I sometimes think that I’m more familiar with people who lived in Baltinglass in the past than those who live here now. I mean people who were here in the nineteenth century in particular. It’s not that I communicate with their spirits or anything like that! I just know them from their names in deeds or parish registers, in old newspapers or on gravestones. One such person was Alice Shaw.
Recently someone who knows my interest in the past brought me two large suitcases of old books he had found in an outhouse he was clearing. Though most of them were mouldy, he thought better of just dumping them before giving me the option of saving some of them. They were on various subjects and in varying states of preservation. I kept about twenty of them, some for their content, but others for their individual associations.
One book I rescued was Richmal Mangnall’s Historical and Miscellaneous Questions for the Use of Young People. I admit that I had never heard of this book or its author. I rely on the generosity and possible accuracy of Wikipedia for what I know now. Richmal Mangnall was, in fact, a woman. She was an English schoolmistress who first published the book anonymously in 1798, then in her late twenties. Later it was taken up by Longmans, the London publishers, and there were 84 editions published up to 1857.
The book I have is a ‘New Edition, corrected and improved’, printed in 1829. Curiosity as it is in its own right, it might not have caught my attention but for the signature on the title page: ‘Alice Shaw Baltinglass’. Of course, I knew Alice well, though she had not lived here for over a century and a quarter.
A book gains a life beyond itself when its owner signs it. In the first half of the nineteenth century Alice Shaw sat down in Baltinglass and wrote her name into this book; in the second decade of the twenty-first century I was standing in Baltinglass holding that book, looking at her signature. The book bridged the time difference. Alice Shaw was not just a random name that meant nothing to me. Immediately I knew who she was and I wanted to keep the book for that reason.
Alice Shaw did not lead a remarkable life, as far as I know, and I have no idea about her personality. She may have been lively, humorous, outgoing and charitable, or dour, crotchety, reserved and miserly. Whatever her character, for about eighty years she was part of the life of my home town: one of my predecessors in the space I inhabit.
Going from memory and material easily to hand, I can outline a bit about Alice’s background. The Shaws might be regarded as one of the old Baltinglass families. They were here from at least the mid-eighteenth century and the last of the family to live in the town died in 1911. A branch farmed just outside the town in Boley and they survived a few years more. Alice’s parents were Robert and Hannah Shaw. Robert was a builder, or building contractor. Hannah’s maiden surname most likely was Jackson, as there is a Robert Shaw to Hannah Jackson entry dated 1812 in the Index to Marriage Licence Bonds for Ossory, Ferns and Leighlin dioceses.
The Shaws were Church of Ireland. Baltinglass C. of I. parish is one of those whose registers were destroyed in the Public Record Office in 1922, so there is no surviving baptismal record for Alice. If her parents married in 1812 she must have been younger than the stated age on her death record, so probably she was born in late 1812 or in 1813. It is known that Robert and Hannah had at least two children, Alice and Esther. It is very likely that they had several more children, since Esther was about twelve years younger than her sister.
As Alice Shaw’s copy of Mangnall’s Historical and Miscellaneous Questions was published in 1829, she may have received it about that time, when she would have been in her late teens. Certainly her signature seems mature, but it is unlikely that she would have acquired a book like this beyond her mid-twenties. I wonder was it was a gift from her parents or a teacher or a friend? Maybe she bought it herself. I have a feeling that it meant something to her.
It is uncertain where precisely the family lived during Alice’s youth. In the 1840s Robert Shaw occupied two properties in the town and at least from that time the family lived in the one at the end of Main Street, directly opposite what is now the Credit Union. Robert’s other property was what is now Patterson’s in Main Street. Apparently he was renting other houses in the town to tenants, as Alice later did likewise.
Alice was in her early thirties when her father died in February 1846. Five and a half years later her mother died, in September 1851. For the rest of her life Alice was the owner of all the family’s property. As well as two pieces of land, in Sruhaun and Baltinglass East, amounting to 19 acres, she had tenants in two houses in Weavers’ Square and two houses in Mill Street. She and her sister Esther never married and apparently they continued to live together in the family home for over thirty years. By the 1880s they would have been regarded as elderly ladies.
In June 1888 Esther died of hepatitis at the age of 60. She was buried in Baltinglass Abbey with their parents. Four years later Alice also left this world, dying on 2 November 1892 from what was described as an intestinal obstruction which she endured for almost two weeks. She was probably about 79 years old, though her death record stated that she was 81. Her cousin and neighbour, Lizzie Shaw, was the informant on the record. The executor of Alice’s will was Rev. John Usher, the then Rector of Baltinglass parish. She left an estate of £354-16-0.
Alice Shaw was part of the life of Baltinglass for several decades. Her entire existence was spent in my corner of the world. No doubt she was buried with her parents and sister in Baltinglass Abbey, but no one bothered to add her name to the inscription on the gravestone. However, one day she sat down and wrote her name in her book; now that book is mine.
On a cold February night in the Glen of Imaal, Co. Wicklow, in 1799 it would have seemed unimaginable luxurious to those trying to stay warm that people in the future would swim in heated man-made pools. Rebels on the run hardly thought about such things. Telling ghost stories or tales about strange spirits might have whiled away the hours, but would they ever have thought that such stories could be told in the future through pictures moving on a wall?
Unless you’re from West Wicklow or have some family connection with the event, you’re unlikely to have heard of the siege at Derrynamuck. It followed the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland and involved the capture of a group of rebels, with only their leader, Michael Dwyer, escaping. On the other hand, if you’re not too young you may be familiar with the film Cocoon, released in 1985. It was about elderly people in a retirement home gaining youthful energy by swimming in a pool owned by aliens. It was a big hit at the time, and led to a sequel.
On the surface there is nothing to connect Derrynamuck and Cocoon. Separated by circumstance, character, the Atlantic Ocean and almost two centuries, they have no visible common factor. However, genealogy has a way of drawing unrelated things together.
It’s a small world, as they say. Mathematicians and social psychologists have long theorised about the connectedness of the human population and their idea has been popularised by the term ‘six degrees of separation’. The hypothesis is that any two individuals on the planet are connected in some way by no more than five intervening people. Well, a person concerned with Derrynamuck was connected to a person who acted in Cocoon through three intervening people. Therefore, there are just four degrees of separation between Derrynamuck and Cocoon.
The connection was not through Michael Dwyer or any of the rebels who were with him. Instead, the person concerned was Dominick Edward Blake. He was a young man in the 1790s and certainly not a rebel. Blake was a Church of Ireland (Anglican) clergyman, though he may not have been ordained at the time of Derrynamuck. Then in his late 20s, he had yet to secure an appointment to a parish within the C. of I. It was not until 1804 that he became the minister in Kiltegan, Co. Wicklow, a position he was to hold for nineteen years. Dominick Blake was born in Co. Roscommon. Exactly why he was in West Wicklow in February 1799 is unclear, but he may have been a friend of William Hoare Hume of Humewood, his contemporary at Trinity College Dublin. In fact, Blake, Hume and the rebel leader Dwyer all were born in or about 1772.
The 1798 Rebellion was an uprising against British rule, led by members of the United Irishmen and prompted by support from the French. The United Irishmen were mainly led by Protestant radicals and in Ulster the rebellion primarily involved Presbyterians. In the general area of Wicklow the rebellion primarily involved Catholics and events led to sectarian distrust and violence. Landlords, such as the Humes, expected their tenants of whatever religious persuasion to support them in fighting the rebels.
It was a trying time for all and the ties of loyalty often were tested. On occasion Dwyer himself was accused by fellow rebels of being too fond of Protestant neighbours. On the other hand, an anonymous letter to Dublin Castle called for William Hume of Humewood to be ‘properly cautioned from screening the disaffected of his own neighbourhood’. This William Hume was the father of William Hoare Hume. In October 1798 he was killed by a rebel named John Moore on the road from Ballinabarney Gap to Rathdangan.
Dominick Blake’s role in the story of the siege of Derrynamuck, four months later, came about by chance. A local man named William Steel got wind of the fact that Dwyer and his party were staying in Derrynamuck on the night of 15 February 1799. Steel was in Humewood at the time, as was Blake ‘who luckily happened to be on horse back’. Steel gave him the information and he galloped off to the garrison at Hacketstown to convey it to the commanding officer of the Glengarry Fencibles, a regiment apparently made up mainly of Catholics from the Scottish highlands who spoke little or no English.
As Charles Dickson’s The Life of Michael Dwyer states, the twelve rebels staying in three houses in Derrynamuck were surrounded by the Scottish regiment in the early hours of 16 February. In the exchange that followed a private soldier was shot dead, a corporal was fatally wounded and three of the rebels were killed. Dwyer escaped and the remaining eight rebels were captured. On 23 February they were tried in Baltinglass and sentenced to death. Three who were deserters from army and militia regiments were shot. Four others were hanged. The other man saved his life by informing about a murder which he may well have committed himself.
Four months after the siege Dominick Blake married Ann Margaret Hume, whose father had been killed the previous autumn. The marriage took place on 25 June 1799 and by then Blake was an ordained minister. His first recorded appointment was two years later, as curate in Kilcock. In 1804 he became Rector of Kilranelagh and Kiltegan. The present church in the village of Kiltegan, St. Peter’s, was built in 1806. The adjacent Glebe House (since enlarged and now no longer a church property) was built about a decade later. However, the Glebe House may not have been completed during Rev. Dominick Blake’s lifetime, as his address when he died was Barraderry. It may be that he rented Barraderry House, just outside Kiltegan, from the Pendred family. On the other hand, he may have had a residence on the part of Barraderry townland owned by the Humes.
Dominick Blake and Ann Hume had two sons born in Kiltegan, the younger being William Hume Blake (1809-1870). He added to the Hume-ness of his line by marrying his cousin Catherine Hume in 1832. In the same year his extended family, including his mother, emigrated to Upper Canada. He and various relatives were prominent enough in their new country to merit entries in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. William Hume Blake and Catherine Hume were the parents of Sophia Blake who married Verschoyle Cronyn. Their son Hume Blake Cronyn (1864-1933) was a lawyer and politician. His son, also named Hume Blake Cronyn, became an actor.
Hume Cronyn may not have been the biggest name in Hollywood but his was a very recognisable face among character actors from the 1940s to the first decade of the twenty-first century. His first film was Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). He received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in the 1944 film The Seventh Cross. It was the first film in which he appeared with his wife, Jessica Tandy. Cocoon was one of the last in which they worked together (as one of the elderly couples swimming in the aliens’ pool), but it was released four years before Jessica Tandy’s career reached its zenith with Driving Miss Daisy.
Hume Cronyn’s other films included Cleopatra (1963), The Parallax View (1974), The World According to Garp (1982) and Marvin’s Room (1996). He won three Emmys and a Tony for performances on television and stage, as well as a Tony in 1994 for Lifetime Achievement, jointly with Jessica Tandy.
Following Dominick Blake’s death on 2 October 1823 in his 51st year his parishioners in Kiltegan erected a plaque in St. Peter’s church expressing ‘their deep sense of his worth’ and ‘their grief for his loss’. A decade later his widow Ann emigrated to Canada, where she died in the 1860s.
After Derrynamuck Michael Dwyer spent nearly five years evading capture in the Wicklow Mountains before surrendering in the belief that he and his companions would be pardoned and sent to the USA. The man he chose to surrender to was Dominick Blake’s brother-in-law, William Hoare Hume. That instead the rebels were sent as convicts to Australia was never blamed on Hume. Hume died in 1815 in his early 40s. Dwyer died in New South Wales in 1825, almost two years after Blake, aged 53.
In August 1948, during the 150th anniversary of the 1798 Rebellion, what became known as the Dwyer – McAllister Cottage in Derrynamuck was handed over to the state in the person of President Seán T. O’Kelly. The ceremony was attended by William Hoare Hume’s great-granddaughter, Catherine Marie Madeleine ‘Mimi’ Weygand. Mme. Weygand died in 1991, ending the Hume family’s association with Humewood, Kiltegan and West Wicklow.
[I wish to thank Canon Jones and Kiltegan Parish for allowing me to use the image of the Blake plaque; also, I wish to thank Ms. Tandy Cronyn (daughter of Hume Cronyn), Darryl Reilly (New York City arts blogger) and Alan Hanbidge (Kiltegan Parish) for their assistance.]
A week ago I attended a marathon of an event. It lasted from 10.30am to sometime about 9pm, long after I had left. It was absorbing. It was full of surprises, good and bad. It was a glimpse into the past, and it said a lot about the present Irish economy. For anyone from my locality who attended it, there was no doubt a tinge of sadness as well as great fascination.
This event was the sale of the contents of Fortgranite, a gentleman’s residence just a few miles outside of Baltinglass. For over two hundred years it had been the home of the Dennis family, but recently it was sold and now we were picking over the family’s heirlooms, their more personal possessions and the things they had forgotten in the less visited corners of the ancient house.
As well as wanting to purchase a pair of Victorian bookcases and some genealogical books, I had the mad notion of ‘saving’ one of the many portraits for Baltinglass. The house was crammed full of the images of the Dennis family’s ancestors. Most of them were from the Swift family. Apparently they had come to Fortgranite from Swiftsheath, Co. Kilkenny.
In the male line the Dennises originally were Swifts. Meade Swift, a first cousin of the famous Jonathan Swift and a second cousin of the poet John Dryden, was the father of Thomas Swift who married Frances Dennis. Frances’s brother Lord Tracton died without issue in 1782. He left his estates in Co. Kerry to his nephew Rev. Meade Swift on condition that he adopt the surname of Dennis. In 1780 Rev. Meade Swift had married Delia Sophia Saunders of Saunders Grove. Through this marriage the family’s connection with the Baltinglass area had come about. It was their son Thomas Stratford Dennis who was the first owner of Fortgranite. It would appear that the property came with his marriage in 1810 to his first cousin Katherine Martha Maria Saunders. The last resident owner of Fortgranite was their great-great-grandson Piers Dennis, who died in January 2016.
The Swift portraits were not the ones I was concerned about. I got it into my head that the Stratford family portraits should remain in Baltinglass, where they had history and context. In my mind’s eye I could see them on the walls of Baltinglass Courthouse, a building almost contemporary with Fortgranite. Unable to interest anyone with money in being philanthropic, I innocently decided that I might manage to ‘save’ one of the portraits. Who could possibly wish to go beyond the guide price to purchase portraits of complete strangers by unknown artists? Well now I know that the answer to that is many people. The Stratford portrait I was least interested in was that of Lady Maria Stratford, about whose very existence I was previously unaware. The guide price was €4,000 to €6,000 but Lady Maria was fought over by a number of people before someone bidding over the phone got possession for €18,000. It must be said that the catalogue indicated that this painting was attributed to James Latham.
So, why did the Stratfords interest me, and why where their portraits in Fortgranite? Robert and Mary Stratford had a residence in Baltinglass in the 1660s. Their son Edward, though he lived in Belan, Co. Kildare, purchased the town of Baltinglass and many of the townlands in its vicinity from the Carroll family in 1707. His son John Stratford did much to encourage the development of Baltinglass. He married Martha daughter of Rev. Benjamin Neale (apparently Rector variously of Hacketstown, Kiltegan and Baltinglass) and through the marriage acquired further local property, including Mountneill, Co. Carlow, a few miles south of Baltinglass.
John and Martha became Baron and Baroness Baltinglass in 1763, Viscount and Viscountess Aldborough in 1776 and finally Earl and Countess of Aldborough in 1777. Their eldest son, Edward, was the more famous 2nd Earl. It was he who build Aldborough House in Dublin and founded the industrial town (now village) of Stratford-on-Slaney, a few miles north of Baltinglass.
The Dennis family were descended from John and Martha through their daughter, Martha Saunders. The last of the Stratfords was the 6th Earl. When his residence, Stratford Lodge (where Baltinglass Golf Club is now located), went up in flames in 1858 four Dennis brothers were among those who attempted to save its contents. Whether the portraits were there at the time is unclear but they came into the possession of the Dennis family either then or on the death of the last earl’s mother. In any case they adorned the walls of Fortgranite for over 130 years.
As for the portraits, they included one of the original Edward Stratford, one of his son John (1st Earl), two of John’s wife Martha and one of their son Edward (2nd Earl). To me, these historical characters were part of the story of Baltinglass and their images bring to life an aspect of our heritage. I determined to at least bid for the ‘cheapest’ of them, the nicer of the two of Martha Neale. The guide price was €1,500-€2,000 and I was sure it would sell for less. I never got to take part. The bidding started at €1,500 and the portrait sold for €5,000.
Martha Neale may not be a well-known historical character internationally but she possibly was the earliest woman associated with Baltinglass of whom there is a surviving image. Genealogically she made her mark on the world. As the mother of at least fifteen (family legend says nineteen) children she produced thousands of descendants. Among those living today are the Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York, the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and the acting brothers Ralph and Joseph Fiennes.
During the auction various military jackets went for huge prices. Much attention was given to a letter dated 1901 from Winston Churchill replying to Capt. (later Col.) Meade J.C. Dennis, who took exception to his comment on the conduct of the Boer War. With the interest shown in military memorabilia it might have been expected that the letter would fetch a hefty sum, but this was not the case.
One portrait that went past me unnoticed, because it was surrounded in the auction by several Swifts, was that of ‘Miss A. Plunkett, niece of the first Lord Aldborough, Countess of Antrim’. This was Anne Plunkett, a granddaughter of the Edward Stratford who purchased Baltinglass in 1707. She was also the great-great-great-great-grandmother of Winston Churchill. I doubt Churchill was aware that the man he was replying to in 1901 was his fifth cousin twice removed.
It wasn’t necessary for me to find space in my house to accommodate Martha Neale, and she left Baltinglass after all. However, I learned that she and the other Stratfords of whom I was concerned went to ‘good homes’ in Ireland. This is reassuring to know. The Dennises were the last descendants of the Stratfords living locally, some three and a half centuries after Robert and Mary Stratford first came to Baltinglass. ‘The end of an era’ is a dreadfully hackneyed phrase. But in this instance the auction was just that, and I was there to witness the end.
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.
BTOP Belfast may not have been the biggest BTOP ever but there were plenty of people around and I enjoyed it greatly. Working with my AGI colleagues and the NAI staff was enjoyable. Meeting people (some for the first time; some catching up from before) also made it worthwhile. But the highlight for me was spending time with my retired colleagues Hazel Ervine, Joan Petticrew and Marie Wilson again after such a long time.
On my early visits to Belfast (like 30+ years ago!) they were at the heart of the vibrant Reading Room of the old PRONI in Balmoral Avenue. They were part of the small band of professional genealogists who founded APGI (now AGI) in Belfast in 1986. In the early years our annual general meeting was held in Belfast in alternate years and Hazel, Joan and Marie, along with the late John McCabe and our newest Fellow, David McElroy, were always there to greet us.
On Friday afternoon at the close of BTOP we in AGI, joined by other genealogists, had a little ceremony honouring Hazel, Joan and Marie (see the AGI news item). It was a happy event at which David recalled memories from the three ladies’ careers. His words made me think about my visits to Belfast back in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether those visits were for the AGM or for research in PRONI, my northern colleagues were always about and they were always welcoming and helpful.
Genealogy can be an entirely solitary pursuit if you only sit in front of your computer to research: even if you engage with people to an extent through forums or social media, or even Skype. Meeting people face to face, in the flesh, is an entirely different experience. I met people over the weekend I had corresponded with online or had heard of. Events like BTOP are among the few opportunities we have now for meeting in the flesh. The experience of genealogical research has been altered entirely by online availability. Record repositories are victims of their own success in responding to the demand for remote access. Their reading rooms are devoid of the hustle and bustle they once had. Going into Dublin’s repositories now you might see a few familiar faces, but meeting colleagues on a daily basis is a thing of the past.
It’s sad really, and David’s words on Friday made me acutely aware of what we have lost in gaining easier and faster access to information. As I said, spending time with Hazel, Joan and Marie was the highlight of BTOP Belfast for me.
Shock and horror! Today is the fortieth anniversary of my first day of work in genealogy. Where has all that time gone?
I should add that I was a mere teenager then, albeit months away from not being one. It was a dream-come-true. A few days earlier I had my ‘interview’ with Gerard Slevin, the Chief Herald, and I tried to impress him with my meagre knowledge of the records. He already had made up his mind. The Genealogical Office had a backlog of pre-paid searches and not enough researchers. Unknown to me, my enthusiasm had been mysteriously recommended to him and he was prepared to give me a chance.
What was on offer was not a job. It was a place on the panel of freelance researchers for the GO. I would be guided in my initial steps and I would be paid for the searches I completed. Mr. Slevin’s advice has rung repeatedly in my ears over the forty years since: Get it out of your system and then get a real job (or words to that effect).
He was not denigrating the profession of genealogy, as it didn’t exactly exist in Ireland at that time. No one conducting genealogical research for a living. Third level students did it part-time as a source of income; mature married women did it to stimulate their brain; people of independent means did it for the enjoyment. I was going to do it because it was all I ever thought of as a career. Perhaps I should have thought harder!
Working in genealogy for forty years has been hugely rewarding to my soul; had it been equally rewarding in monetary terms I would be a billionaire now. I’m not a billionaire. I had no desire to be wealthy and I knew genealogy would never make me rich. That, at least, was an accurate prediction.
This day forty years ago was thrilling for me, as I stepped across the threshold of the GO as one of its freelance researchers. I experienced delight and terror in equal measure. I met with kindness and encouragement from staff members and freelance researchers alike. They gave me an excellent grounding in genealogical research on which to build over years and decades.
It was in February 1979 that I first met my fellow freelance researchers, Eileen O’Byrne and Eilish Ellis, both now gone to a better place. They were my seniors in age, education and experience but they never made this gormless eejit of a teenager feel like anything other than a colleague. How can that be all of forty years ago?
Predictive text often has us using odd words, conveying a message we never intended. Technology doesn’t always know what we’re thinking! To an extent there is a similarity with the automated ‘helpful’ suggestions we get from the websites of data-providing companies. While they may prove accidentally relevant, or even helpful, by and large they are misleading distractions.
Those I have received fall into two categories: records I already have (but haven’t displayed on an online family tree) and records of people with the same names as my ancestors (but from an entirely different part of Ireland). Luckily I can tell the difference between my ancestors and these strangers. But people starting out in family history often think that the computer somehow mysteriously knows best, and ‘adopt’ the strangers into their online family trees. The fact that the strangers may not fit geographically, socially, religiously or chronologically with their known ancestors doesn’t immediately occur to them. This is one of the root causes of ‘genealogical virus’.
That’s not a widely used expression. ‘Genealogical virus’ is a phrase I coined to describe what I feel is a damaging trend and I first used it in print last year in my book, Credentials for Genealogists: Proof of the Professional.
The cynic in me knows that the ‘helpful’ suggestions are designed to keep me engaging with the site, in case I get bored and wander off to a more ‘helpful’ data-provider. But there are more useful ways that they might engage their customers. If they would concentrate more on explaining the genealogical and historical context of databases, and less on technology, they might well provide information that is helpful to their customers, while retaining their interest.
As things stand, the explanation of sources that such sites provide is meagre to non-existent, and in some cases downright inaccurate. It is apparent that the decision making behind these sites is in the hands of accountants and technology experts rather than genealogists. Hard-nosed business decisions are understandable, but they can go hand in hand with real attempts at helping customers find their way around the records. Educating the customer is not necessarily a bad business decision.
The nature of genealogical research has changed significantly since it has shifted from the record repository to the computer. It is noticeable that a large proportion of novices are less au fait with the records and research methods. They are more inclined to accept hints at face value and ‘adopt’ strangers into their family trees, thereby spreading genealogical virus. This has an impact on my work. How is that?
When I’m approached by a potential client looking to expand on their information on a particular line of ancestry I have to evaluate their information and determine whether worthwhile research is possible. This was a fairly straightforward process a decade or more ago. More often than not they had correct information. Now I no longer can assume that this is the case: evaluation has become more time consuming. I’m sure fellow professional genealogists everywhere are having the same difficulties as I am. Now, more than ever in the past, it would be remiss of a professional simply to take a client’s information and start building on it.
Very often an enquirer will refer me to their online family tree for information. Do any professional genealogists actually base their evaluation on such shaky foundations? I don’t. An online family tree, no matter how many ‘sources’ it may have attached to it, can be riddled with genealogical virus. To evaluate its contents it needs to be picked apart very carefully. Having any number of sources attached does not indicate the research process employed, or ensure that the alleged ancestors are who the enquirer thinks they are.
I would be quite happy to be commissioned to play devil’s advocate on the contents of an online family tree. But it’s another thing to conduct a free evaluation in order to determine whether further worthwhile research might be possible.
Because I don’t know an enquirer’s level of experience in family history I have to treat all as beginners and ‘interrogate’ them as to their initial family information, their research approach and the sources that have led them to the ancestors they wish me to work on. This doesn’t always go down very well with enquirers. But, unfortunately, it has to be done because of the relationship between genealogical virus and computer-generated helpfulness!
I had 13 grandaunts and 18 granduncles – 31 in all – but only four of them were still alive when I was born. It seems that grandaunts and granduncles have gone out of fashion with Irish people. They’ve been supplanted by great-aunts and great-uncles. Why has this happened?
I met two of my grandaunts when I was very young. During my summer holidays I was brought to visit them in the upstairs sitting-room of the house in which they were lodgers. We called them Aunt Katie and Aunt Aggie, but they were my grandaunts, my mother’s aunts and my grandmother’s sisters. Katie was born in 1873 and Aggie in 1887, but they seemed equally ancient to me, with white hair and long dark, old-fashioned clothes. I thought I had been on a number of such visits but looking at the facts now that can’t be true. The visit I remember cannot have been later than the summer of 1964, when I was turning five, because Katie died in December 1964.
Why is that unremarkable visit etched in my mind? Maybe meeting those two old ladies from a bygone age was one of the things that ignited my love of the past. As I expanded my interest in family history over the next decade I was told the names of many relatives from early generations on each branch of my ancestry. They included many of my grandaunts and granduncles, as well as great-grandaunts and great-granduncles. That’s what such relatives were called in Ireland back then.
That’s what such relatives are still called in Ireland. But more and more frequently I’m encountering people who self-consciously refer to their ‘great-aunts’ and ‘great-uncles’. Why is this? Maybe there is less connection between generations now and people are unfamiliar with such relationships. Or maybe they think it’s posh to say ‘great-uncle’. Certainly great-aunts and great-uncles are popular in more affluent English circles, and they get a lot of television exposure from the likes of Who Do You Think You Are? However, they don’t hold sway with everyone in England – a colleague with a background in Yorkshire uses ‘grand’ rather than ‘great’.
Dictionaries, if they mention them at all, will usually give ‘great-aunt’ and ‘grandaunt’ as alternatives. However, I’m saddened by the New Oxford Dictionary from Writers and Editors omitting grandaunt, granduncle, grandniece and grandnephew, while populating its pages with all the equivalent ‘greats’. Getting back to ‘great-aunt’, it is long established in many other English-speaking countries. But to me it’s illogical and inconsistent with other relationship terms. Why would my grandmother’s sister be my great-aunt instead of my grandaunt? Go back a generation and my great-grandmother’s sister is (quite rightly) my great-grandaunt. Unfortunately, there are people who would call my great-grandmother’s sister my great-great-aunt! That’s a step beyond!
The English language is rich in alternative words because of its inheritance from Germanic and Latin roots. The word ‘great’ was in Old English before the Normans brought ‘grand’ with them from France. Having ‘aunt’, ‘grandaunt’ and ‘great-grandaunt’ as genealogical terms helps to differentiate between the immediate generations in a family. I see no good reason to collapse the structure by removing the second layer.
On the recent Irish series of Who Do You Think You Are? I was glad to hear Pat Shortt several times referring to a granduncle. Adrian Dunbar did so too, though he alternated between the two terms as if he was unsure if great-uncle was the correct thing to say.
My gripe-of-the-day stems from a concern for tradition. Irish people traditionally have had grandaunts and granduncles, regardless of what such relatives have been called elsewhere. Let’s not lose touch with the past while digging into it. Hold on to your grandaunts and granduncles. They’re part of your heritage.
Over the weekend my AGI colleagues and I were busy at the annual Back To Our Past (BTOP) event at the RDS in Dublin. We were running the AGI (Accredited Genealogists Ireland) stand, providing free 20-minute consultations, answering queries and promoting members’ publications. Among the publications was my new book, Credentials for Genealogists: Proof of the Professional, and I was very gratified by the response from professional genealogists and aspiring professionals.
While we were working away voluntarily at BTOP, promoting our accrediting and representative organisation, one of my colleagues was alerted by a friend to a slur in an Irish genealogy group on Facebook. In reply to a query about how to find a professional genealogist, the friend had posted a link to AGI’s website. A response was posted along the lines of ‘I wouldn’t trust any of those accredited genealogists: I’ve heard they’ll just take your money’.
My colleague followed this up and it transpired that versions of the same rumour were doing the rounds on various groups, all emanating from a genuine complaint made by one person. When my colleague tracked down that person they were happy to explain the real story and they asked: Is there anything you can do to stop her [the ‘genealogist’ who they engaged] from doing this to someone else?
The complaint was not about a genealogist accredited by AGI or any organisation. It was about an individual in Ireland operating a research and tour service under a business name. When told about it I recognised the name, as I had been contacted about this person a few years ago. It was a similar story – a client from overseas had paid this person for research, the research was not fully completed and / or there were mistakes, emails received delayed responses and then none at all.
The individual’s research / tour service has a website on which it is claimed that the business has membership of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), New England Historic Genealogical Society, the Irish Genealogical Research Society and the Irish Genealogical Society International. This sounds impressive, but it is misleading as there is no actual membership of at least two of the four organisations. Three of them are general membership organisations that anyone can join. The other, APG, is a support or networking body for people working as professional genealogists but it provides no accreditation, and membership is open to anyone who undertakes to pay an annual fee and abide by its code of ethics. Evidently the research / tour service person does not abide by any code of ethics and it appears that she is not currently a paid-up member of APG.
So what can Accredited Genealogists Ireland do about this? The answer is simple: Nothing! AGI provides credentials for Irish genealogists whose work is approved by an independent board of assessors. It represents the interests of those genealogists and it will investigate any complaints made about their practices. AGI does not control the activity of practitioners outside of its membership.
On the other hand, AGI and its membership suffer the consequences to the profession’s reputation of the behaviour of people calling themselves professional genealogists who have neither ethics nor ability. AGI Members and Affiliates, as well as respected practitioners outside the organisation, are victims of the fly-by-night ‘genealogists’ just as much as the people who part with their money to these characters. And to add insult to injury, we have to deal with the utterances of third party rumour-mongers who blithely spread stories they only half understand about ‘accredited genealogists’ taking your money.
My advice to anyone stung by a fly-by-night is to complain to any organisation of which they claim membership, complain to any publication or social media outlet in which they promote their services, complain to any record repositories they mention in their publicity and complain to the relevant tourism and consumer affairs authorities.
My advice to anyone wishing to engage a genealogist is, as always, to look for someone with credentials from one of the world’s regional accrediting organisations. They’re all in my new book!
The recent intense and prolonged heatwave experienced by Ireland reminded me of a short newspaper article I came across a few years ago. I included it in my contribution to the Journal of the West Wicklow Historical Society, No. 6 (2011), ‘Miscellaneous Biographical Notices Relating to Baltinglass, 1748-1904’.
The article recounted the tragic death of a little boy during a hot spell in August 1882. It appeared in the Saturday 12 August edition of the Kildare Observer, under the heading ‘Death from Sunstroke’:
During the past week a child of Mr. Felix Bowes, of Baltinglass, died from the effects of the intense heat. The deceased was a fine little boy of five years of age, and was playing with a number of other children, when he complained of having a pain in his head, and, after a short illness, succumbed. It appears his head was uncovered, and it would be desirable children should not be allowed to expose themselves to the heat of the sun this weather.
The little boy was John Bowes. He was indeed five years old, as he was born in Baltinglass on 7 January 1877. On his birth record he parents were named as Phelim Bowes, a tailor, and Margaret Bowes, formerly Parker. The names Phelim and Felix were used interchangeably, due to Felix being used as a pseudo-translation of Phelim.
The exact date of John’s death is in doubt. Theoretically, the newspaper was published on Saturday 12 August but it may have appeared a few days before or after that date, as local newspapers often did until recent years. John’s death record gives his official date of death as 13 August, but it was not registered until 13 October, so the date is most likely inaccurate. The record stated that the uncertified cause of death was ‘Sunstroke two days’.
A little bit of digging showed that Felix Bowes married Margaret Parker in 1870 June in the Leeds area of Yorkshire. They were not identified in the 1871 Census in England and the first reference found to them in the Baltinglass area was John’s birth record in 1877. Presumably Felix was a Bowes of Killabeg, Co. Wicklow (between Shillelagh and Tullow), as Catherine Bowes of Killabeg was informant on John’s birth record. John’s mother, Margaret, converted to Catholicism in Baltinglass on 17 October 1878. She was baptised conditionally and the record stated that she ‘was married before Baptism in Protestant Church’. The record gave her parents as Edward Parker and Sarah Watson.
Felix and Margaret Bowes had three younger children – Charles (1879), Felix (1881) and George (1882). Felix died at birth. Then, the following year, John died of sunstroke. George died just over four months after John, aged seven months. The cause of his death was hydrocephalus, more commonly called ‘water on the brain’. The final tragedy came sixteen months later, when Margaret herself died on 21 April 1884 at the stated age of 36. The certified cause of death was ‘Decline’, which she had suffered for ‘years’, possibly from the birth of her last child.
The loss of four members of his family in the space of three years did not entirely defeat Felix Bowes. Four months after his wife’s death he married again. This was not unusual and, indeed, with at least one living child it was necessary that he find a wife who would share the burden. He married Mary Roche of Baltinglass in August 1884. Initially they lived in Car’s Rock, just outside the town, where their son, another John, was born in 1885. Their other children born in Car’s Rock were Michael (1886), Catherine (1888) and Walter (1890), while Felix (1892) and Edward (1894) were born in Baltinglass. Edward died at five weeks old. Felix Bowes, the father of the little boy John, died a widower in April 1916 in Baltinglass Workhouse, at the stated aged of 78.
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!