Wednesday 16 June 2021

Ancestry has indexed the Casey Collection: a glorious, if chaotic, 16-volume parcel of Irish genealogical records, history and more

Better known by the not even slightly catchy title of O'Kief, Coshe Mang, Slieve Lougher and the Upper Blackwater in Ireland, Albert E Casey's 16-volume series of books made its debut on Ancestry yesterday as a partially indexed and fully browseable record-set called the Ireland, Casey Collection Indexes, 1545-1960.

Casey himself estimated there were about 300,000 personal names in each of Volumes 6, 7, 8, 11, 14 and 15, and calculated that some 3million individuals were listed across the entire series. So we're talking a big collection.

Albert E Casey, an Irish American pathologist from 
Alabama, is responsible for this remarkable work

One of the many outstanding features about the contents of his magnum opus is that the records, history and other information he gathered and documented comes from only a small area of Ireland's southwest. Casey's ancestors came from an area known as Sliabh Luachra. It straddles the border of Northwest Cork and East Kerry, roughly contained by the marker towns of Macroom, Killarney, Tralee and Newcastle.

In his introduction to the 15th volume, Casey describes the contents of his series as containing 'births, deaths, marriages, tombstone inscriptions, deeds, leases, mortgages, administrations, landowners, newspaper items, maps, tax lists (1851-1876), statistics (1671-1960), topography, biographies, genealogies, historical contributions, bibliography, lists of source materials, translations of Ogham stones, physical anthropology, and blood groups relating to counties Cork and Kerry.' He doesn't even mention the maps, photographs, court proceedings, family and county histories!

The area covered by Casey's Collection is indicated
It is a magnificent collection, no doubt about that. And if you have family - be they Roman Catholic, Protestant or Quaker – from the area covered, you are highly likely to find records for them.

You can probably tell there's a great big BUT coming. So I'll hand over to my friend and fellow Fellow of the Irish Genealogical Research Society, Jill Williams, to tell you more about the collection.

"When researchers arrived at the IGRS Library and said they were interested in the North Cork/Kerry/Limerick area covered by O’Kief, those of us on duty would say to them: 'The good news is your ancestors will be in O’Kief; the bad news is your ancestors will be in O’Kief'.

We would sometimes bet on how long researchers would last studying O'Kief. We have yet to find anyone getting beyond two hours without developing a headache with the small print (some is miniscule), and having to flick through page after page to find the correct subject headings or even column headings for a record they'd found. A large magnifying glass often helped.

"There was also the difficulty of establishing which of the volumes they needed to consult. Casey alone could not collect all the information he needed, so he employed local researchers, transcribers, copy-typists, school teachers and even gardai to collect data for him; as soon as he received a wadge of solid information from his helpers, he simply stuck it into the next volume, hence the mix of items from the same area across different volumes."

Many of these difficulties will remain with the online browseable collection. On the plus side, the records gathered by Casey and his elves can now reach more people because the entire set of 16 volumes can be viewed in one place (only a few libraries, including the IGRS, holds the full set). While many of the records gathered by Casey and his elves have since been digitised from original documents, Ancestry's newly indexed collection pulls an impressive chunk of its data together into one place, rather than researchers having to visit different websites. Also the records documented may cover a longer time span than is currently available elsewhere online, and many of the memorial inscriptions recorded by Casey's team can now be easily discovered, even if the headstone is no longer legible.

While the browse collection appears to be complete, the indexed collection is noted by Ancestry as containing 1,037,567 searchable records, and it's been catalogued as a Birth, Marriage and Death record set. When test searching last night by name and place, I certainly found plenty of civil and church records, as well as headstone inscriptions. I also spotted a page of Griffiths Valuation. Just the one.

As you'd expect, using the indexed records is a lot better than spending hours scanning page after page of the book, looking, hoping.... At least the search engine takes you to a specific page that matches your search. Trouble is, you don't know where on the page to find the name, and even when you find it, the lack of column and subject headings mentioned above is encountered... back one page, back another page, back one more page etc. Just as Jill described. And there's really very little Ancestry's viewing widgets can do to improve the blurry print produced at a time when reproduction standards were so much lower.

Ancestry's description of their new collection is rather light for such a extensive record-set so, if you have ancestors from the relevant areas of Sliabh Luachra, I would recommend you first learn a bit more about its contents, the peculiar placement or order of their presentation, and some of topics you might prefer to avoid. As Jill says, "There's some seriously weird stuff in there. It can be a real rabbit hole."

Note: In its description, Ancestry provides a bibliography consisting of two items. Michele Patin's feature is informative and worth a read but bear in mind it was written in 2001 and a huge proportion of Irish genealogy records are now online.

Jill suggests the following two sources:

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