I haven’t been in a record repository for over two months. That hasn’t happened to me since the mid-1980s, when I took six months off to supervise a parish register indexing project. Even then I managed the odd trip to Dublin to feed my habit. Right now I’m blessed to have more than enough work to do at home, but soon I will start to crave the atmosphere of buildings that envelop you in traces of the past. The Registry of Deeds is my spiritual home, but any of the familiar libraries or archives would be a joy to visit in the near future. Meeting friends and acquaintances, staff members and fellow researchers, people I’ve known for decades – there is so much more to visiting a record repository than the records and the architecture.
Covid-19 has paused life and it has had an impact on genealogy in so many ways, some of which will only be apparent in decades to come. It has brought families together, at a distance, like nothing else has done in a long time. Most people are at leisure to talk remotely to parents, children, siblings and cousins. Family quizzes via video conferencing have become a phenomenon of the pandemic. I was talking to a man the other day who was telling me of the enjoyment he gets from his family’s weekly quiz, for which his children and grandchildren in Ireland and the USA get together. Two of his grandchildren, separated in age by a year but geographically by hundreds of miles – living in Colorado and Massachusetts, now chat familiarly and are getting to know their cousins in Ireland as well. In half a century today’s Great Isolation will be remembered by many as a time that created family ties.
Genealogical organisations in this part of the world also are seeing changes. I’ve attended council meetings of two such bodies recently on Zoom. One usually has its meetings in London and the other in Dublin. The London-based society has council members living in Australia, England, Ireland and Scotland. Its first two Zoom meetings had almost full attendance. The Dublin-based organisation is contemplating its first online CPD event. Of course, online events aren’t unusual for many in genealogy, with the likes of the Virtual Genealogical Association leading the way with webinars. But many of us have been slow to follow. Online meetings and webinars may well become the norm even if and when social distancing is consigned to history.
Covid-19 has imposed working from home on office dwellers all over the world, temporarily at least. This may be a welcome development for many, or possibly most. For professional genealogists, in general, there’s nothing new in this – we do much of our work this way in any case. Most professionals have a fairly extensive personal reference library as well as online resources to help in responding to enquiries. Report writing, dealing with email enquiries and corresponding with clients have been at-home tasks for most self-employed genealogists for decades. More recently the balance of research work between record repositories and online resources has swung sharply in favour of the latter. Had this pandemic happened ten or more years ago, things would have been different, for Irish genealogists anyway. Now we can do much of our research online.
‘So can your potential clients’, I hear you say! Indeed they can, but having sources available to you and knowing how to use them efficiently and effectively are two very different things. Some people who become clients are uncomfortable with technology. Others enthusiastically begin researching online and get stuck. Others get a certain distance and realise they need help. Others are long-term family historians who need advice or research in records unavailable to them.
In 1999, when I moved back to my home town of Baltinglass, after twenty years living in Dublin, I had to travel to the city two or three times a week for research. About twelve years ago a gradual change began, when the first significant Irish genealogical records went online. Now my trips to Dublin are spasmodic, but maybe once a week.
One thing I normally travel there for is the Genealogy Advisory Service (GAS) at the National Archives. This service, free to the public, is run by a panel of Members of Accredited Genealogists Ireland (AGI) on behalf of the National Archives. AGI is the organisation from which I hold my credentials. Since 2003, with one short break, AGI has been engaged by the Archives to provide this service. There is one accredited genealogist on duty each day, and I do two or three days’ duty per month. I was to be on duty on Friday 13 March, an ominous date, but that day the Archives closed due to Covid-19 and it has remained closed for the past two months.
As every good family historian knows, Invention’s mother’s name was Necessity. As a temporary measure, the National Archives decided to provide an alternative GAS by email. On Wednesday 1 April, another choice date, I had the honour and pleasure of being the first AGI Member on duty for this new venture. It’s not ideal, as at the real face-to-face GAS there is interaction with the enquirer and it’s much easier to explain the processes. Nonetheless, the email GAS is proving popular and we advisors are getting used to its quirks. It’s strange how the mind works: though I know I do the email GAS at my kitchen table, on other days I still picture my on-duty colleague sitting in the GAS room in the Archives.
This email service, with an accredited genealogist on hand to advise you, is yet another way that the world of genealogy is adapting in the time of Coronavirus. Already I’ve seen it being copied in principle by a commercial company and a genealogy magazine. We in AGI appreciate the flattery!
In the last few weeks someone ‘Liked’ a Facebook post I published in September 2016. This made me read the post again and decide that it was worth repeating as a blogpost. Little has changed in the two and a half years since I first published the piece. Nothing has happened to the content of the database, either on the National Archives’ free Genealogy website or on the commercial site on which it is mirrored. The two sites have different descriptions of the records in question, but both are misleading. However, with the introduction of the National Archives’ new website there is a possibility that some correction to the database will occur. What follows is the original post from September 2016, with one updating note …
What a huge disappointment the release of the Catholic Qualification Rolls from the National Archives of Ireland has proven to be! It is not the material that disappoints but the way in which it has been presented. I quite appreciate that this does not reflect on the institution itself, as the work was not done in-house. The relevant database is headed variously ‘Catholic qualification & convert rolls, 1700 – 1845’ and ‘Catholic Qualification Rolls, 1700 – 1845’. Neither heading is correct, and whoever thought of throwing these two separate and distinct sets of records (actually merely indexes) together into one database evidently had no appreciation of their differences.
The Convert Rolls recorded those who converted to the Church of Ireland, whether in form only or through conviction, as a result of the Penal Laws. The Catholic Qualification Rolls recorded those who, from the mid-1770s forward, took an oath of allegiance to the Crown in order to avail of relaxations of the Penal Laws through various Acts of Parliament. These were prosperous Roman Catholics were had no notion of changing religion. The two sets of records relate to different sets of people reacting differently to the same laws. They are now fed into one database with no differentiation between them. The related images (of pages from different sources) give the uninitiated viewer no hint as to what they are viewing. Indeed the database is misleading to researchers.
The images from the Convert Rolls merely show names and dates, with no context. Those seriously interested in tracking down a possible convert would do better to refer to the excellent revised edition of ‘The Convert Rolls’ published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission in 2005. The Rolls were edited by the late Eileen O’Byrne, FAGI, in the 1980s and published by the IMC. The revised volume includes Fr. Wallace Clare’s Annotated List of Converts, 1708-78 edited by the late Anne Chamney.
As well as conflating two very different sets of records, and misleading the viewer into thinking that they are in some way related, the new online database has entries with failed links to images and very many repeat entries. In fact, it seems to me that there are double entries for almost all individuals listed. From the description of the conflated database on Claire Santry’s Irish Genealogy News blog it is supposed to hold 52,000 records. Should this number be divided by two?
The NAI began its digitisation of records a decade ago and produced an exemplary set of databases to the 1901 and 1911 Census returns. In partnership with Library & Archives Canada the repository gave the world resources searchable in various ways. They were not just designed for family historians narrowly searching for specific ancestors but browse-able to allow genealogists and local historians alike to place each census form in geographical context. This helped researchers to circumvent many of the glitches in the databases. Some glitches (the omission of whole townlands or even DEDs) could not be overcome. Unfortunately these omissions, as well as corrections submitted by interested viewers, were never fully addressed and the databases remain exemplary but flawed. [Note: Since 2016 substantial work has been done on corrections]
The databases of NAI material produced since then, whether on commercial sites or on the NAI’s own site, have never reached the same standard of search-ability. It’s as though the records have been digitised and indexed with more concern for speed than ultimate utility; as though there was an urgency to empty the National Archives of its genealogical holdings. Sadly, once a database has been created, no matter how shoddy it may be, there is little chance that the original source will ever be revisited for high quality digitisation and indexation.
I'm a genealogist by profession, with credentials from AGI. I also dabble in local history and the history of Irish golfers, and I'm always writing something!