By Tom Coughlan, Author: Research always seems to throw up the unexpected. Before starting to write Tracing Your Leitrim Ancestors (Flyleaf Press 2018), I believed that Leitrim had always been the least populated county in Ireland – as it is today. However, this is not the case. In 1841 Leitrim had 155,000 residents, making it only the 6th smallest county in terms of population. It dropped to 112,000 in 1851, and continued to drop in every subsequent census. Other economic factors during the 20th century continued the decline to a low of around 25,000 in 1996. Since then it has risen to about 32,000. The decline of 28% between 1841 and 1851 can be attributed to the Great Famine of 1845-1849, and its aftermath of emigration and disease. The scale and duration of the impact makes Leitrim one of the most significantly affected. Perhaps the simplest explanation for this can be found in McPartlan’s Statistical Survey of the County Leitrim, 1802, which jokes that land in Leitrim was sold by the gallon and not by the acre. Like many other words written in jest, there is a large element of truth in this. Much of Leitrim is covered in water, and much of the rest is either mountain or bog. It is not a county offering a great living to a farmer, and neither does it support much industry.
Housing data in the censuses of 1841 and 1851 shows a drop of 47,000 in occupancy of the lowest class of housing. As this was greater than the overall decrease in population, some people must have moved into better houses, but the majority vanished from the county. These would have been people involved in agriculture, either as labourers or small holders. Many died, many more migrated or emigrated; and this trend clearly did not end with the famine. As a result there are hundreds of thousands of people of Leitrim origin scattered around the world, particularly in the USA, Britain and in the rest of Ireland. Tracing the origins of these people is not always easy, but my book aims to help.
Tracing Your Leitrim Ancestors covers all of the diverse sources that may be used in tracing Leitrim ancestry. These include the standard sources: Civil Registers; Parish Registers; Censuses; Wills; Graveyards; Newspapers; and various land records. The researcher will face some stumbling blocks, particularly with church records – so important before the 1860s. Many of Leitrim’s Roman Catholic parish registers begin well into the 19th Century, while the registers of many of its Church of Ireland parishes were destroyed by fire in 1922. Consequently learning even the names of ancestors from the early part of the 19th Century may be considered an achievement. Land records, which can play a vital part in filling in gaps, can be broken into two types: county-wide and estate specific. The main county-wide records are: Tithe Applotment Books; the so-called Griffith’s Valuation; and the Cancelled Land Books of the Valuation Office. Use of these three sources alone can help in determining family lines and addressing shortfalls in the standard sources.
But the second type of land records, those surviving records from the estates of the county, can be even more useful, where they exist. For historical reasons the vast majority of Irish rural people lived as tenants on estates. Tracing Your Leitrim Ancestors lists all known Leitrim estate records in the public domain, detailing the years and the areas they cover. These estate records cover many areas of the county. While the tenants of the Earls of Leitrim may well have resented their landlord, their successors can be thankful that extensive records from his estates (see sample below) survive in The National Library of Ireland. They have helped me place my earliest ancestor as early as 1750. Estate records are a fascinating source: for example one of Lord Leitrim’s rental books from 1846, during the Famine, assesses the level of ‘distress’of his tenants. One man with three acres and one cow was said to suffer “no distress”.
Another fascinating source are the ‘Police Reports of some of the Principal Outrages in .. Leitrim…in the Year 1845’. Here I found my great-great-grandfather, mentioned as having been attacked for having used the services of a blacksmith who was said to be obnoxious!
It is generally known that names such as Reynolds and Rooney are Leitrim names, and my book analyses the most common surnames in each of the county’s civil parishes. This reveals that surnames are relatively localised. For example Reynolds is prevalent in the south of the county, and Rooney is widespread in only one civil parish in the north. Of course, local geography has much to do with this distribution: Lough Allen and Slieve an Iarainn effectively divide Leitrim into two distinct parts, making migration between them difficult in older times.
A final point is that while documentary evidence of Leitrim families is often sparse, it can be worthwhile trying to locate living relatives in the county. Oral tradition remains strong, and people will often tell you that their family came from a particular area or townland, even if that refers back a couple of hundred years. Evidence such as this can be invaluable, though of course it needs to be substantiated, using, obviously, some of the sources that are listed in my book.
Tom Coughlan is a professional genealogist with a Diploma in Genealogy and Family History from University College Dublin and significant experience in conducting family history research for international clients. Although he has conducted research in almost every Irish county, his primary interest is Co. Leitrim where his own family roots lie, and where he now lives. In addition to research, Tom has presented genealogy courses and lectures; published articles on family history; and is a member of the expert team which provides genealogy advice to visitors to the National Library of Ireland. He is also engaged in a long-term, wide-ranging study of aspects of Leitrim’s genealogical story. Further information is on his website Your Leitrim Ancestors.