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.

WP_20170517_15_31_59_Pro

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.

WP_20170517_15_45_46_Pro

Map of the original floors

WP_20170517_15_46_32_Pro

Restoration work continues on the other floors

WP_20170517_16_00_38_Pro

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.

WP_20170517_16_40_25_Pro

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.

WP_20170517_16_57_43_Pro

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.

WP_20170517_18_03_16_Pro

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.

Advertisements

Maximising Your Family History Research

WP_20170518_11_35_10_Pro

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.