Thursday, March 24, 2011

One Good Deed Deserves...

When it comes to researching those Irish farmers and merchants who were well enough off to be able to lease land, there is little that has been as rewarding for me as the Memorials of Deeds. It always makes me think of the movie All the President's Men – where Deep Throat said follow the money.

In my element - a few years ago.

It is all there in these parchment pages – promising new starts as well as failed endings – along with lots of ongoing squabbles. Arguments concerning boundaries and money can continue on for generations, and it is often this paper trail that is the only thing that reveals the clues about how all these folk fit together. It also helps to have read a great swat of Irish history. The back story of all the people we seek is usually affected by the larger cycles of economic boom and bust. The mid-1800s potato famine was only one of such episodes. It is always the least powerful that take the biggest hit – and often misfortune strikes hardest at those families where the loss of a male head of family has happened prematurely. Just keep looking. Clues will emerge.

In my decade or so of doing this kind of work, there are three things that I have learned.
  • Always look sideways, but don’t lose focus on your end goal. Bear in mind that gems are often in unexpected places.
  • Share what you have learned. Even if it isn’t useful to you, it may help others.
  • Enter what you have gleaned into at least one database. Write it all down. You won’t remember it all.
  • I said that there were three things that I have learned – but I lied. Here is a fourth. Always cross-reference your deeds data with other sources such as letters, newspapers, and parish records. That’s when the picture can really start to jump out in 3D.
I love my Moleskin notebook - but the closer I get to closing time, the more my writing degenerates.

Clearly,  I can never keep up with it all. Who can? There are pages upon pages in my diaries of notes that I still have to transcribe, and who knows when I will get to all that. This is why I am particularly grateful for the work that is shared on Nick Reddan’s site. It is a real beauty to navigate, once you get the hang of it. When I have the time, I will also transcribe some of my material to fit into his format.

There is always more to learn. When it comes to web design, I am probably something akin to a motor vehicle driver who only knows how to make right hand turns. There are whole neighbourhoods out there requiring left hand turns to get to that I have yet to navigate. Still, I recently added a new trick to my very limited arsenal. To those of you who know what they are doing with web pages, this discovery is laughable – but here it is. I converted a Word document to a pdf and then posted the pdf to my web site using Dreamweaver. It was stupidly easy. It is also stunningly effective.

Until then, I had always maintained a chart with links to all the deeds that I had transcribed, annotated, and posted but they only represented the proverbial tip of the iceberg. I had tried to break my other 300 page html document into chewable bits, but in spite of my best efforts, I would inevitably end up with a chart that went a mile sideways and out of sight of what could be seen on the computer screen. Then, I would pour myself a glass of wine and go do something else. I am at heart, quite sensible.

Earlier today though, I cleaned up one of these humungous html tables, converted it to a pdf, and – quite incredibly – was actually able to post it. Voila. Since there are some aspects of this table that are worth knowing before diving in, I will wait to add the link until the end of this article, so you won’t get to it until you are totally tuned up.

Firstly, I should warn you that this is one heck of an idiosyncratic table. Think of me as a mouse as I dart from here to there checking out promising crumbs without any discernible order, even if there is a level of order hiding beneath the surface. For example, after darting down one path for a while, I often find that there is no cheese down that hole, and so I change course, but I don’t usually indicate why. Still, for all the other mice that follow on in my tracks, there is hope.

Where possible, I have tried to record not only all the names associated with each deed, but also the townlands, identified with the name of parish and/or barony – at least, if that part was included in the memorial. This means that you may find your people’s names even if I wasn’t looking for them in the first place. For those of you who want to stay focused and only check out your own peeps, I suggest that you start searching for the full name, for example “Joseph Devonshire Jackson”. Also, I would suggest that you do a caps-off search to improve your odds. If nothing turns up, try just the first and last name, and finally maybe try just the surname or just the townland name.

When it comes to townland names, it is worth heeding Mark Twain: Anyone who can only think of only one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination. Goodness knows, there has never been anything such as a lack of imagination when it comes to the Irish. Also, you will notice that my typing and spelling would definitely meet with Mark Twain’s approval. After all, in a document of 300 pages with hundreds of arcane townland names, the spell check program quickly begs off duty.

Ready to start? Here is the link: Sharon’s Chart of Deeds .

I have a wee request. If you do find something on someone that you were seeking, please let me know where they fit in. That way, we can all learn together.


  1. A huge collection of names and information, all beautifully presented and easy to use. Thank you for sharing your work with all in this way. I note the name GOLLOGLY as I'm sure I have a reference to this name too. Susan Wann