European Connections

When most of us research migration from Ireland we tend to focus on places such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. Countries that are considered part of the English speaking world. This is probably not surprising. After all it is much easier to decipher these records when they are in a language you understand. However, a recent trip abroad got me thinking about a lesser known aspect of Irish migration to mainland Europe.

I had been selected to speak at the Society for the Study of Nineteenth Century Ireland 2017 conference. The conference was hosted by the Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe at KU Leuven, Belgium. Leuven is a stunning medieval city located 25 kilometres (16 miles) from Brussels. I was there to speak on responses to landlord authority in South Tipperary after the Famine but being there also got me thinking about the Irish connections to Europe.

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The Irish College in Leuven

It might seem strange to have a conference on 19th century Ireland hosted in an Irish college located in Belgium. But it is easy to overlook the historic connections between Belgium and Ireland. During WW1, the German invasion of Belgium was used as a recruiting tool by the British army to convince Irish men to enlist. Comparisons were drawn with Belgium as another small, predominantly Catholic country. Countless Irish soldiers lost their lives and remain buried in the battlefields of Flanders.

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The connections with Belgium and with Leuven go back much further though. After the Reformation in Britain and the expanding Tudor conquests in Ireland, many Irish priests and nobles fled persecution and sought sanctuary with sympathetic regimes in places such as France, Spain and Belgium. The Irish College was founded in 1607 by the Irish Franciscan, Florence Conry, who was himself the product of an Irish College, having studied in Salmanca. The role of the Irish College as a focal point of Irish and European affairs was already demonstrated in the winter of 1607 when Florence Conry brought Hugh O’Neill and his retinue to Leuven following their departure from Ireland in what became known as the Flight of the Earls.

Mícheál Ó Cléirigh was the most distinguished historian of the Franciscan project in Leuven. He was born Tadgh a’ tsléibhe Ó Cléirigh in Kilbarron, Co Donegal into the learned family of Uí Cléirigh who had practised bardic poetry and history in the Gaelic tradition throughout the late middle ages. From 1626 to 1637 Ó Cléirigh travelled the length and breadth of Ireland methodically collecting and copying manuscripts. To assist him in this work he brought together three other scholars Cú Choigríche Ó Cléirigh (Donegal), Cú Choigríche Ó Duibhgeannáin (Leitrim), and Fear Feasa Ó Maoil Chonaire (Roscommon). The result was the Annals of the Four Masters, the most celebrated work of the Irish College in Leuven.

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Leuven was just one of many Irish colleges founded throughout Europe and many still exist to this day. The first Irish College was founded in 1592 at Salamanca, by 1611 there were twelve Irish colleges in Spain, France and the Low Countries. At its height, the network of colleges included more than 30 institutions and stretched from the Atlantic to the Baltic. This growing educational movement mirrored the increasing integration and influence of Irish migrants throughout the kingdoms and principalities of Europe. Many modern European universities have a dedicated Irish department, dedicated to the study of Irish literature and history. Some of the speakers at the conference were students of these universities and offered intriguing perspectives on aspects of Irish culture as seen from Europe.

To this day there are many descendants of those Irish who created a new life for themselves on the continent. Some became soldiers in European armies, creating dedicated Irish brigades. Others became merchants (such as the so called Wine Geese), helping to create and enhance trade routes between Ireland and Europe.

So we shouldn’t forget that the Irish connection extends far beyond the English speaking world.

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The Oude Markt, Leuven

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Maximising Your Family History Research

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View of Nenagh from the top of Nenagh Castle

I’m not long back from a great week of genealogy at the Clans and Surnames event held at the  Nenagh, Tipperary. The event was run by the esteemed Lorna Moloney of Merriman Research and involved a week of talks, outings to Portumna, Co. Galway and family history consultations from professional genealogists such as myself. I delivered a talk on the first day of the event titled “Maximizing Your Family History Research: Tracing Your Regional Ancestry”. This talk was delivered mostly off the cuff, without any detailed notes, and no PowerPoint presentation. However, I felt that it might be helpful to put together some of the main points from the talk for anyone who is interested. Some of what I’m about to say may seem obvious but all too often it is the obvious which can trip us up.

My first piece of advice for anyone researching their family history is to discover what they can from their own family before going online. How far back is the Irish connection? Which particular surnames connect you to Ireland? Write all this stuff down and keep it with you. That way if you get an opportunity to dive in your research you will know where to begin.

Don’t put all your trust in genealogy websites. This is not meant as an attack on these particular services, far from it. The various online databases have made a massive contribution to genealogical research and cut down on the amount of time it takes to do research. However, like Google or any other search engine, these websites exist to tell you what is there, not what isn’t. They won’t tell you that a particular record set has a specific gap for the area where your ancestors came from. Instead they will aim to provide you with the closest match. Any online transcription is also prone to errors. Some were transcribed by people who were unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of Irish spelling or came from a faded microfilm copy of the records, rather than from the original source. For these reasons it is important to double check and cross reference with other available sources. Hopefully no one database has exactly the same errors as every other. One mistake could have major consequences for your research and cost you years of work.

When searching for your Irish ancestors, familiarise yourself with the historical geography of Ireland. The different types of administrative division can seem confusing at first, especially trying to differentiate between civil and ecclesiastical parishes and wondering what a townland is. But it is impossible to avoid these terms and fortunately there are some excellent books and websites out there that help explain how these different divisions functioned.

Be mindful of distances. It’s easy to look at a modern map of Ireland and assume that your ancestors could have travelled throughout the county or traversed half the country in a single day. The reality is that most of our ancestors probably never travelled further than the neighbouring parish until the early 20th century. This is important to remember if you know your ancestors came from West Cork or Kerry, but you found someone with a similar name in Dublin a year later, and then have your ancestors back in the home parish immediately afterwards. It’s not impossible that this could be your family but ask yourself how would they have travelled such a distance in a time before paved roads, cars or public transport? The majority of Irish people at this time were farmers, who may have been lucky to own a horse and cart. The terrain in many parts of the country wasn’t easy to traverse and many rural roads were even worse than they are now.

There is no substitute for local knowledge. Not everything is online, or at least not with the big websites. Even when they add so many thousands of individual records regularly, they will never get everything. It is often assumed that anything that wasn’t lost in the 1922 Public Record Office fire, must be held in Dublin. That is far from the case. Ireland is fortunate to have an excellent network of county libraries and archives. While not all of them have an abundance of online resources, that doesn’t mean they should be discounted. Once you’ve narrowed the search for your ancestors to a particular area and feel you can’t go any further, why not check to see what is available locally. Perhaps land records, newspapers or street directories held by the local library or archive will provide you with the information you’ve been searching for. Local historical societies are also worth contacting. Perhaps someone transcribed a now lost record set. It can also be worth contacting the parish your ancestors came from directly. Perhaps some registers survive which weren’t included in the National Library microfilms or were simply missed when these records went online.

That being said, there is a lot of valuable information contained in the National Library of Ireland and the National Archives. Only a fraction of their collections are online and they contain a lot of other records which may not seem relevant to your family history at first glance. But they might provide you with some useful context for understanding how your ancestors lived.

DNA can be helpful for getting around brick walls, but it is best used in conjunction with the paper records. It can also create more confusion if all your research tells you that your ancestors came from one part of Ireland but your DNA is matching strongly to another area. This is why double checking your research is important.

The most important lesson is persistence. Genealogy is a marathon, not a sprint. Even professionals run into occasional brick walls. As frustrating as it is, don’t lose hope. There is always a possibility of a new record set appearing which provides you with that elusive clue or maybe just stepping back for a bit to recharge will bestow a sudden flash of inspiration. Perhaps fresh eyes might spot something you overlooked. Some ancestors may always be out of reach, but you can still try to understand the history of the period they lived in. No matter what obstacles you encounter, remain positive.

 

A Genealogical Embarassment Of Riches – Part 2

There was some very good news for Irish genealogy recently with the release of the Catholic Parish Registers from the National Library of Ireland on July 8th

                                          National Library Of Ireland

Previously these records had only been available to consult in the Catholic churches directly or on microfiche in the National Library of Ireland. They were also available on the paid site Roots Ireland.

But why are these records so important for researching in Ireland?

Ballyporeen Parish Record

Ballyporeen/Templetenny Parish Record Excerpt

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts no census records survive prior to 1901, with the exception of some fragments from various 19th century census. Civil Registration for Catholics was only introduced in 1864 and the Public Records Office fire of 1922 has meant that many other records have been lost to us forever. Surviving records such as Griffiths Valuation and the Tithe Applotment books were never meant as census records and typically only list the head of household.

The Parish Registers on the other hand in some cases go back as far as the 18th century, which is much further than most have been able to dream of tracing our family history so far. There are a number of caveats which need to be kept in mind when using these records though.

  • Only baptisms and marriages are covered. Records of Catholic burials weren’t kept up until the early 20th century.
  • The registers kept by the National Library in most cases only extend as far as the 1880s. For anything later than that researchers will have to consult with the individual parishes.
  • The registers are not indexed or searchable. While it’s only a matter of time before one of the big genealogy companies, such as Ancestry or Findmypast gets around to doing this, in the meantime consulting the registers means scrolling through each set of records to find what you are looking for.
  • The handwriting can also prove to be an initial stumbling block. Some people have described it as spidery. Compared to modern handwriting it takes a lot of getting used to.
  • The use of Latin names can also lead to some confusion. Remember this was at a time long before Vatican II, when Latin was still used for nearly everything in the Catholic Church. It’s worth searching online for a good list of Latin names and their English equivalents when examining the registers.
  • Some parishes are missing. When the registers were initially being photographed back in the 1950s some were missed due to human error. This will happen with any transcription of records to another medium. There were also parishes that simply did not exist at this time and only became seperate entities later on.

That being said these records are still an amazing rescource. It’s obvious that a lot of thought went into the website design to make it user friendly. You can type the parish name into the search box or zoom in on the map to locate it. The records themselves are clear and legible. You can zoom right in and adjust the contrast settings if a particular page is difficult to view. When you open a record you can also go straight to a particular year, which is a huge bonus given how many baptisms and marriages took place in a typical year. Once you locate your ancestors in the register you can download a copy of that specific page.

There are also some ways to make searching easier. It might sound counter intuitive but when you first start, look for a date you already know about. If you have a specific date for an ancestors marriage or baptism then try to find that first. It will give you an opportunity to understand the layout of the registers and to get used to the handwriting.

There were some concerns from some of the Local History Centres, who run the Roots Ireland website, throughout Ireland that making these records freely available would inevitably mean the end of their business. Up until now they had been the main repository for transcripts of the registers. However it is my belief that the opposite will happen. For a lot of visitors to Ireland looking to trace their ancestors, these centres will still be one of their first stops because they hold transcripts of the records and because of their local knowledge. A subscription to Roots Ireland can also be helpful for using their transcripts in parallel with the registers.

The online registers might not be perfect but they are an amazing resource and hats off to the National Library for all their hard work and dedication in getting them online. The future of Irish genealogy is looking very bright and I wonder what other previously inaccessible records we can look forward to.

You can find the registers online at http://registers.nli.ie/