Alan Crosby: Unbreakable Irish brick walls

By Jon Bauckham, 8 October 2015 - 11:27am

Mark Gatiss makes some great discoveries in tonight's episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, but the low survival rate of Irish records can sometimes be frustrating says Alan Crosby

Dr Alan Crosby is the editor of the Local Historian and a columnist for WDYTYA? MagazineThursday 8 October 2015
Alan Crosby
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Four Courts Dublin 1922

During the Irish Civil War, Free State soldiers attacked the Republican army, which had established its headquarters inside Dublin’s Four Courts. This caused a devastating blaze that destroyed thousands of genealogical records (Photo: Getty Images)

The Mark Gatiss episode, which I watched earlier this week, highlights the problems with Irish family history research that result from the alarming absence of key records.

It’s a real difficulty for all of us with Irish ancestry – during the Irish Civil War of 1921-1923 the ‘anti-Treaty’ forces, which opposed the new Free State government’s agreement with the United Kingdom, stored their arms and ammunition in basement of the Four Courts building on the banks of the Liffey, which was unfortunately the Irish Public Record Office.

Government forces shelled the building from a gunboat on the river, it blew up, and with it were destroyed a very high proportion of Ireland’s historic archives.

It can be so frustrating, especially when combined with the infuriating fact that census enumerators in Great Britain usually just wrote ‘Ireland’ as place of birth, rather than giving a place-name or even a county.

In one sense I’m lucky. My Irish great great grandmother, normally listed as born in ‘Ireland’, was in just one census listed as born in ‘Dublin’. She was called Catherine Arnold, her father was John (I know that from her marriage certificate in Manchester in 1850), and she was born sometime between 1833 and 1836 (the ages on different sources never seem to tally exactly... another familiar tale).

But after that, nothing. There are various Arnold families in Salford in the 1840s, and I can tentatively identify an outline family tree. But I know that, barring the most unlikely of miracles, I will never get further back in Ireland than roughly 1800 when John Arnold must have been born.

How I would love to find that my forebears came from Kerry or Clare, Galway or Mayo. Although miracles do happen in the Emerald Isle, this one seems too much to hope for!
 

Alan Crosby lives in Lancashire and is editor of The Local Historian. He is an honorary research fellow at Lancashire and Liverpool universities

 

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