Monday, 28 February 2011

IrishGraveyards – a monumental leap forward

Today's launch of represents monumental progress for Irish family historians.

The new website is designed to hold photographs and memorial transcriptions from digitally-mapped and carefully documented surveys of graveyards and cemeteries.

IrishGraveyards differs from other graveyard transcription sites in that its images and searchable details are not randomly contributed by individual family historians.

“ holds information gathered during systematic surveys of entire graveyards,” explains Michael Durkan, managing director of Irish Graveyard Surveyors (IGS), the Mayo-based company behind the new website. “The surveys are carried out by qualified teams, using a combination of GPS and eye-mapping. The team even includes a Braille reader who can often decipher by touch inscriptions that are too eroded for the eye to read.”

During a survey, every grave, whether identified by a huge Celtic Cross, a simple stone slab, or even unmarked, is recorded and numbered, and a digital map of the churchyard or cemetery is then produced. So, too, is a list of the names, addresses and dates/age of death of the occupant of each grave, as recorded on memorials.
Drafts of the map and list are initially made available only to the local community who can correct or add details, especially about unmarked graves or incomplete memorials.

“Parishioners are an important source of additional information,” says Durkan, whose own father, an undertaker, was often called upon to help visitors locate the graves of their ancestors in his local churchyard. “My father knew every occupant and every blade of grass in Balla churchyard,” says Durkan proudly. “But his familiarity, and the knowledge that today’s parishioners hold, dies with them. IrishGraveyards is capturing and preserving that knowledge for future generations of family historians.”

Following each survey, a stainless steel version of the map and alphabetical list of names is at the graveyard.

Since its formation in 2007, IGS has completed more than 200 surveys, most of them in western counties. One of the largest projects undertaken was recently completed at the 9-acre St Mary’s cemetery in Newry, and details from this survey will be uploaded to IrishGraveyards within the next fortnight. Meanwhile, the company’s surveying team has been commissioned to conduct a further 60 projects; 22 counties are represented in the commission list.

Experience suggests numbers will quickly grow. “Once IGS arrives on site, word soon spreads to a neighbouring parish,” says Durkan. “That congregation and the clergy like what they hear, and they pop by to see for themselves how simple the entire process is, and we come away with another commission.”

Family historians will also like what they see on the freely accessible website. The search facility is extremely flexible, and records can be searched by name, year of death, and/or location.

Results are returned in table format, together with a thumbnail picture of the grave. When clicked, an 8mb photograph can be viewed and downloaded.

Grave inscriptions can be extremely helpful to genealogists. They often contain information that is not recorded elsewhere, or that clarifies family associations and helps breakdown research brickwalls. will therefore be a huge boon to anyone conducting research on Irish ancestors.

While the majority of the records held by relate to deaths in the 19th and 20th century, some are older. The oldest grave recorded is that of John Gwinn of Iskaheen, co Donegal, who died in 1661. It seems somehow fitting that he was the local gravedigger!


Top: Michael Durkan and Niall Broderick of Irish Graveyard Surveyors install a map at Ballybrack, Greencastle, co Donegal.

Middle: Map and list of graves at Leenane, co Galway.

Bottom: Map and list of graves at Cushlough, co Mayo.