If you think Irish research is already too complicated, look away now! As you are aware, on-line access to the 1901 and 1911 census returns has been one of the great developments in Irish genealogy. However, perhaps you are one of those who have not been able to find your family on the census? One possible reason is that the family may have completed the census, particularly the 1911 census, in the Irish or Gaelic language. Gaelic was once the only language spoken in Ireland but it has gradually been replaced by English over the centuries and it is now spoken by only a small minority, although most Irish people have some capability in the language as it is taught in Irish schools. However, Ireland in 1911 was going through a period of ‘Gaelic Revival’ during which all aspects of Irish heritage became, and remain, popular. It was an important part of the national movement which gave rise to the 1916 Rebellion and eventually to independence from Britain. The revival was promoted by many organisations, but particularly the Gaelic League, which still exists, appropriately using the Irish language form of its name- Conradh na Gaeilge.
One expression of the drive to embrace our Gaelic identity was the use of the Gaelic form of surnames. Names, I hear you say, are not usually translated into other languages! However, Irish history had seen a gradual process of Anglicization of family names into forms which were sound-alikes or direct translations of the old names. My family name, Ryan, for instance was originally Ó’Ríain. Other more complicated examples include Mac Giolla Bríde becoming Gilbride, or Ó’Murchú becoming Murphy. The Gaelic revival simply reversed this process and encouraged people to use the old form of their name. One such usage was the completion of official documents in Gaelic. This would have been seen as a form of defiance by some and as a logical expression of their cultural identity by others. Whatever the motivation, the consequence for historians is that there are families whose 1911 census information is entirely in Gaelic. It should be noted that about 17% of Irish households in 1911 mainly spoke the Irish language, but most of these completed the forms in English. Completion of the forms in Gaelic by householders who were not residing in Gaelic-speaking areas (mainly along the West coast) is therefore usually an indication of strong nationalist identity. It was particularly popular in certain areas, perhaps because the Gaelic League was particularly active in those areas. Monaghan, for instance, is one of the counties where many households in some areas completed their returns in Gaelic. The illustration shows a census search for part of Monaghan where almost all the householders use the Irish form of their name. The first three names in this list, in their English form, would be Sean Martin, Ailish Carrollan, and Michael Lynch. Note also number 7 on the list is Padraic Ó’Mearáin (aged 70) while a younger man in the same household uses Patrick Marron, which is the same name in its English form.
Just to be clear, only a very small proportion of households overall used the Irish forms of their names, but some are registered in this way and it will make these records more difficult to find. What can you do to check this possibility? The first thing to do is to establish the Gaelic form of your name, and then search the census again using this name. Alternately, if you know the area they were from, you can do a search for all households in the area and look for names that might be anglicized into the English form of your name. There are quite a few sites which will provide the Irish name form including a Wikipedia page. Also the Library Ireland website has on-line versions of several of the classic guides to Irish names. The returns will probably also use the Irish form of Christian names and occupations as well, but these can also be translated. Google Translate has a facility for translation from Irish, for instance. One more complexity to add to the list folks, but show me where it said this was going to be easy! Slán.
Other articles in our series on Irish Family Sources:
- Petty Sessions– the records of local courts
- Grand Jury Presentments – records of local councils on payments for public works and staff
- Rentals – management of tenants by estates and the records created
- Middle names – the use (or non-use) of second or middle names in Irish records
- How comprehensive are Irish Civil Records?
- Catholic Church Records
- Travellers’ accounts of Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries
- Census returns in Gaelic or Irish language
- 50+ blogs with names extracted from manuscript sources. A handy map index to these is available here.
A version of this blog, by James Ryan, originally appeared in the In-Depth Genealogist in 2013