Irish Family History Specialists

Tag: trace Irish roots

Christmas in Ireland

In Gaelic (Irish language), Christmas is “’Nollaig’” and Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Nollaig Shona Dhuit’.

Christmas is celebrated in a big way in Ireland, with a large part of the country shutting down between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. It used to be even longer in days past: it was celebrated by Catholics until the Feast of Epiphany, sometimes called “Little Christmas” or “Women’s Christmas”, on 6th January!

Long before there were Black Fridays, Ireland had its own version for a while: in the second half of the last century, on the 8th of December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, people from all over the country would descend on Dublin for their Christmas shopping. With the spread of shopping centres around the county and the rise of e-commerce, this relatively modern tradition has however mostly died out.

In those days, the 8th also used to be the day that people started decorating their houses. Nowadays, some people start in November, while longer ago houses weren’t decorated until Christmas Eve.

Returning to modern days, in the run-up to Christmas children often go to “Pantos”, a shortening of Pantomine. They are a kind of musical comedy, performed on many stages and in theatres.
Christmas Eve is the day that traditionally people in Ireland use to travel to their families. There are still quite a few people who will put a candle in the window. This was originally done to welcome Mary and Joseph. Former President Robinson placed a candle in the window of the Áras an Uachtaráin – the official residence of the President of Ireland – to remember the Irish diaspora. But we are sure arriving family members appreciate it as well after an often long journey to celebrate Christmas with the family.

Christmas Masses used to be at midnight on Christmas Eve. Thankfully mass times nowadays are a bit more accommodating.

Some people, and we really mean some, partake in a swim in the sea on Christmas morning. As you can imagine, this is a pretty cold affair. It is mostly done for charity, but also for fun and to keep up the tradition.

On the 25th, people sit down with their families for the Christmas meal, usually starting late afternoon. For many it is not a Christmas dinner without turkey and cooked ham, preferably with carrots, brussels sprouts, and of course mashed potatoes and roasties. And for dessert a Christmas Pudding and/or rich Christmas Cake. In some areas, Cork for example, a portion of spiced beef is also a must. Often the turkey and ham leftovers are still being eaten cold on sandwiches for several days afterwards!

The day after Christmas is called “St. Stephen’s Day” and is an important day in the horse racing calendar. Those not attending, mostly use the day for relaxing.

Less widely celebrated now, but very popular in the past was the “Wren Boys Procession/Wren’s Day/Hunt of the Wren”. A wren is a small bird. If still celebrated now, a fake is used, but in the past, it was a real bird that was hunted, killed, and put on top of a pole or bush and paraded around, with the participants dressed up in all manner of costumes. Whilst going from house to house a song was sung:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze
Her clothes were all torn – her shoes were all worn
Up with the kettle and down with the pan
Give us a penny to bury the “wren”
If you haven’t a penny, a halfpenny will do
If you haven’t a halfpenny, God bless you!

This would later develop in carollers going from door to door, but that has now mostly stopped as well. But you will still hear carollers in shopping streets and centers, still collecting money. But as it is now for charity, hopefully, they get more than pennies.

The end of the Christmas celebrations was traditionally, as mentioned, on 6th January. It was called “Women’s Christmas” because that day the men are supposed to do the work in and around the house, giving the women a chance to meet and chat. In recent years, this tradition has had a bit of a revival with women meeting up for lunches, etc. on this day.

Jillian van Turnhout Guest Speaker at University of Toronto

Our Jillian van Turnhout has been invited to speak to the students of St. Michael’s College (which is part of the University of Toronto in Canada) as part of their Celtic Studies Speakers Series.

Who is your inspiration?

Before starting, I looked into my own family history for many years. During this research, I “discovered” an ancestor, who has since become one of my big inspirations: my Great Aunt Kathleen Hassett (born 7 February 1897, Limerick, Ireland; died 6 July 1985, Manchester, England).

In 1909, at age 12, Kathleen and her family moved back to the ancestral home in Knockanean, Co. Clare. At this time it was a very small house on a rural and hilly farm. She went to school here and in 1914 she achieved a first in Irish in her middle Intermediate Certificate. This earned her a scholarship, and from September 1915, Kathleen attended university at UCD (University College Dublin).

This university was founded in 1854 as a Catholic university by cardinal (now saint) John Henry Newman. It was located at St. Stephen’s Green, where three buildings, previously the homes of wealthy Dubliners, where purchased and converted. The university moved to the suburbs in the 1960s, but the original buildings are still owned by the institute and now house MoLi – the Museum of Literature Ireland.

Newman House, orginal home of UCD

Kathleen’s lecturers included Thomas MacDonagh (later one of the seven leaders of the Easter rising), Dr. Douglas Hyde (who would become the first President of Ireland), Mary Kate Ryan (who later married Sean T. O’Kelly, the second President), and Maurice Hayes (a top civil servant who would play a key role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland). And she bought her daily newspaper from Thomas Clarke, who would also be a leader of the Easter Rising.

In March of 1916, Proinnsias Ó Súilleabháin (a teacher and famous Irish language activist) got very interested in her plans for the Easter holiday period and encouraged her to go home to Clare for the break. Kathleen said she preferred to stay to study for her exams which were due to start on 3 June. As a result of this, she was an eyewitness to the events of Easter 1916 in Dublin.

Extract from Kathleen Hassett’s memoirs:

“Easter Sunday came and went, and Easter Monday was bright and clear. As we were taking our places in the dining-room, two fellow-boarders came in with sensational news – they had been going into the General Post Office in O’Connell Street when glass from the windows shattered and fell around them, and armed men began herding customers and counter hands into the street.”

Here is a link to a group of 1916-related postcards collected by my Great Aunt Ka. I organised for them to be donated to the Ephemera Collection of the National Library of Ireland.

US 1950 Census Records Released

The 1950 census records were released by the U.S. National Archives on April 1, 2022.

The official National Archives website provides full access to the 1950 census images, including population schedules, enumeration district maps, and enumeration district descriptions.

The collection contains:

  • Approximately 6.57 million population schedules
  • 33,360 Indian Reservation schedules
  • 9,634 enumeration district maps images
  • 234,447 enumeration district descriptions

You can explore the records by State, County/City, Name, Reservation, and Enumeration District.

Click the button below to start searching:

US 1950 Census

Here is an 8-year-old Robert A. Zimmerman. He would later change his name to Bob Dylan.

Who will you find? published in “Irish Family History Journal” – 2021

The Irish Family History Society (IFHS) is a voluntary non-profit making organisation, established in 1984. It is based in Ireland, but open to anyone who is interested in looking to trace their Irish roots, wherever in the world they are based. Every year the Society brings out a journal, full of informative articles. In Volume 37, our Michael van Turnhout contributed an article.

The article is about “Massy’s Estate and Killakee House”. Massy’s Estate is now an “urban forest”, but once was the location of a 36-room mansion with lavish gardens. The article traces its history and the histories of the various families associated with it, including successful businessmen, politicians, and nobility. And it even contains a murder!

You can buy a copy of the journal directly from the Irish Family History Society, via their online shop. The link below brings you to their website.

IFHS Online Shop

A picture is worth …

A few months ago, a window of opportunity to travel opened up here in Ireland. Our own Michael van Turnhout decided to visit his family in The Netherlands. The last time he visited his mother had been in January 2020, and the opportunity to visit was warmly welcomed.

Cover of 1939 Phone Book

One thing he had promised his mother was that during his stay, he would bring her to some of the old addresses she had lived as a child, including the address where she was born. As her family had moved within a year of her birth, she could not remember it, nor had ever visited it. Thanks to some pre-travel research, we had discovered the address. This was not as easy as it sounds, as most cities and towns in The Netherlands renumbered their streets at some stage after the Second World War. So whilst we had an address, that address no longer exists. We just knew the street, which unfortunately for us is a very long one. It took the combination of a number of sources (newspaper, land registry, and municipal archives, old phonebooks and even a war diary of a local published online) to find it.

Address where Michael van Turnhout’s mother was born. Modern dwelling to the left, old company premises in white to the left.

The house itself had been replaced by a more modern dwelling, but the hall behind it – where Michael’s grandfather ran a milk business – still exists, albeit that it has been converted into a separate house.

Spurred on by this trip, Michael’s mother produced an old photo album that she had inherited from her mother, his grandmother. The pictures had been added without any comment and in a seemingly random manner. It was (relatively) easy to recognise Michael’s mother and her brother as babies, children, and young adults. But there were also lots of pictures of his aunt, who had died at a very young age before he was born. Michael had seen pictures of his maternal grandmother before, but was amazed to see pictures for the first time of his grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-grandmother. The oldest pictures were 100 years old!


Great Grand Parents – before 1925


There were many other family members. It was only possible to put names to the many faces thanks to the amazing memory of Michael’s mother. Michael took of course many notes, and is now in the process of cataloging the collection, preserving the information.

Prayer Card for Theo and Arie Klever

Michael’s mother also told the sad story of two of her nephews, Theo and Arie Klever. During the Second World War, they joined the resistance against the Germans who had occupied The Netherlands. Their local resistance group was however betrayed. When the Germans tried to arrest the group, a firefight resulted in the death of  Theo. As several German soldiers had been killed too, out of revenge, the Germans executed 7 young men, some not even attached to the group. Arie was one of them. Both Theo and Arie were only in their twenties, and this happened just a few months before the end of the war. The story of the betrayal has been turned into a book and later also a documentary (in Dutch).

If you get the chance to visit a member of (a) previous generation(s) of your family this Christmas, why not ask them if they have any old family photo albums? And if they do, why not take some time to go through the pictures, ask as many questions as you can and take copious notes.



From “Say Prunes” to “Say Cheese”

The creation of permanent images began with Thomas Wedgewood in 1790, but the earliest known camera image belongs to French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. In the late 1830s in France, Joseph used a portable camera to expose a pewter plate coated with bitumen to light, so recording images for the first time. Together with Louis Daguerre he experimented using different materials (copper, silver, chemicals) and their camera became (relatively speaking) popular. But it was an expensive hobby and the “film” needed to be exposed to light for 15 minutes!

Further developments followed with “wet plates” in the 1850s and “dry plates” in the 1870s. In the 1880s a George Eastman started his company in the US, called Kodak and he made the first camera that was accessible to a much larger audience, in other words, the middle classes.

John J. Clarke, NLI Collection

And that included John J. Clarke, who came to Dublin from his Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan home to study medicine at the Royal University. During his time there, 1897 to 1904, he took many pictures. Most of them in and around the Grafton Street and St Stephen’s Green area, but also Portobello, Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire today), and Bray. What is remarkable is that he took pictures of everyday people as they were going about their business, not posing. This allowed him to capture real-life scenes from the daily lives of Dublin’s men, women, and children. And that, in turn, gives us a wonderful insight into the Dublin some of our ancestors would have lived in.




A large number of photographs survived and were donated by his family to the NLI. You can see most of them on the NLI website, by clicking the logo below.

In the late 19th century, different aesthetic and behavioural norms required keeping the mouth small, which led to photographers using “say prunes”. By the mid-1940’s, smiles became the norm which led to the introduction of “say cheese”.

Why not dig out your family photos and try to see if you can date them and name who is in the photo? If you are having difficulty dating them, why not share online and ask other family historians to use their expertise along with your knowledge of your family. We have witnessed so many puzzles by crowdsourcing the answer online.

Enjoy! Digitisation Project

The National Archives of Ireland is Ireland’s repository for records relating to administrations, Public Records (administrative, court, and probate records), and records of Government Departments and their agencies.

Recently the NAI agreed that an organisation that had handed over their old archives to the National Archives, would be allowed to film them. Very unusually, it allowed the archives to be taken from its offices for the duration of the project. Filming them on the premises of the NAI would mean spending a long time there. Because of COVID-19 this was not considered best practice from a health point of view.

Taking the opportunity, was asked to digitise the 20 boxes of archives, with due care.

The archive consists of documents, pictures, certificates, logbooks, etc. in many different formats and sizes. Some were individual documents, some stapled together and others were in book form.


To be able to cope with the vast amount of archive material decided to invest in some proper equipment, which you can see in the pictures below. It comprises a high-resolution camera, mounted in a stand. In manual mode, there is a handy separate remote control button to take a picture. But there is also an automatic mode, which takes a picture every 5 seconds.



The software that comes with it allows you to crop and adjust the pictures and export them in a number of different formats, includes searchable PDF. This way, not only are the archives copied, but also digitised.


Even with the new equipment, the project will take about 3 weeks to complete.

A twenty-year brick wall gets smashed!

Whilst carrying out family history research, we all encounter brick walls. One particularly stubborn one that I revisit every few years is the question of who the parents of my Great Grandfather Michael Foley were.

As I am a professional genealogist, you would think I would have my own family tree done. But take it from me, you are never finished. That is why I always keep an eye on new records becoming available. I got a flutter when I heard new records of the parish where my great grandparents hailed form had become available. I couldn’t resist and immediately looked… but first, let me give you the background story.

When I started working on my family tree, I quickly found the marriage certificate of my Grandfather, Michael Foley to Julia Cronin on 23 April 1898. The certificate informed me that Michael Foley was a teacher living in Cromane, Killorglin, County Kerry, and that his late father, John Foley, was a farmer. As a child, I spent many a happy summer holiday in Cromane in the former home of my Grandmother and my Great Grandparents.

To put a face to the name in this story, Michael Foley is on the left in the photograph, he is the man with the fantastic moustache. I can only imagine the scene, my Grandfather John Francis Hassett took a photo of his wife, his then five children, and her parents. My father, Michael Hassett, is the child sitting in the centre on his Grandmother’s lap. It took me some time to realise it was my Dad as I saw a ‘child in a dress’. I soon learned it was not unusual for young boys at the time, around 1940, to be dressed in this way.

This photo is very special to me as by 1945, both of my Great Grandparents Michael Foley and Julia Cronin, and my Grandparents John Francis Hassett and Mary Foley had all died. And this is one of the few pictures I have of them.

Since my childhood, I have always known my Great Grandfather was a school teacher and was the first ‘Master’ in Cromane near Killorglin. Through family history research, I established that Master Foley was the first headmaster of the newly built school in Cromane in 1886. I have visited the site of the old school and, with sincerest thanks to the current headmaster,  I have been able to view and take photographs of the old school registers.

I discovered that his grandchildren, including my father, regularly came from their then home in Cork for a long summer to Cromane. They would arrive around March and leave around October – thus enrolling in school for a few months and then returning to school in Cork. On occasion, they would even spend a full year in Cromane living with their grandparents.

I visited the Killorglin library and read an article from the 1980s published in a local history publication entitled “COIS LEAMNTHA”. A local oral historian had interviewed William Griffin, who was born in Cromane Upper in about 1894 and attended the school in the late 1890s / early 1900s.

“In those days of course boys’ and girls’ schools were separate. There were about one hundred and sixty pupils at the time. His [Liam O’Grifin] teachers were Master Foley and Stephen Coffey. Master Foley, he recalls was a “hard man”, who owned a pony and trap (a status symbol of the day) and often drove into Killorglin after school…….At school they learned the three Rs, with much laborious transcription and dictation, poetry and some science……..Although school subjects were taught through English, the children spoke Irish among themselves and at home.”

From other information available to me, I know Michael Foley taught at Cromane National Boys School from 1886 to 1918, when Stephen Coffey succeeded him as Head.

Michael Foley had four children: Helen Maria Foley (1900 to 1980), John Laurence Foley (1904 to 1933), Mary Catherine Foley (1904 to 1944), and Catherine Mary Foley (1907 to 1909).

Helen Maria Foley was my Godmother and I was very lucky to have her in my early life. She encouraged me to explore the world. I didn’t realise until I started working on my family history that she had been a customs officer and that that was the reason why she was so informed about countries around the globe, bringing to life in her bedtime stories their sights and smells.

Mary Catherine Foley was my Grandmother. She sadly died when my father was only eight.

John Laurence Foley was also a customs officer and died at the young age of 29 of TB, still very common in those days. The write-ups in the newspaper articles I found were very moving.

It was only when I visited the cemetery where my family was buried,  in Killorglin, I found evidence of a fourth child,  Catherine Mary Foley, who died at age two.

However, despite finding all of this information, I could never find out more about my Great Grandfather John Foley. From the wedding certificate of his son Michael Foley in 1898 I could see he had been a farmer and had died before his son married. I searched all deaths of all John Foleys before 1898 in the area (and wider area) in the records available but without success. My search was made more complicated, because, at that stage, I didn’t even know if my Grandfather Master Michael Foley was born in the area.  I only knew that in 1886 he was the first schoolmaster. Also, Foley is not an uncommon name in the area.

Through a newspaper article on the death Michael Foley’s son, John Laurence, in 1933, I was able to confirm that Michael Foley had a sister: the newspaper article listed the mourners and this list included an Aunt Joanna Conway. She married a Francis Conway. Joanna Foley was also a school teacher. This information would prove to be important, as you will see later.

Then, a few years ago, the National Archives shared a gem of record set: the ‘List of Teachers Employed by the Commissioners of National Education on 31 March 1905’ went online. With this list, I was able to establish the month and year my Grandfather was born and where he went to primary and secondary school. I now knew he did grow up in the area. I doubled down and tried DNA, but it didn’t open any obvious doors. The wall seemed to be getting higher.

Every year, I would dip in again and see if any new information would become available. And it finally paid off when I looked at the new parish records mentioned at the start of this article. The 1898 Marriage register of my Grandparents Michael Foley and Julia Cronin had the names of the father and the mother of each of my Grandparents. The parents of Michael Foley are John Foley and Ellen Murphy. My great-grandmother’s name was there right in front of me. It almost seemed too easy. I admit to doing a little dance.

And if any more proof was needed, I also found the baptism record of Joanna Foley with her parents John Foley and Ellen Murphy, and the dates matched.

Next, I looked for the marriage of John Foley and Ellen Murphy and found a transcription on RootsIreland of the marriage of John Foley and Ellen Murphy on 2 March 1840 in Killarney, County Kerry. The transcription stated John Foley lived at Coolcorcoran, near Killarney. The witnesses were Timothy Murphy and David Foley.

So, I then searched land records available for Coolcorcoran and could find that a Timothy Murphy was a tenant and could find baptism records for an Ellen Murphy and her siblings and a marriage record in 1803 for Timothy Murphy and Hannah Sullivan.

However, there was no sign of any Foley’s living at Coolcorcoran. As a genealogist, I was of course now itching to see the original marriage register. On, I found the original page on the register from Killarney Parish Register. And as you can see, it was Ellen Murphy who was from Coolcorcoran.

In a short few hours, I was now back two further generations. And have many new doors open to examine and explore. I wish you equal success with your brick walls.

Women in Irish History

The Irish Government has launched a new online resource for the Decade of Centenaries – it is called Mná 100 (Women 100). The updated website includes original research with some previously unseen photos and historic documents drawn together in new and innovative ways.

This new resource will reflect on key themes, such as the role of women in advocating for Ireland internationally; the role of women’s organisations during the Campaign for Independence and the Civil War; women in the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament); and the stories of the pioneering women who were trailblazers within their chosen professions.

We recommend the special curated short film for Mná 100 called Toward America. The film looks at the American Committee on Conditions in Ireland and the foundation of the Irish White Cross. The piece is grounded in original research, with a wealth of images from private and public collections in Ireland and the United States. It is exclusively curated for Mná100.



The 100 Year Journey will guide the viewer through the journey of women through the 20th century and early 21st century. The 100 Year Journey showcases women who implemented change, through an easy-to-navigate timeline that includes images and illustrated biographies, with personal archive material and animated content.

Mná 100 was launched both simultaneously in Ireland and in New York with guest speakers from Glucksman House, NYU, and the Irish Consul General in New York.

In family history, we often find it more difficult to trace female lines. We welcome and encourage all new resources that are working to uncover women in Irish history.


Jillian van Turnhout, AGI Affiliate

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