'Tracing Your Irish Ancestors' Reflects Rapid Growth in Resources

Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, 5th Edition
By John Grenham
Published in Ireland by Gill Books and in the USA and Canada by Genealogical Publishing Co.

John Grenham is something of a legend in Irish genealogical circles. During a professional career of almost 40 years he has played a leading role in popularising the study of family history in Ireland by increasing awareness and understanding of available Irish records and sources, whether they be the original print records, or those available via online websites. The unsurpassed wealth of knowledge that Mr. Grenham has accumulated in roles with the National Archives of Ireland and the Genealogical Office, as well as running the “Irish Ancestors” website for The Irish Times, has been poured into the 5th edition of his book “Tracing Your Irish Ancestors”.

 With typical self-deprecating humour John suggests that impetus for the new edition comes from the publishers, “hoping to get everyone who bought the last edition to cough up again.” Although there is obviously a degree of truth in that comment, Grenham goes on to state that it is actually the “revolution in access to genealogical records” which has taken place since the 4th edition in 2012 that provides the justification for the update. This revolution in access, thanks in large part to the massive increase in digitised records made available via publicly funded free websites and the major commercial sites, has, to paraphrase Grenham, seen Ireland transform from being a genealogy backwater to a world leader in providing online record transcripts.

The 5th edition retains the 15 chapter, three-part format of the last edition, although each section has been rewritten and reordered to reflect, so it is claimed, the changes brought about by the digitisation and online access to Irish records. The first four chapters form an introduction for beginners and describe the universally relevant sources such as General Register Office records, Church records, and census, property and valuation records. The following seven chapters detail many of the more specialised sources such as Wills, Directories and Newspapers, as well as focusing on emigration and recent developments such as DNA testing. The final four chapters provide occupational records and county-by-county reference lists, including alphabetical listings of parishes within each county, the availability of parish registers and the location of, and services provided by, heritage centres, local history societies and repositories. As a result of the revision and additions to the chapters, the book has expanded to a colossal 650 pages of text and it is this extreme length which is the first of many criticisms I have of Tracing Your Irish Ancestors.

It feels sacrilegious to criticise a book which is considered by many to be the Bible for Irish genealogists, and other reviews of this edition have been universal in their praise, but, for me, the length of the book reflects a major failing, which is that John Grenham has attempted to include all of the knowledge he has accumulated over the years, does not know how to organise it, and has left us with a jumbled, overblown mess. Although it is claimed that this edition makes it easier than ever for beginners to get started and make sense of Irish records, what beginner is going to look at those 650 pages and not feel daunted? What beginner is going to plough through chapter after chapter when they can find more than enough information to get started, in bitesize format, from any of the widely available popular family history magazines? Why indeed would anyone pay good money for this book when most of its relevant content can already be easily searched for free on the author’s Irish Ancestors website www.johngrenham.com ?

Almost two thirds of the book’s length is taken up by chapters 13 and 14 which deal with County Source Lists and Roman Catholic Parish Registers respectively. Between them, these chapters account for 409 pages, the overwhelming majority of which contain little more than bibliographies of printed sources relating to each county. While William H. Jeffrey’s 1979 book “The Castles of Co. Wexford”, which, we are told, is available at Wexford County Library, may well be a good read, particularly for those interested in castles and how they helped dominate the land, its relevance for most family historians is doubtful. Yet that is typical of so many of the print sources which fill the pages of this book and which are only relevant to hardcore researchers who have the time and financial resources to travel to remote Irish libraries and heritage centres.

By devoting so much of his book to print sources only available in Ireland (a common theme throughout the other chapters of the book) Grenham excludes most of the Irish diaspora in the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, who, one would have thought, would be the author’s target audience. His obsession with Irish printed records poses three questions: is the author aware that there is a large Irish diaspora that may be interested in tracing their roots?, does his presentation of so many records available only in Ireland mask his limited knowledge of Irish sources available elsewhere in the world? and, why is he devoting so many pages to detailing printed sources in a book which is marketed as placing online resources at the core of family history research?

The answer to the final question can be found in chapter 5 ‘The Internet’. In the second paragraph, Grenham makes the following bizarre statement, which begins in bold print, “There are no records on the internet. There are extracts, abstracts, partial transcripts – at best a more-or-less complete copy with an accompanying image. But there are no actual records.” This suggests that Grenham believes unless you are looking at the original record in some obscure archive in Ireland, you are not actually looking at the record, and, you are not conducting ‘proper’ genealogical research. This viewpoint, which smacks of professional snobbery, will carry no weight with the overwhelming majority of family historians who simply want quick, easy access to information and who will not care that the digital image they are looking at of their great-great-grandmother’s death entry is not the original record. It is equally bizarre that this chapter is only 14 pages long and when that is compared with the 257 pages allotted to chapter 13’s mostly print ‘County Source Lists’ the claim that online resources form the heart of the book is disproved.

The answer to the other two questions can be found in chapter 8 ‘Emigration and the Irish Abroad’. Although this chapter appears to be more promising at 57 pages long, only 7 of those pages cover Irish related online family history resources available outside of Ireland. For the other 50 pages of the chapter Grenham is true to form and presents a country by country bibliography of printed books. It is ridiculous and inexcusable that the author gives a mere one and a half pages to covering a miniscule amount of the online resources available in the United States, yet wastes 22 pages detailing books about the Irish in America. How many amateur American genealogists will find anything about their own family in James Durney’s “The Mob: The History of Irish Gangsters in America”, which is typical of the books listed in the bibliography? The history of the Irish in India is considerably less well provided for than the Irish in United States, however, with no online resources apparently being considered worthy of mention and only 4 books cited in the bibliography. Grenham clearly does not comprehend the extent of Ireland’s connection with India and is unaware of resources such as the excellent website of the Families In British India Society and, more importantly, the vast India Office Records (including the archive of the East India Company) available at the British Library and in part online.

Although the author does provide some information that will help identify Irish emigrants, themselves, such as ships’ passenger lists and customs lists, he does not seem to appreciate that most members of the diaspora are not the immediate descendants of those emigrants but are most likely several generations removed. A person in the United States, or Australia, or Britain, beginning their research with the family tradition that a great-great-great-grandfather was an immigrant from the west of Ireland first needs to be able to establish their verifiable link, through each intervening generation, to that immigrant before they can confirm that Thomas O’Malley, who sailed away from Westport, Co. Mayo in 1846, was, indeed, their ancestor. To do that they need to search newspaper obituaries which often provide information about a deceased person’s homeland and details about parents, spouse and children, they need to investigate directories, property records, military service records, trades union, employer and employee records from the country to which their ancestor emigrated. Above all else they need to understand the importance of vital records (birth, marriage, death, divorce etc) and how to access them, particularly in the United States where they are not considered to be Federal records but are instead created by local authorities and agencies at a State level. Rather than providing endless bibliographies about castles and gangsters, John Grenham would have served the diaspora far better if he had provided detailed information about the overseas resources, archives, libraries, local history centres and other repositories which allow the Irish abroad to find out about their immigrant ancestors. It is inexcusable that information about these sources, many of which are now available online, is largely missing from this book and this highlights how irrelevant this book will prove to be for most family history researchers. John Grenham is right, “a revolution in access to Irish genealogical records has taken place” since the fourth edition in 2012 with the result that “most people of Irish origin can now take their family history back to the second quarter of the nineteenth century quickly and easily”. It is ironic and unfortunate that in helping make those genealogical records available online, and in many instances free to access, John Grenham has turned the 5th edition of his book into an unnecessary anachronism.

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Tags: Family History, Irish Genealogy

Comment by Gerry Allan Burnie on March 18, 2020 at 2:22pm

Thank you for this frank but excellent review.

I have been in search for any records relating to John Burnie (b1772), whose headstone (1856) reads that he was late of Derry Ireland, but whose sons were born in various counties, including Antrim, etc.

The truth is there are many family tree companies out there who are more interested in the dollar than the search, For example, I decided to take a DNA test for one company, which I thought would be infallible, only to receive a report that didn't have a 'Burnie' on it, either then or since.

This being the case, I opted for a second test with another company, only to learn that I was 9% Irish (both sides of my family came from Ireland) and a fairly significant percentage Iberian (of which the other test made no mention at all)!

So much for the reliability of DNA tests.

Comment by Kieron Punch on April 14, 2020 at 7:43am

Thank yoiu for your kind comments, Gerry, and apologies for the delay in responding to you.

Have you searched on the Ancestry.com website for your Burnie relatives? I had a quick look and found that several Ancestry members have created and posted their Burnie family trees (perhaps you are one of those people?) and some appear to mention your John Burnie and other generations of that family. It may be worth having a look, if you haven't done so already.

I agree with you comments that many genealogy websites are now more interested in making money rather than providing a service, but it wasn't always like that. Many years ago, for example, Limerick Genealogy would conduct research for people and provide family history reports for little more than a token charge but I have noticed that they have recently relaunched their website www.limerickgenealogy and now charge ridiculous amounts of money for very little content e.g. 65 Euro for an initial one hour consultation, then 50 Euro for every extra hour and/or 499 Euro for a family history report. Thankfully, Limerick city and county library has an excellent site with a wealth of free to access local history and genealogy resources and most of the larger towns in Ireland are also making similar great progress in digitising records and making them available to the public.

Those researching their Irish anestors are also fortunate to have significant resources made available for free at the national level from sites such as the National Archives https://genealogy.nationalarchives.ie/ and church and civil birth, marriage and death records via https://www.irishgenealogy.ie/en/ and military records from http://www.militaryarchives.ie/home . It is unfortunate, however, that the Irish government as still not fulfilled the promise it made years ago to make available the 1926 Irish Census (the first conducted after partition).

I agree with you that people should be cautious when viewing the results of DNA tests. I did a test with probably the largest such company and was surprised that my results came back showing a relatively low percentage of Irishness (around 75%) but with matches for half a dozen other areas such as Scandinavia, northern France, the Iberian peninsula and even India. After several months, the firm sent me a revised update showing that I was 96% Irish and only 4% Britain/northern France (which was what I had originally expected). My wife recently did a test with the same company and her results show that she is supposedly 25% Irish despite us never having found a single Irish relation in her family tree - it will be interesting to see if her results will also be revised.

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