Saturday, March 17, 2012

Celine Walsh and Marie Linehan Being Presented with the Genealogical Society Of Ireland's Weekend Irish Genealogy Course Certificates by John Hamrock

Using Local Genealogists as an Added Resource

With so many resources online or about to go online, why should you hire a local genealogist? What does an intimate knowledge of Ireland’s highways and byways bring to the table? Well, the professional Irish genealogist brings what could be called knowledge of the territory, its history and geography, its administrative structure, its language and the location of its main records. All this requires a word of explanation.


Ireland is a small but complicated country on many levels. Parts of the western seaboard, like Sligo and Mayo, have been inhabited by farming and fishing communities for over 5,000 years and other parts on the eastern seaboard, like the Newgrange Burial Site in Co Meath, are older than the Pyramids of Egypt. Settlements like Armagh (Eamhain Macha) in the province of Ulster and Dublin (Eblana) on the east coast are named in Ptolemy’s map of Ireland made about 150 AD. When Christianity came to Ireland with Saint Patrick in about 430 AD, writing also came and from that time there are historical records mainly in Latin but also in Old Irish.

As befits a country with a long history, its administrative organisation is also complex. Again, like most European countries at that time, the organisation was tribal. This tribal structure was the basis of some of our most important surnames which came at a later date. The O’Neills, for example, have always been associated with Ulster and it was probably one of that sept who invaded Wales and brought a young Roman slave to Ireland. That young slave stated in one of his writings that, in a dream, he was called back to this country to bring Christianity to his former captors. Today, he is our patron saint, St Patrick.

Superimposed on the tribal organisation, was the monastic structure of the early Irish church. However, the ecclesiastical organisation of the country as we know it today goes back to the 12th century with its basic division of parish, diocese and archdiocese. Knowledge of the church structure of the country is of vital importance to visitors who come to seek their ancestors in the Church records. When people of Irish origin from overseas come to the National Library, they are disheartened to find that the Roman Catholic Parish Registers have not been transcribed and must be searched using microfilm copies of the originals (often unaware of or discussed in more detail later). Despair sometimes sets in.

One form of civil organisation of Ireland was superimposed on the ecclesiastical one with the Anglo-Norman baronies, themselves largely but not completely based on the tribal division of land called the Tuatha. Each barony comprised a number of townlands. There were 273 baronies in Ireland and they were subdivisions of the Irish counties and widely used for administrative purposes from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The first great land survey in Ireland, the Down Survey (1654-59), was carried out along baronial lines.

Then came the division of Ireland into counties. This additional administrative level was superimposed on the already existing ecclesiastical and civil organisation of Ireland between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries as part of the process of shiring, that is, the process by which common law and centralised government control was extended to embrace the whole of the country. In Ireland today, counties have distinct personalities and identities and many have nicknames like the States in America; Armagh, for example, is called The Orchard County because of its outstanding apple production.

And finally, for the most consulted civil records like the Births, Marriages and Deaths at the General Register Office and the Census returns, there was yet another division of the country into Poor Law Unions. These were administrative areas introduced into Ireland in 1838 as an extension of the English Poor Law Act (1834). Previously established county and baronial borders were ignored and each Union was determined by taking a market town and including land within a ten mile radius of it. The townlands within its boundaries were then grouped together into electoral divisions. This is what we find when we seek Vital certificates and when we examine Census returns.

Therefore, when our records are examined, these layers of history and administrative organisation can, to say the least, be daunting.

Compared to those countries where Irish people migrated, like the United States, Australia or New Zealand, Ireland embodies a very old organisation with its records correspondingly complex. The emigrants went to these countries where the administration had already evolved from complexity towards relative simplicity.

Local knowledge

The first reason to retain a professional Irish genealogist is his or her familiarity with place names, a particular obstacle to visitors from abroad. Place names have been in existence for a very long time and many of them have been anglicised and changed their spelling over the years. When one compares modern townland names with, for example, the names of townlands and parishes from Sir William Petty’s maps of the 1650s, or the townlands in the 1838 Ordnance Survey, there can often be significant discrepancies. In addition, place names have evolved throughout centuries and the ones remembered by immigrants may well have been reproduced phonetically or names of towns, baronies and parishes may be confused with one another. Place names are of fundamental importance in searching for ancestors as all available records are based on place. Identifying the exact place opens the door not only to civil and church records but to land records as well.

This leads to another reason for retaining a professional Irish genealogist, namely, knowledge of the Irish language. This is a key to the understanding of place names where the original Irish lies just behind the anglicised version. The place name, “Owenbeg” is a short step away from a feature of the landscape of the area, namely, “Abhainn beg” (small river). There are over 50,000 such place names in Ireland.

Knowledge of the language also helps when surnames have been distorted by immigration officials; for example, Feehily became Feely and the modern O’Rourke can be written Rorke, O’Rorke and Rourke. In addition, it is often difficult for people seeking their roots to grasp the concept that dates were unimportant to most of their ancestors; that accuracy of spelling was not crucial in a pre-literacy age before social security numbers, PIN numbers, bank accounts and tax returns. Added to this is the contribution to our surname pool of the various peoples who have settled here, Normans, English, Scots, Welsh, Huguenots, Palatines, Jews and other smaller groups. An awareness of these nuances can turn out to be crucial when tracing families beyond the nineteenth century.

Spelling of both place names and surnames can cause great concern among immigrants seeking their roots. Irish people are quite used to seeing different spellings of the same name; it is no surprise for most of us to see Kearney and Carney refer to the same person on a Vital certificate. And many Irish people have lived through modernisations of place names. The descendants of emigrants do not always remember that not many of their ancestors who left Ireland could read or write and what they said about their homeland was written by their descendants who were unaware of their background. And many immigrants, especially those who came from poorer backgrounds, were unwilling to go beyond generalities when speaking of the land and family they had been forced to leave. And for many, a new life meant a new beginning without harking back to what had been left behind.

Searching Repositories

Because the Internet offers so much, many people looking for Birth, Marriage or Death records of their ancestors are unaware that what is available on websites like Family Search or in the research room of the General Register Office are only indices. All civil certificates, even copy certificates, have to be obtained through the General Register Office on the payment of a fee. These, of course, can be ordered online but with common surnames and without knowledge of the Registration Districts, people spend a lot of money ordering certificates which do not pertain to their ancestors. This is the scattergun approach. The professional Irish genealogist can generally narrow down the certificates ordered because of his/her knowledge of the territory. This could be called a targeted approach.

Many visitors to the National Library of Ireland in Dublin are not aware of online indices of the Baptism and Marriage records of the Church Parish Registers and are thus often frustrated by what they find, or cannot find, when they search the registers. The Roman Catholic registers were microfilmed in the 1950s and 1880 is the general cut off point because by then Civil Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths had become the norm. The early registers frequently contain many Latin abbreviations; the handwriting is often hard to read as if the registers were compiled in a hurry. In addition, the quality of paper used was often poor as was the ink with the result that entire sections have faded. Some Church registers are online ( and accompanied by images free of charge; others are available for most counties ( on a pay-per-view basis.

In addition, the records are located at disparate places. This is true about Dublin not to mention the rest of the country. The National Library of Ireland ( containing the Roman Catholic Parish records is in Kildare Street beside the national parliament (the Oireachtas). The National Archives (, containing wills, court records and some Church of Ireland records is located in Bishop Street near St Patrick’s Cathedral. Should you wish to consult land records, the Valuation Office ( is located in the Irish Life building on Abbey Street while our oldest repository, the Registry of Deeds (www.landregistry), is in the area of Kings Inns. The Registry of Deeds was established in the early 1700s and continues to hold registered land transactions, wills and other property transactions to this day. Most visitors want to go to the research room of the General Register Office ( which is also located in the Irish Life Building not far from the Valuation Office. The professional Irish genealogist knows the area and the opening times and the shortcuts to get from one to the other.

For visitors whose ancestors came from Dublin city, there is Dublin City Library and Archive specialised in everything about the city. It is located on Pearse Street and its contents can be viewed on the web (


Access to lesser known records or indeed records that have not yet been microfilmed requires the services of a professional on the spot. Wills, schedules of assets and court records, maritime records are some of the areas where traces of ancestors can be found. If traces are found, copies of the documents can be obtained more easily by the genealogist on the spot.

So, it is easier, and in the long run cheaper, to employ a local professional genealogist rather than make the long journey and go back home with very little to show for such an expense of time and money.

Initial assessment

The value of an initial assessment of a client’s needs cannot be underestimated. A professional Irish genealogist will be able to say almost immediately whether a search is feasible. If the client says that all they know about their ancestor was that he or she immigrated from Co Clare in the 1840s and was called Mc Namara, an honest assessment would be that without more precise knowledge it would be impossible to find relatives in Co Clare. Of course, there is a lot to be said about the Mc Namaras in Clare in general without indicating any particular place or family. Coupled with the generic nature of the information is the fact that so much time has elapsed and that the memory of the families who had been there has probably faded.

New Developments

The reduction in the cost of air travel has made it possible for the sons and daughters of emigrants to visit the places where their ancestors once lived and, if they are lucky, find their relatives still living in the same place and maybe farming the same land. This development has brought the local professional genealogists out of the archives and libraries and into the countryside to search locally.

As an example, we were recently engaged to search for living relatives of the Horan family from California and New York. They had a lot of information about their ancestors, some of whom were from Drumlish Co Longford and some from Meelick in East Galway. While the search in Meelick did not uncover known living relatives, it was exciting for the family to visit the local church where their ancestors worshipped and to view the graveyard where they were buried even though no family specific tombstone could be found. What intrigued the family most on that visit was a conversation with a farmer in the townland where their grandfather had been born; they were impressed by his openness and friendliness and enthralled by the way he spoke. They filmed and recorded the scene as a souvenir of how their grandfather might have spoken.

It took a significant amount of preliminary on-the-ground research to identify the living relative in Drumlish because she had been married and had adopted her husband’s surname. Once identified, a visit was arranged and the 85 year old woman was both surprised and delighted to find out that she had relatives in the States and that they were coming to see her. She confirmed that the farm was exactly the same as indicated in both the 1901 Census and in Griffith’s Valuation. She also clarified which headstone in the graveyard belonged to her family as there were several families of that name in the parish.

When the day of meeting came, she welcomed her American cousins to the house, introduced them to her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren and offered the traditional whiskey, tea and cakes. Her relatives really wanted to go out and walk the fields their ancestors had tilled. Then the whole troupe went to visit her daughter who was the keeper of the family history and photographs were taken. Promises were made to keep in touch using Skype and Facebook.

What happened on that day could not have been accomplished at a distance. The genealogist became a facilitator of a family re-union in the real sense. It was a moving and emotional experience for all.

The future

Over the last ten or fifteen years the Internet has revolutionised genealogy in that it has made family research accessible to all. It is, as it were, the democratisation of genealogy. Family history research is no longer the preserve of trained scholars who know their way around the repositories. Traditionally, genealogy has been a science that searched the past and tried to construct family trees which led up to the present constitution of that family.

Today the social networks like Facebook are reaching forward searching around in the vast archive of the present. And success stories abound. The local professional genealogist has perhaps a new role; not only must the past be researched but clients are anxious to know whether or not they have any living relatives. And this is precisely how the local professional can be of great assistance in bringing families together.


From what has been said, it is clear that the professional Irish genealogist has an edge both in the traditional searching of the libraries and archives and in the modern developments where he or she can be a facilitator of family reunions. The local professional is a unique resource which should not be overlooked.

Aiden Feerick,

Member of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (MAPGI)

Ancestor Network Ltd

Friday, March 16, 2012

King Billy's army brought to book

Councillor William Humphrey and Dr Jonathan Mattison examine the 1690 account book

From BBC News 16 March 2012

A historic manuscript containing details of every soldier who fought with King William of Orange in the Battle of the Boyne has been discovered during renovation work at Belfast City Hall.

The 320-year-old "account book" had been lying in storage at the building for almost a century without the authorities realising the significance it could hold for military historians and the Orange Order.

The parchment document was written by the Paymaster General Thomas Coningsby and includes a detailed record of each man in the 35,000-strong army which accompanied King William III to Ireland to do battle with his uncle and father-in-law, the deposed James II.

It was found when a range of artefacts were moved from the city hall to allow an £11m refurbishment to take place.

Belfast City Council has now presented the manuscript to the Orange Order.

Councillor William Humphrey, who is the chairman of the council's culture, development and arts committee, said officials knew that the book had been given to the old Belfast Corporation "way back in the mists of time".

But he explained that the council "did not really appreciate just how much information there was in it, until we gave it a more detailed examination".

'Fascinating read'

Dr Jonathan Mattison, who is a researcher with the Orange Order, described the discovery as "absolutely fantastic" and said they were indebted to the council for unearthing an "exciting piece of history".

"It shows the payments made to all the various regiments, units, individuals and suppliers during the year of 1690 when William III came over to prosecute the war with more zeal in Ireland, leading up to the Battle of the Boyne," he explained.

"Officers of high rank and even down to lowly rank are recorded in the pages of the manuscript itself and it's a fascinating book, a fascinating read," he explained.

"I think it will give us a greater insight into not only the political history of the time but also the social and economic circumstances and history that go along with any period of war or conflict, because obviously with 35,000 men under your command, people have to get paid.

"It gives the mechanics and economics of warfare as well as just the politics and events themselves," he said.

The book will eventually go on display at the Orange Order's headquarters in east Belfast.