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.