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Thursday, 11 August 2011 11:33

The Loss of Irish Genealogical Records over the centuries

Written by  Darren McGettigan
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The Irish Civil War of 1922-23 was a terrible tragedy for any new country. Thousands of people were killed and even today the final casualty figures are not really known.

The Civil War also split Irish Nationalism for decades and it was not until 'the Emergency' as World War II was referred to in Ireland, that the different strands of Irish politics united again in the face of external threats to our hard won independence.

Due to the terrible loss of life during the Civil War it can often seem selfish and self-centred that historians and genealogists lament the destruction of the Public Record Office Archives in the Four Courts in Dublin, which were destroyed when a mine, which was set by surrendering anti-treaty forces, to kill pro-treaty troops, exploded in the Four Courts. Luckily enough no Free-State soldiers were killed in the explosion although anyone who was present in the Four Courts building was left badly shocked and dazed. Unfortunately for future researchers however, the explosion tore through the historical archive in the building destroying what was truely a wonderful collection of records which stretched back to the Anglo-Norman conquest of Dublin in 1170-2. In particular I have seen references to a large trunk or chest which was in the archive which contained all the records of the Catholic Confederate government in Kilkenny during the 1640s, which had been captured and collected by the Cromwellians when they took Kilkenny in the early 1650s. What I would have given to have a look into that! Since 1922 the National Archives have been attempting to repair some of the damge by collecting records from for example solicitors' offices nationwide, some of which had ancient deeds and other records in their practices. In more recent times medieval historians have been attempting to re-create the medieval records rolls, with some success it may be said, from catalogues, copies and material researched and published before 1922. However, the 1922 explosion, while a terrible event, should not be seen as a uniquely Irish loss. I am sure many equivalent archives were destroyed all over Europe during World War I and II.

Indeed the loss of Irish records was not confined to the twentieth century. The 1500s was also a very destructive period in Irish history. The Annals of the Four Masters record the destruction by the English of famous monastic centres of learning such as Armagh, Clonmacnoise and Derry in the 1550s and 60s. Although prestiege items such as the famous Book of Armagh were saved, who knows what other records, perhaps collections of annals, obits and land holdings were also destroyed in these centres at this time.

While conducting research into sixteenth century Tír Chonaill (present day County Donegal), I also stumbled across the destruction of what may have been a very important local source 'The book of Kilmacrennan'. This may have been a set of annals kept by the O'Friel family who were coarbs of Kilmacrennan, and who played an important role in the inauguaration of the O'Donnell chieftains. The family were said to be descended from a brother of St Columcille.  In any event, The Book of Fenagh, an early sixteenth century work, which was written for the church of Fenagh in north Connacht which had associations with Conall Gulban, the ancestor figure of the people of Tír Chonaill,  has a verse of Irish poetry which states:

'But if, without much pain, you searched

The book of Kilmacrennan,

There in its pages you'd plainly find

The knowledge of each event in [Tír] Chonaill'.

When the Annals of the Four Masters came to be written in south Donegal in the 1630s no mention is ever made to the Book of Kilmacrennan, and obviously it must have been destroyed by then. This likely occured during the Nine Years War (1594-1603), which was fought between many of the Gaelic chieftains of Ireland and the Elizabethan English, at the turn of the sixteenth century. In particular there was much destruction in the north of the lordship of Tír Chonaill from late 1600 to early 1602. However, I suspect that the destruction of the Book of Kilmacrennan may have occured slightly earlier in the year 1581. The lord of Tír Chonaill at the time, Hugh McManus O'Donnell, was a weak ruler and in that year war broke out between him and his nephew Conn O'Donnell, who ruled Lifford and Glenfinn. Conn O'Donnell was assisted by Turlough Luineach O'Neill, the lord of Tyrone, who resided in west Tyrone at Strabane. In the summer of 1581 Conn O'Donnell and Turlough Luineach O'Neill gathered a large army at Kiltole near Raphoe in east Tír Chonaill. Hugh O'Donnell also gathered an ill-discplined army which was defeated in a battle fought at Kiltole in which 'a great many of his people were slain'. This army was so ill-disciplined that the fact is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters, which is highly unusual. The Annals state that Hugh McManus O'Donnell was defeated 'in consequence of the curse of Bishop O'Friel ... for a party of the Cenél Conaill had plundered Kilmacrennan the day before the battle, and the Bishop had prayed that their expedition might not be successful. This defeat was given on the 4th of July'.

The destruction wrought in Kilmacrennan on 3rd July 1581 must have been very bad for the O'Friels to put a curse on their own army. Perhaps they were even very annoyed over the loss of the Book of Kilmacrennan. The loss of this source is probably why there are so few references to my own McGettigan ancestors in the Irish annals, as a set of annals kept at Kilmacrennan would have been a great potential source in which to record the life and death of prominent McGettigans who I am sure must have lived in the Kilmacrennan area in late medieval and early modern times.

Therefore the loss of Irish records which could have bee so useful for modern genealogical research was not confined to 1922, but their loss has ensured that what records have survived are so important and very special.

Last modified on Monday, 22 August 2011 08:59
Darren McGettigan

Darren McGettigan

Darren is an historian, author and genealogist from County Wicklow, Ireland. He provides genealogy services to help you discover your family history in Ireland.


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