Monday, March 5, 2012

The history in an Irish birth certificate

After my father died my mother gave me the gift of my father's birth certificate. I was overwhelmed by feelings of gratitude at having received it, because I felt as though the certificate connected me to my dad at the very beginning of his life, at the time when children are all about possibility. His whole future lay ahead of him. Also, as an historical document, my father's Irish birth certificate reveals some aspects about what was going on in the life of his family, as well as in the history of his nation, at the time of his birth.

Click on photograph to view a larger version.
The document1{endnote see below} is physically interesting; it is crafted of parchment and is just over 40cm (16 inches) wide. The columns in which information appears bear bilingual titles, in Irish and English. Noteworthy is the fact that the Irish appears on the page above the English. This serves as a metaphorical representation of the fact that, even though in this time period Ireland was still bound to Britain, the Irish government wanted citizens to see themselves as Irish first. The document also bears the seal of Éire, denoted by the familiar symbol of the harp.

Following the Irish War of Independence, with the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Irish Free State was established in 1922; however, Ireland was still tied to Britain as part of the Commonwealth. The Irish were almost entirely out from under the foot of British rule, but it was not until 1937 that Ireland had its own constitution, and it was not until 1949 that the last ties with Britain were severed, and Ireland (i.e. the twenty-six counties of southern Ireland) was christened as Éire, the Republic of Ireland. All this came well after the birth of my dad. When my father was born, the Irish Free State was only seven years old.

In the upper part of the certificate, reference is made to the legislation known as the Registration of Births and Deaths Act of 1863.  This is the act which put into place the legal requirement that the births and deaths of all Irish born persons must be civilly registered. The act was amended later in the year 1863, via a private members bill in parliament, to include all marriages as well (non-Catholic marriages had been subject to registration since 1 April 1845). The civil registration of all of these life events officially began 1 January 1864.2

The South Dublin Lying-in Hospital in Holles Street, Dublin.
(Now known as The National Maternity Hospital.)
Established 1894.
The birth certificate names Holles Street Hospital as the site of my dad's birth.  My father and his brothers Patrick and Enda were all delivered in Holles Street Hospital. Originally opened under the name The South Dublin Lying-in Hospital in Holles Street3, and now called The National Maternity Hospital, it was built in 1894 for "the relief of poor lying-in women and for the treatment of diseases peculiar to women".4

Care at the Holles Street hospital was specifically designed to reduce infant mortality, as well as the appallingly high death rate of poor women in childbirth.  In nineteenth century Dublin, and into the twentieth century, both middle-class and upper-class women continued to enjoy the choice of having their babies in the comfort and privacy of their own homes, attended by their physician and perhaps a midwife or doula.  For a woman living in poverty, the birth of her child at home meant little or no medical care, and the need to rely on the expertise of older female relatives and neighbours, whose skill for assisting in the delivery of children may have had its limitations.

My grandmother Anne is named on the document as Annie Geraghty "Iníon Formerly" Magee.  For me three things stand out about the way in which her name is recorded.  First, although my grandmother's birth name was Anne, she was always called 'Annie', a name my dad loved.  Second, her surname appears as it does on her own birth record, Magee, spelled M-A-G-E-E.  On some of the birth certificates of her other children, her surname is either not included or is misspelled as McGee.

Third, the literal translation of the Gaelic is really interesting to consider.  'Inîon' literally translates to 'daughter', in other words daughter of Magee.  "Ainm Sloinne Chéile agus Sloinne Athar na Máthar" literally translates to "name surname together and surname [of the] father [of] the mother".  In other words the registrar is asked to record the spouse's surname, so a marriage relationship is assumed.  Also, what we call a maiden name, or a woman's name when she was single, is very directly identified as the name of the woman's father.  On the birth certificate the mother is described purely in terms of her relationships to the men in her life, her husband and her father.

Despite the fact that John's father Patrick Geraghty was very successful in this period as a 'Car Proprietor', the owner of a horse and carriage business, and living in a wealthy Dublin suburb,  his son John's little branch of the family tree qualified as poor. It is noted on the birth certificate that John and Annie Geraghty were living in a house at 19 Manor Street N.C.R. (North Circular Road).  In 1928 this house in Stoneybatter was allegedly given to John and Annie by John's parents as a wedding gift; however, the skeptic in me doubts that John actually owned the house. Although Patrick Geraghty was very wealthy, family stories describe him as a notorious miser; therefore, I am inclined to think that he still held the deed on the house in which his son lived, and so a title search is necessary.

Even if we assume that John Geraghty was given the house, and owned it outright, he had trouble providing for his family, so the birthing of his children in Holles Street Hospital was likely a matter of necessity.  By the time of son Enda's birth, the family no longer lived in the house on Manor Street, but instead lived in a house on Leix Road in Cabra.  Had the house been lost because of John's dissolute ways, or did his father evict John and his family?

John's employment history has been described by his own children as 'spotty' at times, and this birth certificate notes another in a long succession of jobs. John Geraghty's profession at the time of his son Michael's birth is noted as 'Store clerk'.  This notation, viewed together with the birth records of his other children, offers a picture of the employment life of John Geraghty.  The birth registrations of his children note him variously employed as a car driver, a labourer, a store clerk, and an office clerk, and again as a car driver.

Finally, across the top of the document are the English words, "To alter this document or to utter it so altered is a serious offence". Although these words are not an exact translation of the Irish which appears above them, they speak to the very serious nature of the records of birth, marriage and death, and the importance of the truth of the matter. After all, these records form a significant part of the history of a nation and its people.

The tenth century Gaelic manuscript Leabhar na gCeart, (The Book of Rights), reminds us that, "Beatha an Staraidhe Firinne — Truth is the Life of History".

{1} In the interest of privacy I have 'hidden' certain dates and numbers; the image of the document is otherwise unaltered.
{2} General Register Office : History of Registration.
{3} National Archives Ireland; Census materials.
{4} National Maternity Hospital, Dublin (Charter Amendment) Act, Irish Statutes, 1936.

Click on images to view larger versions.


  1. I know I haven't commented much lately but I've really enjoyed your last few posts, and this one too. I like how you've taken a simple thing and drawn so much out of it.

  2. Jennifer, I love reading your posts, and with my own relatively-lost Northern Irish ancestors, I always find a clue or two, a tip or two. Thanks for posting.

  3. Hey, Jennifer, I just wanted to wish you a happy anniversary. You do a great job with your blog and I look forward to another year of wonderful posts and photos. Best wishes to you!

  4. Hello Charlotte, and Celia, and Nancy,

    Thank you to each one of you for your lovely comments. I appreciate them so very much.


    Thank you for the blogiversary wishes. The last week and a half has been absolutely mad for me already, so I forgot my own blogiversary, but I really appreciate your good wishes, and I look forward to what the year will bring for me.

    Cheers to each one of you,

  5. A friend from another Dublin passed along the word that today is your blogiversary! Best wishes to you on this mile marker! I always enjoy your thoughtful posts and your careful examination of each subject at hand. May you continue for many more such posts.

  6. Hi Jacqi,

    Thanks so much for your blogiversary wishes and thoughtful comments. As always, they are much appreciated.

    Cheers to you,


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Cheers, Jennifer

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