consisted of, it would merely be a historical curiosity, about as interesting as phrenology. The real tragedy is that it includes much information based on sources that no longer exist.
As the scope of the work expanded through its various editions, O’Hart began to incorporate material relating to the non-Gaels, taken from the original sources in the Public Record Office that were destroyed in 1922. But since he gives no details of the sources, it is almost impossible to sort fantasy from fact. If ever there was an object lesson in the importance of academic citation, Irish Pedigrees is it.
At 9 am this morning, I got a note from a neighbour telling me that Vera from across the road had died suddenly and the funeral was at 10 am. So at 10 am, I was at a funeral mass with several hundred others, in my best sober shirt and tie.
I’d known Vera distantly for 15 years and spoken to her (weather only) maybe a dozen times. She seemed a perfectly nice person, with a passion for her front garden, but I never got to know her in any but the most superficial way.
So why did I drop everything at twenty minutes notice and hare off to her funeral? Because in Ireland a funeral trumps everything.
The country still operates in a forest of mutual obligations, of favours given, owed and received – the “round” system, which notoriously forces everyone in a group in an Irish pub to buy a drink for everyone else, is only the most egregious example. And funerals are probably the most important mutual obligation of all.
“I’ll go to your funeral if you come to mine”? A bit too Irish. No, the duty is to the survivors, the extended family and friends, other neighbours, the entire network of connections that allows us to recognise each other: kin, in the very broadest sense. Being there certainly conveys solidarity with the bereaved, but it also reconfirms membership in that broader group for everyone who attends.
One result is that records of funerals are uniquely important in Ireland. Visitors can be bewildered at the half-hour-long lists of deaths and funeral arrangements that constitute prime-time broadcasting on local radio. One of the most visited Irish websites is rip.ie, providing a country-wide database of funerals. Newspapers still have full pages of “the deaths”.
And all of these include lists of immediate family, in-laws and grandchildren, with addresses, cemeteries, places of origin … everything needed for family history. When I looked up Vera’s death notice on rip.ie after coming home from the funeral, I found out more about her than in the fifteen years of being her neighbour.
The standard story of globalisation is that economies of scale, accumulation of ‘talent’ and creative use of international tax law permit giant transnational corporations to reach extraordinary levels of profitability, which are then used to out-compete smaller local players and either crush them or absorb them.
How does this apply in genealogy? In Ireland, on first sight at least, the standard story seems to be in action. Ancestry.com and FindMyPast, the Coke™ and Pepsi™ of global genealogy, are indeed using their technical know-how, deep pockets and extraordinary marketing muscle to carve out territory and stamp their brands on Irish records.
For bread-and-butter research, there’s no doubt it’s working. I now use both services almost every day, in a way that I would have found inconceivable even two years ago. The range and depth of digitised records they offer is beyond the capacity of even the most dedicated Irish public or private institution and there is no doubt that they are swimming with the tide of economic history.
So should we all just accept our fate? They’re certainly not going away any time soon. But I think there are flaws in the way they can work that actually feed the ecosystem in which local record providers can thrive.
First, the sheer, cussed, devil-in-the-detail gnarliness of genealogy means that the more the service is standardised, the less it actually meets the needs of researchers, and standardisation is the be-all and end-all of globalised corporations. Believe me, there is no frustration like the frustration of knowing a source, knowing the information it might hold, and being forced to fish through a keyhole for it by a one-size-fits-all search interface (FindMyPast, I’m looking at you).
Second, the drift towards monopoly that seems to be an inevitable feature of globalised tech corporations means that intelligent usability is often an afterthought. The people making crucial management decisions are managers and marketers, with their attention on stockholders and the competition, not on the genealogists who are their customers. The business model seems to consist simply of hoovering up as many record-sets as possible, with no concern for making them intelligible (Ancestry, step forward).
To put it bluntly, the more databases they add, the stupider they get.
Contrast this with the (belated but very welcome) agility of a small, purely Irish commercial service like rootsireland. In the last year, it has dropped prices, allowed precision research using surname only, introduced a place-names search in church registers and added swathes of new civil and church records. The service is unrecognisable from the one that existed two years ago, largely, I think, because of the impact of the global genealogy giants.
On the public service side too, gorgeously non-standardised searches proliferate, allowing the slicing and dicing of information from censuses, directories, church and civil records in ways simply not available in the global giants’ services.
Alfred Henry Hunter is the Dubliner long known to be the model for the hero of Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. In 1904, after rescuing Joyce from a drunken fight, Hunter took him home and showed him a paternal sympathy that resonated deeply with Joyce, who originally planned Ulysses as a short story based on the incident. It expanded enormously between 1914 and 1922, and the figure at its centre changed from the kindly Hunter to the Everyman Bloom.
The James Joyce Centre’s website (jamesjoyce.ie) still refers to Hunter as “an elusive figure”. Not a bit of it. With all the records now online, his life is an open book.
Here he is in Mount Street in 1901, with his wife Marion Bruére Hunter (née Quin). He gives his occupation as “Gentleman”, and then crosses it out. But Marion remains a “Lady”. Very Bloom-like.
In 1890, Hunter even registered a patent of an invention “for facilitating the unlacing of boots and shoes and corsets and such like articles of wearing apparel”, as reported in The Weekly Irish Times of November 14 1890. And at least one other patent exists, for a cuff fastener. Bloomier and Bloomier.
Given Joyce’s penchant for using identifiable individuals, an intriguing question is why Hunter had to be re-imagined as Jewish. Perhaps Everyman as a Northern Protestant was a step too far, even for Joyce.
And what about the model for Molly, Leopold’s wife? It turns out that Alfred’s wife is just as accessible, and even more interesting.
First, like Bloom’s Molly, she was christened Marion. The baptism took place in the Church of Ireland Mariners’ Church in Dún Laoghaire on May 19 1864, with her full name given as Marion Bruére Quin. She was the daughter of Francis Quin, a professor of music, and Menella (née Wilcox). Molly’s musical bent, so important in Ulysses, clearly has a background in Marion’s family.
Her mother’s side are even more intriguing. The Wilcoxes, from just outside Sunderland, were cousins of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen-name, Lewis Carroll. As an adult Dodgson regularly visited – he composed “Jabberwocky” while staying with them – and corresponded frequently with Marion’s mother, Menella. He also took an interest in Menella’s daughters, encouraging Marion’s elder sister Elizabeth Menella (“Minna”) Quin in her acting career, for which she used the stage-name “Norah O’Neill”.
Marion herself also knew Dodgson very well. In 1897, he gave her a hand-written facsimile of “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground”, the original of what was to become Alice in Wonderland, inscribed “Marion Quin, with the Author’s Love”.
In later life, after the death of Alfred in 1926, she appears to have fallen on hard times. She sold the facsimile at auction in London in 1938, and lived her final years in a North Dublin tenement, sharing 14 Upper Rutland Street (now Seán O’Casey Avenue) with at least six other households.
There is no doubt that the original from which Joyce drew most of Molly’s character was his wife, Nora Barnacle. But he borrowed from everything and everybody in the Dublin he knew. And he clearly knew (or knew of) Marion Bruére Hunter.
Dodgson was friendly with Marion and her sister, the actress Elizabeth Menella (“Minna”) Quin, and in 1897, shortly before his death, gave Marion a personally-inscribed gift of a facsimile of the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground – see Christie’s description.