Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Traces of History

So, what’s the deal with all these research contortions I’ve been describing to you lately? It’s all on account of the challenges facing researchers seeking their roots in Ireland.

If you come at this genealogical pursuit from the perspective of a successful American genealogist, you may be thinking, “What’s the big deal?”

For those of us coming from the point of view of research in a place which managed to tick off census enumerations with the decade-by-decade regularity of a country like the United States—missing only one out of twenty three possible archived original sets—it may seem unusual to contemplate that kind of challenge.

Ireland, however, did not have that same good fortune. The fate of its national records has been embedded in its own history. For the bulk of almost every century since the advent of census-gathering, Ireland’s data was collected under the auspices of the government of the United Kingdom. Then, with the twentieth century came the twin upheavals of the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. It was during the latter period that the Four Court fire destroyed much of the national archives’ holdings, including most of the census records. Only traces of the original documents still exist.

That is why, during my week chasing the family history paper trail in Dublin, I had to resort to microfilms of church records, volumes of property valuations for tax purposes, and other governmental documents. These are what the Irish must resort to, when confronted with the challenge of tracing their lineage through the nineteenth century and beyond.

On my last day at the National Library, however, while playing around with their computers out of sheer exhaustion with the reading of impossible microfilms, I stumbled upon a less taxing possibility for research: the Census Search Forms for the 1841 and 1851 census records. These, wonderfully, were accessible through the National Library of Ireland’s computers, thanks to their in-house link to FindMyPast.ie.

In that limited time I had left to me on that last Friday in Dublin, I poked around the file to see if I could find any sign of other Falvey descendants who might be related to our John Kelly’s wife, Johanna Falvey. Of course, it was a long shot. I had no idea what her parents’ names would be—nor any siblings who might have survived and chosen to remain in Ireland. I did find a few possible leads, but nothing significant, before running out of time.

The idea of the Census Search Forms was that, by the time Ireland had set up provisions for an Old Age Pension system, they were faced with the difficulty of proving applicants’ eligibility for the program. Many of the initial applicants were born before the onset of Civil Registration in 1864.

The Irish government set upon a process to allow applicants to appropriately declare their possible year of birth—somewhat like a delayed birth record in the United States at the start of the Social Security program there—but instead of relying on affidavits and collection of collateral evidence, the Irish approach was to collect family information and former addresses to enable government workers to confirm approximate age by locating the applicant's entry in the 1841 or 1851 census.

At this point, the only surviving segments of the 1841 census are from Killeshandra in County Cavan. The only remaining part of the 1851 census is from part of County Antrim. Somehow, the index created through the process of the Census Search Forms was not destroyed, and subsequently found in the National Archives collection and “captured” by the FindMyPast organization.

Since leaving Ireland, I had thought that I left behind my only chance to seriously consider the records from that collection that might help me with our Kelly and Falvey ancestors. As it turns out, though, that same collection is contained as part of the nineteen collections specific to the nation of Ireland in the online site, FamilySearch.org.

You can imagine how overjoyed I was to realize this. Moving through the digitized original cards, finding viable possibilities for our family’s surnames, comparing those to geographic areas where our families were known to be, and then cross checking results with the Griffith’s Valuation records became a tedious process, despite the wonderful computer assist. Though I am no longer in Dublin, I can now go, at my leisure, to the collection at FamilySearch, as well.

In addition, another bit of archival news arrived yesterday to brighten my research prospects. Despite not being able to complete all the microfilmed records I needed to check during that week in Dublin, I may still be able to examine the extended family possibilities from those microfilms of Catholic church records as early as this summer. No, I am not returning to Ireland so soon. An announcement coming via John D. Reid's Canada's Anglo-Celtic Connections blog from John Grenham's column at The Irish Times mentioned just the thing to make my day, though: the National Library of Ireland intends to make these records available online as early as this summer.

Free and online. After facing the realities of seeing much of one's national heritage gone up in flames, what more could I ask for?

Photograph: The Four Courts Conflagration. During the Battle of Dublin in 1922, an explosion of stored munitions resulted in the destruction of the Public Records Office, and with it, the loss of many governmental documents, including census records. Courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.   


  1. Like the burning of the Library of Alexandria (and the Courthouse in Bryan County, Texas for me) - the loss of records is tragic - but it happened and happened a lot - those old wooden buildings must have been real fire traps!

    1. Not to mention...just think of what they had to use for lighting. A disaster just waiting to happen. No wonder it didn't occur more often.

  2. Records coming online -- music to our ears!

    1. With all the multiplied resources coming online lately, it's turning into quite a jam session!


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