Friday, August 26, 2011

Using Irish newspapers for inquest records

As some visitors may recall, I ran into an insurmountable brick wall in my family history work researching a girl who was possibly related to my great-great-grandmother Ellen Driscoll Collins.  Noria Driscoll was staying with her in the 1901 census in Lower Lissane:

When I first started investigating the link between Noria Driscoll and Ellen Driscoll Collins, I was researching Ellen Driscoll and thought that Noria could have been a niece. Her relationship to Ellen Driscoll Collins was not as I originally thought.  It turns out the census record is not entirely accurate.  Noria is listed as a niece to the head of household when she was in fact a granddaughter.  On this census record, her grandfather was Michael Collins, her grandmother was Ellen Driscoll Collins, her uncle was Michael Collins, and her aunt was Noria Collins. 

Through a process of elimination using civil registration birth records from around 1890 plus the 1901 census, I developed a hypothesis that Noria was from Currabeg, a townland in Castlehaven parish. The brick wall exists because I have been unable to locate her parents' marriage record or the death record of her mother, whom apparently died prior to the 1901 census.

Subsequent research showed that Noria drowned in February 1903, with the place of death noted as Lissane.  The death record only listed the cause of death, the coroner and the date of the inquest, but there was no further information. 

Skibbereen Southern Star news archives are online. I was unable to find any further information about her tragic death.  I sent an email to the National Archives inquiring about the availability of inquest records for County Cork and did not hear back.

On one genealogy forum I visit regularly, another researcher asked a similar question, and I told him of my brick wall and how I ran into a dead-end asking about inquest records at the National Library.  "JB" as I shall call him, was in Louth, and was planning to travel to Dublin for some sleuthing. Wisely, he decided to hit the newspapers.

JB emailed me telling me of his plans to go to Dublin and asked for the details of the inquest record I was seeking, which I thought was really kind.  I had reached a point that I was totally annoyed with researching this family, and I was annoyed with the Southern Star for not reporting the drowning (yes - not logical). The S.S. noted other drownings about the same time, therefore in my frustration I had rationalized that because she was a schoolgirl, her death didn't merit any newspaper's attention. To validate my conclusion I had also searched the papers at and even the Irish Times archives, and still did not come up with anything.

Because I really didn't think JB would find anything, it didn't even occur to me to mention the existence of the Skibbereen Eagle newspaper, which I already knew about. Had I told him of that paper beforehand, I might have saved him about an hour of time at the library. I really didn't want him to spend a lot of time looking for something which I knew "wasn't there."

But JB looked at the County Cork newspapers available and figured out which one to look at. Here is a list of some of the papers available at the National Archives:

Cork Papers at NLI

In addition, Cork City Library has a very good newspaper collection:

Cork City Library Newspaper Archives

When I saw a copy of the story of Noria's drowning sitting in my inbox a few days later I was nothing less than stunned.  JB also found a story referencing the death of one his  relatives who suddenly took ill and died while enroute by ship to Ireland.

There were two valuable lessons we learned from this. JB noted that email to a repository body typically doesn't yield much, but when you go in person and talk to humans the outcome is often very different.  Second, if there was a newspaper covering an area you are interested in at at the right time, then it indeed may give inquest details.  So it can really pay off to wade through the newspapers.

In addition to my extreme gratitude to JB, I also felt vindicated when I read the story of Noria's drowning.  The article confirmed her suspected origins.  The article contained one error, naming her uncle as Michael Driscoll when in fact he was Michael Collins.  (Her father was Michael Driscoll of Currabeg.)  This is why it is so important that when you work on your family tree, you don't stop researching just because a name fills a slot.  All records, whether from newspaper stories, from church records, or from civil registration, are vulnerable to errors, and so you must continue collecting evidence and see where the weight of that evidence falls.

This is probably about where Noria fell in the river. Even in *good* weather, that water looks terribly busy... map