THE STUDY OF GENEALOGY IN IRELAND
This article originally appeared in Burke's Landed Gentry 1952, 17th Edition.
By Anthony Crofton
It is sad history that on 13 April, 1922, the building known as the Four Courts in Dublin, the central repository of Ireland's public records, was set on fire and burned; the flames deliberately fed with the collected muniments of centuries. The main bulk of the state, domestic, and ecclesiastical records of the country was then destroyed. The catastrophe was much the same to Ireland as though in England the contents of the Public Record Office and of Somerset House, together with all the Parish Registers and most of the diocesan transcripts, had suddenly at that same date been irretrievably lost. Whole sections of the standard rungs in the genealogist's ladder were thus burned out, and the present day searcher into pedigrees in Ireland has to try and clamber back through the years without them.
To detail all that was destroyed in the Four Courts Fire would hardly be possible. Of the mass of wills, for instance, only eleven from the Prerogative Court and one from the Dublin Consistorial Court were saved. The Patent Rolls were lost, and this was perhaps the worst calamity, although, owing to the great series of Lodge's MSS. being salvaged, an epitome of many of the enrolments is preserved. The whole series of the Pipe Rolls, which ended in 1818, was lost so also were all the Parish Registers that had been lodged in the P.R.O. following the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1870. It is indeed far easier to catalogue what little was in fact saved from the fire, and a short list of the chief items, compiled from notes supplied by Mr. T. U. Sadleir, late Deputy Ulster King of Arms, is to be seen at the end of this article.
The study of genealogy in Ireland has now to be made largely without the help of what normally are the most potent and standard records. That it can still be pursued with a prospect of obtaining good and properly detailed results, such as are today happily demanded in a proper pedigree, is due in great measure to the infinite labours of certain past chroniclers and record collectors, and in some degree to the special circumstances which affected the people and land of Ireland.
To take the second of these considerations first. The entire population of Ireland at no time until the nineteenth century topped the two-and-a-half million mark, so far as is known. Some authorities put it at about 2,040,000 in 1795, and it had then only arrived at such a figure by more or less steady growth since the introduction of the potato plant into the country a good two hundred years earlier. Furthermore, this was an island population, preponderantly of agricultural interests, living by the land or sea, and showing a natural continuity of family and district associations. So the genealogist in Ireland has some initial help in that the subjects of his study were in past centuries normally fixed within a small and locally dependent community.
Then again, an abnormal incidence of state interference in the tenure of Irish lands, particularly throughout the 15th to 18th centuries, whether brought about by grants to the Plantation Settlers, to the "49 Officers," under the Acts of Settlement, or by the confirmations and redistributions of property following attainders of landed proprietors, or by the reversal of such attainders, with the depositions and evidence necessary to such affairs, furnishes a much more ready and frequent view of the persons and families owning lands than would otherwise, in a country of such imperfect and largely missing records, be available. Unfortunately the fact still remains, as always, that such illuminating transactions of the state deal as a rule only with the landed proprietors, with persons enjoying executive offices, or noticeable perhaps because of their adventures in trade, and, save in the case of those who obtained state pardons, the difficulty of getting any light upon the rank and file of the people is not thereby much alleviated.
The same age-long unrest in Ireland that has caused the light to flicker more strongly on the propertied and official classes, has at the same time been responsible for enveloping the rest of the people in an ever more impenetrable darkness. Whereas in England it is often possible to work up and prove a pedigree through generations of quite humble folk, given that the family remained steadily resident in or about the same part of the country, or even in the same trade, simply from the conjunction of evidence from wills and parochial and manor records (see for instance that of Lord Nuffield’s ancestors in Burke's Peerage), such a thing is virtually impossible in Ireland today: rebellions, fire, and violence, together with the past laxity of minor record keeping officials of the church and state, have seen to it that only fragmentary and periodic records of this kind survive.
It is of course a fact that there are fairly complete transcripts in print of a large number of the city church registers going back to the seventeenth century, and also many enrolments of diocesan wills, but of parochial records in the country districts, except for such as have been copied in historical collections - the printed Memorials of the Dead, etc., there are little at all left earlier than of the late nineteenth century, and such as these are generally incomplete. As to manorial records; today almost none survive. The Courts Leet and Courts Baron did function in Ireland with a similar jurisdiction to that in England, in such places as had been erected into manors, but an Irish manor court roll is a rare thing to come across.
Apart from this lack of minor records, it must always be remembered that the difficulty of identifying persons one from another in such a country as Ireland, where surnames were largely clan names, is much greater than in England, where names from quite early time were more frequently derived from a place of living or origin, or allusive to a trade, calling, or some idiosyncracy.
Again, however, when concern is with a person or family of some, albeit minor, standing in Ireland, the present day student is immeasurably fortunate in the scope and general soundness of the records left by past historians and genealogists; and they, in their turn, had had their work in some degree simplified by the relatively few families that came under their review, as also by the general restriction of a person's compass in Ireland in former times.
Dublin was the one centre for anything of real consequence to an Irishman. It was not only the capital city of the kingdom, the seat of a full and complete government as regards all executive functions, but in years gone by the very humble condition of most of the Irish county towns caused a large amount of the business normally proper to such local centres also to be concentrated in Dublin. It was therefore almost impossible for a man to do anything of real importance in Ireland without having recourse in one way or other to the capital city, where some record of the matter would, it is imagined, find its way into the records of one or other of the various offices.
It would seem to follow from this that there should today be an unusual store of records in Dublin of use to the genealogist. It is nonetheless equally true that inadequate grouping and indexing of such records in the past has made searching in Dublin an arduous task.
To return to some of the good fortune that assists the pedigree searcher in Ireland. There are first of all the collected pedigrees and the mass of other genealogical data housed in the State Genealogical Office, Dublin Castle, under the present care of Doctor Edward MacLysaght, M.A., D.Litt. Perhaps the most noteable and useful of these records, to mention but a few, are the books of Funeral Entries, giving the marriages and children of the persons concerned, often also with their children’s marriages and progeny, that fill eighteen volumes and cover the period from about 1575 to 1729; one of the original volumes, of 1634-1729, is actually in the British Museum and has been printed in the Memorials of the Dead Journal in 223 pages. There are also, of course, the officially recorded pedigrees, and these are often most informative, since in many cases they comprehend branches of a family quite widely removed from the main stem. Besides these there are the many "Unofficial" pedigrees put together by past heralds in course of their day to day work; the Irish Heraldic Visitations, though few in number; the Will and Administration Books, showing tabulated pedigrees made up from Betham's copious extracts from the prerogative wills, etc., and the Linea Antiqua, of which more later.
The first great printed collection of Irish pedigrees and family history, in which indeed a high degree of reliance may be placed, was made by John Lodge and published under the title of The Peerage of Ireland in 1754. The Reverend Mervyn Archdall republished this series with additions and amendments in 1798. The debt that is owed to Lodge is immense; he was in one person to Ireland what Dugdale and Collins were to England. His great study of the records, both public and private, and the extraordinary work he put in on them (his epitome of the Patent Rolls has already been mentioned) are beyond value. In the Peerage of Ireland not only are the ennobled families dealt with, but a vast amount of information is often supplied on far removed collateral branches of the same stock, and even upon families simply related to them through marriage. The more time given to the perusual of Lodge's works, the more surprising are the dividends that may be obtained, for the general indexing is poor. It is not to be thought that there were no earlier writers on Irish pedigrees who appeared in print, for there were in fact several and doubtless Lodge drew upon them; but the vast amount of Lodge's notes he made himself from original sources, and no labour seems to have been too great for him.
Following upon Lodge and Archdall came Sir William Betham, Ulster King of Arms from 1820 to 1853, and before that Deputy Ulster. To Betham is owed almost all that can today be known of the contents of the old Irish Prerogative Court Wills and Administrations; the originals having perished in practical entirety in the Four Courts Fire of 1922. Betham set down in about 1808-13 all the genealogical information he could find in those wills and administrations. His original note books are now, with a few gaps, to be seen at the P.R.O. Dublin. From these he compiled the chart pedigrees which are still in the Bedford Tower, Dublin Castle, whilst a duplicate series of them, stated to have belonged to Sir Bernard Burke, his successor in the office of Ulster, are in the P.R.O. of Northern Ireland. As well as his invaluable "Will extracts," Betham left behind for us copies he had had made of the Dublin Consistorial and Prerogative Marriage Licences, and these have also been preserved. His day to day jottings on genealogical matters, often gleaned from original sources now lost to the searcher, are worth much study, and a considerable quantity of his most useful notes are to be found in the "Betham MSS." in the British Museum.
Many people, including the past and present editors of Burke's publications, have written of the work and influence in the genealogical field of members of the Burke family, so it is not proposed to make a review of these matters now. It should, however, be said that had it not been for the much criticised pre-1900 editions of the Landed Gentry (at any rate), so remarkably fine a book as the Landed Gentry of Ireland of 1912 could not then have been produced, and the great leap forward in the accuracy and detail of the pedigrees of the Irish commoners contained in it would never have been given impetus.
Burke's Landed Gentry of Ireland of the year 1912 is today a standard book of reference in which a reliance over and above that normally attributable to such a publication may be placed. At the date of its publishing, and indeed for long after, it quite outstripped its English (with Scottish) counterparts in the high degree of accuracy shown in the majority of the pedigrees.
Behind this advance in the truth and detail of published Irish pedigrees was the influence and learning of George Dames Burtchaell, Athlone Pursuivant, then Deputy Ulster, certainly the most reliable and critical of Irish genealogists up to his time. Burtchaell, although he did not actually sit in the editorial chair, went through each of the "Lineages" proposed for the 1912 edition with extraordinary care and effect, and from the resources of his office and his great fund of knowledge was able to correct much that was inaccurate, throw new light upon doubtful claims and statements, and, indeed, strike out others, and generally to enhance the worth of the whole book. He was of course for many years the most pertinent contributor of Irish information to G.E.C. and the Complete Peerage, in which unrivalled publications his work is constantly acknowledged. At the time of his death he was working with Mr. Thomas Ulick Sadleir (his eventual successor in the office of Deputy, and Acting, Ulster King of Arms - the last man to hold the office) on their joint project of writing up the Admission Registers of Trinity College, Dublin. It was, however, some years later before Alumni Dublinenses was ready to go to press, and, although the book appears under the joint names of Burtchaell and Sadleir, more than half this great work was accomplished by Sadleir alone. In 1935, Mr. Sadleir brought out a second edition of the Alumni, but still under the joint names and it is interesting to read in his preface that he describes Burtchaell as "probably the most accomplished genealogist Ireland has known."
Alumni Dublinenses is a book of inestimable value to the genealogist, giving, as it does, not only the dates and particulars of the university attainments of the students admitted, but also in general the dates and the counties of their birth with their fathers' names and various callings; to which are added innumerable notes from the personal researches of both Burtchaell and Sadleir. This whole work is of particular importance because the great majority of the sons of the Protestant Irish, who sought university education, went to Trinity College, Dublin, sooner than make the journey to England, and the T.C.D. education became a positive habit in Ireland with families of even quite minor standing.
Of the more lately produced works useful to Irish genealogists, amongst the most important must be counted Petty's Census of Ireland of 1659, and Miss Eustace's Irish Will Abstracts at the Genealogical Office, both published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission. In preparation is Mr. Sadleir's King's Inns Admissions 1607-1867, also to be published by the Manuscripts Commission, which will be in effect a comprehensive list of Irish-bred lawyers.
We have lately seen the Honourable Donough O'Brien's history of the O'Brien Family which delves deep into the mists of great antiquity; some considerable light is shed therein on the basis of all the so-called early Milesian Pedigrees. The general authority for "Milesian" family history is contained in O'Farrell's Linea Antiqua dating from about the year 1704, but although there are to be found a mass of names describing persons both in this and in the recorded pedigrees of such families, as for instance the O'Conors, in the Genealogical Office, it is often at best not possible to assume more than cousinship in the very early pedigree descents and successions given. Various individuals can be traced accurately from the "Fiants," mainly in the case of pardons, especially from the time of Henry VIII. Inquisitions Post Mortem covering the period of Charles I to William III contain a good deal of information, and the Book of Chichester House Claims, of 1700, deals with the cases of dispossessed Irish families who often had charges on estates and sought to protect legal rights of inheritance. Perhaps in one way Ireland may be considered lucky in that the few Heraldic Visitations made cannot produce so great a number of red herrings in early ancestry as have many of the once supposed "Authoritative" statements as to pedigree made, in particular, by the sixteenth century heralds in England.
To go back now to the public records in Ireland - such as still exist after the Four Courts Fire. In the Dublin Registry of Deeds there are over two million documents, and it is good news to hear that the Mormon Society in America have commissioned the micro-filming of the entire collection down to the time of Queen Victoria. Most of these records are leases, dating back to about 1708, but there are also numerous marriage settlements and abstracts of many wills. A collection of great importance, recently found at the Land Commission and sent to the P.R.O., contains Tithe Applotment Returns from almost every Irish parish, circa 1823-35. There is also a deal of useful material to be found in those boxes of deeds of land tenure happily deposited at the Land Commission by certain proprietors, instead of at the P.R.O., following the Encumbered Estates Court Act, and similar land legislation, passed three years after the Irish famine of 1847-48.
Although nothing can get round the huge and irreparable nature of the losses sustained in the burning of the Public Record Office in 1922, a certain few items from its contents were in fact saved and these are worth mentioning.
Of the Prerogative Court Grant Books, containing administrations and marriage licences, those that escaped damage were of the years 1684-88,1748-51, and 1839. The Will Books saved were as follows: 1664-84, 1706-08, 1726-28,1728-29,1777 (A-M), 1813 (K-Z), and 1834 (A-E). Fortunately the Strong Room resisted the fire, and so its contents was preserved. It had inside it all the Chancery and Exchequer Bill Books, the Judgement Books of Common Law Courts, Bankruptcy Petition Registers, and what documents were being inspected when the disaster took place, including - the "Religious Census" of Castletown Roche, Co. Cork, of 1766, the Census of Killeshandra, Co. Cavan, of 1841, and some of the Co. Antrim Census Returns of 1851. Some further bulky volumes, containing the Co. Antrim Census Returns in 1821, were used to barricade the front windows of the Four Courts during the siege, and, as a strong wind was blowing in wards, they also mostly escaped destruction. Over and above this, a few odd documents caught in the wind were afterwards picked up in the vicinity.