Thursday 10 July 2014

New Irish civil registration indexes: one week on

A week ago today, the indexes to the General Register Office's civil registration records of births, marriages and deaths were uploaded* to a microsite on the state-run They are free to search. intense excitement of the launch, which had been 'coming soon' since last October, has now given way to slightly calmer searching as researchers become more familiar with the online database, so this seems a good a time as any to summarize some of its features and to mention a few idiosyncracies that may be causing research headaches.

What does the database hold?

Searchable INDEXES to: ALL civil registration records of birth, marriage and death collected on the island of Ireland from 1845/1864 up to and including 1921 and ALL civil registration records collected in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State/Republic of Ireland since 1922 to 2013.

In what way does this index differ from all existing indexes of the same collection?

All pre-existing online indexes originate from microfilms made by the LDS Church in the late 1950s and end with registrations from 1958. The new index holds records right up to 2013 (an unexpectedly recent date!), is state-sanctioned, and includes details added by General Register Office staff to aid identification. While the LDS/FamilySearch index holds 23million records, this new database holds 27million.

Additionally, a new method of referencing the index is being introduced. Instead of the researcher having to 'create' an index reference using the name, year (and quarter) of event, place of registration, volume number and page number, each registration entry is now being assigned a unique Group Registration ID number. Thus far, these ID numbers have been assigned for all births, marriages from about 1901, deaths from 1924. GRO staff will accept certificate applications using either the old or the new reference. If you're quoting the Group Registration ID, you can download a purpose-made application form from John Grenham's website.

What are the real advantages of this index?:
  • The Birth Index stretches from 1864 to 2013. The Mother's maiden name is included from 1900, albeit rather inconsistently in the first few years. The actual date of birth is included from 1900 to 1928, again with some inconsistency in the early years, and from 1966 to 2013.
  • The Marriage Index stretches from 1845 (for non-Catholic marriages) and from 1864 (for all marriages) to 2013. While entries to the turn of the 20th century are recorded, as in pre-existing indexes, with each partner to the marriage entered separately, marriages from 1912 onwards are indexed as a couple ie you don't need to cross-check two entries for the same reference number. There are some 'joint' entries dating from 1903, but certainly not all.
  • The Death Index stretches from 1864 to 2013. The marital status of the deceased is recorded from 1966.
How easy is the database to use?

Quite a few quibbles here. The wording of existing legislation (which envisioned only an offline search facility) requires that researchers wanting to search the indexes 'make an application', so, in order to get access to the online index, you have to fill in a pop-up box with your name and confirm that you are 'making an application'. I'm sure this step will disappear in the near future, perhaps in the Amendment Bill going through parliament, but in the meantime, you can type anything you like in the pop-up box; your details are not being recorded! For speed, just use initials.

Having got through the 'make an application' box, researchers are confronted with a 'captcha'. Personally, I've not had any difficulty reading these, but some researchers have. Again, I suspect this obstacle will the done away with soon. To avoid re-encountering these obstacles during a research session, use the 'New Search' or 'Clear Filter' options.

Once past these obstacles, the database function is so-so. It isn't slick, that's for sure, and although the site has had a bit of a tart up, it's still very old-fashioned in appearance.  On the plus side, it has good drill down options, with searching possible by registration area, by event, and by decade, and it seems to be coping admirably with demand.

Search weirdness

There are a lot of inconsistencies and many mis-transcriptions. Among the oddities I've heard of are pre-fix surnames – Mac/Mc and O' – that sometimes require a space between the prefix and the main name, the absence of second names (especially annoying when the person's christian name is in two parts such as Mary Jane or Mary Ann), and some pretty appalling mis-spellings. As mentioned in an earlier post, I've even found a birth registration from 1842 (Helena Donohue, born in Roscrea), which isn't possible because registration wasn't introduced until 22 years later. It is one of 7,216 entries with either a 'not possible' date or no date at all.

Overall impression

Mis-transcriptions and typos are inevitable in any database. It's difficult to judge at this stage if this one is any better or worse than others in this regard. All I can say is that researchers will, as always, have to be creative in their searching. And use the other online databases, especially the free option at FamilySearch, when necessary. It's unlikely the same mistake will have been made in both versions.

Despite some moans about clunkiness, the general response to the new database has been hugely positive. Even with its imperfections, it is a big improvement on what we've had before, and it will undoubtedly become the first port of call for Irish genealogists. 

* Launch blogpost 1 and follow up blogpost 2