Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Tuesday's Tips: Is someone playing 'Telephone' with your Irish family history?

'Well let me tell you, as the story goes...'
This post evolved out of a reader's comment on an earlier blog post, a comment that referenced the childhood game of 'telephone'. Thinking about that game led me to consider the ways in which a family story can change as it is passed down, much like the story in the game of telephone.

Perhaps when you were a child you played the telephone game, also called the gossip game, or the whisper game, and probably lots of other names too.

With a group of your friends you would sit in a circle. One member of the group would begin by whispering a story to the person beside them, who would then whisper it to a second person, and so on, all around the circle until you reached the last person. He/she then had to recount the story he/she had been told.

The story that emerged from the final player was often very different from the one first told. We played this game at a sleepover party when I was in elementary school, and I remember howling with laughter, because it seemed that the larger the group, the more cockeyed was the story that emerged in the end.


Is someone playing 'Telephone' with your Irish family history?

There are a lot of clues that can reveal to us just why the inherited 'history' of an ancestor may not be quite correct; however, that does not mean there isn't some truth to the story. Just as in the telephone game, the narrative may simply have become somewhat skewed along the way as it was passed down.

There are a number of elements, such as timeline, geography, and extant evidence, that we can look at to help us uncover the truth of the matter. Each of the stories I have included here was passed on as actual family history.

1. Timeline:


'Martin' says his uncle joined the Irish Volunteers in the autumn of 1921, and was one of the Volunteers who fought in the General Post Office [GPO] during the Easter Rising.


The 1916 Easter Rising took place in, well, 1916. If Martin's uncle did not enlist in the Irish Volunteers until the autumn of 1921, then he would not have taken part in the 1916 Rising, at least not as a member of the Irish Volunteers.


With respect to the 1916 Easter Rising, the fact is men who were members of the Irish Volunteers, and women who were in Cumann na mBan, were assigned to various battalions and companies, and each of these was assigned to a particular place during the Rising.

Sometimes, when it comes to the 1916 Easter Rising, it seems as though every Tom, Dick and Harry claims to have a relative who fought in the GPO. Such claims may stem from the fact that the GPO is the best known site of battle; however, it was most certainly not the only location in which fighting took place during the Rising. There are extant lists of those who fought during the 1916 Rising, along with the locations in which they fought. (See: Going to the bookshelf to find family history)

If Martin's uncle joined the Irish Volunteers in the autumn of 1921, that was after the Truce of July 1921, so he may have been involved in the Irish Civil War, either as a volunteer with the Anti-Treaty forces — Eamon de Valera's men, known as the 'Irregulars' — or as a soldier in the National Army of the Irish Free State under the command of General Michael Collins or General Richard Mulcahy. Contacting the Irish government, via the Military Pensions Office (see 'Granny was in the IRA': Turning a story into a history), to find out if there is an extant military pension application record may help him uncover the whole story.

Also, Martin might make use of websites such as The Bureau of Military History Archives [BMHA], which has the Irish Army Census for those who were serving in the National Army of the Irish Free State as of November 1922. He may find his uncle gave a statement or is mentioned in the BMHA Witness Statements. As well, the BMHA has made available online many of the military pension application records of those who participated in the Easter Rising.1

The Four Courts, another significant site during The 1916 Easter Rising.
Members of 'A' Company, First Battalion, Dublin Brigade
fought from here, under the command of Edward 'Ned' Daly.
Extra Tips:

If you believe your family members may have participated in rebellions or military activity in Ireland, consider creating a timeline for each of those persons on your family tree.

Notice which events mesh with the dates on your timeline:

Are there possible connections to the 1798 Rebellion, the 1803 Rebellion, the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848?

Was anyone in your family involved in the 'The Tithe War' or the 'The Land War'? Strictly speaking neither of these was a war, but each one is marked by acts of non-violent civil disobedience and agrarian agitation. As well, during the Tithe War there were violent clashes that resulted in fatalities. The Tithe War dates to 1831-36. The Land War was a long period of civil unrest and agrarian agitation that lasted almost three decades beginning in 1870.

Would your ancestors have been of an age to have participated in the 1916 Easter Rising, the Irish War of Independence 1919-1921, or the Irish Civil War 1922-1923?

Make use of websites that offer access to Irish Prison Registers. You may find ancestors who were interned for distributing seditious materials, such as newsletters and flyers. Perhaps your ancestors are among those who were imprisoned for 'agrarian agitation' or for 'unlawful assembly' during the Land War. (View Prison Registers on FindMyPast.ie: a paid site that includes images, or on FamilySearch.org: a free site that has some restrictions on access to images.)

2. Geography:


'Sinéad', who is searching for Mayo ancestors, says her family story tells of her Westport born great-grandfather being imprisoned in late 19th century in the gaol at Naas (pronounced 'nace', as in 'place') because he prevented Mayo fishermen from fishing locally in the Irish sea.


Photo Credit: Magellan Geographics.
There are a couple of problems with this story. First, County Mayo is on the west coast of Ireland, and the Irish sea is on the east coast of Ireland, so Mayo fisherman would not have fished 'locally' in the Irish sea.

There are quite a number of areas in Mayo where fishermen would have fished in the 19th century. In addition to the bays of the Atlantic Ocean, fishing for profit was also done in lakes and rivers. As well, there are various types of 'fishing' to be considered, such as salmon and trout, eel and oysters.

Second, Naas Gaol is in Naas, County Kildare, so it is unlikely — though not impossible — that he would have been imprisoned there. For a crime committed in or near Westport, it is more likely he was interned at Castlebar Gaol.

Also, just as we think of tenancy of the land, and renting a place to live, so too, there was tenancy of the natural world, so to speak, with leases covering the various bodies of water, and landlords holding rights over access to the fish on their lands (as well as rights over hunting and fowl).

In the 19th century, in the west of Ireland these leases were strictly managed, with lease holders taking legal action against anyone who infringed on their rights.2


Sinéad's great-grandfather may very well have been imprisoned, but the particulars of his internment may be a bit skewed. Again, look at Irish Prison Registers and Petty Sessions Court Registers from the area in which he lived, to see if you can find him in the records, and discover the real reason for his internment.

Also, the right to fish was a transferable asset, so rights for fishing show up in property sales in the Encumbered Estates Court. Sinéad may want to consult the Landed Estate Court Rental records on sites such as FamilySearch.org and FindMyPast.ie to see if there is any mention of her great-grandfather having fishing rights as a part of a tenancy agreement.

Extra Tip:

Map out the locations of your ancestors on the island of Ireland to see what patterns might emerge, and notice what makes sense and what seems a little off.

3. Legitimate evidence exists which counters a claim:


'Patrick' is researching his family's connection to the Irish War of Independence and says his family told him that two cousins were shot and killed in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday in the summer of 1919.


Two problems with this story: First, Bloody Sunday did not happen in the summer of 1919. That terrible day occurred on 21 November 1920, more than a year after the deaths of his cousins. Additionally, comprehensive information about those killed and wounded in Croke Park on that day is extant, and his cousins are not named in that data.


Since Patrick knows that his cousins died in the summer of 1919, acquiring copies of the registration records of their deaths — assuming those deaths were registered — will be the most helpful thing he can do. Those records will state the actual cause(s) of death, likely clearing up the details of his family story.

The fact that both cousins died in the summer of 1919 hints at a couple of possibilities. They may have fallen victim to the Spanish Flu which continued to take lives in Ireland well into 1919 (see Sudden Death in Bow Bridge: The Flu Pandemic in Ireland), or there may have been an incident or accident that resulted in both of their deaths.

The death registration records will bear out any of these as possibilities.

In order to find a reference to an incident or accident, Patrick may want to consult newspapers, via such sites as the Irish News Archive, which holds more than 40 Irish newspaper titles covering a period of over 300 years, and the British Newspaper Archive, which holds a significant number of Irish titles.  The Irish Times Archive, is also a valuable asset for uncovering stories during this time period. Each one of these is a paid site that has a number of subscription options.

Also, Patrick can use this as an opportunity to learn more about Irish history by reading about the Irish War of Independence, and incidents such as Bloody Sunday. Although relatives may not have been killed or wounded during these events, learning about the conflict may give him a better understanding of what life may have been like for his family members in the period. (see Going to the bookshelf...)

Extra Tip:

Always break down the story to its most bare elements, in this case the death of an individual/ individuals, then choose the best starting source for information, in this case the registration of a death or deaths.

4. Some elements of the story simply cannot be true:


'Enya' was told her great-grandmother was in Cumann na mBan — the women's council of the Irish Volunteers — and in order to help during the War of Independence (1919-1921) this great-grandmother had her gold Irish dancing medals melted down, and she donated the gold to the IRA.


Although Irish dance medals were awarded in competition dating back to the late 19th century, with the formation of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge, 1893), they were never made of solid gold that could be melted down.

Irish Dance Medal awarded at the 1912 Oireachtas Competition
to Dubliner Mary Moran who was 'victorious in dancing'.
Photo credit: Antony Wilson, Professional Numismatist.

Although the medals part of the story cannot be true, this great-grandmother may very well have been a member of Cumann na mBan. Again in this case, contacting the Irish government, via the Military Pensions Office, to find out if there is an extant military pension application supporting her great-grandmother's membership in Cumann na mBan, may help in uncovering the whole story. (See 'Granny was in the IRA': Turning a story into a history)

Extra Tip:

Always welcome with warmth and appreciation any family stories that are passed on; however, keep a keen ear for something that sounds slightly amiss, and ask yourself if it makes sense.

5. Attaching someone famous to the family tree:


'Margaret', with the surname Pierce/Pearse (that is how she put it), wrote to me saying her family looks forward to commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising every year because Padráig Pearse was her grandfather.


Bust of Padráig Pearse,
on the grounds of the Museum of
St. Enda's School, Rathfarnham, Dublin.
The surname difference is the least of Margaret's worries. The very significant problem with this claim is that at the time of his execution in 1916, Padráig Pearse was not married and had no children (real, alleged, or imagined), so it would not be possible for him to have grandchildren.

Padráig Pearse is the man most readily associated with the Easter Rising. He was an orator, teacher and founder of St. Enda's Boys' School.

Also, Pearse was the man chosen to read the 'Proclamation of the Irish Republic', on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin, at the start of the 1916 Easter Rising on Monday 24 April 1916. Both Padráig Pearse and his brother William were executed by firing squad on in the stone breaker's yard at Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Padráig on 3 May and William on 4 May, 1916.


Although Padráig Pearse is not Margaret's grandfather, it is possible she might be connected to his family in some other way. Pearse's brother William was like his brother, unmarried and without children, so she would not be connected to him. She might be connected to one of Pearse's relatives; however, any claim of a connection would require actual proof, so looking at primary source documents is essential.

Extra Tips:

Working 'from the outside to the inside' often proves problematic when it comes to family history/genealogy; however, this tends to be something people do when they want to attach someone famous to their family tree. (See Family History: The problem of researching from the outside in...) Often such researchers fail to appreciate the fact that sharing the same surname as someone famous doesn't mean they are connected to that person.

Seek out well-documented family trees for famous people to whom you may be connected. Some of these can be found online.

With respect, don't be a surname collector. Attach someone to your family tree only if you can prove that they are actually connected to you.

In conclusion:

As is the case with the telephone game, the narrative which emerges when a family story is passed down may have some element of truth in it, but that truth may have gotten a little mixed up along the way. By consulting the large number of resources available to help us, we can get to the bottom of the story, and turn it into an actual history.




1. Military Pension application records are available only for those persons who applied for a service pension, or whose surviving family members applied for a survivor's pension.

The Bureau of Military History Archives at Cathal Brugha Military Base in Dublin is an excellent archive for information, some of which can be accessed online, about ancestors or family members who may have participated in military action. Within their stellar collection are materials pertaining to the 1916 Easter Rising and The Irish War of Independence of 1919-21, as well as some materials germane to the Irish Civil War of 1922-23.

2. Lane, Pádraig G., 'Galway and Mayo Fisheries in the Mid-Nineteenth: Transferable Assets' in The Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol. 62, (2010), pp. 144-156. Accessed through JSTOR Digital library.

Thanks to The Graphics Fairy for the image of the girl on the telephone.
Portions of this post originally appeared on this blog in 2012.


  1. Excellent post Jennifer. The story in my family was that we were related to Pocahontas. The story was told to me by my grandmother, who was our family genealogist. I've found no evidence of that connection, but did find many family members living in Pocahontas County, Virginia. My grandmother is long ago deceased and I wish I could talk to her now. So many questions.
    Thanks for this post.

    1. Diane, thanks very much for your comments. It is so interesting, isn't it, to see the way in which a story can take a turn when information gets slightly skewed. As well, I know exactly how you feel about having so many questions. If only...


  2. Jenn, I agree with Diane, an excellent post. I definitely relate to the last part with the state of our family tree thanks to our surname collector. A little while ago she had us connected to George Clooney. We're not! Thanks for this post, and thanks for helping me find people we're actually connected with.

    1. Charlotte, thanks very much for your comments. Hey, George Clooney, that might have been nice, if it were true. Oh well. You're very welcome for any help I can give you anytime.


  3. Thank you, Jennifer, for emphasising what many of us know, but sometimes are reluctant to confront our relatives with...the impossibilities of some connections...As have many others, I have heard so many impossible stories...I guess at least they make things interesting.

    1. Chris, thanks very much for your comments. So true, sometimes questioning relatives can be a bit sticky, especially with those who adamantly hold tight to a story, no matter how odd it might seem, or how far it strays from actual evidence. The wild stories do make it much more interesting, and in many ways can drive research as it leads us to ask more questions.



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Cheers, Jennifer

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