Hibernian hibernation hysteria

Christmas is Ireland is deeply peculiar. By mid-December collective hibernation hysteria has gripped us all and we are compelled to stockpile food as if the world were about to end on Christmas Eve.  On that day, we enter the family cave, roll a giant stone across the entrance and wait a solid ten days until it’s safe to come out again, with only our family and our mounds of decaying food for company.

January 2nd. Thank God

So the annual Christmas hibernation is a good time to get stuck into a nice big project: a giant jigsaw, a marathon game of Risk, knitting a giant woolly jumper … Or mapping all the heads of household in the 1911 census of Ireland.

With data from the National Archives census site, I’ve just plotted the location of all the 3500 strange areas used for the census, District Electoral Divisions (giant jigsaw), counted the number of heads of household of every surname in each DED (marathon game of Risk) and mapped the two onto a Google map (giant woolly jumper). For a sample of what I’ve ended up with, have a look at the Lavins.

Not much change in the McMahon homelands in 1911

The results are useful in a number of ways. Most simply, it is much easier to grasp geographic distributions when they can be visualised and not just read. But there are many other uses – seeing the variant spellings that appear in the census, working out how the traditional homelands have shifted in the half-century since Griffith’s, catching outliers in places you mightn’t expect …

Of course there are caveats.

The way I worked out the locations of the DEDs was by identifying the latitude and longitude of a townland or street in each District, as recorded in the 1901 Townlands Index. This means that any changes between 1901 and 1911 aren’t captured and also that the point chosen on the map could be well away from the District’s centre, especially true for urban areas. And for those urban areas, the NAI transcript’s naming is truly weird. “Clifton”, “Clifton Ward” and “Clifton, Belfast Urban No. 2” are different versions of the same DED in Belfast. “Inn’s Quay”, “Inns Quay” and “Inn’s Quay (part of)” all cover the one Dublin DED. I’ve tried just to reproduce what NAI did, but be warned: at times I was utterly boggled.

There are also problems with the surnames. Over 10,000 heads of household (out of a total of 900,000) have surnames I don’t already have listed. The vast majority are certainly mis-transcriptions, but there also real names in there. George Zuorro,  an Italian ice-cream seller in Belfast, is just one. Sorting out the real from the mis-transcripts is a big project in itself.

Maybe over the Easter hibernation.

Why the bishops were afraid of the parish registers

About six years ago  I was involved in validating the first transcriptions of Catholic parish registers being made from National Library microfilms for IrishGenealogy.ie.  The process required detailed scrutiny of the original image for every transcript that didn’t match my list of standard names, or that just looked fishy. So I had to scrutinise records I wasn’t actually searching for. In the baptismal register for Skibbereen, I came across this:

“23 November 1827 Catharine of Richd Leonard and Mary Regan, New Bridge, Sponsors: John Glosson Cate Sullivan”

I’m not sure why I thought it looked fishy, but when I went to the image, I found a very good reason for always checking the original:

Click here for the original (in case you think I made it up)

It reads: “Nov. 23 1827 Catharine a bastard reputed daughter of Rich’d Leonard a soldier and Mary Regan wife of Tim Lordan late of New Bridge now living in Crookhaven. The mother of this infant is not only a public adulteress but also connected with a gang of coiners or makers of false money. Sponsors: John Glasson Cate Quinlivan by Rev P. Sheehy”.

A worried bishop

One of the reasons, the Church was so squeamish for a long time about access to its historic records was fear that they might be full of stuff like this, PPs foaming at the mouth with steam coming out their ears, spouting material ripe for a good long libel case up in the Four Courts. It’s certainly true that the Rev P. Sheehy sounds apoplectic: he goes out of his way to make clear that the strumpet is not living in his parish, Skibbereen, but away beyond in that notorious den of iniquity, Crookhaven.

But Catharine, Richard, Mary and Tim are all long dead, as is the Rev P. Sheehy. And what they’ve left behind here are the bones of a Victorian three-decker melodrama, the most wonderful skeleton-in-the-closet you could possibly imagine.

And just to show that Church indignation was highly selective, here’s another baptism from that same batch, from Bantry, also in West Cork,  on June 24 1825:

“John of Rich’d Earl of Bantry & Cath Sullivan Sp Mich’l Lenihan & Julia Bourk (spurious)”.

How very discreet.

[A version of this post first appeared as the December Document of the Month on the site of Accredited Genealogists Ireland. ‘Tis the season to be lazy.]

New free Irish genealogy education site

Some things got left behind in the great wave of 1916 centenary events and publications, and one of them was a project I was involved in.

Our logo

2016 Family History is a new, free Irish genealogy education website, produced as a collaboration between the National Archives, the Department of Education and IrishGenealogy.ie. The initial aim was to create something that could be used in the classroom as part of the history curriculum, and the Learning Resources section (brainchild of the redoubtable Mary Ó Dubhain) is designed to provide teachers with ready-made tasks and lessons, all usable online or downloadable as a single pdf workbook.

However, it became clear very early that there was no reason to define the target audience so narrowly. Why not structure it so that anyone could work their way through at their own pace and get a good grounding in the basics of Irish research? So that’s what we did.

There are eight modules, focused on the bread-and-butter of Irish genealogy, civil, church, property and census records. The format is the same in each case: a short introductory video, a description of the source and a series of practice exercises (answers provided).

These exercises are connected to the two case studies on the site, one going through Seán Lemass’s family history (there had to be a 1916 connection), the other taking an ordinary working-class family, that of John Purcell, born in Dublin in 1902, with roots in Kerry. Users can work their way through these family histories in a single go, or build up to them using the module exercises.

Shh. This is the launch.

It was fun to do, though we missed so many deadlines that there was no official launch. So this is the launch, the softest one ever. Sshhh.


I was wrong, wrong, utterly wrong.

Last week’s whinge about the National Archives Will Registers sub-site was just plain wrong. Everything that should be on the site is there, including the infamous Principal Registry Wills, 1891, G-M.

Egg on face

Stage 6 of New Source Syndrome is grovelling, shame-faced apology. Sorry.

The story of how I came to be so wrong and how I was corrected is instructive, though. I looked at the short blurb on the site, saw no mention of the surviving Principal Registry books, and spent a fruitless hour trying to find them. Scanning manually up and down the microfilm images for the title pages was equally frustrating. So I leapt to my conclusion.

Two morals: don’t be so quick to leap to conclusions, Boyo. And the search interface of the Archives site is pretty crude. No blame there: I know what the budget for the site was, precisely one brass farthing. And the deadline was the day before yesterday. The wonder is that they managed to get the material online at all.

It was the spelling mistake that threw me. Honest.

I found out about my mistake from Brian Donovan, head of Business Development at FindMyPast.ie. He emailed me to point out that FMP had actually done all the digitisation for the National Archives, and supplied a link to Principal Registry Wills, 1891, G-M, free on their site.

Brian also pointed out that my exclusive focus on the National Archives’ own site was misplaced – all of the material released in the Great September Infodump and now at genealogy.nationalarchives.ie is also on FMP, completely free to search but with the benefit of their surname variant system and much more fine-grained search options. And Previous/Next buttons with all their images.

He is absolutely right. The interface at FMP is orders of magnitude superior to the Archives’ own, simply because FMP had time and budget. Any research I do in the future on these records will be via FMP.

An interesting sidelight is the question of why the versions of the records at FindMyPast haven’t got the attention they deserve. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy (though just because they’re paranoid doesn’t mean  … )

Don’t count the teeth.

FMP is a subscription site, and the working presumption – don’t be so quick with the presumptions either, Boyo  – is that their records are behind a pay-wall. The free access they provide to the NAI records is just not promoted strongly enough, at least for me. – if you look at their list of record sources, there is no indication of which sources are free and which paying. And loads of them are free.


So I’m off to comb through them one by one. No gift-horse dentistry this time.

Irish Gift-horse Dentistry

For Irish researchers, the five stages of New Source Syndrome are:

  1. Disbelief – “What? After 30 years of fumbling around in the dark, someone’s just turned on the light? It can’t be true.”
  2. Unrestrained joy – “Calloo Callay, o frabjous day! Life will be wonderful from now on! The ancestors of every Irish person everywhere will be findable forever!”
  3. Mild questioning – “The transcriptions seem a bit flawed. Ah well, nothing’s perfect.”
  4. Exasperation – “For God’s sake, a simple Forward/Back button isn’t too much to ask.”
  5. Thundering, red-in-the face ingratitude: “They’ve left out Principal Registry Wills, 1891, G-M! How could they, the blithering idiots?”.

As you may gather, I’m at stage 5, and they did leave out Principal Registry Wills, 1891, G-M.

Not precisely

In the course of preparing material for my City Colleges course (new one starts after Christmas, roll up, roll up) I discovered that the brand-new National Archives sub-site, Will Registers 1858-1900,  doesn’t include all the surviving material from the post-1857 will registration system.

The site states: “copies of wills proved in District Registries from 1858 on survive in Will Registers, and are an exact replacement for the originals which were lost, except of course for the original signatures of the testator and witnesses. Unfortunately, no such copies survive for the Principal Registry, which means there is very little for people who died in Dublin or had particularly large estates.”

This is true in the literal sense that there are no copies. But parts of the originals do survive, at least eleven volumes, and they’re not here.

[Update: a number of people have pointed out that there are in fact Principal Registry Will Books transcribed, though the blurb says otherwise. And the free search interface at FindMyPast allows much more flexible and accurate queries. Maybe there should be a Stage 6: Shame-faced apology? Though I still haven’t found Principal Registry Wills, 1891, G-M.]

Wha ..?

And the site has no browse section, and no guide to the years and records are covered – what exactly are the 70,000-odd “Grants of Probate” included? – and, God help us, not even a simple Forward/Back button to page through them.

What is this? 1858-1900? I don’t think so.


Still, the fact is that NAI has done a huge service to the research community with the site. It would take so little for it to be complete.

Then I could start again at Stage 1.

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 billion-dollar-Ancestry.com 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.