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

Welcome to the Promised Land

Since last week’s additions to IrishGenealogy’s birth, marriage and death records, I’ve been wallowing around in the site, as happy as a pig in … a toy-shop. I’ve spent almost all my working life dealing with these records, or rather fishing for them through the tiny keyhole provided by the printed indexes. Suddenly we’ve been handed the key itself.

There should be conga-lines of genealogists dancing down O’Connell Street.

Some background: The General Register Office system for registering births, deaths and marriages in Ireland was (is) a perfect Victorian pyramid. The already-existing Poor Law Unions, catchment areas for a workhouse located in a large market town, were drafted in for double-duty to be used as the geographical basis of registration, and given the additional title “Superintendent Registrar’s District”. Most of them were already subdivided into local health areas, “Dispensary Districts”, which then also became  “Registrar’s Districts”.

The registration system pyramid



It  was the job of the local registrar to record births and deaths (marriages were always a bit different) in pre-printed registers. Every three months these registers were passed to the Registrar’s boss, the Superintendent Registrar. He then had copies made of all the local registers and sent them to his superior, the top of the pyramid, the Registrar General.

One of those blasted indexes

The Registrar General then had these copies indexed, producing printed indexes, covering births, deaths and marriages for the entire island, one volume per year until 1877, four per year thereafter. These are the indexes available in the General Register Office Search room in Dublin, until now, in theory at least, the only legal route of access to the historic registrations: the keyhole.

FamilySearch made a digital transcript of these indexes freely available more than five years ago, right up to 1958. In 2015, IrishGenealogy put up the GRO’s internal digital index (slightly more informative), but restricted to more than 100 years old for births, 75 for marriages  and 50 for deaths.

Kanturk, 1913. Many John Murphys.

What’s happened now is that IrishGenealogy has added online digital images of the copy-registers that its indexes point to. If you think your ancestor was one of the 25 John Murphy births registered in Kanturk Union between 1873 and 1876, up to now the only way to check full details of the entries was to buy print-outs of the images, a cool €100 in the case of the bould John. Now you can simply (and for nothing) click through each index entry and see full details: address, father’s occupation, mother’s maiden name …

Of course there are quibbles. Only the birth record images are complete. The marriage images start in 1882 and the deaths in 1891, so it’s still necessary to buy print-outs for marriages and deaths before those years. O and Mc surnames are treated very strangely in the indexes after 1900. The way the image digitisation was done makes it unnecessarily difficult (but not impossible) to reconstruct the local registrars’ records, an obvious treasure-trove for local historians. And some of the early registrations don’t seem to be imaged – Mary Scully in Abbeyleix Union in 1864 seems to have fallen between stools, for example. The FamilySearch transcript has much more information – an object lesson in the value of multiple transcripts.

But these are just tiny examples of that familiar occupational hazard, NGS, Nitpicking Genealogist Syndrome. What our Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has just done is simply extraordinary.

Ireland, a notorious black spot for family history less than a decade ago, is now a world leader in access to genealogical records.



Nobody went from Ireland to America

Nobody ever left Ireland just to go to America. Pat Naughton left Ballinasloe to go to his cousin John in Roxbury, Boston. James McCurdy went from Rathlin to Lubec, Maine, for a job promised by his mother’s uncle. Father Bud Sullivan brought rakes of other Sullivans out from Allihies to work for Marcus Daly in the copper mines of Butte, Montana.

Butte: the boys from Allihies dug this
Butte: the boys from Allihies dug this

It’s an exaggeration, of course, to say there was absolutely no blind mass migration.  In the hopeless years of the Famine and after, plenty of people fled, desperate to be anywhere but Ireland. And there have always been a few brave or reckless souls willing to throw themselves across the Atlantic just to see what happens.

But mass emigration, then as now,  was almost always part of the accumulation of tens of thousands of individual and family decisions. Identifying and unravelling those decisions can bridge centuries and oceans and re-knit extended families. And the painstaking micro-study of migration clusters is the way to do that.

There are some excellent individual works – Bruce Elliott’s Irish Migrants in the Canadas, A New Approach, (2nd ed. McGill-Queen’s University Press 2002), which details 775 Protestant smallholder families who migrated from North Tipperary to the Ottawa Valley, is the founder of the genre and still a shining example. Peter Murphy’s Together in Exile (New Brunswick, 1990), a superb reconstruction of migration from Carlingford to Saint John, New Brunswick, is not far behind.

As far as I’m aware, though, no central guide exists to the clustering of Irish migrant origins and destinations. Genealogical anecdotes certainly abound, with dozens of unlikely pairings: Abbeydorney to Westbury;


Kilskeery to Charlestown, Mass.; Dungarvan to Yonkers. But there is nothing systematic. Ireland Reaching Out has begun a series of migration stories, but there’s a long way to go.

In any case, if you want to have a go for your own locality, there are now some excellent online tools.

The wonderful Steve Morse ( allows precise reconstruction of Ellis Island origins and destinations – have a look at for the 2000 people from Athlone who passed through between 1892 and 1924.

For the mid-19th century, the Boston Pilot “Missing Friends” ads ( supply even more circumstantial detail.

And the Irish Emigration Database at is another excellent resource, even if heavily weighted towards Ulster.

The reason for bringing all this up is two upcoming conferences that I’ll be performing speaking at. The first is a free conference run by Galway County Council’s indefatigable Heritage Officer, Marie Mannion. Entitled ‘Emigration and Our Galway County Diaspora’, it takes place in the unique setting of the Clarenbridge Oyster Festival Marquee next Thursday September 8th. More information here.

The second conference is ‘The Diaspora of the Wild Atlantic Way’, organised by the Clare Roots Society and taking place  in Treacy’s West County Hotel in Ennis over two full days, September 23rd and 24th. (Brochure here)

As ever, the Society is punching well above its weight, bidding to make this the pre-eminent genealogical conference in Ireland, bringing in heavyweight international speakers and applying its usual dedication and attention to detail.

I’m certainly looking forward to it.

There are no genealogical records on the internet

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.

Bantry July24 1825
An accompanying image: Bantry RC registers July 24, 1825, with the Earl of Bantry’s indiscretion handled very discreetly.

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, 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?

Luke Roche 1869
According to FamilySearch my great-grandparents had triplets. And named them all Luke.

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 ( “Mc Dermott” and “McDermott” are treated as completely unrelated surnames ( Record images exist online, but for some reason remain untranscribed (

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.