Irish genealogies: a useful source or just propaganda?

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2014), Volume 22

Above: Tom Cruise—descended from Niall Glundubh (d. 919), progenitor of the O’Neill dynasty.

Above: Tom Cruise—descended from Niall Glundubh (d. 919), progenitor of the O’Neill dynasty.

Irish genealogies remain an under-used source in Irish family history, probably because very few people can trace their ancestry back far enough to link up to them. (Notable exceptions include Conor O’Brien, 18th Baron Inchiquin, who claims descent from Brian Boru, and Tom Cruise, descended from Niall Glundubh (d. 919), progenitor of the O’Neill dynasty.) In the last decade, however, genetic studies in Trinity College, Dublin, and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) have utilised surnames/clan-groupings to determine whether Irish people who share the same surname also share a common ancestry. To date, results tend to support this, breathing new life and relevance into the Irish genealogies. Even so, researchers are slow to use the genealogies as a source, perceiving them as problematic because of how they were compiled and how they survived.

Firstly, from the time the Irish genealogies were first set down they were used for propaganda purposes. This has undermined researchers’ confidence in their historical accuracy.
The Irish genealogies originated as part of the oral culture and always had an explicitly political function. They were first recorded in the late sixth century as a literary genre in the church schools. The clerical scribes had their own political agenda—to root the history of the Irish people in a biblical framework and dilute links to an earlier pagan past. Consequently the genealogies traced the descent of Irish kings from Milesius of Spain, and from him to the Old Testament figures of Noah and Adam. This fictitious historical framework was quickly adopted and manipulated for political purposes. According to Katherine Simms:

‘The different sons of Mil were regarded as having founded the royal dynasties of different regions of Ireland . . . Kingdoms were rated as destined to rule or to render tribute, depending on whether their inhabitants were believed to descend from Mil [Milesius], or from the earlier inhabitants of Ireland, the Fir Bolg and Gaileóin, conquered and reduced to servitude . . .’

Secondly, non-specialist researchers are intimidated by the corruption of texts, and by the linguistic problems of using Classical or Old Irish. Irish genealogies survived as a literary genre for 1,200 years. Between the sixth and the eighteenth centuries the genealogies were recorded in Irish, often with Latin tags, reflecting their origins in the clerical schools. The earliest extant texts date from the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. All earlier material survives in much later versions, copied and re-copied many times over hundreds of years, with all the intrinsic problems of this ‘layered’ process—from mis-transcriptions and insertions to conscious tampering with the manuscript text. This can range from telescoping to ‘loose’ generations that failed to distinguish themselves, and even to out-and-out forgery, including ‘grafting’ an emergent dynasty onto the main ‘branch’ of a former ruling family now in decline.

Since 2005 research into the genealogies has become easier, with the publication of Nollaig Ó Muraíle’s edition of the Great Book of Irish Genealogies. The Great Book is a mid-seventeenth-century anthology prepared within a decade of that other great compilation work, the Annals of the Four Masters. Ó Muraíle’s edition enables the researcher to sidestep any linguistic barrier to using the text, as it includes an English translation. Its use as a research tool is evident in the fact that it includes a two-volume index; vol. 4 lists over 450 surnames, 3,000 place-names and 6,000 families, tribes and other population groups, while vol. 5 contains the names of over 30,500 separate individuals.

To get the best out of the Irish genealogies in your own research, always use the annals to corroborate the names of heads of families and prominent individuals. The most accessible version of the annals is the Four Masters, but for the same reason that it’s always advisable to use the earliest extant genealogy, it’s advisable to use one of the earlier regional annals to cross-check information. Researchers in the early modern period have the added advantage of being able to consult administrative records of central government, including state papers, to corroborate names and to flesh out stories.

Fiona Fitzsimons is a director of Eneclann, a Trinity College campus company, and of findmypast Ireland.

Further reading

N. Ó Muraile (ed.), Leabhar Mór na nGenealach: The Great Book of Irish Genealogies. Compiled (1645–66) by Dubhaltach MacFhirbhisigh (5 vols) (Dublin, 2003).
For a complete list of the main extant genealogical texts see http://www.eneclann.ie/20×20/nollaig-o-muraile-gaelic-pedigrees/.

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