I once asked my father where the Fays were from. He said he thought they were from Westmeath. I can only assume he heard this from his father or grandfather. My father never forgot a thing. His memory was as sharp and as clear when he died at the age of 93 as it had been all his life.

Westmeath, then, was where I began my search. Michael Fay, my great –great- grandfather (he who purchased the family Bible), was born in 1836 and emigrated to Brooklyn in the 1850’s. It is fortunate that he came over as late as he did, because it left open the possibility of being able to access documentation of our family in Ireland  through Catholic Parish records, many of which only go back to the early decades of the 1800’s.

Church records are the primary source of geneological data for Ireland. Baptisms, marriages, and to a much lesser extent, funerals, were recorded reliably by local parishes providing those religious services. Unfortunately preserving the records was less consistant. Most of what is still in existence was collected, photographed, digitalized and eventually presented  online by the National Library of Ireland. Their catalogue consists of over 400,000 digital images of  original Parish books.  They date from the 1740s to the 1880s, and cover 1,091 parishes throughout Ireland, although  for some parishes, these dates vary greatly and in some instances the records are incomplete. Very few of the registers pre-date 1800 and within registers there are gaps, missing pages as well as faded and poor handwriting. The NLI  catalogue can be searched by parish location, event and year but not by surname. It is therefor imperitive to know the Parish from which your family originated. Otherwise you find yourself searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack of data. Fortunately since the release of the NLI’s images in 2015, groups and organizations have been indexing these Parish records by Surname and offering them online for free (Find My Past) or by subscription (Roots Ireland, I have found Roots Ireland to be the most complete and accurate to date.

What other sources are there for genealogical inquiry?

As I outlined in the chapter called “A Convergence of Keenans” almost all of the Irish census records still in existence were destroyed in the Custom House fire in Dublin in 1922. That has resulted in only a few sources outside of  Parish registers  for those seeking out their Irish ancestry. These are known as census “substitutes”, but they are hardly that. They are neither universal, nor do they supply much more information than simply a name and a location. Still that is sometimes enough to help piece together a fairly complete record of a lineage.

The earliest source of this kind of information for most Irish families is the Tithe Applotment Books. Most of these books date from the period 1825 to 1835.

The payment of tithes has long been a feature of Christian churches. Tithe, or ‘tenth’, was a portion of income payable yearly by church members to their parish priest or vicar. In addition to sustaining the cleric, the money was also used to maintain the parish church itself, while a portion went to the bishop of the diocese. During the medieval period payment of tithe became formalized or standardized into a rigid system where all parishioners apart from the destitute were required to pay a fixed portion of their income each year. This system was fine as long as the entire population belonged to the same church, as was the case until the Reformation. After this, however, the splitting up of the old Catholic Church into Roman Catholic and various Protestant denominations splintered the old medieval tithe system. From the seventeenth century onward formal tithe collections backed by the law of the land only applied to the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church in Ireland. This was because this church was the ‘official’ or state or ‘established’ church. Therefore, in Ireland one had a system where all farmers were obliged to pay a heavy tithe upon their profits to their local Church of Ireland parish, regardless of what religion they belonged to. Understandably, this caused great resentment among Catholic and Presbyterian farmers, who also had to support their own clergy.

The Composition Act of 1823  specified that tithes due to the Established Church, the Church of Ireland, which had hitherto been payable in kind, should now be paid in money. As a result, it was necessary to carry out a valuation of the entire country, civil parish by civil parish, to determine how much would be payable by each landholder.  Some property was worth more than other property and was taxed accordingly. Since no Catholics were allowed to own land in Ireland at the time, all the listings connected to Catholics represent rental properties. This assessment was done over the ensuing fifteen years, up to the suspension of tithe payments in 1838.

Not surprisingly, those who were not members of the Church of  Ireland fiercely resented tithes, all the more so because the tax was not payable on all land; the exemptions produced spectacular inequalities. In parts of Munster, for instance, tithes were payable on potato patches but not on grassland, with the result that the poorest had to pay most. The exemptions also mean that the Tithe Books are not comprehensive. Apart from the fact that they omit entirely anyone not in occupation of land, certain categories of land, varying from area to area, are simply passed over in silence. They are not a full list of householders. Nonetheless, they do constitute the only countrywide survey for the period and are valuable precisely because the heaviest burden of tithes fell on the poorest, for whom few other records survive.

From a genealogical point of view, the information recorded in the Tithe Books is quite basic, consisting typically of townland name, landholder’s name, area of land and tithes payable. In addition, many books also record the landlord’s name and an assessment of the economic productivity of the land. The tax was based on the average price of wheat and oats over the seven years up to 1823, and it was levied at a different rate according to the quality of the land.

The next  source of “census substitutes” for Ireland is known as The Primary Valuation of Tenements of Ireland,  or Griffith’s Valuation,  named after Richard Griffith who headed the Irish Valuations Office at the time. Griffith’s Valuation was engendered by a tax levy mandated by the Tenement Act of 1842. The Valuations Office conducted its first survey of property ownership in Ireland from 1848 to 1864. The survey was used to determine the amount of tax each person should pay towards the support of the poor within their Poor Law Union (established by the Irish Poor Law Act of 1838). Each Union was a regional district with a workhouse at its center, usually situated in a large market town. From 1838 on, these workhouses were responsible for providing the barest of minimal support to the most destitute in their Union.

Griffith’s task  involved determining the value of  all privately held lands and buildings in rural as well as urban areas, to figure the rate at which each unit of property could be rented year after year, thereby establishing the tax levy. The resulting survey was arranged by barony and civil parish with an index to the townlands in that parish appearing in each volume. Griffith’s referenced  approximately one million individuals who occupied property in Ireland for the years before, during, and after the Great Famine. Unfortunately only the head of each household was identified. Family relationships and other personal information were not recorded. For this reason, few women and no children were included. The very poorest, those who lived on the verge of vagrancy in makeshift or temporary hovels were also excluded, although their numbers were relatively small.

Each entry in Griffith’s Valuation contained:

  • The Ordnance Survey map reference number
  • The townland or street where the property is located
  • The name of the occupier
  • The name of the immediate lessor, ie the landlord
  • A brief description of the property (‘house, offices and land’)
  • The land area of occupier’s holding, in acres, roods and perches
  • The annual valuation of the land and buildings

The “ Ordnance Survey map reference” referred to in the first line identifies the exact location of the property that was  being evaluated.  From 1825–1846, teams of British surveyors led by officers of the Royal Engineers and men from the ranks of the Royal Sappers and Miners traversed Ireland, and recorded in detail a landscape undergoing rapid transformation. The Ordnance Survey produced maps (primarily at 6″ scale, but with even greater detail for urban areas) that portrayed the country in a degree of detail never attempted before. When the survey of the whole country was completed in 1846, it was a world first. Both the maps and surveying were executed to the highest degree of engineering excellence available at the time. What this means for us, however, is that if it is possible to identify an ancestor in Griffith’s Valuation, we can also identify the precise piece of land where that ancestor was living at the time.

Richard Griffith  served as Commissioner of the Office of Valuation until 1868, when he was succeeded by Sir John Ball Greene CB, who took charge of the ongoing revisions of the Valuation on an annual basis. The Primary Valuation of Tenements was published county by county between 1848 and 1864. Following the publication of each volume the Valuation Office recorded any changes to occupier, landlord, size of holding or value for each plot. These changes, often called Revision Books, were recorded on an annual basis, directly into the published books. When that book became so full of revisions that it could hardly be deciphered, it would have been marked up as a Cancelled Land Book and a new Current Land Book would have been started. From then until the mid-1970’s  all changes in holdings were hand-written into the Current Land Books. The updated documentation of these land valuations, which still contained the names of both owners and tenants, opens up the possibility of following the story of any ancestor who remained in Ireland after the mass migrations in the 1850’s.

There is a third source for genealogical data in Ireland, and that stems from civil records assembled by the Government Register Office. In Ireland the registration of non-Roman Catholic marriages began in 1845, but the full registration system only came into operation in 1864. From then on, in theory at least, there was a legal obligation, enforced by fines, to register all births deaths and marriage with a local registrar within a short period after the event. The geographical areas used to collect civil registrations were (and still are) based on the old Poor Law Unions. When the registration system started in 1864, it used the already-existing framework of the Poor Law Unions to subdivide Ireland into Superintendent Registrar’s Districts, identical to the Unions. Each SRD was headed by a Superintendent Registrar and subdivided in turn into a number of local districts, run by a registrar who was answerable to the Superintendent. The local registrars collected birth, marriage and death registrations in pre-printed volumes, just adding each event chronologically as it was registered. When a volume was full, they passed it to the Superintendent. He then had a copy made, sent that copy to his head office, the General Register Office in Dublin, and held on to the local registrar’s copy.

The years covered by the release of the historic records of Births, Marriages and Deaths are: Births: 1864 to 1916,  Marriages: 1870 to 1941, Deaths : 1878 to 1966. The General Register Office are currently working on updating further records of Marriages dating back to 1845 and Deaths dating back to 1864.These will be included in future updates to the records available on the website.

The final remaining source for  family information in Ireland is to be found in the two existing Irish Census rolls that are open to the public. These occurred for the years 1901 and 1911.

It can be extremely daunting to try to reconstruct the story of your Irish lineage based on the scattered and piecemeal documentation that remains available to us.  There is one other aid, however, that can be very helpful when trying to stitch together the family tree – something known as the Traditional Irish Naming Pattern. As in most cultures, Irish families had a strong tradition of naming their children after members of the previous generation. While this tradition was not always followed precisely, some form or it was adhered to in a remarkably consistant way. The strictest delineation of this naming pattern can be laid out as follows:

  • First born son named after his father’s father
  • Second born son named after his mother’s father
  • Third born son named after his father
  • Fourth born son named after his father’s oldest brother
  • Fifth born son named after his father’s 2nd oldest brother
  • or his mother’s oldest brother
  • First born daughter named after her mother’s mother
  • Second born daughter named after her father’s mother
  • Third born daughter named after her mother
  • Fourth born daughter named after her mother’s oldest sister
  • Fifth born daughter named after her mother’s 2nd oldest sister
  • or her father’s oldest sister

As you will no doubt remember, the tracing of the Irish origins for the Keenan and McDermott family lines turned out to be severely limited  because of the early emigration dates of those ancestors. The usefulness of all the above described resources were rendered nearly negligible because Matthew Keenan and James McDermott left Ireland in the 1820’s.

This was not the case for the Fays, however, and their story,  pieced together from clues drawn from all of the above sources, can now be told.