Comments by Steven Smyrl, Executive Liason Officer, Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations, at the presentation of the 2010 CIGO Award for Excellence in Genealogy to Clare County Library on 10th February 2011
For the Irish, genealogy is close to the heart, something we have always been interested in. For proof, we need look no further than the seventeenth century Annals of the Four Masters and the ancient manuscript pedigrees compiled by Ulster King of Arms, now held by the Genealogical Office, formerly attached to Dublin Castle. But, for all that, in truth for most of us our interest has often been more general: a simple knowledge that the “the family was Catholic and came from around Ennistymon, Co. Clare or, was perhaps Presbyterian and from Cullybacky in Co. Antrim”. Perhaps also, with some pride (or even trepidation), we can state that “our forebears were in the thick of it in 1798 or that that they signed Carson’s 1912 Ulster Covenant against Home Rule”. Other than that such examples clearly demonstrate the diversity of Irish history, what perhaps it shows more is that up until recent times, for most of us, our knowledge about our ancestors was vague and imprecise – it lacked names and dates and relationships. For many of us what we knew existed only as oral history, covering 3 or 4 generations, but constantly changing as new generations were added and other earlier ones were forgotten as the older generation died away and extended family connections lapsed.
All here this evening must have met Americans eagerly seeking out their Irish ancestry. So many of them leave our shores saddened that the lack of surviving records will forever deny them the knowledge of the exact parish, village, townland or even field that their distant forebear set out from on all those years before, heading to a new life in North America. For those who never left Ireland it can sometimes be difficult to comprehend the deep down yearning to know one’s origins. Of course, in more recent times in their quest for their family’s past our American cousins have been joined by the descendants of those who set off for other places: the UK , Canada , Australia , New Zealand and even places like South Africa and Argentina !
Seventy-five years ago this year, in London in 1936, Catholic Priest Fr. Wallace Clare gathered together a group of like-minded people and formed the Irish Genealogical Research Society as a response to the loss of so many records in 1922 during the civil war. It quickly gathered members from across Britain and Ireland and was the beginning of a ‘home-grown’ serious interest in Irish genealogy and family history. There’s no pretending that most of the early members of the IGRS weren’t well-to-do middle (and even upper) class folk interested in who their ancestors were, what they did and where they came from. Such a background was of course never a prerequisite to membership of the Society and anyone was free to join, no matter what their background, social class or religious profession. But, having said that, until recent times leisure activities remained the preserve of the well off and better educated.
By the 1960s about half of the IGRS membership were residents of Ireland and thus in 1967 an ‘Ireland Branch’ was formed with its own committee, organising its own programme of events and activities. As an aside, one of the Branch’s longest running projects was that of gathering together transcripts of gravestone inscriptions from across Ireland , in both manuscript and published form. It was only in 2001, after nearly 30 years of collecting, that many of the transcriptions were published by the IGRS as its ‘Millennium Project’.
By the 1980s, the interest in genealogy in Ireland , much stimulated by the early work of the IGRS, led to the founding of the IGRS’ friendly rival the Irish Family History Society, established in 1984. By this time the Irish people were beginning to be more urbanised and the IFHS was able to gain members from amongst this group who, with nostalgia, were eager to search out their family’s past and to maintain links to the land and with their rural cousins.
The ’80s was the decade in which genealogy really began to take-off in Ireland as its potential for roots tourism began to be more fully appreciated. Particularly, we saw the growth of county-based heritage centres which began indexing local church records, many of which then moved on to index burial registers, record gravestone inscriptions, and index census returns. At this time too county and local libraries began to recognise the value of locally held records and offered to give them safe homes to avoid their destruction. This in itself often was the kernel of so many County Library ’s local history collections – and no doubt that rings true too for Clare County Library.
So where, one might ask, does CIGO – the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations – fit into all this? Well, with so much suddenly happening in the world of Irish genealogy – particularly in areas where it might produce revenue or stimulate roots tourism – the average man and woman in the street soon began to feel that what had been their hobby, which they had given many hours of unpaid time to in a voluntary capacity, was being gobbled up! And all this, I might add, was before the advent of the Internet! The spark which begat CIGO happened in 1992 when the government announced that the General Register Office was to be decentralised to Roscommon town. Immediately a group was formed representing the various organisations, societies and bodies working in the field of Irish genealogy. It took the name “GRO Users Group” (and amusingly quickly became known as the GROUSERS). Speaking with one voice it insisted that if the move was indeed to go ahead then the current statute provision of a Public Search Room must be retained in Dublin . After much lobbying common sense prevailed – this was out first victory. The ‘GRO USERS’ soon realised that it had a future and adopted a constitution and a new name, that of CIGO. Since then CIGO has grown to represent thirteen constituent organisations within Ireland and a further eighteen societies and organisations interested in Irish genealogy from across the globe. For almost twenty years now we have lobbied Ministers, government departments, semi-state bodies, cultural institutions and private organisations across this island to improve access to genealogical material and records. Over the years CIGO has become involved in every single issue that has proved to be of importance to the world of Irish genealogy, family history and archives. For instance, its success in securing vital amendments to the Civil Registration Act 2004 (during its Oireachtas Bill stages) ensured that since December 2005 all death registrations must note (where known) the deceased’s date and place of birth and parents’ names. This achievement was copper-fastened when, despite initial opposition from the General Register Office for Northern Ireland , CIGO appeared before the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Finance & Personnel Scrutiny committee and successfully argued that such provisions should be adopted in Northern Ireland too. In 2009 we successfully challenged the UK ’s National Health Service Information Centre’s policy of denying access to data about deceased people from the war time National Register, compiled in 1939, and which notes census-style information about every UK resident. The outcome has been that access to such data can now be obtained from each constituent part of the UK – from England & Wales , from Scotland and from Northern Ireland too. We have followed this success by making enquiries as to the location and state of the Republic’s Population Registers, compiled during the Emergency period. Also, in recent weeks we have held discussions with opposition parties about a compromise that might unlock the ‘roots tourism potential’ locked away in the Irish 1926 census returns – a compromise which might allow early access to these records possibly through the redaction of ‘so-called’ sensitive data. At this stage all we can say is that we have found great enthusiasm for the proposal and a commitment to “examine the feasibility” of progressing the idea further after the coming election.
So, without doubt through the tireless work of its Council members CIGO has become the pre-eminent representative organisation for voluntary genealogy in Ireland and it is in such a context that in 2007 we decided to inaugurate an annual Award for Excellence in Genealogy to recognise meritorious achievement. Since then it has been awarded to Dublin Public Libraries and Archive in 2007, to The Irish Times in 2008 and to the National Archives in 2009. In considering each year’s nominations CIGO found that each of these institutions had excelled in someway in the provision of services, archives, facilities and encouragement in the study of Irish genealogy.
When in September last year we considered the various nominations for the 2010 Award, despite healthy competition, it soon became clear to CIGO that Clare County Library would be the victor. Its not that through its Local History Centre or website it had the most comprehensive list of names, biggest number of gravestone inscriptions or most extensive texts of historical data – which, none-the-less are extensive. No! Above all it was its obvious commitment to genealogy. For instance, its willingness to obtain new source material for the Local History Centre (which includes a magnificent collection of Clare newspapers and the recently acquired microfilms of Clare parish registers) is admirable. Some library websites often just throw a cursory nod to genealogy, with maybe a few links to other websites and/or cultural institutions. Not the Clare County Library website! There is much included on the Library’s website from within its own collections. Such gems as a biographical index to the Clare Champion newspaper for the years 1935 to 1985 (and which I admit to having used very many times); an index to the 1901 census for Co. Clare, completed many years before the National Archives launched its own index to all counties; transcripts of 19th century National School registers; a list of tenants evicted from East Clare estates in the years 1878 to 1903; extensive lists of Clare names taken from the 18th convert rolls, the originals of which were destroyed during that great conflagration which consumed our public records in 1922; also the Co. Clare pages from Guy’s Directory of Munster for 1893 and the tremendous indexes to both the Clare Tithe Books and to Griffith’s Valuation for Co. Clare. These are just a few, a mere handful of the items from the Library’s own collections. But more than this, the website also hosts data from other institutions and bodies too. More particularly in this instance, material supplied by the Clare Roots Society – which might I add is a constituent member of CIGO! The collection of gravestone inscriptions noted by members of Clare Roots Society is most remarkable. It not only includes the inscriptions but in many, many cases a photograph of the memorial too. A new Clare Roots Society initiative, the results of which will in due course be hosted on the Library website, is the growing collection of scanned images of Co. Clare memoriam cards. So far the Society has collected about 16,000! Yes, you did hear right….I said 16,000! Clearly, Clare Roots Society, one of the newest family history societies in Ireland and the brain child of Larry Brennan, is taking its mission very seriously and compared to many such societies in Ireland is in a league of its own!
To return to the Library website, it includes headstone transcripts complete with photographs for 32 Co. Clare graveyards and in addition there are inscriptions from many other Clare graveyards which have not as yet been photographed.
Beyond Clare Roots Society, these transcripts have been supplied by local groups such as the Kilrush Youth Centre and Ballynacally ICA and by overseas private individuals such as Jim McNamara from California , Paddy Casey from Switzerland and Tom McDowell from the UK . Some of these same individuals have shown their commitment to Clare by donating copies of their work in other areas too, particularly in transcribing parish and church registers. For instance, Jim McNamara’s copy of the baptismal register for Lower Feakle Roman Catholic parish for the years 1860 to 1881 is of tremendous use to those searching for ancestors in that area – and its available freely in the genealogy section of Clare County Library’s website – a website I might add that other libraries should not fail to emulate.
So – where would be without such people willing to undertake work on a voluntary basis and then to disseminate it through the wonder of the Internet? Where would we be without such far thinking staff as those who run the Clare County Library? Well, I can tell you where…in a place devoid of philanthropy, selflessness, generosity of spirit and an overriding wish to assist others. It is perfectly obvious that the website of Clare County Library provides a forum for the demonstration of these important values…and long may it last!
Helen…it is my great pleasure to present CIGO’s 2010 Award for Excellence in Genealogy to Clare County Library…..it is well deserved