How The Other Half Lives

As part of the recent Clans and Surnames of Ireland event in Nenagh, we took a field trip to the nearby town of Portumna, Co. Galway. The purpose of the journey was to visit the magnificent Portumna House and the Irish Workhouse Centre.

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Portumna Castle

Portumna Castle is a semi-fortified stately home which was originally built in the early 17th century as home to Richard Bruke, the 4th Earl of Clanricarde. It was occupied by his descendants until a fire destroyed most of the building in 1826. The house is undergoing significant restoration by the Office of Public Works and currently the ground floor is open to visitors, along with the gardens. We were treated to a talk by the always entertaining and informative Kenneth Nicholls, who went through the history of the family.

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Map of the original floors

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Restoration work continues on the other floors

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Reproductions of family portraits

A few hours spent taking in the splendour of Portumna Castle and the gardens was impressive enough but that was followed up by our visit to the Irish Workhouse Centre, which was on the other side of Portumna.

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Irish Workhouse Centre, Portumna

It’s certainly difficult to find a greater contrast between the splendour of Portumna Castle and the grim reality of the nearby workhouse. Going from one to the other, even on a bright sunny day, can be particularly jarring.

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Toilets in Portumna Workhouse

Plenty has been written on the horrors of the workhouse system in Ireland and the squalid conditions that those unfortunate enough to end up there had to endure. It should be noted that the workhouse in Portumna wasn’t among the worst of these institutions. It was built after the Famine, mainly to take some of the overflow from other workhouses in the region. However, conditions inside were far from pleasant. Families entering the workhouse were separated, with little hope of seeing each other again. This included taking children from their parents. Often the only escape was through emigration.

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Sleeping quarters in the workhouse

The workhouse and the stately home might seem to exist in completely separate worlds but they were closely linked. The landlord of the area, or one of his representatives, often served on the Board of Guardians for the workhouse and would have plenty of influence on the conditions endured by it’s residents. Not least in paying for assisted emigrations, which offered an escape from the workhouse. What caught my eye during the visit to Portumna was in the room once used by the Board of Guardians for their meetings. The windows allowed plenty of light in, however the window facing out into the interior courtyard (where the residents would have gathered) was high up on the wall. This meant that while the room was lit, those meeting in the room didn’t have to concern themselves with any views of the abject poverty on the other side of the wall.

Although many records concerning admissions to workhouses in Ireland have been lost, many of the minutes for the Boards of Guardians still survive in local archives. You can find a list of workhouses in Ireland and the location of surviving records here.

When researching your family history it is worth remembering to look at both sides of the social spectrum in order to fully appreciate the times they lived in.

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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.

 

Get Your DNA On

Today is National DNA Day. April 25th commemorates the successful completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 and the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953. It’s a day given over to learning more about genetics and genomics. For genealogy it’s also an opportunity to pick up some great deals on the various DNA kits available.

Basic RGB

 

You can find a list of the various sales available from the various genetic genealogy providers here

https://nationaldnaday.com/dna-day-sales/

But if you’re not already familiar with DNA testing for genealogy what do you need to know? What are the differences between the various tests?

The most common test (and the most affordable) available from most of the providers is the Autosomal test, otherwise known as the Family Finder test. It tests back along both the male and female line. It can also provide clues to the ethnic background of the tester. However, this should always be taken with a certain amount of caution. There are any number of variables which can skew the test and sometimes the different providers will provide a tester with very different results. Autosomal tests also have a limited range, only been accurate within seven generations.

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Ethnic breakdown from Family Tree DNA autosomal test

What makes autosomal testing so useful for genealogy however is that it can provide you with direct matches to potential cousins. This can be particularly helpful for getting beyond those pesky brick walls if you can connect to someone who might have been able to progress further in their own research. If you want to narrow your results to a particular branch of your family then a helpful strategy is to test a relative connected to you on that branch. For example if you wanted to find more connections on your paternal line, then ask a first cousin or uncle or aunt, to take the test also. You can then compare any matches in common. Similar can be done with second cousins for information on great grandparents and so on.

If you are curious about the origin of your surname or looking to go back further along the male line, then the test to take is the Y chromosome test. The Y chromosome is passed down along the paternal line from father to son. As such only men can take it because women don’t inherit that piece of DNA. This test can go back much further, roughly 1000 years, hence why it is so useful for tracing the origin of a surname. From my own experience though, it might not tell you a whole lot if you have a common surname like Ryan. Another limitation is that the test won’t necessarily help you find close cousins.

For those looking to trace the origin of their maternal line, they can take the mitochondrial DNA test. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited along the female line for both men and women. It also doesn’t mutate at the same rate as other types of DNA and can be traced back much further. However, because women often change their surname when they marry, it has limitations if you are trying to connect with a specific individual. However, one interesting use of mitochondrial testing in recent years was the identification of the remains of executed 1916 leader, Thomas Kent. By taking a sample of mitochondrial DNA from his surviving nieces, they were able to confirm his identity.

If you are looking for more information on DNA testing then the video below should be of help

There are also plenty of other great articles and blogs out there. You can also find some excellent videos on personal experiences with DNA testing for genealogy on YouTube, courtesy of Genetic Genealogy Ireland.

 

 

 

Searching For Connections

I attended yet another excellent workshop at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin on Wednesday, organised by the fine folks in the Irish Family History Centre. The speaker was Jennifer Doyle, a PHD student in Kings College London, on the topic of using newspapers to trace female ancestors. Instead of the usual newspaper sources, obituaries and marriage notices, she concentrated on the competitions in newspapers for what they can tell us about peoples lives. It was a fantastic paper and really got to the heart of what genealogy is ultimately about, finding those connections and giving context to the lives of our ancestors.

One of my favourite sources for this is the Schools’ Collection in the National Folklore Collection of Ireland. It can provide some very valuable insight into how our ancestors lived and some of the customs they believed in. The material in the Schools’ Collection was compiled by school children in the 1930s. Under the supervision and guidance of their teachers, they went out and interviewed relatives and neighbours about local folklore. Sometimes you might get lucky and come across a familiar name among the collectors or interviewees. Even if you don’t find someone you know, the folklore itself is fascinating. Some of it might seem far fetched, especially stories about fairies and leprechauns and other supernatural creatures. But we should remember how different the world was for our ancestors, especially those in rural areas before the advent of widespread electrification. Just because they were superstitious doesn’t make them ignorant or stupid.

One of the more interesting pieces of folklore I have come across are the customs centred around various festivals. You can read the transcription here.

Many of these customs were connected to specific parts of the country and might give you insight into how people of the time lived their lives. Too often we only focus on the hardships they must have endured, forgetting that there was more to their lives than just toil and hard work. They had games, gatherings and storytelling.

What is most enjoyable about this collection though is the opportunity to lend a hand in transcribing some of the records. It’s very straightforward and doesn’t take that long to transcribe a few pages at a time. It is especially gratifying when you can transcribe a piece of folklore collected by a relative.

Upcoming Events

It’s going to be a busy week. As part of the annual Cork Lifelong Learning Festival I am fortunate enough to be delivering two free talks, both in the surrounds of the lovely St Peter’s on North Main Street.

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St Peter’s Cork

The first talk will be on Thursday April 6th at 4pm. I will be representing Cork Decorative and Fine Arts Society for a talk on church memorials and monuments in Cork. This will look at some notable monuments from the city and county and the families commemorated on them.

On Saturday from 2pm to 4pm I will be delivering my first solo genealogy workshop. The goal of this workshop will be to provide attendees with an introduction to Irish genealogy and the main sources. I will also be discussing the increasing use of DNA in genealogical research. At the end there will be an opportunity for people to ask questions about their own family history research.

I always enjoy doing these talks because while it is nice to help people with their own family history, it is also an opportunity for me to learn something from the audience. That joy of mutual discovery is one of the many reasons I enjoy genealogy.

Getting Started

With St Patrick’s Day just gone it seems like an appropriate time to talk about Irish ancestors. They say everyone is a bit Irish on St Patrick’s Day but how do you find out? The goal of this entry is to provide some basic tips on some of the initial steps you can take to get you started and perhaps even make it easier if you intend to hire a professional genealogist to undertake research for you later on.

The first step is to try and identify where in your family the Irish connection is. Even if you have a typically Irish name such as O’Connell and O’Neill, you may be surprised to discover your Irish connection isn’t as obvious as you would think. While the largest bulk of Irish immigration took place in the aftermath of the Famine, there have always been Irish people making their way out into the wider world. Just recently I came across an interesting article about how George Washington allowed his troops to celebrate St Patrick’s Day during the Revolutionary War in 1780. Irish people have been settling in the UK and Continental Europe for even longer.

Once you have identified the Irish connection, then the next step is to try and narrow down a county of origin. This isn’t always as easy as it might seem. Too often we have to sort through conflicting information. You might have folklore that has been passed down through the generations suggesting your ancestor came from a certain part of the country but documentation may suggest otherwise. The best way to be certain is to gather as much information as you can, marriage and death certs, census records and if possible, church records. It’s always possible a baptismal record may contain more detail than a standard birth cert. While people had little hesitation in fudging details when it came to government records, they would always be cautious about lying to their priest.

When you are ready to begin your search in Ireland, take a bit of time to become familiar with Irish geography. Remember that the 32 counties of Ireland break down into countless subdivisions of baronies, parishes, townlands, poor law unions, electoral districts etc. Depending on the time period you are examining, having some knowledge of these divisions can make your search much easier.

Irish Poor Law Union Map (Courtesy http://www.workhouses.org.uk)

Surnames can also be a valuable way to find an ancestor. Even common surnames tend to be typically found in certain counties. For example Ryan is most often found in Tipperary and neighbouring counties, Sullivan in West Cork and Kerry and so on. A very useful guide for the distribution of Irish surnames and their variants can be found courtesy of John Grenham on his website.

Irish records have a reputation for being difficult, partially due to the large gaps left by the Public Records Office fire of 1922. But the truth is that there is a lot of information available, starting with the 1901 and 1911 census. Parish records, land valuations, birth, marriage and death records and even historic newspapers can all be extremely valuable in your search.

Once you locate the county of origins for your ancestors it is also worth checking out the websites of local libraries and archives. They may have information and even transcripts of other records unique to that county or city. This may include specific estate records, commercial directories etc. More and more records are being made available so never assume nothing exists.

DNA can also be useful. Ireland may be a bit behind other countries in terms of how many people have taken commercial DNA tests but it is growing in popularity. Only recently, one of our most popular Irish talk shows The Late Late Show was devoted a segment to discussing DNA in genealogy. You can see an excerpt below and watch the full programme here:

Of course DNA testing isn’t a magic bullet. Sometimes it can cause more confusion but if you feel you’ve exhausted every other option then it is worth doing, especially as the costs for the various tests gradually become more affordable. The Internation Society of Genetic Genealogy has a very helpful introduction to the basics of DNA for tracing ancestry.

If you are seriously stuck and at your wits end, then feel free to consult a professional. We don’t bite and are always willing to offer some advice to get you started. You can find contact details for professionals in Ireland here and here. Local archives and libraries might also be able to put you in touch with an expert in the area you are searching.

The final piece of advice is to never lose hope. It can be tough going and there will undoubtedly be many false trails but in the end hopefully it will be worth it.

Genealogical Appreciation

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Traveller Caravan in Cork Public Museum

Last Friday afternoon I attended a fantastic lecture on Irish Traveller genealogy and culture at the Royal Irish Academy on Dawson Street in Dublin. This was the first of the 2017 expert workshops organised by the Irish Family History Centre.

The lecture was prompted by recent DNA findings from a new study carried out by scientists in the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland and the University of Edinburgh. You can read a bit more about that here. However, instead of simply concentrating on the genetic side of things, the lecture allowed for a member of the Traveller community, Michael McDonagh, to talk about Traveller identity.

Those outside of Ireland might have only the vaguest sense of who Irish Travellers are. Coming up with a definition that doesn’t sound condescending or discrimination can be difficult. Sometimes they are referred to as Gypsies or Tinkers, along with many other derogatory terms. Perhaps the simplest definition is to say that Travellers are a minority group within Irish society  who maintain their own separate identity. There have been many rumours and misconceptions as to where they originated from. Some believed they were an entirely separate race from the Irish, more closely related to Roma Gypsies. Another widely held theory was that they were the descendants of those forced off their land during the Great Famine. This last belief was to be responsible for much of the prejudice faced by Travellers and a lot of the harm done to their culture through a misguided belief that they should be reintegrated into mainstream Irish society. While the motives for this may have been benign, the lack of proper understanding of their culture caused a lot of long term damage. The talk from Michael was a fascinating insight into this culture. I would have loved to stay on afterwords to talk with him and ask some questions but unfortunately I had to rush for a train back to Cork.

What the DNA evidence has shown is that Travellers are not related to the Roma and are indeed Irish. What it also suggests is that they split from mainstream Irish society roughly around the mid 1600s. The authors of the study are cautious in trying to identify any specific historical event which might have led to the split, which seems sensible. Further testing might alter those conclusions and push the split even further back. The full paper of the study is available to read for free here. Hopefully this will lead to a better appreciation of Irish Travellers and their place within Irish society as a distinct group.

The lecture and the study also got me thinking of two articles I had read in recent months concerning the Tenement Museum in New York. The first article reported on a rise of anti-immigrant comments from visitors to the museum and how staff were attempting to deal with this. Then a few weeks ago, Annie Pollard, their Senior Vice President for Progams and Education, wrote this article on the immigrant experience in the past compared to the present immigrant experience.

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One of the restored apartments inside the NY Tenement Museum (Image courtesy http://tenement.org/)

What all of this got me thinking about was the role that genealogy can play in conversations relating to discrimination and prejudice. It’s worth remembering that the waves of Irish and other immigrant groups arriving in the US in the 19th century weren’t always met with open arms. Some of the rhetoric directed against them is reminiscent of what has been heard in more recent times. Can genealogy help lessen some of this hostility?

Perhaps it is human nature that we will always be suspicious of those who speak a different language, have different cultural traditions or simply don’t look like us. Genealogy certainly isn’t a magic bullet for defeating prejudice but at the very least maybe it can help us appreciate some of the commonalities we share with other groups.