If, as promised in December 2014, the National Library of Ireland launches a website with digitized images of its Roman Catholic parish register microfilms, this will be a game changer for Irish genealogy and family history research.1 As John Grenham puts it:
These records are – by a long way – the single most important source of historical Irish family information, one of the greatest legacies of the Catholic Church to Ireland.
The idea that someone in Ottawa or Boston (or anywhere in the world, really) will now have free, online access to a set of records (the single most important set of records for Irish genealogy, given the loss of the 19th-century census records) that, until recently, had seemed to lie hidden inside an Irish family history mysterium … well, this is a great idea, is it not?
To be sure, there will be challenges. Some of the records are in Latin, with seemingly bizarre latinized renderings of Irish forenames (Diarmuid [anglicized as Dermot] becomes Jeremiah; Sheila becomes Cecilia; and so on). Pages torn or ripped out just at the point where you think your great-great-grandmother’s marriage record might be. Cramped, spidery writing, with ink splotches all over the page. These records will not present themselves to Irish family history researchers as something warm and friendly, easy-going and easy to use.
They will not be “user-friendly,” I suspect (they will not be indexed by name, for example).
And yet. And yet. Make no mistake: this is a game changer. For anyone who cares to slog through page after page of sometimes poorly-photographed images of sometimes indecipherable handwriting, this is it: this is the key that unlocks the door to the Irish family history mysterium.
And the records will no doubt be crowd-sourced: before too long after their release (not overnight, but sooner than you might expect), we will see local genealogy societies coming out with indexes; we will see random people on the Internet offering their own transcriptions of the records for this parish or that. (And caveat emptor, needless to say.)
Transcriptions are Good, but …
… they’re not as good as the originals.
The thing is, I just don’t entirely trust somebody else’s transcription of an original record. I want to see the original (or a photograph of the original) for myself, and make my own interpretation, and draw my own conclusions. And just as importantly, I want to view the record in context, which means I want see the surrounding records. I want access to la vraie chose, in other words.
Do I sound too demanding (I want this, and I’d also like that)? I guess online access to the digitized Drouin records (Catholic parish registers for the province of Québec and for parts of the province of Ontario) has spoiled me, has raised my expectations for online access to (photographs of) the original records. By the way, the Drouin records are available at FamilySearch, and also at Ancestry.ca.
I used to complain about RootsIreland.ie (Irish Family History Foundation) because their former pay-per-view system was simply too expensive. In fact, there was a period a few years ago when I actually banned myself from visiting their site, because the temptation to spend more money on more views was too overwhelming. I mean, it was a bit ridiculous: how much money are you willing to spend in pursuit of a Patrick Ryan, a man with one of the ten most common surnames in Ireland, and with one of the most common male forenames too? Well, too much money, in my case, whenever I visited that site. And so I banned myself.
I no longer complain about RootsIreland, now that they have 1). replaced the pay-per-view system with a subscription service; and 2). added RC parish records from the Catholic Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly (and hello, Patrick Ryan: no, not those other Patrick Ryans, but the Patrick Ryan that I was actually looking for). I now find RootsIreland to be an incredibly useful site.
So this isn’t a complaint, exactly. It’s just that what you get at Rootsireland are somebody else’s transcriptions, and transcriptions are not as good as the originals.
Are You my 3x-Great-Grandmother?
As I’ve mentioned before, the family lore surrounding my 3x-great-grandparents James Moran and Margaret Jamieson strikes me as so romantic, so improbable, that I often refer to the story of their elopement to Canada as “the Ballad of James and Margaret.”
And it’s a great story: a young lady of quality (of “the Quality,” as they called it at the time) falls in love with the coachman, a handsome young rogue of a fellow, who is working for her family. And because her family would never agree to the match, the two star-crossed young lovers determine to elope to Upper Canada.
Well, of course I am sceptical. As I have also already mentioned before, if you grew up as the descendant of Irish emigrants, you will no doubt have grown up hearing all sorts of stories about how we were once the Kings and Queens of Ireland. And then you look into the records, and discover that we were once the agrarian underclass of County Tipperary!
But for all my scepticism, I have never been inclined to dismiss outright the oral family history claim that, before she married James Moran, the young Margaret Jamieson had married a man by the name of Conroy, in the Queen’s County (Co. Laois).
Which is why the record above (a transcription of an actual record) is of interest to me. The county fits; the date fits; and the names (more or less) also fit (“Margo”? I’d like to know how many “Margos” were running about Queen’s County ca. 1815: I suspect not too many, though there must have been a lot of “Margarets”).
Is this Margo Jemisson my Margaret Jamieson? Well, she might be, but then again, she might not be, I just don’t know. The only way to possibly crack this nut is to dig deep into the parish registers, and to view all relevant surrounding records in context.
Which is why I am so looking forward to the NLI’s release of the digitized images of its Roman Catholic parish registers. I want the key that unlocks the door to the Irish family history mysterium.
- And I shouldn’t say if, I should say when (the NLI’s Parish Registers Digitisation Project is currently scheduled to launch “by summer 2015”): it’s just that this project is so monumentally awesome that I still can’t quite believe they will pull it off. ↩