Saturday, July 6, 2013

Disappearing Irish Ancestors

     The famine in 19th century Ireland has been receiving quite a lot of attention lately.  At New York City's Fordham Law School a tribunal was held in April debating the culpability of England in the tragedy.  That verdict is due any day now.

     A new book by Tim Pat Coogan, recently released, also examines England's role in the Famine.  Titled, The Famine Plot, England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy, I guess I don't have to tell you which side of the question Tim Pat comes down on.  But
on to today's topic-- while using the "click to look inside" option at Amazon today, I came across this statistic in the introduction to Tim Pat's book, "in one year of the famine alone, 1849 ... 10,000 unidentified bodies were buried in Glasnevin cemetery."  That number took me aback; of course I knew large numbers of unidentified people were buried during the famine, but that large number in only one cemetery, in just one year left me dumbstruck.  In addition to the incomprehensible human loss, there is also the cost to family history.  A large part of an entire generation simply vanished with no record of any sort save the sad notation "unidentified" in a cemetery record book.

     Going even further back, to the time of Cromwell, we find Catholic land being confiscated and the uprooted families given to understand they could either "go to hell or Connacht".  Connacht being an area of poor quality land in the west of Ireland.  At the same time, Irish prisoners, men, women and children were being sold to English planters in the Caribbean, thousands of them!  Unlike the nameless souls resting in unmarked graves, those sold into slavery could conceivably be traced, though in practice it would be nearly impossible.  There are later church records relating to the Irish in the Caribbean, but they don't generally connect back to a place in Ireland.  I recently ordered a copy of, "To Hell Or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland" by Sean O'Callaghan, (through Amazon used books of course), a play on the old Cromwellian phrase.  I will let you know my thoughts on the book as soon as it arrives.

     John Grenham, in the introduction to his book "Tracing Your Irish Ancestors", says, "In Gaelic culture genealogy was of crucial importance, but the collapse of that culture in the seventeenth century, and its subsequent impoverishment in the eighteenth century, have left a gulf that is nearly unbridgeable."  I've read that many times before. In pre-Cromwell Ireland seanachies kept detailed genealogies of the families they were associated with.  This information was vital to the distribution of land under the old system.  The result is, there are Irish genealogies stretching back many, many generations with no way to connect them to recent genealogies, the unbridgeable gulf Mr. Grenham speaks of.

     The upshot is, the Penal Laws and persecution of Catholics created a dearth of early church records along with widespread illiteracy, which equals no letters, no diaries, no family bible notations.  Cromwell, the famine, the loss of census and other records in the Civil War all contribute to the difficulty in finding our early ancestors. I'm back to my 3rd great grandparents in most cases and I really doubt I'll get much further. I hate to sound like a defeatist, but the odds are stacked against me. 


  1. I have a 3x great-grandfather who came from Ireland sometime in the early 1840s, I have tried for 20 years to trace him to his origins in Ireland to no avail.... I fear I will never get back any further with him either!

  2. Circumstances being what they are, it's not likely you will find his parents, but there's still a chance of finding his place of origin. I've actually had good luck with American records--obituaries and even tombstones. IFHF is also a good place to look for baptisms which would at least give you a parish, they just happen to be having a 40% off sale til July 14th. I did a blog on them if you're not familiar with the site
    Thanks for commenting and good luck.