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.
In the 1911 Census my great-grandmother, Bridget McDermott, was stated as having had 11 children born alive and 9 still living. I accounted for 10 of these children and, over the years, I tried to find the missing one. The parish register was patchy to say the least and I tried civil birth records for the significant gaps between known children, guessing at the likely names. Bridget’s known children were Catherine, Charles, Mary, Patrick, Peter, James, John, Sarah, Thomas and Luke, all pretty predictable in terms of the family’s traditions. No one in later generations knew this extra child’s name or whether it existed, though my aunts thought their father had two brothers who died young. After drawing blanks many times I decided that 11 was someone’s error or that the eleventh child was stillborn and mistakenly included in the number.
The accessibility of Irish records has changed a lot in recent years. Last weekend I spent some time online trying to disentangle some other McDermott families who were definitely related to my family in some way. My main source was the Roscommon database on Rootsireland.ie, which provides transcripts of civil as well as church records. Since Rootsireland.ie changed to subscription rather than pay-per-view its search facility has become much less restrictive.
One of the other McDermott families had a child in 1877 with two forenames (unusual in the circumstances) and one of those names was fairly out of place. I decided to check for a death for this child and up came three references for the name, two births and one death. I clicked on the death without looking at the date. Immediately there was something wrong. This was a child of a shopkeeper named Patrick McDermott. Then I saw that the death was in 1876. My head swam. I clicked on the two births. Two McDermott children (possibly second cousins) were born within a year of one another and given the same two forenames. One died at 7 weeks old in 1876. He was the son of Patrick and Bridget McDermott, my great-grandparents. His name was Paul Francis. Having searched in vain for this child over the years I found that he was in fact my namesake!
Paul is not a traditional name in my family. There were relatively few Pauls in Roscommon in the nineteenth century (26 in the 1901 Census, only one of them a McDermott). The “Civil Registration Births Index, 1864-1958” on Ancestry shows 21 “Paul Francis” or “Francis Paul” (with any surname) births in the period 1864-1884 anywhere in Ireland. Only two of these were from Co. Roscommon and they were the Paul Francis McDermotts I already identified. The Irishgenealogy.ie “Civil Records” database is useless for comparison as it omits second forenames in most cases. In it the two Paul Francis McDermott births are entered as just “Paul”, while the 1876 death is entered as “Paul Francis”. That in itself is a poor reflection on the long awaited and ultimately restrictive Irishgenealogy.ie database.
I have yet to determine what prompted two related McDermott couples to name sons Paul Francis within a year of one another when Paul was not a family name and neither couple lavished two forenames on their other children. There must have been an external factor, but I have yet to figure it out.
The Rootsireland.ie transcript did not include the cause of death from my granduncle Paul’s death record, so I went to the GRO Research Room in Dublin early on Wednesday morning and purchased a photocopy of the record. Paul Francis McDermott died at just 7 weeks old having had croup for two days. After 139 years he is remembered again in his family.
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!