Wending my way through John Grenham's Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, I slowly, slowly, had something dawn on me. It was that kind of "oh-oh" feeling that I try, at all costs, to avoid.
After completing the introduction to Grenham's second edition—yes, I know, I'm two editions behind—I smashed into the first omen upon reaching the very first section of his book, "Part I: Major Sources."
This was not a good start. And it didn't improve—not even microscopically—upon advancing beyond chapter one, "Civil Records," to reach the next chapter.
Put it this way: the good news is the Irish have an admirable tradition of valuing genealogical records, with data stretching back—barring wars and other international upheavals—for centuries.
The bad news is those records were created on behalf of families whose heritage was far removed from that of my husband. His Tullys, Kellys, Falveys, Molloys, and even Stevenses were not the kind known to make history, own land, fight wars, or otherwise make a name for themselves (other than the occasional free ticket to Australia). In other words, the common Irish laborer was one for whom very few records would be kept.
Then, too, my husband's Irish forebears, for the most part, left their homeland early for the greener grass on the other side of that bright blue fence of ocean. Most—with the exception of the Kelly family from County Kerry—were off the old sod before 1850.
Thoughts like these bombarded me as I plowed through the Grenham book.
Chapter One: Civil Records. "State registration of non-Catholic marriages began in Ireland in 1845. All births, deaths and marriages have been registered in Ireland since 1864." Wonderful. Our people were Catholic, personae non grata until they left the country—far before 1864. No records in the General Register Office for them.
Chapter Two: Census Records. "Full government censuses were taken of the whole island in 1821, 1831, 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911. The first four, for 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851, were largely destroyed in 1922 in the fire at the Public Record Office.... Those for 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 were completely destroyed earlier by order of the government. This means that the earliest surviving comprehensive returns are for 1901 and 1911." Yes, there were fragments for the first four censuses listed—but guess which counties those fragments didn't include? You are likely a good guesser. Bottom line: by the time of the available 1901 census, let's just say I've already located each of these Irish family lines in census records...for the United States in 1900. No sense struggling with any microfilm at the National Archives of Ireland.
And so the chapters went. For information on land holdings, I realized our Irish forebears were unlikely to be land owners. For wills and other indications of inheritance, again, such records would not likely apply. Even coming to the chapter on the hopeful-sounding "Genealogical Office," it was clear that, since we weren't recipient of any titles or inherited right to bear arms, our family surnames would not be found among the many manuscripts and records there.
As I completed reading each chapter in the Grenham book, my despair sank me just a little bit lower. After all—as I've noted in a post in another blog and another time—ours were not family lines which had made history, disrupted history, or otherwise merited any note in the annals of said history. Ours were merely people who lived out their insignificant lives in rural solitude. The very fact that they fled their homeland at the time of the Great Hunger gives credence to the notion that these were people who had nothing. They certainly left nothing behind at their departure. Especially when it came to preserved treasures housed in national archives or records offices.
Above: Published in the Illustrated London News 22 December, 1849, the entry was labeled, "The Sketch of a Woman and Children," and included the story of a Bridget O'Donnel in the caption to the original publication; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.