Pages

05 March 2010

THE "BIG HOUSE" PAPERS: FINDING YOUR ANCESTORS IN LANDED ESTATE COLLECTIONS

     If your ancestors lived in, on, or near an estate--and most Irish did throughout the country's history--then there is an excellent chance that a facet of their lives is recorded in the estate records. Estate records usually encompass more than just the letters of the lord or lady of the manor. The papers in a collection of estate records can hold details of the minutiae of life on the estate. Bills, orders, ledgers, and letters can tell us much about the people who serviced, worked, and resided on the estate. The blacksmith, the seamtress, the carpenter, the destitute widow--estate records provide a peek into their lives.
      In the 1840's, my ancestor, Bridget Kavanagh Large, was a destitute widow living on land  in the Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny, area owned by Lord Wandesforde. Last winter, I was able to spend two weeks researching the Wandesforde estate records at the National Library of Ireland Reading Room in Dublin. The index alone to the Wandesforde collection is over 200 pages long. The collection consists of boxes upon boxes of files, ledgers, letters, notebooks, and notes. In the files, I found two instances of her receiving charity from the lord, plus the date of her emigration (1844). But what brought tears to my eyes and chills to my spine was the letter sent by Bridget to Lord Wandesforde requesting blankets for her children. Even if the penmanship was not hers but was that of a priest or scribe, on that day I held in my hands a paper she had touched, had breathed upon, had taken every last ounce of her dignity to send. Time stopped when I held that fragile physical bond to my great great grandmother and I felt Bridget reach through the years and touch me.
     What prevents many researchers from having such moments is simply lack of knowledge of the estate records that are available. These records are not always easy to find, and they can be intimidating to research. However, with diligence and preparation, a good researcher can uncover their treasures. Many of the estate collections are kept in the archives of the National Library of Ireland (NLI).
     Patsy O'Shea of New Zealand is a genealogist who is familiar with researching landed estate records. She is a researcher for and contributor to the Bandon, Co. Cork, genealogy site. In 2007, Patsy spent six months in Dublin at the NLI transcribing records from the Lismore Papers. According to Patsy, the Lismore estate was located in Counties Cork and Waterford, with large holdings around Lismore and Bandon. Patsy gives this description of the collection:
     "The Lismore estate records are enormous and detailed. They cover the running of the estate from the early 1600's to its break up and sale in the late 1800's. Rent rolls, a complete survey of the town of Bandon in 1717 (includes name of householder and description of residence), estate agents' correspondence, lease records, and much more."
     How does a researcher determine if his or her ancestors lived on or near an estate, and if so, where the records are kept today? There are various ways of locating an estate. A knowledge of Irish geography and history would be very helpful to the search, as would historical maps. Patsy found the Lismore estate "mainly through Griffiths Valuation Records--I found that all my folk in that locality were leasing from the Duke of Devonshire."
     The estates are becoming easier to find online. The listings of the collections housed in the National Library of Ireland can be found in its online catalogs. For the Wandesforde papers, the Library even provides a 200+ page indexed finding aide online that can be downloaded as a pdf file. For the western counties, the National University of Ireland, Galway, has completed a resource guide to landed estates and gentry houses in Connacht. The guide is online and the link is below.
     One word of advice to researchers visiting the Manuscript Reading Room of the National Library in Dublin: explore the NLI's finding aides and catalog system online before your trip. You should have with you, if possible, the manuscript and item numbers of the papers you wish to view. A librarian can meet with you first if you are in need of guidance. At the reading room, you will submit an order to the librarian, then a "runner" will retrieve your items from storage. This process can take time on busy days. Please be patient--the staff is wonderful, and they work as efficiently as possible. Don't forget to thank them for all they do!
LINKS
National Library of Ireland
Index to Prior-Wandesforde Papers at the NLI
Index to Powerscourt estate collection
(for the above two aides, scroll the alphabetical pages)
Connacht Landed Estates Project Database
Patsy's LINKS:
Bandon, Co. Cork, Genealogy
Loane Family of Co. Cork Genealogy Site