When You Assume

It is natural when conducting research to rely, in part at least, on assumptions. Sometimes when the paper trail becomes patchy they are all we have to go on. But these assumptions can sometimes lead us down the wrong path. We are often told that people in Ireland didn’t move around much before the mid 20th century. That if we could trace them to a particular region then there was a good chance they had been there with several generations. However, recent research for clients and into my own family has made me rethink this.

For instance when we receive information from elderly family members we tend to trust it. That information might state the family had been present in that particular area since records began. Of course we’re going to assume this information is correct, especially if we don’t have a reliable paper trail. It makes for a good starting point in our research and can help us get further. Unfortunately putting too much faith in this information can lead to mistakes. Recently I’ve been doing research into a particular branch of my family in Tipperary, prompted by contact with DNA matches on Ancestry. I had information from my grandfather, written down several years ago, giving a year of birth and location for his maternal grandfather. It was within the same parish and seemed plausible so I didn’t see a need to question it. It was only as I went back further and started digging into the parish registers and other records that I began to realise there could be a mistake. A marriage record suggest this individual married into that particular townland. It still places him in the same parish so not a huge deal. However, looking for baptismal records for the year he was born raises questions. The only individual with that name born in that year within the county is listed as being born several parishes over. Not impossible and goes back to assuming people always stayed within the same area. However, when I searched for his death record the age was off. For those born before civil registration was introduced in 1864 sometimes they simply guessed at their age. So that’s not completely reliable either. However, looking at the census records also throws up questions. This individual is listed on the 1911 census as being born in Co. Limerick originally. All of this evidence taken together is too much to ignore and it suggests the information from my grandmother was incorrect. I can understand where the mistake came from. In the days before online research I assume my grandfather or someone else before him simply asked the local parish priest to look into it for them. He found an individual with that name in a nearby parish and assumed it must be them. This is a mistake that any of us can make and frequently do, even professional researchers.

Talking of parish records, another area that can cause confusion when searching on certain websites are the diocesan boundaries. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the boundaries for a diocese don’t always correspond to the county boundaries. So parts of Cork are in Kerry diocese and some parts of Kerry fall within Cork and Ross. Most of North and East Cork is under the jurisdiction of the diocese of Cloyne and a lot of South Tipperary is part of Waterford and Lismore. This also holds true for parishes. Some parishes sit in more than one county, such as Kilbehenny which straddles Tipperary and Limerick. This is especially important if you are searching for records on Roots Ireland. I was puzzled recently as to why my search for baptismal records in South Tipperary wasn’t producing results, until it was suggested I try searching under Waterford. Suddenly I was getting a lot more information. You can check out a map of the various Irish diocese below.

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When searching for ancestors we should also keep in mind the upheaval caused by the Famine. When we think of migration, we tend to imagine outward migration, of people saying their goodbyes on the quayside before embarking for a new life in America, Australia or the UK. But we shouldn’t ignore internal migration. The Famine led to depopulation and an availability of land. Should we be surprised that some took the opportunity to take land elsewhere, even if it was just a neighbouring parish?

So the lesson is to never put too much faith in our assumptions. Don’t be afraid to question received information and to independently verify. It might mean disproving long cherished family myths (which isn’t always appreciated) but the whole point research is to know for certain.

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A Sense Of Place

There is an often expressed sentimentality among the Irish diaspora for the ‘ould sod’ or the original homestead that their ancestors came from. It is something that those of us  living in Ireland too often dismiss or mock. We like to believe that modern Ireland has evolved beyond such concepts, that we are citizens of the world who aren’t tied down to anything as simple as a piece of land or particular homestead. But yet that isn’t quite true. While those of my generation have experienced unparalleled freedom and the ability (at least in theory) to pack our bags and move elsewhere, it is impossible to completely forego all attachments. For myself, I have spent the majority of my life living just outside Cork City. But there is still a part of me that thrills at the sight of the Galtee Mountains and feels to some extent like I’ve come home. Perhaps this is simply due to so much time spent visiting family in Tipperary and walking the region during my childhood.

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Galtee Mountains

Equally I know friends born in Ireland and who have lived out their entire lives here who feel that home is London, Edinburgh or Paris. Our sense of home isn’t always tied to where we lived our entire lives. The next time an enthusiastic descendant of Irish emigrants comes seeking the ancestral homestead, instead of dismissing them or laughing at them, perhaps we should try our best to help them. We might even learn something ourselves in the process.

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Grace Kelly visiting Drimurla, Co. Mayo where her grandfather originated

But how does someone go about this process? Too often many of those researching their Irish ancestry don’t have a lot to go on. Maybe they only have a surname and a vague recollection of a certain county being mentioned by elderly relatives. Sometimes they will get lucky and might have documentation such as a death certificate or passenger listing which lists the place of origin. However, even then the name can sometimes get mangled in the period between boarding the ship and arriving at the destination. This was typically down to a lack of standardised spelling of placenames and also a lack of literacy among those emigrating.

There is help at hand though. One of the best resources for tracing Irish placenames is the Placename Database of Ireland, which can be conveniently found on the Logainm.ie website. The site is very user friendly and is invaluable in trying to locate a specific Irish placename. It provides a listing of baronies, civil parishes and townlands along with streets in Irish towns. For some of these placenames it also has a helpful breakdown of how the name has evolved over the centuries. Many have kept much the same name with some spelling variations, while others have undergone more drastic transformations with the original name being lost completely.

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Another great resource for Irish placenames is Irish Ancestors, John Grenham’s website. Over the years John has amassed a large database of Irish surnames and placenames. His website includes maps of the various different parish types and Poor Law Unions. An invaluable resource when trying to figure out the relationship between the old Civil Parishes and modern Roman Catholic Parishes.

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However, one thing to keep in mind when trying to figure out where your Irish ancestors came from is the unreliable nature of mapping in the age of Google. When planning a trip to Ireland it is easy to look at a map and assume that because it’s a small country that everything must be close together. This isn’t accounting for geography, which Ireland has no shortage of. Neighbouring parishes might be separated by an inconvenient mountain range or a lake, perhaps even both. The road system was often poorly maintained or almost non-existent. The vast majority of people had to travel by foot and as such rarely ventured beyond their own own immediate surroundings. Someone born in Macroom, West Cork is unlikely to have ever set foot in Cork city. Journeys that we can now complete in hours would have taken our ancestors several days.

A very useful means of making sense of the landscape are the Ordnance Survey Ireland Maps. The first maps were produced in 1847 at a scale of at a scale of 6 inches to 1 mile. Ireland was the first country to be mapped to such a scale. In times gone by it was necessary to use the physical copies of the maps held in local libraries or purchase them from the OSI. Thanks to modern technology however it is possible to use the online map viewer to overlay the modern and historical maps. This can provide some invaluable perspective on the landscape our ancestors inhabited.

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Historic 6 inch Ordnance Survey map of Ireland 1837-1842

Just remember when researching your family history to underestimate geography at your peril. Also keep in mind there are no shortage of excellent publications on Ireland and it’s landscape. Before making your journey it might not be any harm to pack an old fashioned atlas of Ireland rather than relying on Google Maps and GPS to help you find your way around.

 

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

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.

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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.

 

 

 

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.