Current Campaigns - General Register Office
Issues relating to accessing records at Dublin's General Register Office (GROI) in 1992 caused the initial spark which eventually led to the formation of CIGO in 1994. The GRO has housed Ireland's civil (vital) records of birth, death and marriage since full civil registration of all births, deaths and marriages began in Ireland in 1864, (partial registration began in April 1845 from which time all non-Catholic and Jewish marriages have been registered). From January 1922 a separate GRO (GRONI) was established for Northern Ireland.
In 1992 it was announced that the GRO was to be decentralised to Roscommon town and as access to the GRO is vital to genealogy (in all its spheres) the announcement caused great anxiety. Very quickly CIGO (or as it was known for a short period, the 'GRO Users Group') obtained a commitment from the Minister for Health that the GRO would maintain a central searchroom in Dublin. Although in the intervening years a 'facility' was opened in Roscommon town, it was not until 2005 that the GRO was finally decentralised and even then it appeared at the time that it was done only to allow the government of the day to show that its more recent high profile decentralisation policy was showing results.
By the end of the 1990s the GRO had gained an unfortunate reputation internationally for unreliable service. The searchroom was tatty, dirty and too small and woefully understaffed. Furthermore, the Victorian legislation under which the registration system operated was creaking under what was now expected of it and was in dire need of complete replacement. These problems were mainly the result of the GRO's attachment to the Department of Health, which had much greater issues to deal with than registration and genealogy. In order to try to raise the issue of the GRO at national level, in 1999 CIGO submitted a report to the Minister for Health & Children and began the compilation of an on-line petition in order to highlight what one professional genealogist embarrasedly described as the "the grimy face of Irish genealogy". The signatures came in thick and fast as did the comments. The following comment is given as an example of the situation in 1999 typically found at the GRO by overseas visitors:
"During the summer of 1999 I used both the GRO and the National Library of Ireland. At the National Library I found that I could sit comfortably at a microfilm reader and view the various films of Roman Catholic registers that I needed to see in search of my roots. The service was swift, the surroundings pleasant, airy and clean. However, what an awful shock I got when I visited the GRO. There were too many people in such a small space. The research room was grubby and the furniture and other fittings well beyond the point at which they should have been thrown out. Many of the indexes, which are vital in gaining access to the actual records, were in tatters. I tried to locate a birth in the 1880s but found that in the relevant section of the index the pages jumped, missing out the section of the alphabet I needed. A member of staff very kindly brought me out a duplicate copy of the same volume but it was just the same. When I did at last manage to find a reference to a record I required, I found that even though I had paid a £12 search fee, I would not be allowed to obtain more that eight photocopies. I had intended to search for the birth of my great grandfather, James (O')Neill, who was born about 1870. However, when I saw just how many possible references there were to be checked in just the years 1869 to 1871 I did not bother. The limit of the eight photocopies and their cost, set at £1.50 each, made the whole idea a non-starter. I was very disappointed with the service I received in the GRO, though the staff themselves were extremely helpful, just over-worked. A second copy of the GRO microfilms should definitely be made available as soon as possible at the National Library."
On foot of the report (and the stir the petition caused) improvements were made to the searchroom and the service, though they proved to be of limited impact. Again, promise of improvement to the service was made at the time of the Social Welfare Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2002, which had tacked onto the end of it various clauses to enable some interim changes to be made to the Victorian legislation. This was because any real progress had still yet to be made in drawing-up a completely new, modern legislative framework.
At this time CIGO raised the issue of the lack of identifying information recorded in Irish death registrations through a press release which led to press coverage; through a letters campaign to the print media; & through contribution to debates in both the Dáil and the Seanad; and although no change was achieved at that time the groundwork had been laid for later success with the Bill stages of the Civil Registration Act 2004. CIGO's very successful lobbying of public representatives and media briefing ensured a high profile for the issue (particularly in The Irish Times), the result of which was that for the first time ever all future death registrations would be required to include deceased persons' dates & places of birth and both parents' full names. CIGO is concerned that this requirement is still not being met in all cases where deaths are registered by Coroners rather than next-of-kin.
Although much of the GRO's records have now been computerised, public access to the registers continues to made be through the original paper indexes. It had been hoped that with the move to new premises of the Public Searchroom - it moved to the Irish Life Centre, Lower Abbey Street, in November 2007 - that public access to the computerised system would commence and that the long promised 'users' forum' would be set up. However, there appears to be no clear date yet for such a move in either case. At CIGO's 2006 AGM, Eddie Flood, a senior official in the GRO, gave a commitment that when public access to the computerised records began there would be forty-two terminals provided in the new searchroom facility. Those attending the AGM indicated that they strongly believed, given current numbers using the then existing very small searchroom, that forty-two would prove to be inadequate at peak times. The issue of Internet access to 'older' GRO records was raised too, but again there appeared at that time to be no plan to commence such a service.
Currently, the GRO's database of scanned images of all entries from the civil registers of births, deaths & marriages has not been completed. While all births from January 1864 have been entered onto the system, only marriages from 1920 and deaths from 1926 have so far been added. The upshot of this is that in all likelihood once public access does commence searching for marriages and deaths in the earlier years will continue only through the hardcopy paper indexes.
Access to GRO records has been greatly facilitated since the online publication in January 2009 of the pre-1959 indexes at FamilySearch.org.
CIGO is also concerned about the inconsistent level and quality of service provided to genealogical researchers at the various local registration offices around the Republic of Ireland.
CIGO policy relating to the GRO:
- To urge GROI to follow the lead of GRONI and to set up, without further delay, a 'Users' Forum'
- The public having paid GROI search fees, CIGO believes that the 'five photocopies per day' rule is a limit on value for money
- The GROI Public Searchroom should open for longer hours than the current 9:30am to 4:30pm.
- Records compiled more than one hundred years ago should be made available via the Internet.
- Without further delay access to the computerised database should be provided at the GROI Public Searchroom
- An 'archive' database of scanned images of the original paper-based indexes should be made available via the Internet either by the GROI or the National Archives
- To continue to encourage change at the GRO (Dublin & Belfast) through both praise and constructive criticism.