Everyone who's ever tried to research Irish genealogy knows how challenging it can be. But it can feel even more so if the family you're tracing were poor farmers living in the west of Ireland. If you're researching in the era before civil registration (1864) and before the Griffith Valuation (1847-64) your task may appear impossible. But don’t despair! Many more records survive for Irish family history than most people realise.
Take the Poverty Relief Loan Fund records which we recently released here at Findmypast. This was a micro credit scheme set up in 1824 to provide small loans to the 'industrious poor'. Local committees administered the scheme and kept copious records about the people who received loans. Nearly 700,000 names are recorded in these files and they give a snapshot of life including age, occupation and fiscal history. Occasionally more detail is given, including degree of destitution, family circumstances, emigration and death.
What makes these records so exciting, is that they span the period of the Famine (1845-51). This was one of the darkest times in modern Irish history. It was a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration. Over 1 million men, women and children died, and another million left the country to seek a better life elsewhere. The records we published deal with those who are least well documented in Irish historic records. So we have the original loan records, securities, repayment schedules, and other records from the 1830s and 40s. Following the Famine the local committees made returns to the Clerk of the Peace on the status of those who had received loans. In many cases the borrowers still lived in poverty, many others had emigrated to England or the USA. Some had been imprisoned for non-payment or other crimes, several of whom were transported to Australia. But large numbers were reported as having died of starvation. In every case the records give dates, destinations, crimes and personal circumstances to flesh out the often heart-breaking stories of these people’s lives.
These records did not appear in any Irish genealogy guide book, much like the millions of other Irish records released over the last few years at Findmypast. What we are trying to do is identify new evidence for Irish lives from records which were never used in traditional genealogy. So we have recently released 22 million Petty Sessions Court records, which deal with all the trivial quarrels between neighbours and minor crimes from 1828 to 1914. They are a wonderful window into the lives of our ancestors, and tell us so much more than the mere fact they existed.
Our newspaper collection at Findmypast now contains 68 titles and 6.8 million articles from the 1740s onwards. Suddenly it's now possible to use this extraordinary resource because its been digitised indexed and published at Findmypast. Previously, no-one would have had the time to scroll through so much paper in the faint hope of funding that one reference that makes all the difference.
So this St. Patrick’s Day come and take a look at our Irish collections. Delve into your family’s story and uncover the trials, the heart break and the success of their lives. And of course, please tell us what you find.
This was a guest post by Brian Donovan. Brian is the Irish Records Expert at Findmypast, and has been digitising and indexing Irish historic records since 1998. He formerly lectured in history at Trinity College Dublin and was a founding member of the Irish genealogy company Eneclann. He has played a central role in creating the Irish record collection at Findmypast and continues to oversee its development.