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.

 

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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.

 

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.

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

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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/