What is the Irish Family History Foundation (IFHF)?

The Irish Family History Foundation (IFHF) with its all Ireland network of local county genealogy centres is the largest provider of professional family history research services in Ireland.  The IFHF operates on an all-island basis and believes that genealogy in Ireland can only be properly dealt with on this basis. 

The Growth of Interest in Roots and Ancestor Tracing

In the 1970s and early 1980s there was an upsurge in interest in roots and ancestor tracing. In Ireland this interest led to increased demand for the use of records in national repositories and also became manifest in local heritage centres and private repositories throughout the country. The Clare Heritage Centre was one of the first community based local heritage centres to act on this increasing interest in genealogy. Copies of public records were supplied by Dr. Chris O’Mahony of the Mid-West Archive in Limerick and in 1979 the Corofin school teacher, Mr. Naoise Cleary, retired and devoted himself to the development of a genealogy centre servicing enquiries for Co. Clare through the use of indexed parish records.

The Irish Family History Society

By the early 1980s, drawing on the work of Corofin and Limerick, a growing number of local groups in every part of the country began similar indexing schemes. In 1984 many of these groups, in association with individuals who were interested in this work and in genealogy generally, came together to form the Irish Family History Society. The Society saw its role as developing standard procedures for indexing records and facilitating the development of contacts and links between the various parties.

The Irish Family History Foundation

Gradually the indexing centres came to recognize that they shared a range of concerns and interests that could best be furthered by an umbrella organization dedicated to catering for the needs of local genealogy centres. The Irish Family History Co-operative emerged, which later, in consultation with the Companies Office, changed its name to the Irish Family History Foundation (IFHF).

A cross-border network of local centres

The local genealogy centres recognized that to meet the demand for genealogical research from the Irish Diaspora an all-island network of centres would be required. When the centres from Northern Ireland joined the IFHF as full members such a network became a realistic proposition. The IFHF became a cross-border network of locally based county genealogy centres representing and serving all traditions on the island of Ireland and the wider Diaspora.

A comprehensive Family History Research Service

The IFHF had a vision of a comprehensive family history research service that would require not just the participation of the island’s two major traditions but also the active co-operation of all the major churches right down to parish and local level. A plan for realizing this vision was drawn up and negotiation with private record holders resulted in access to most of the baptismal, marriage and death records of all the Churches being granted to member centres.

An Taoiseach’s Task Force – Genealogy and Tourism.

In 1988 a government initiative saw the setting up of a tourism Task Force which had a Roots and Tourism sub-committee. This sub-committee had a wide membership drawn from An Taoiseach’s Department, tourism agencies, national repositories, commercial genealogists and the county genealogy centres. Its brief was to explore how genealogy could contribute more to the tourism sector.

Irish Genealogy Limited – Marketing Genealogy

The Irish Genealogy Project (IGP) came to the attention of government through the work of the Taoiseach’s Task Force. It was soon perceived to represent a genuine opportunity to extend and upgrade genealogy as a tourism product. The importance of genealogy to tourism has been recognized by inclusion in two subsequent major tourism plans.

The Northern Ireland government, in the form of the Central Secretariat, became involved and an ad-hoc management group, co-ordinated by An Taoiseach’s Department, and containing representatives of the two governments and their tourism and training and employment agencies, public repositories and the Irish Family History Foundation, emerged to progress the IGP. This management group conducted negotiations with commercial genealogists represented by APGI and AUGRA and eventually formed Irish Genealogy Limited (IGL) with representation from the public sector, the IFHF and the commercial genealogists’ associations. IGL was registered as a company in 1993 and was a product development and marketing vehicle for genealogical research services. The primary goal of the IGL was to generate economic activity and employment throughout the island of Ireland by boosting roots tourism. IGL ceased to function in 2009.

A Company Limited by Guarantee

The Irish Family History Foundation is a company limited by guarantee with no share capital and no distribution of profits. As such it is a voluntary organization made up of local genealogy centres, the majority of which are legally established on the same basis. It is governed by its Articles and Memorandum of Association which set out how it operates and limits its membership to 35 local centres with specified catchment areas.

General Meetings

In addition to the legal requirement to hold Annual General Meetings it also holds a number of general meetings in each year; these general meetings are generally held on a quarterly basis in each year. Directors are also active on sub-committees of the IFHF dealing with matters such as standards and training.

The Board of Directors

The Board of Directors of the Foundation generally meets once a month. Directors are also active on sub-committees of the IFHF dealing with matters such as standards and training.

 The main aims of the Irish Family History Foundation and the common objectives of its members are:

  • To provide a professional family history research service in local centres throughout Ireland. Local centres do not receive any subsidy for offering such a service so fees charged to clients fund the service.
  • To provide an online research service on behalf of the local centres.
  • To provide a forum for determining common policy for local centres.
  • To represent the policies and interests of local centres locally and nationally.
  • To facilitate the building of databases of genealogical records in local centres, by local centres. It does not seek to hold or control any original genealogical records.
  • To agree standards for building these databases.
  • To agree standards for providing research services in the local centres.
  • To provide training to ensure proper standards and professional service.
  • To co-operate with other interested parties – state agencies, repositories, record holders, other service providers, users etc.
  • To carry out promotional and marketing activities for local centres. 

Providing training and employment opportunities

The majority of IFHF centres sponsored community training and employment schemes operated by FÁS in the Republic of Ireland. Some centres continue to do this work. The primary interest of the state’s employment and training agency is in the vocational training, work experience and certification these schemes provide.

The availability of highly qualified supervisors and computer equipment has made these schemes ideal for high quality, cost effective training and employment experience. A by-product of these schemes is the development of the genealogy databases.

Building Local Databases

In 1988 the IFHF identified the various church records of baptisms, marriages and deaths as a priority for computerization. Other primary sources such as Griffith’s Valuation, the Tithe Applotment Books, the 1901 and 1911 census and gravestone inscriptions were also included in the plans of member centres. In recent years many centres have also accessed civil records.

Investment by the IFI allowed the IGP to launch the data capture, or production phase of the project, with a common computer system, complete with custom designed software. 

In the early years of the indexing of local records the data was recorded manually on index cards and sorted by surname, first name and so on. Circa 1991 and 1992 many centres began to computerize their card indexes and directly input new records on to a specially designed database. 

Setting Standards

The Foundation initiated the production of a Standards Manual setting out proper practices for building the databases. After consultation with the State repositories and Genealogical Office the Standards Manual was produced by IGP.

The IFHF drew up a Code of Ethics setting out how centres should treat their clients.

The Foundation sets standards for research services (including a common pricing policy). 

Training

The Foundation has an active Standards and Training committee and has organized a number of in-house training courses including a diploma in Family History from the National University of Ireland, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, for researchers working in the centres. Genealogists in our centres are educated to primary and /or master’s degree level.

Creating Employment

Typically 80-90% of the trainees in our centres have been placed in employment or further training following participation in the schemes sponsored by IFHF centres

Providing Local Visitor Facilities

Substantial progress has been made in providing visitor facilities throughout the country with many centres operating full heritage/visitor centres. Some of our centres are based in some of the finest and most ambitious visitor facilities on the island, including Rothe House in Kilkenny City and Bru Boru in Cashel.

Encouraging Local Development

The county genealogy centres are a valuable part of the heritage and tourism infrastructure in their communities throughout the island. Their success is a cause for confidence and an encouragement for other groups in their areas. Their experience in developing the centres and generating economic activity is a valuable asset to be shared with others interested in community development.

Records

Data used for family history research was originally recorded for other reasons. Family history research is only a secondary use of this material. It is the original reason for this data being recorded that determines the structures, access and guardianship of these historical records.

The guardians of records will have broader concerns than genealogical researchers. For example, the single most important source of information for family history research is the registration of births and baptisms, marriages and deaths, both civil and religious. This information continues to be recorded by civil and religious organizations that have continued recording this information and will be occupied with current records.

As time passes records become less relevant to their original use and family history research becomes the de facto primary use. They are then of interest not just to the community in which they were recorded but the huge Irish Diaspora. This puts excessive demand on Irish archives, whether public or private.

Services

The IFHF experience is that record holders are generally favourably disposed towards family history research. As guardians their awareness of the importance of these records predates the modern growth in interest in family history research by many generations. It may even be that state archives, in meeting the ever increasing demand of providing facilities for researchers, are diverted from collecting and preserving records.

Access

The IFHF developed because of problems of access; family history research could not be conducted without visiting archives in Dublin or Belfast. The local centres set out to overcome this problem by their own endeavours. They sought to obtain or make copies of records pertaining to their catchment areas. They have achieved considerable success in gaining access through negotiation with record holders. As many of those with Irish ancestry do not know where their ancestry may have originated in Ireland it makes sense to bring together all the counties available databases on one site to assist research.

The Irish Family History Foundation’s view is that the first priority in preserving historical records is to remove the originals from use. IFHF centres use a combination of microfilms or other images, or transcripts to access historical records. The centres then index these records on computer as this is the most efficient means of working out the sometimes complex relationships that family history research entails.

Challenging demands for access does not aid preservation of private records. Guardians of records may consider some of the information they hold to be confidential and restrict access. Even if state archives have sufficient facilities to preserve original records, organizations that hold their own records may not avail of these services if they do not feel that their concerns are respected.

The interest in genealogical records continues to grow. Should private record holders, such as churches, or state archives funded from the public purse be obliged to accommodate the large interest group drawn from the Irish Diaspora that outnumbers the population of the island 14 times?

Any queries pertaining to the genealogy records should be emailed to info@ifhf.ie or the individual county genealogy centre concerned. Please check the HELP section before emailing as the answer to your query may be there.