In Case You Missed “A Day of Irish Information”

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The Berkeley Yacht Club was the perfect setting for “A Day of Irish Information” on Wednesday, July 9, 2008. The waterfront location served up cool breezes on a hot East Bay day. And what better place to discuss the Emerald Isle then at the water’s edge?

President Jane Lindsey started things off with a few society announcements, including an overview of upcoming speakers and workshops. Many of the 116 in attendance were not members of the California Genealogical Society but by day’s end eight attendees took advantage of a $5 discount offered by Jane, and joined CGS.

Nora Keohane Hickey presented four entertaining lectures on several aspects of Irish genealogical research in her lilting Irish accent. A natural storyteller, Nora often included colorful anecdotes which added interest and humor to a subject which can be dry and overwhelming. Ms. Hickey talks fast so the full day of information was a bit challenging for some of the beginners in the audience.

Nora’s first talk was “Debunking Some of the Myths of Irish Genealogy” – a humorous and informative list of common fallacies including “All the records were burnt” and “I found the location on a Surname Map.” Using her own KEOHANE as an example, Ms. Hickey explored the “Of course I know how to spell my surname!” myth with some surprising variants, including COHAN and COHEN. (The famous “Yankee Doodle Dandy” George M. COHAN is a cousin.) Nora told of once reading a ship passenger record that listed eight COHENs – one came from Germany but the other seven were from Ireland. She summarized this first part of the day in two words: “Question EVERYTHING!”

One interesting inside story from Nora concerned the loss of the 19th century Irish census records (some surviving snippets are available on microfilm at the Family History Library.) The 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 records were destroyed in the Dublin Four Courts Fire of 1922 and the 1861 – 1891 records were pulped (recycled to make paper) during WWI. Nora explained that the order to pulp was meant only for the second, duplicate sets that existed for the countries of Great Britain, preserving the original records. Unfortunately, the fact that Ireland had only one set somehow escaped notice (!) and the sole source was lost for 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891.

Nora got right into fundamentals with her second session, “Extracting All the Important Information from Griffith’s Valuation.” This was a thorough discussion of the 1848-1864 tax valuation records whose significance to Irish researchers is elevated due to the loss of nineteenth century census records. Griffith’s lists every house and land holding in every townland and includes the names of landowners and tenants alike. Nora explained the meaning behind the map reference numbers in the first column of the property listings and stressed that the real value of Griffiths is that it serves as a guidepost to further avenues of research. Nora presented a case study demonstrating how knowing the surnames of a couple can often help to narrow the search for a parish of origin using the surname distribution data from the valuations. She ended the morning session by providing information about the Valuation Maps, the House, Field and Tenure Books and the Valuation Cancellation Books.

After the lunch break (the box lunches got great reviews!), Nora launched into “Little-known and Under-used Irish Genealogical Sources” which she prefaced by noting that she defines a genealogical source as “any document containing a name and a date.” Her handout contained scores of publications, arranged by century, that focused primarily on her own family counties of Kildare and Cork. The general message of this talk was that you never know where you will find valuable information, especially since many records were removed from Ireland, taken to England and may be available in Irish, British and American repositories.

The final session of the day, entitled “A Discussion About Common Problems in Irish Genealogy,” asked two key questions: 1.) “Are you looking for the correct surname?” and 2.) “Are you looking in the right location?” Due to time constrains, Nora referred the audience to three pages of her handout which summarizes the development and evolution of Irish surnames and gives clues to help the researcher find possible variations. She spent considerable time defining the administrative divisions of Ireland which are complicated because of the way they overlap. Nora explained how the various ecclesiastical and civil divisions developed and why it is imperative to know the divisional category that describes each record type.