26 March 2010


     As I posted earlier in this blog, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) will be closed to the public during its move to a new site. The closure is planned for September 2010; the re-opening, May 2011. At least one genealogical society has crossed Belfast off its itinerary during this time period. But PRONI is not the only reason to visit Belfast or the northern counties for genealogical research. Hopefully, the PRONI closure will open researchers' eyes to other resources available in the northern counties. No need to cancel a visit!
     Fintan Mullan of the Ulster Historical Foundation (UHF) assured me that there are many other options for the visiting researcher in the northern counties. I heard Fintan speak at a conference sponsored by the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania held in Valley Forge on March 13th. He and Dr. Brian Trainor packed a ton of information into the day-long conference.
     I asked Fintan if researchers should wait until PRONI reopens before visiting Belfast for research purposes. His response:
     "Obviously when PRONI is closed this will severely limit the research possibilities but there are other options to pursue when [in Belfast], e.g., Ulster Historical Foundation itself, Linen Hall Library, Belfast Central Library and the Newspaper Library, Presbyterian Historical Society, Wesley Historical Society, local libraries across NI, Armagh Ancestry, Derry Genealogy, Irish World, Donegal Ancestry, Cavan Genealogy..."
     Sounds like enough reasons to visit Northern Ireland to me!
     I often hear two versions of the "Ireland trip" from fellow family historians: either they spent all their time in the major archives (PRONI, National Library, etc) and did not "sightsee" OR they "had no time to research because it was a 'pleasure' trip." Perhaps the PRONI closure will open some eyes to the pleasures and rewards of combining sightseeing with local research--spending an afternoon in a small library or cemetery, talking with the locals about the history of the town or region. Stop and smell the heather in the hills of Northern Ireland and view the land and sky as your ancestors did. Infuse yourself with the sights and sounds and smells of the place, and you will infuse your family history research with a new life. Trust me--there is merit to getting out of the archives and allowing fate and ancestors to guide your adventure. So, don't cancel that trip just because the record office is closed!
     I asked Fintan what common mistakes he sees among  researchers from outside Ireland and whether he had any advice. Fintan said that the most common mistake is "trying to start research in Ireland with too little information, or attempting to start when on a holiday." His advice is to do as much research in your home country as possible, as "you never know when a small crumb of information can help open a new lead when you have run into a brick wall."
     He also noted that we researchers should take notice of sources such as old gravestone inscriptions in a forgotten corner of a place where our ancestors might have spent some time. I thought this nugget of advice was a good one, particularly for American researchers whose ancestors did not stay in one place after emigrating from Ireland. Too often we focus on the records available in the places where our ancestors were born and died, and we don't pay enough attention to what they did--or who they left behind--during their life trek through various locations.
    Note:  I want to thank Fintan and Dr. Brian Trainor for coming to Philadelphia to share their knowledge, and also to thank the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania for sponsoring the conference. The full room, in the midst of a terrible storm that closed many area roads, attested to the growing interest in Irish genealogy among Delaware Valley residents.
     Note: The Ulster Historical Foundation, in partnership with the University of Ulster, is running the Ulster History and Genealogy Summer School 2010 from the 20th through the 26th of June. Participants will be able to register as part time students of the University for the duration of the school. Visits to historic and research sites are planned. See the UHF website for more information.
(check out the UHF online resources and database, also)

21 March 2010


     If we family historians are serious about breathing life into our family tree and understanding our ancestors as the persons they were, we should not forget to learn about Irish culture and customs, particularly those of the era in which our ancestors lived. Did your great great grandmother warn the faeries before she threw the dirty water out the door? Can you imagine your great grandfather's wake? Did your great great great aunt dance in the crossroads? Did her son attend a hedgerow school?
     Learning the history of Irish customs and culture provides us with a peephole into the daily lives of our ancestors. Knowing about customs also provides us with genealogical clues. Do you have a recipe handed down for generations? Your family's way of making lamb or bread might be a regional recipe and might point you to a geographic location for your ancestors. Does your family use words or expressions that are rather unique? Could your grandfather be using an old expression from the hills of County Tyrone, or might it mark your great grandfather as a Cork man?
     After one of my recent talks, two of the audience members related genealogical stories related to music. One woman sang a song her Jewish father (who married an Irish girl) would sing to her as a child.The song was about being Jewish but wanting to be buried by the River Shannon.
     The other woman told me of hearing a song sung in an Irish pub when she visited the county of her ancestors. The song was about three brothers who had left for America. It turned out the three brothers were her grandfather and uncles.  From now on, I will listen a bit more carefully to the lyrics during an seisun!
     I have heard from a few people who have stories or poems written by an ancestor.A woman in my Irish group at my local Family History Center, Rosemarie McGinty, has a genealogical and cultural treasure handed down from her grandfather, Patrick Kearney of Co. Kilkenny and Philadelphia. He left behind about 40 poems, many of them about friends and family. Reading these poems, a family researcher might find genealogical clues hidden in description of places or people. The same is true for other types of art or writings done by an ancestor. A painting, a story, a letter--all might contain a key to unlocking more family history.
     Gleaning clues from a letter or poem or story often requires an understanding of the customs and culture of the time in which the write lived. For instance, one of the poems in Rosemarie's collection is written in the manner of a Sean-bhean Bhocht (Shan Van Vocht/Poor Old Woman) piece. This style of poetry is political in nature, with the "Old Woman" representing Ireland. So the inclusion of such a poem in her grandfather's writings may be a clue to his political leanings, and might lead Rosemarie to search for associations or clubs he might have belonged to in Philadelphia.
     One of Patrick Kearney's poems may yet provie Rosemarie with a town of origin for her family in Co.Kilkenny. In one stanza of  "Fond Remembrance of Christmas Morning in Ireland," he writes:
"The Franciscan Church we now can see
     In veneration we called it the Friary.
As I entered its portals I was too thrilled to pray
     As I gazed on the crib built by Father Day."
Following these clues, Rosemarie is researching friaries in Co. Kilkenny as well as the identity of Father Day.
     Of course, we are all not lucky enough to have a poet for an ancestor. But many of us have letters, postcards, jewelry, and other heirlooms that, when examined with detective eyes and with a knowledge of the customs and culture of our ancestor's time, might yield new clues we can use in our research.

12 March 2010


     My eyes glaze and my mind wanders when I am reading a deed, especially those long ones from the 1880's with property descriptions as big as the land itself. But with the help of a strong cup of coffee to keep oneself awake through the metes and bounds and duly's and hereby's, we can discover nuggets of genealogical treasures in deeds and property records.
     I have seen deeds that contain mini-family histories amid the land descriptions. In one such deed from 1900, a family tale was buried in the middle of a four page land description. The deed recounted how the land was purchased by an uncle and nephew-in-law, who each built a house on the land through a private family agreement. The uncle and nephew-in-law died within a short time of each other; the uncle with no children, but the nephew-in-law with eleven. The deed recounts the rights of the heirs, and is signed by them, so it is a valuable document in that sense.
      But the big genealogical discovery is in the part of the deed that recounts an agreement between the uncle and his nephew:
      "Daniel Kelly died and his interest became vested in Kearn Bowe his nephew by virtue of an agreement between them that Kearn Bowe should care for him in his last illness and give him a decent burial."
     Not only did this description introduce a new ancestor to the family, Kearn Bowe, it also provides a glimpse into the lives and relationships of the family members.
     For me, a story about a nephew caring for an uncle and their special relationship is what family history research is all about! Who would think to find such a story in a dry, old deed?
     The other day a woman in one of my classes showed me an deed from 1869 that contained all sorts of genealogical clues regarding wills and heirs. It even recounted the book number and location of a will and other deeds.
     In researching some Irish deeds and property records, I have come across another valuable genealogical gem: "measuring lives."  Under British property law, the time period of certain land transfers were measured by "lives" of (usually) three people. These deeds and records often described the "lives" in some manner, often in terms of a family relationship. Family historian Darryl Scarff shared with me an example from an 1819 County Kilkenny deed:
     "to hold same with all apput's therto belonging unto the said Jas. Scharf, his Heirs and afsigns, for and during the natural life or lives of the said Wm. Tyndall, John Tyndall, eldest son & Wm. Tyndall, youngest son, of said Wm., the lessor and survivor of them..."
So, as you see, this record not only states the names of  William Tyndall's sons, it gives the birth order as well! I have seen many other examples in Irish deeds and property records of the "lives" described in this way. After all, familial relationship was the best way to describe a person at the time.
     In the Wandesforde Estate papers, I read letters addressed to agents of the lord, directing them to determine if the people listed as measuring lives in some of the conveyances were still living. Certain lands could be reclaimed and sold if all had died. See my posting on searching estate records for other discoveries that can made in such collections.
     When researching Irish land and deed records, a family historian should be aware of this common law device and should search for conveyances in which the ancestor was the grantor as well as the grantee, as family members could be named as "measuring lives" in conveyances to third parties.
     While I will treat the methodology of property research in a future post, I will post below links to the Registry of Deeds Index Project and to the Registry of Deeds for Irealnd for those who might want to start their digging into Irish deeds. The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) has estate and land records in Belfast. Don't forget to search the Family History Library to determine if the FHL has films of records or indices for your area of interest.

11 March 2010


When discussing libraries, I failed to emphasize the resources that have been, and continue to be, put online by Ireland's libraries and museums in the "Ask About Ireland" web site. Not only does the site contain the best  Griffith's Valuation database (see my January post regarding Griffith's Valuation), the libraries involved have been placing local histories and other books online in the "Reading Room." I will write more about this site and about researching  local histories in a future column, but I thought a "shout out" now could help many researchers. I would love to hear of any treasures fellow researchers find at this site.

07 March 2010


     Kathryn Doyle left a comment to my last posting on estate records that I want to highlight. She points out that PRONI (Public Record Office of Nothern Ireland) is a repository for estate records also. She mentions that  the Lowry Papers at PRONI contain rental records for the Pomeroy Estate.
     Which leads me to remind readers who are planning a trip to Ireland in the next year: PRONI will be CLOSED from September 2010 to May 2011.

05 March 2010


     If your ancestors lived in, on, or near an estate--and most Irish did throughout the country's history--then there is an excellent chance that a facet of their lives is recorded in the estate records. Estate records usually encompass more than just the letters of the lord or lady of the manor. The papers in a collection of estate records can hold details of the minutiae of life on the estate. Bills, orders, ledgers, and letters can tell us much about the people who serviced, worked, and resided on the estate. The blacksmith, the seamtress, the carpenter, the destitute widow--estate records provide a peek into their lives.
      In the 1840's, my ancestor, Bridget Kavanagh Large, was a destitute widow living on land  in the Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny, area owned by Lord Wandesforde. Last winter, I was able to spend two weeks researching the Wandesforde estate records at the National Library of Ireland Reading Room in Dublin. The index alone to the Wandesforde collection is over 200 pages long. The collection consists of boxes upon boxes of files, ledgers, letters, notebooks, and notes. In the files, I found two instances of her receiving charity from the lord, plus the date of her emigration (1844). But what brought tears to my eyes and chills to my spine was the letter sent by Bridget to Lord Wandesforde requesting blankets for her children. Even if the penmanship was not hers but was that of a priest or scribe, on that day I held in my hands a paper she had touched, had breathed upon, had taken every last ounce of her dignity to send. Time stopped when I held that fragile physical bond to my great great grandmother and I felt Bridget reach through the years and touch me.
     What prevents many researchers from having such moments is simply lack of knowledge of the estate records that are available. These records are not always easy to find, and they can be intimidating to research. However, with diligence and preparation, a good researcher can uncover their treasures. Many of the estate collections are kept in the archives of the National Library of Ireland (NLI).
     Patsy O'Shea of New Zealand is a genealogist who is familiar with researching landed estate records. She is a researcher for and contributor to the Bandon, Co. Cork, genealogy site. In 2007, Patsy spent six months in Dublin at the NLI transcribing records from the Lismore Papers. According to Patsy, the Lismore estate was located in Counties Cork and Waterford, with large holdings around Lismore and Bandon. Patsy gives this description of the collection:
     "The Lismore estate records are enormous and detailed. They cover the running of the estate from the early 1600's to its break up and sale in the late 1800's. Rent rolls, a complete survey of the town of Bandon in 1717 (includes name of householder and description of residence), estate agents' correspondence, lease records, and much more."
     How does a researcher determine if his or her ancestors lived on or near an estate, and if so, where the records are kept today? There are various ways of locating an estate. A knowledge of Irish geography and history would be very helpful to the search, as would historical maps. Patsy found the Lismore estate "mainly through Griffiths Valuation Records--I found that all my folk in that locality were leasing from the Duke of Devonshire."
     The estates are becoming easier to find online. The listings of the collections housed in the National Library of Ireland can be found in its online catalogs. For the Wandesforde papers, the Library even provides a 200+ page indexed finding aide online that can be downloaded as a pdf file. For the western counties, the National University of Ireland, Galway, has completed a resource guide to landed estates and gentry houses in Connacht. The guide is online and the link is below.
     One word of advice to researchers visiting the Manuscript Reading Room of the National Library in Dublin: explore the NLI's finding aides and catalog system online before your trip. You should have with you, if possible, the manuscript and item numbers of the papers you wish to view. A librarian can meet with you first if you are in need of guidance. At the reading room, you will submit an order to the librarian, then a "runner" will retrieve your items from storage. This process can take time on busy days. Please be patient--the staff is wonderful, and they work as efficiently as possible. Don't forget to thank them for all they do!
National Library of Ireland
Index to Prior-Wandesforde Papers at the NLI
Index to Powerscourt estate collection
(for the above two aides, scroll the alphabetical pages)
Connacht Landed Estates Project Database
Patsy's LINKS:
Bandon, Co. Cork, Genealogy
Loane Family of Co. Cork Genealogy Site