Why Irish online genealogy is so peculiar
an article by John Grenham in The Irish Times, March 16, 2015
Researchers accustomed to the way online genealogy works elsewhere in the English-speaking world find the Irish situation strange. Elsewhere, records have usually been digitised by commercial concerns whose aim, naturally enough, is maximum profit for minimum investment. In the US, this has meant being trapped inside the Ancestry.com monopoly, with records piled high and transcribed cheap. In Britain, the effective Ancestry/FindMyPast.co.uk duopoly provides a choice between two similar corrals.
What makes Irish online genealogy so distinctive? Compared to the safe walled gardens of our overseas cousins, our records – what we have left – are all over the place: the National Archives, IrishGenealogy, RootsIreland.ie, The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, FindMyPast.ie and many more.
Faced with this situation, I’ve seen foreign (and Irish) researchers roll their eyes and mutter about Irish disorganisation and the inevitable civil war that besets every attempt at collective action in Ireland.
But one other factor is common to most online Irish records: access is free and provided by public service institutions. Contemporary Ireland is a paragon of liberal capitalism, red in tooth and claw. Why should genealogy be such an exception?
I think a large part of the reason lies in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The referendum that followed removed from the constitution the Republic’s territorial claim over Northern Ireland. Part of the text that replaced the claim was the declaration that “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”. Some people in the Irish public service actually took that seriously and, as the digital revolution dawned over the following decade, saw a very practical way to express that special affinity, by providing free and flexible online access to genealogical records.
And they’re still doing it. The recent publication of an official diaspora policy (bit.ly/1CA9qI2) explicitly embraces the upcoming digitisation of National Library Catholic parish microfilms: Three wholehearted cheers for Irish officialdom.