Christmas 2023

And so we reach the end of another great year in genealogy. Prompted by a recent discussion, I’ve been looking at the Old Age Pension search forms. This collection is held by the National Archives of Ireland. If you’re not familiar with this small record set, let me enlighten you.

In 1908, Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom. A progressive new law was passed to grant people, who met certain criteria, an old age pension. Individuals had to be:

  • 70 or more years of age
  • Of “good character” (not at all clear how this was judged!)
  • Have an income of less than £31 10 shillings per annum

If eligible, a single person received 5 shillings a week or there were 7 shillings for a married couple. Interesting that they noted then that it’s dearer to be a singleton, just as it is today! The pension was administered through the Post Office and given out on Fridays. The take-up was huge. 98% of eligible people applied in Ireland, by comparison to just 45% in Britain. This really shows how poor people were.

There was just one problem in Ireland. In England and Wales, civil registration began in 1837, so in theory everyone who was 70 in 1908, would have a birth certificate. But here in Ireland, civil registration of births began much later in 1864. So people needed a way to prove they were the right age. It is also true that many people hadn’t a notion how old they were in the past, which is hard for us to imagine in the precise world of the 21st century. This has led to a fallacy that people inflated their ages between the 1901 and 1911 censuses to avail of the pension. While I’m sure some unscrupulous people did so, most people age roughly the right amount. Although, Thomas Lynch of Linns, Co. Louth who aged 18 years in 10 always amuses me. Please do let me know if you’ve found someone who beats him.

Another fun fact was that apparently as a test, people were asked if they remembered the Big Wind of January 1839 – an immense storm which damaged property, killed people and saw hurricane speeds. The economic fallout and agricultural damage was so vast that it is considered a contributory factor to the Great Famine. The flaw of course with this ideas is that people might just have known about the Big Wind and not actually remembered it!

All this leads us to some clever person (lost to history) who realised that the censuses of 1841 and 1851 could be searched for proof of age. Of course, they had not yet been destroyed in the fire that was to come in 1922. It cost 2 shillings to do the search. The below image shows a notation that the money had been paid in the top left corner.

If a person was found, the form was returned with detailed information on the family. If they were not, then “not found” was usually written, but you still get the info provided by the applicant . I had one case where the woman was not found in 1851, but all of her other information was consistent, and I was able to prove the family found at that address hers, but perhaps she was born later in the year than when the census was taken (30th March that year) or the following year.

Here’s the particularly impressive form for Mrs Catherine Meade, née Murphy when she applied in 1920 for a search of the 1851 census.

Not only do we get her parents’ names, but also her maternal grandfather. The search returned details of two marriages and children born to her father. Catherine was found and presumably went on to claim her rightful pension.

The forms for the 26 counties which now make up the Republic of Ireland can be searched on the National Archives site (above) as well as Familysearch and the commercial sites. There’s just under 65000 entries. For the 6 counties of Northern Ireland, the originals belong to PRONI but Ancestry has digitised them by way of a two volume book by Josephine Masterson published in the 1980s. There is other offline material in both the NAI and PRONI pertaining to unsuccessful searches.

So to Christmas. The singer & song-writer, Shane MacGowan died 2 weeks ago, after a long illness. With his band, The Pogues and featureing the late Kirsty McCall, they produced one of the all time greatest Christmas hits: Fairytale of New York. Shane was born on Christmas day in 1957 in the UK to Irish parents, though he ultimately lived much of his life in Ireland. His music often speaks to the Irish immigrant experience, which I think will resonate with many readers of this newsletter.

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, attended his funeral last week, and in a statement said:

His words have connected Irish people all over the globe to their culture and history, encompassing so many human emotions in the most poetic of ways.

Wherever you are this holiday season, hug your loved ones close, and ask them questions about their ancestry, while you’re at it!

Nollaig Shona daoibh go léir!

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