During a recent search for a Maher family I once again stumbled into the mire of difficulty created by the spelling of Irish surnames in 19th century records. This is an obstacle that many Irish family history researchers will encounter during the course of their research. Mass digitization of Irish records has made the issue of the spelling of Irish surnames slightly more complex and the researcher should be aware of the pitfalls that they might encounter while they are progressing their family history.
The search that brought this matter to light for me again started with a Maher family. Patrick Maher emigrated to the United States in 1874 but he was born in Ireland prior to the start of civil registration in 1864. Although his place of birth in Ireland was unknown, his parents names and approximate year of birth had been extracted from US documents. Without a specific place to search for evidence of Patrick’s birth, I made a quick search of the various collections of Irish birth and baptismal records for any children born to the same parents, 10 years either side of Patrick’s year of birth. There are a number of online sources where you can search for birth or baptismal records, but none of these are complete and comprehensive.
Irish Baptismal Records Online
The websites findmypast.ie, familysearch.org and ancestry.co.uk contain some transcripts of Irish parish baptismal registers, but none of these sites has an extensive collection, yet. This means that searching these sites for baptisms prior to 1864 does not, by any stretch of the imagination, represent a comprehensive search of all surviving Irish baptismal records. This may well change now that the National Library of Ireland have released the digitised parish register images in July 2015 and the two big commercial sites are creating their own more comprehensive databases.
Locating your Ancestor’s Family
What does this mean if you are searching for the baptism of a child in Ireland and you don’t know where they were born? In order to ensure that your search has been as thorough as possible you will need to check all of these databases for evidence of any children born to the parents of your ancestor. The reason why you should search for any children born to a specific set of parents is because some parish registers only survived in fragments. The portion containing the baptism of your ancestor may not survive, but you may find siblings baptised in the same parish in the years before and after. Locating a siblings will at least tell you where your ancestor’s family were residing on a specific date.
The Variant Spelling of Irish Surnames
What does this have to do with Irish surnames? Each of the websites identified above have different ways of taking into account variant spellings of surnames. This is the problem I discovered when searching for the Maher family. My research found one sibling of Patrick Maher baptised in a parish in Co. Kilkenny. The records for this parish are only available through Rootsireland, there is no copy available in the digtised National Library of Ireland collection. This means that I could not verify the baptismal entry and nor could I undertake a manual search for other children born to the same couple who may have been missed when the original database was created. The website did not identify any other children born to the same couple anywhere in their collection. At least I had identified the parish (and townland address) in which this family were living when one of Patrick’s siblings was born.
My next step was to investigate the family address and I found evidence of Patrick’s father in the Valuation Office Revision Books, which led me to his death certificate in the 1890s. Maher appeared in the Revision Books from 1861 until the 1890s, but in 1881 the valuator changed his name to Mara.
Mara is not traditionally connected to the surname Maher. According to Edward MacLysaght, O’Mara or O’Meara is from the Irish Meadhra, meaning Mirth. Maher or Meagher is from the Irish Meachair meaning majestic. While both names originate in Tipperary, they do not appear to be connected. However, the valuator was not the only record keeper to confuse Maher and Meara or Mara. Armed with this new information I returned to rootsireland.ie to search for Patrick and his siblings under the name Mara and sure enough I found a cluster of them in the same parish. The baptismal records, the later marriage records for Patrick’s siblings and the baptismal records for his nieces and nephews in Ireland varied from Maher to Mara to Meara throughout the second half of the 19th century.
No database is intelligent enough to consider the possibility that one of these Irish surnames, which are unconnected, could be substituted for another and my research was largely unsuccessful until I came across the other spellings used by the valuator and then by the parish priest. If I had been able to access and undertake a manual search of the original register, I would, most likely, have spotted the various spellings of the surname.
An unsuccessful search of any online database of Irish family records may be connected to the way the surname was spelled and not because your family are missing. The five websites that I cited above all use a different criteria when it comes to identifying surname variants. Can you be sure that they are accurate and comprehensive? Always check the website for FAQs and research tips to find the best way to use their search engine. Using wildcards allows you to get a really broad set of results that you can then narrow down. Wildcards are useful for Irish surnames because you can search using the key phonetic sounds of the surname. One way of identifying the variants yourself is to check the surname database on John Grenham’s website Irish Ancestors. Here, if you search for a particular surname, you will be given a list of all of the other variants that this surname might appear under. You will also find details on the origin or meaning of the Irish surname. Armed with this information you may be better prepared to use the search engines on the other websites to find your Irish ancestors and at least be flexible about the spelling of an Irish surname in 19th century records.