Friday 4 July 2014

Making sense of the GRO database...
your attention will be rewarded

History, history. There's always some historical background to consider in all developments in Irish genealogy, and yesterday's launch of the General Register Office's civil registration indexes (see blogpost) is a perfect example. The history is, I'm afraid, rather complicated; it's worth getting to grips with, however, because it will explain why some information is available in the indexes for some years and not others.

So stand by, and take notes, because you may find yourself being tested on this later:

As we all know, the Church of Latter Day Saints (Family Search) microfilmed the GRO's birth, marriage and death indexes from 1845/1864 up to 1958. In due course, the microfilm was scanned and digitised and has been available on Family Search for the last several years. Ancestry and FindMyPast's versions originate from the same microfilms. In effect, researchers have had just one set of the index available to them up to 1958, whether they searched online or lifted the hard back books from the shelves of the GRO's Research Room in Dublin.

Just a few years after the LDS created their microfilms, the GRO decided it was time for an update and set out to improve the annual indexing method. From 1966, GRO staff started to enhance their paper indexes by including actual dates of birth, marriage and death, the surnames of both marriage partners, and the marital status of the deceased. This process became the standard from the mid-60s and continued until the early 1990s.

Because this new 'standard' was such an improvement, the GRO set up a project to give historical indexes the same treatment. Work started on the 1900 to 1902 birth indexes. For whatever reasons, this first batch of 'improved' indexes did not apply consistencies. Maiden names might be included in some cases; the actual date of birth for others.

The project continued with the 1903 to 1928 birth indexes and was generally done to a higher standard. Not perfect, but better. Although maiden names and dates of birth should be available in the vast majority of entries, there are loads of mistakes (guesses?) in spellings of names, and even some examples where a date of birth has been incorrectly read ie the abbreviation Jan for January may have been mis-transcribed as the abbreviation Jun for June, etc.

The GRO's first 'modernisation' project ended with the 1928 birth indexes. This means that the indexes used by the GRO themselves for births from 1929 to 1958 are the same as those microfilmed by the LDS. Those from 1958 to 1965 follow the same format. In other words, from 1929 to 1965 maiden names were automatically included in the birth indexes but dates of birth were not.

In recent years, other 'enhancements' have been made to the indexes used by GRO staff. Whereas older marriages (1845 to the turn of the 20th century) are still recorded with each partner to the marriage entered separately, necessitating the need to cross-check the reference details to find a match, GRO staff started indexing the bride and groom as a couple. For example, the marriage of John Doyle and Catherine Faul on 01 October 1904 is found whether you search for his name or her name – no need to cross-check. These 'joint' entries have been indexed back to 1912; they're a bit hit and miss from 1903 to 1911.

These 'improved' indexes have only ever been available to GRO staff. Until now. These are the indexes now available at

The final part of the history lesson takes us to 2005 when the GRO decided that, going forward, the old system of indexing according to Registration District, Volume and Page numbers was obsolete. Instead, a Group Registration ID was introduced. As its name suggests, every individual registration would, in future, be allocated its own identifier. To introduce an element of security, the numbers are not continuous, I'm told.

To create this new database, Group Registration IDs have been created retrospectively for all births, for marriages since 1903 and for deaths since 1924 only. I imagine these identifiers will eventually be allocated to all entries in the the historic registers.

In future, then, if you're applying for a certificate to the GRO, you'll need in principle to quote only the name of the person to which the event relates and the Group Registration ID, where one exists. (Personally, I'd give them that info plus the SRD/PLU, Volume and Page number, just for certainty!)

One irritation of the 'enhanced' indexes is that, even where a date of birth, marriage or death has been provided from the registers, the database is stuck in a 'year of registration' groove. An example from the birth index will explain this: You're looking for your ancestor John Martin Ryan who you know was born on 12 December 1928 but you don't know where. So you search for him using his name and the year 1928. You won't find him.

The reason you won't find him is that his birth was registered in 1929 and you have to use that date in the search fields to locate his birth record, the very birth record which will show the December 1928 birthday! Infuriating, but definitely worth remembering when you can't find someone. This applies for births, marriages and deaths.

I am hugely indebted to Steven Smyrl, President of APGI and Executive Liaison Officer of CIGO, for helping me to make some sense of apparent inconsistencies in the new database (many thanks for this morning's history class, Steven!) and hope the resulting explanation above will help many researchers understand the new resource.

If you've read this far, you deserve another treat. You might need to sit down for this one. I did. I thought I'd misheard!

Joan Burton, Minister for Social Protection (and, as of half an hour ago, the new Leader of the Labour Party, and Tánaiste) made a surprise announcement at last night's launch of the online GRO database. This is what she said:

“This [the GRO indexes online database] is an investment for the future which allows us to access our past from the comfort of our living rooms. The availability of electronic records is essential for the development of modern genealogy services. With this in mind, I will shortly be publishing the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill 2014 in which I will be providing for certain historic records to be made available online direct to the public. I look forward to further developments on this wonderful initiative which will allow us, and future generations, access to invaluable information regarding our ancestors."

She went on to say that these historic records would be full register records for births up to 100 years ago, marriages up to 75 years ago, and deaths up to 50 years ago.

I hope to bring you more about this in due course.

You read it here first!