Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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By Turtle Bunbury

John Grenham has been pioneering genealogical research for, well, it's getting close to a few generations at this stage. The fourth edition of his seminal book, ‘Tracing Your Irish Ancestors’ is the best yet. It’s the definitive book for anyone trying to work out how to start or even progress a family history.

To get that show on the road, he says, the ‘vital’ details you need are dates, names and places. And the logical place to start is by interviewing the elder members of your family asap. ‘There is no point in combing through decades of parish records to uncover your great-grandmother’s maiden name if you could find the answer simply by asking Aunt Agatha’.

A useful early rule is to simply gather whatever information you can, irrespective of quality. A detail that may seem trivial at the start could prove the key to a whole episode. In one family I researched, I noted a remark in an old letter about a cousin in Argentina. I chased the lead and found the same cousin’s grandson living in Buenos Aires. He duly rewarded me, and my client, by showering us with anecdotes galore, and photos of their mutual great-grandparents home in County Louth taken in the 1890s.

As Grenham says, it is often these details that help ‘flesh out the picture’. As such, if you’re interviewing a senior family member about the past, try and interview them thematically. Was the family musical? Did any of them play sport? Were there any artistic genes? Did anybody have a particularly rich sense of humour?

‘The only absolute rule,’ says John, ‘is that you should start from what you know, and use that to find out more. Every family’s circumstances are unique, and where your family research leads you will depend very much on the point from which you start’.

There is no doubt that one of the greatest powers driving the recent upturn in genealogical research has been the commendable decision to upload every entry from the 1901 and 1911 censuses online, and to transcribe each one, and to make all that information freely and simply available to everyone with an internet connection.

It’s been a massive success and if the Gathering 2013 event should go as planned, it’s organizers will owe a big thank you to the unsung heroes who transcribed these censuses. The transcripts may not be 100% accurate – you should always double check the original - but if you can confirm those details, then it is incredible what you can find out.

Take the Titanic, for instance. The 1911 census was conducted approximately a year before the ship sank. As such, you can expect to find details about most of the 120 or so Irish passengers on board the ship. And that gives you a good opportunity to work out whether you are related to anyone who traveled on the luckless ship.

At the very least, the census allows you to speculate.

Amongst a group of seven friends from County Cork who boarded Titanic together were Michael Linehan, Patrick Denis O'Connell and Hannah Riordan.

So, a quick look at the 1911 census and you can start to wonder.

Was Michael Linehan the 21-year-old ‘Farm Servant’ employed by the Daly family of Tullig, Drishane, Co. Cork?
Maybe Michael’s friend Denis Patrick O’Connell was the 22-year-old schoolboy of that name registered in 1911 at the Catholic school in Templeomalius in Cork.

It’s almost certain that Michael and Denis’s travelling companion Hannah Riordan was the 17-year-old ‘Domestic Servant’ who was working in the household of Kingwilliamstown publican John Daniel Michael Murphy. Perhaps she was helping to look after their four children Lizzie, Jeremiah, Mary and 2-year-old Hannah. The census suggests the pub was the biggest and smartest of the four in the village.[i]

Already, by probing the censuses, we’re starting to build up a mental picture of who these young people were. Their story has been fleshed. It’s ultimately a tragic tale. Michael and Denis Patrick were amongst the 79 Irish who drowned.

As John Grenham says, the census is ‘a stepping stone’ that enables you to work backwards so that, with luck, if you find your ancestor in 1901 or 1911, you should be able to trace your family back to the mid-19th century or even earlier.

It would be superb if we could link every family back to the ancient clans, not least given the crucial place that genealogy had in our Gaelic culture when knowing what your great-great-grandfather was called was arguably more essential than your own name.

Sadly part of the fallout from the British conquest of Ireland in the 17th century was that subsequent records of Irish Catholic families virtually disappeared and there is as Grenham notes ‘a gulf that is almost unbridgeable’ for most people. Your best chances of tracing yourself back to the 18th century is if you’re family owned substantial amounts of land or if they were criminals.

I was lately helping a man whose forbear was transported to Australia for seven years for stealing a pair of shoes in 1818. The details available are extraordinary – a news report of his arrest, the ensuing court case, his presence on the convict ship, his arrival in Sydney and his release in 1825. We learn the colour of his eyes and hair, his stocky build, the scar on his arm – and, probably most absurdly, that he was 15-years-old when he stole the shoes.

The possibilities for unearthing our ancestry grow ever broader every day. John Grenham’s book is the perfect manual for all such genealogical time travel.


John Grenham, Tracing Your Irish Ancestors (Gill & Macmillan Ltd, 2012), 4th edition.


[i] The Murphys actually had six children since their marriage 12 years earlier but the census reveals that two were already deceased. A description of the houses in Kingwilliamstown on the census suggests that the Murphy’s lived in the eight-room pub and that the pub was the smarest of the four public houses in the village. The fact that as well as Hannah Riordan and the toddling Hannah, there was also a teacher called Hannah Murphy, described as a ‘relative’ of the Murphys, suggests that Hannah may also have been a relative.