Tuesday 14 August 2012

Family history talks at the NLI – report

Two thoughts struck me when the 20:20 series of family history talks (20 x 20 minute sessions) was announced for August in the National Library of Ireland in Kildare Street, Dublin.

First: Great Idea!

Second: Only 20 minutes?

Now half-way through the series, I've managed to attend two of this week's talks – yesterday's with Dr Susan Hood talking about the collections of the Representative Church Body Library, and today's with historian Turtle Bunbury on the records of the Big Houses.

I chose these two talks because I have neither Protestant nor wealthy ancestors, so these records groups are not ones I know a lot about, and I could do with the education. I just hoped both speakers would turn up. The speaker booked for last Friday's talk on the Military Archives didn't, leaving some, if not most, of the gathered audience rather cheesed off.

There were no such mishaps this week, thank goodness. Nor, I suspect, will the organisers allow such a cock-up to be repeated.

Dr Susan Hood launched an early attack on the notion that 'all the Church of Ireland records were lost in 1922' myth. As she explained, more than 1,000 birth, marriage and burial registers were destroyed, but a lot of information from them survives in one format or another. And, for those that expect the RCBLibrary to deal only with the records of Protestants, came a reminder that 'there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of non-Church of Ireland people recorded in the Anglican records'.

Having scotched the myths, she talked about the types of parish-based records held. Parish committees were responsible for ALL people in the parish, regardless of religion, and kept many records eg Poor Money collected from all households in the Dublin parish of St Werburgh 1641, street cleaning and public lighting records and the Watch (early police) registers.

She also mentioned the 1000-odd ecclesiastical manuscripts relating to clergy, educational/missionery records, the parish histories and the only indexed Church of Ireland Gazette collection which dates from 1856.

Digitisation is, of course, now being embraced by the Library. All the Library-held birth, marriage and burial registers for Dublin's city parishes, plus those for Carlow and Kerry are now available on www.irishgenealogy.ie, and the Library has recently launched an Archive of the Month feature on its website to make researchers more aware of the holdings.

Back in April, the Watchbooks of the Dublin parish of St John 1724-1785 were the featured Archive. "The impact was remarkable," said Susan. "The website had more hits in one day than it normally would in a month."

Susan talked about the Library being keen to continue its digitisation programme, but stressed that pre-1870 records are State Records, and don't belong to the Church of Ireland. As such, digitisation is not a decision the Library can take. However, post-1870 records belong to the Church, which is not in favour of allowing the LDS Church (the Mormons) to copy or scan its records, even though they would do this for free.

Today's talk by Turtle Bunbury was on the subject of Big House records. He said there were an estimated 7,000 Big Houses in Ireland in 1900; they all had land. Smaller estates were just 40-50 acres, while large estates could extend to several thousand acres. And that land generated vast amounts of paper, for deeds, rental rolls, land surveys, account books etc, not forgetting the personal correspondence of each gentrified family.

So where are all those papers? "Like the Anglo Irish, the records have scattered, and many are missing," said Turtle.

An 80 Big Houses were burned in the War of Independence and a further 200 were torched in the Civil War. Along with the buildings and furnishings, the archives went up in flames, too.

Of those families that left Ireland, most went to England, and that is where a good many Big House collections remain. Some are in the National Archives in Kew, London. Others may still be with the family of they had land in England. Back in Ireland, a lot of collections were handed in to the NLI or local archives. Turtle described the NLI's Department of Manuscripts as 'chock a block with estate papers', primarily for the 18th and 19th centuries, but some date further back. This, then, should be the first place to look.

If the family's estate had any northern relevance, it's also worth checking with PRONI. Turtle talked of his own family in Lisnavagh House, County Carlow. The Bunbury family had northern connections, so PRONI sorted and created a descriptive list of its archive.

Other good sources are Burke's Irish Landed Gentry, Debretts, landedestates.ie (for Connaught and Munster only) and the landed estate court rentals collection which can be searched and viewed on FindMyPast Ireland".

Turtle stressed that Big House records are not only of interest to those descended from the Anglo Irish. Family correspondence usually contains mentions of staff, estate agents may name tenants (their reliability of payment or transgressions), and skilled craftsmen are often recorded with details of a building's construction.

My feeling after the two talks is that 20 minutes is, indeed, a short talk and can only serve as an introduction to a specific area of Irish genealogy research. But both speakers were generous with their time; at least as much time again was devoted to a Q & A session after the talk, and added an extra layer to my new understanding.

I'm sure all subsequent talks will be of the same quality, and feel comfortable about recommending them. You'll find the schedule for the remaining talks detailed on my events list here.