Irish Family History Specialists

Category: Family History

Epidemics in Ireland

The oldest possible epidemic in Ireland dates back to the sixth century. We actually don’t know if there was an epidemic – it is believed there was one because many monasteries were founded in the sixth century. The thinking is that a plague epidemic caused a rise in religious fervour. Unlike Covid-19, which is a virus, the plague is caused by bacteria. The bacteria are spread by fleas.

We know there was an epidemic, known as the yellow plague, active in Ireland from 664 to 668 and again from 683 to 684. The second one was especially deadly for children, as a lot of adults had gained immunity during the first outbreak.

It wasn’t just plagues. We have descriptions of outbreaks of fever in Ireland since the 12th century. Fever would be endemic in Ireland, with the disease still around in the 19th century.

In the mid-fourteenth century, it was again the plague which wreaked havoc. This would be the most famous outbreak of the disease. It is thought that the “Black Death” as it was called, killed 30-60% of the European population. During the outbreak, it was believed rats were spreading the disease (bacteria were still unknown). This led to rats being hunted down and killed in great numbers. Causing the fleas that were living on the rats to spread and infect even more people! There were further outbreaks of this terrible pestilence until the early eighteenth century.

Another disease that is spread by lice is typhus. During the Famine, hunger was already having a devastating impact on many of the poor. They often had to leave their homestead, expelled by landlords for not paying rent or leaving to find food. In the hospitals, workhouses and on the ships to North America they huddled together for warmth and lack of space. This formed ideal circumstances for the spread of lice and with them the disease. It started in 1846 in the West of Ireland. It reached Ulster in the winter of that year. It is thought 20% of people in Belfast were infected. Although widespread among the poor, still more prevalent was the aforementioned fever, which also became epidemic during the famine. Interestingly it was among the higher social classes that typhus – more deadly than fever, mortality if untreated can be as high as 60% – was more widespread. It is thought it was contracted by those exposed to the disease (clergymen, doctors, member of relief committees) and then spread to their families, etc.

The famine was accompanied by several other diseases such as dysentery and smallpox. Like fever, these had also long been endemic in Ireland but swept the country epidemically during these years. And then in 1848-1849 Asiatic cholera became pandemic.
Dysentery is spread by flies, by direct contact, or by pollution of the water by faeces infected with the bacteria. Like typhus, it became widespread in Ireland during the terrible winter of 1846-47. It was especially the area of West Cork that was badly affected.

Smallpox is no longer active thankfully. Like COVID it is a viral disease transmitted by airborne droplets. Attacks would last for approximately 6 weeks and would work its way through a family. So, it would often afflict families for months. This would often mean even more poverty for already impoverished people, as they lost their earning power for a prolonged period.

Even in the 20th century, Ireland has had epidemics. Tuberculosis was one. Its common name was consumption as the patient was “consumed” by weight loss and breathlessness. According to research by the Irish Red Cross Journal, 12,000 young Irish adults died of TB in 1904. Mortality remained high in the 1920s and 1930s, especially among children. Despite years of non-stop efforts, it was not until the 1950s that TB started to decline and only by the 1970s it had all but vanished from our shores.

Another one was polio. This is again a viral disease, spread through person-to-person or faecal-oral contact. Its mortality is between 5 and 10%, but in some outbreaks mortality of over 25% has been reported. Unlike COVID, it especially affects children under 5. There is no cure but can be prevented with vaccines. In Ireland, vaccines were introduced in 1957, after several bad outbreaks. Ireland had its first registered epidemic of this disease in 1942. There were further waves in 1947, 1950 and 1953 and in 1956 in Cork. Advice from authorities might sound familiar: closure of swimming pools and schools, advice on handwashing and on general hygiene, warnings against unnecessary travel into or out of communities where the disease was prevalent. And for the vulnerable, in this case, children, to avoid crowded places and gatherings of other children. Circus, swimming and tennis tournaments and GAA activities were either postponed or abandoned. Social and commercial life was badly affected. The epidemic was over around May 1957. It was not completely gone but had returned to “normal” levels.

Like the rest of the world, Ireland is now suffering from the outbreak of the COVID 19 pandemic. The whole country now sees restrictions even more severe than those in Cork in 1956. History shows the importance of adhering to these restrictions: many epidemics/pandemics have seen several waves and high levels of mortality, esp. among the vulnerable. By social distancing, working from home, not having large gatherings, festivals, etc. we should be able to minimise the impact. And nowadays many can work from home and we can stay into contact via social media. So there are no excuses. And the good news: many vaccines have been developed and most of the diseases mentioned have been eradicated or their prevalence has been drastically reduced.

Stay safe, stay healthy, stay firm!

 
 
 
Sources:

  • Pádraic Moran, NUI Galway
  • Infection In A Village Community In The 19th Century And The Development Of The Dispensary System, Presidential Address to the Ulster Medical Society, Thursday 11 October 2007 by Dr John B White, General Practitioner
  • Epidemic Diseases of the Great Famine, published in 18th–19th – Century History, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 1996), The Famine, Volume 4 and The 1956 polio epidemic in Cork, published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2006), Volume 14 by Laurence Geary, who is a Wellcome Research Fellow in the History of Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland
  • https://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/health/the-silent-terror-that-consumed-so-many-128709.html

Parish Registers

The third and final installment of our posts on genealogical resources.

If you are researching the period before civil registration started, your only source is the Parish registers. You do need to know in what County and Parish your ancestor(s) lived. If you don’t know, a good starting point is to look at where your family lived in the Census, as a lot of families would continue to live in a Parish for many generations.

Most Parish Registers only started round 1830, and for many counties even decades later. Also, over time, many have been lost. You should also consider that errors – both in the original entry and in transcription – are not uncommon. Names were also often misspelled: priests would write down what they thought the name was and many of the parishioners could not check it as many could not read or write.

The three main sources for the Parish records are:

  •  Irish Genealogy which is a free Irish government website. You should always check which registers are available before you start your search, as for some areas none are.
  • Roots Ireland. This is a paid site. You should always check which registers are available before you start your search, as for some areas none are. This database contains also some Church of Ireland registers. Not many of these survived as most were destroyed in 1922.
  • National Library Ireland. This is a free site, that provides digitised copies of the Parish registers. Baptismal registers are also available at Ancestry and Find My Past.

For Northern Ireland, you should check their guide first. You can then head to PRONI for their catalogue.

 

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old Irish records lookup

Birth Marriage and Death Records

The second of three posts on Irish genealogy resources: the Civil registrations of Irish births, marriages, and deaths. This was started in  1864, although Non-Catholic marriages were registered from 1845. If you are looking for records from before these dates, you will have to rely on the Parish records, of which more in our third post. You should also be aware that a significant portion of births, marriage, and even deaths were never registered and thus go unrecorded.

The main resources for these records are the following two free databases:

We recommend you search BOTH databases, because they are not identical.

On Irish Genealogy you will find the indexes for

  • Births from 1864 to 1916
  • Catholic Marriages form 1864 to 1940
  • Non-Catholic marriages from 1845 to 1864
  • Deaths from 1864 to 1965

The index often contain a link to the original registration, which you can download for free. But if not, the record will need to be ordered. If you require help with obtaining a record, please feel free to contact us.

When searching, be aware that you might have to try different variations and spellings of the names you are looking for. Also, you will be asked for the “Registration District”. There were usually 3 to 6 registration districts in each county, and some districts crossed county borders. If you don’t know, it can be quite a puzzle to find out. Again, we would be happy to help. Finally, be aware that people were not always born, married or died in the same area they lived in.

Family Search,  Ancestry (paid) and FindMyPast (paid) also offer Irish civil registration indexes up to 1958 (excluding records from Northern Ireland after 1922). However these are indexes only, and it often hard to be sure that you are looking at “your” ancestor or someone else’s.

For Northern Ireland after 1922  you will need to go to  GRONI  This contains the records for births over 100 years old, marriages over 75 years and deaths over 50 years.  You can search and view the original registrations for this period but you do need to sign up and purchase credits to undertake a search.
 

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Irish records lookups

1901 and 1911 Census of Ireland

This is the first in a series of posts to help you discover your Irish roots. This first installment you will probably be familiar with, but we hope our tips might still be useful.

This should really be your first port of call for your research into your Irish roots. Unfortunately, during the Civil War which followed the War of Independence most censuses were destroyed. Only the 1901 and 19011 remain, although there is a list at the National Archives from people who applied for a copy of their entry in the 1841 or 1851 Census to prove that they were old enough to claim a pension when this was introduced.

The 1901/1911 censuses contain:

  • Name
  • Position (Head, Wife, Son, etc.)
  • Religion
  • Ability to read/write
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Marital Status
  • Place of birth
  • Language

Both can be searched free online. The surname requires exact spelling  so you might try a number of variations, and I have seen cases of misspelling which makes it very hard to find someone. You should also note that ages can be wrong; these were often estimated, or people lied about their age to be older (for a job or pension entitlements) or younger. Unless you are lucky enough to have a very uncommon surname, you will need a townland as well. Alternatively, you might consider searching for a townland and review all occupants. It is possible to refine the search with additional data, but unless you are very sure about your information, it is best to start wide and narrow it down until you get a reasonable number of records. These you review record by record. Make sure to tick the “Show All Information” box. The database contains both a transcription and images of the original census form. The latter also contains a description of the buildings occupied by the household (Form B1).
 
As you will have noted, it is important to know the townland where your ancestors lived to search the census. The townland is the smallest unit of administration and often only contains a small number of families. Above the townland sits the civil Parish (not to be confused with the ecclesiastical parishes, which were entirely separate). Next up were Baronies and finally Counties. Confusingly in the Census you will also find the DED (District Electoral Division) which was for the administration of the vote. If you don’t know the townland, you might consider asking us for help.
 

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Christmas in 1900’s Ireland

As we approach the Christmas season, we urge you to try and make time to share memories with your family, look at old photos to see if you can uncover any new gems. We take this opportunity to look back to Christmas in Ireland over 100 years ago. Christmas was simpler, but like today, it was also a family affair. We found this gem in a family memoir box, written by Kathleen Hassett in the early 1980s. Her childhood was spent on a small rural farm Knockanean, near Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland. The pictures show her as a girl and later in life.
 

Christmas in the 1900s, Kathleen Hassett (1897 to 1985)

I was born in the last few years of the reign of Queen Victoria, so I can say something of Christmas before the First, or Great War. It was a holy day rather than a holiday, but that did not mean we all wore long faces. Schools closed for almost a fortnight, as it does today; that in itself was a holiday; through as always had little tasks to perform – washing up, wiping up, dusting, shopping etc.

Each Christmas season the local grocer gave us a “Christmas Box” of a quarter stone of sugar, 1lb.tea, 1lb. each of currants, raisins and sultanas, and perhaps even half lb. of candied peel. Though the actual goods and the amounts varied from one business to another, the custom of giving Christmas boxes to customers was general, but it came to an end due to rationing during the 1914-18 war and was never renewed.

By Christmas Eve, we were excited – Father Christmas or Santa Claus would come during the night, but we had to be asleep. We hung up a stocking borrowed from an adult or used a pillowcase. We slept soundly and awoke bright and early to see what the great man had brought us. The toe of the stocking was usually filled with sweets, and an apple and an orange took up more room.

Each little girl got a doll usually beautifully dressed; my younger sister, born in 1908, was the first in the family to have a Teddy Bear from Father Christmas. Little boys usually got a game or a ball. Father Christmas was a wise man – if we had a doll, we did not usually get another. Dolly perhaps got a dolls house, or a tea-set, or some doll’s furniture. As we grew older, our gifts also grew older – we got a sewing-set or a book, which we found exciting.

Soon it was time to get washed and dressed and go to Church. The highlight of Christmas morning was to see the Crib where the Holy Child lay sleeping.

Dinner time brought fresh excitement, especially when the Christmas pudding appeared. We had all had to stir it, and we knew that silver 3d pieces and 6s pieces were there, and if one found a silver coin in your portion, you would have a year of good luck. Afterwards, we played games, or read until tea-time after which we were advised to get to bed early to sleep off the excitement of the great day.

 
At Genealogy.ie, we wish we could give each of you a big hug and hope this article will act as a virtual hug. We would like to wish all of our customers and friends a very Happy Christmas and a Peaceful New Year.

PS: If you are really stuck for a Christmas present, you might consider giving a Genealogy.ie. voucher. Contact us for more information.
 

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School of your Ancestors?

The Kilmacud Stillorgan Historical Society has been publishing its annual journal, Obelisk, for 13 years. Since 2016 – for 4 years now – Genealogy.ie’s Michael van Turnhout has been contributing an article to it.

These articles are about local history, rather than family history. However, we believe local history is important to get a better understanding of the society your ancestors lived in. In this case, it gives you a picture of what kind of school your mid-nineteenth Irish ancestor would have gone to.

St. Mary’s National School, Sandyford, Dublin, Ireland

On our page dedicated to the growing list of articles that we have contributed to magazines and journals – including the respected Irish Family History Journal of the Irish Family History Society and North American Magazine Your Genealogy Today you will be able to download our article and follow a link to the Society’s website, if you are interested in purchasing a copy of the journal.

You can visit this page by following this link:
 

Our Articles

 

The Destruction of Irish Genealogical Records

The Four Courts fire of 1922

“The floor of the repository is piled 10 to 20 feet high with twisted ironwork and debris and entry is impossible . . . In the vaults were deed boxes on iron racks. The racks were evidently softened by the great heat, and the weight of the boxes has bent them and drawn them forward; the lids of the boxes have fallen in, and the contents have been reduced in every case to a little white ash.”

This was a contemporary description of what as left of the Four Courts records after the shelling in 1922 by the Free State troops to end the occupation by the anti-treaty forces.

The Four Courts were the main repository of all public records in those days. The fire caused by the fighting meant a lot of records were lost forever:

  • The Irish Censuses of 1821, 1831, 1841, and 1851
  • Approximately half of all Anglican Church of Ireland registers deposited there following the dis-establishment of the state church in 1869
  • Most wills and testamentary records that had been proved in Ireland (their indexes survived)
  • Legal documents from before 1900
  • Local government records from before 1900

However, there is also plenty that survived:

  • The Censuses of 1901 and 1911
  • Civil registration records
  • The other half of the Church of Ireland parish registers
  • Baptism, marriage and burial records for Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and Methodists
  • Griffiths Valuation

It does mean however that it is just that little more difficult to find your Irish ancestors. But not impossible. You will have to know however where to look and there are also alternative resources. Ever thought about checking the dog licence register?

You should start by looking through the resources that still survive. You can find advice on how to go about this on our website:
 

Advice on Genealogical Resources

 
And if you do hit the famous brick wall, please feel free to Contact Us

Making sense of Irish administrative divisions

There are 32 counties in Ireland, 26 in the Republic, and 6 in the North. We also often hear about the four provinces (Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connaught), especially in sports like Rugby.

Irish administrative divisions for the genealogist are unfortunately a lot more complicated than that. This page tries to help you make some sense of it!

Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland

The island of Ireland is split into two parts: the independent “Republic of Ireland” and “Northern Ireland”, which is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  The island measures 84,421 km², of which the Republic has 70,273 km².  The latter has a population of 4,803,748; the North has 1,685,267 (2018 figures).

The four provinces

The names of the four provinces of Ireland are derived from pre-Norman kingdoms. There were however a lot more than four kingdoms when the Normans invaded Ireland in 1171 under the leadership of Strongbow. This was really a private enterprise. The (Norman) kings of England followed quickly,  to prevent Strongbow becoming a threat.  They established four military districts, to aid the occupation. It was these that took the names of former kingdoms. The reason why we nowadays only hear about them in sports is because the provinces have no longer any official status.

The former royal houses of these four kingdoms were: Connacht in the West (O’Connor); Leinster in the East (MacMurrough); Munster in the South (O’Brien); and Ulster in the North (O’Neill).

The counties of the province of Connacht are: Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, and Sligo. Its flag shows an eagle and a sword.

The counties of the province of Leinster are: Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Westmeath, Wexford and Wicklow. Its flag is a harp set on a green background.

The counties of the province of Munster are: Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford. Its flag shows three gold crowns on a blue background.

The counties of the province of Ulster are  Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Derry/Londonderry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Monaghan, and Tyrone. Its flag highlights a red hand on a shield set on a background of gold/orange with a red cross.

Antrim, Armagh, Derry (also called Londonderry), Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone are part of Northern Ireland, the other three are part of the Republic of Ireland.

The 32 counties

As mentioned, there are 32 counties. In present-day Ireland, it is these counties that most people identify themselves with.  The counties were also a Norman invention. The first county to be established was Dublin, always the center of the occupier’s power.  This was in the 12th Century, immediately following the invasion. The last county, Wicklow, was not established until 1606.

When doing your research, you should note that some counties have changed name over time. For obvious reasons Kings County (Offaly) and Queens County (Laois) no longer have the names given to them by the English.

Baronies have been obsolete since 1898.  Up to then, however, land and property valuations were organised according the barony, so it is worth being able to identify the barony in which an ancestor’s townland (see below) was located.

The Parish

There are ecclesiastical (church; and to make things more complicated, there are Catholic and Church of Ireland ones, both covering Ireland but of course with completely different boundaries) and civil parishes and they have nothing to do with each other. The civil parish is the one we deal with here. Each county is made up of a number of civil parishes. County Leitrim has only 17.  However, many others have over 100 civil parishes. In total there are ca. 2,500 civil parishes in Ireland. In the past, they were responsible for the maintenance of Irish land and property taxes and records.

The townland is the smallest and most fundamental of all Irish land divisions.   Townlands vary greatly in size and population, but they are all fairly small  If you are able to find the townland from which your ancestors hail, you will get a pretty good idea of what life looked like for them.  Townlands were the basis of census returns from 1821. You should note that some of them no longer exist, and others in name only.

If you are confused, you are not the only one! Hopefully, this short explanation helps. And as always, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Castle Garden Emigrant Landing Depot

Between 1808 and 1811 a fort was built to help protect New York against invasion. This was not an idle threat, as in 1812 a war broke out between England and the USA, with the former trying to regain possession of its former colonies.

The fort did not however see any action during this war, or at any time after.

The original name of the fort was “West Battery”. In 1815 however, it was decided to rename it “Castle Clinton”, after a popular New York mayor (and not the last politician of that name to rise to high office).

In 1821  the United States Army  decided it no longer needed it. The city of New York leased the property and used it as a place of public entertainment, under the new name of Castle Garden. Officially however, the name is still Castle Clinton.

An ever increasing number of immigrants started to arrive in New York, mostly landing at the docks on the East side of the tip of Manhattan, around South Street.

To cope with this influx, the castle was converted in 1855 to an “Emigrant Landing Depot”. It would fulfill this function until in 1890 the federal government took over and moved the center to the larger and more isolated Ellis Island.

The latter because immigrants were known to carry diseases, which led to epidemics of cholera and smallpox.

When it closed, more than 8 million people had arrived in the United States from via Castle Garden.

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Ellis Island Immigration Station

Castle Garden, the previous facility, was in New York itself.  The number of immigrants was rising, which meant a bigger facility was required. But there was also a wish to better contain the immigrants, who often arrived sick and unhealthy.

In 1890, Congress approved a budget of  $75,000 to build America’s first federal immigration station  on Ellis Island.

The size of the Island was doubled to six acres, using fill material from incoming ships’ ballast and from the construction of New York City’s subway tunnels.

Ellis Island, picture taken during our visit

The first building was a three-story wooden structure. It opened on 1st January 1892 and already on that first day, three large ships with 700 immigrants passed through. That year, it processed almost 450,000 immigrants .

A few years later,  on the 15th June 1897, a fire of unknown origin, completely destroyed the building.

Thankfully there was no loss of life reported. On the negative side, it meant that all immigration records going back to 1855 were destroyed.

Between opening and the fire, the station had processed 1.5 million people.

Ellis Island, picture taken during our visit

A new station was build, this time from stone. It opened on 17th December 1900. Almost immediately however, it turned out to be too small to handle the enormous numbers of immigrants. It was therefore quickly expanded.

When it closed on 12th November 1954 it has processed 12 million immigrants. Despite the fire, many records are still available and new collections have recently come on line. However, you should be aware that most records only contain basic information.