Community Genealogy & Historic Graves

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Presented to the IGRS AGM in London in May 2013.




Community Genealogy and Historic Graveyard Surveys 

in Ireland 


A sense of discovery is a key part of our engagement with Historic Graveyards – this sign on a side road in Co. Kilkenny, near Thomastown, is the first hint of the presence of an historic graveyard.


Follow the sign, crossing a field and arrive at the head of winding lane.



The laneway opens out into a a boggy area with iris flags growing at the confluence of two small streams and two gate piers with a 7 bar iron gate can be seen. Not sure this is the graveyard at this stage.


Entering through the gateway we find ourselves in a graveyard with a ruined church and a relatively unusual statue and stone cross built into the old church wall.


A winding path follows up the graveyard arranged in terraces and the path allows the gradual revealing of the graveyard.


Colmcilles in Kilkenny was a linear, terraced graveyard whereas Kilbehenny in south Limerick is more conventional. Arranged with a high concentration of 19th century headstones south and west of the ruined church. The sense of discovery is less winding but is based on the western entrance gate leading one into the body of the graveyard where you approach each headstone from behind.

Any headstone could be remarkable and many of them are here.


Most gravestones are like postcards from the past - telling stories of people and place with clues rather than a clear narative text. Carved in stone we can see an age of 115 years. Can we believe it?


We publish community surveys directly to the web.


The distribution map of the graveyards surveyed in association with community groups, Leader organisations and Local authorities.




While we work in Ireland the system is global and can take geotagged datasets from any country.


Masking tape and a marker are our main tools – they are used to temporarily number each grave memorial – we then photograph each memorial with the Sony Hx cameras – costing approx 400e and with a consumer grade GPS – we feel they are sold for geotagging holiday photos and we are happy with a 12 m ‘bubble of accuracy’ – and in practice we find that since the HX9 model they have been far more accurate than that – early models seemed to randomise the locations within the 12m bubble but for over a year now the photo locations are sequential.

These off-the-shelf cameras are now a key tool in our community archaeology projects – they work for headstones then they will also work for other archaeology sites. We tell our volunteers that uf you can take a photograph then you can survey a graveyard.

In the case of St Canices the GPS was quite accurate and we tidied up the distribution in Geosetter with the aid of the good quality google map and the site sketch plan.

We test the quality fo the locational data using LAYAR and in all cases so far the geotagged photo has ‘led’ us to the correct location.

We use the Lenser P7 torch (200 lumens power) for reading inscriptions in all light conditions and a mirror bounces light in the afternoon.




Kilbehenny - bringing the young people of our parishes into old graveyards. Here we see the Girl Guides in Kilbehenny, south Limerick.


Enthusiasm abounds and on any given day woolly hats can be swapped for sunhats. This group in Ballinhassig managed 90 record sheets in one day - a record so far!


Sometimes the groups are smaller but the enthusiasm is still the same. Colm and Ger have been looking after Anhid graveyard for years now.


Most of our rural projects are attended by adult volunteers keen to survey their own local graveyards but in St Canices we were keen to involve local school children in the project.

The boys of St Fergals (aged 11-12) National School took part along with the Transition year girls of St Michaels secondary school.


We geolocate grave memorials and then hang stories of people and place from those grave memorials. Here Donal Sheridan tells us of Jack McEvoy and his unusual headstone.


Stories can be grouped by storyteller, graveyard or grave memorial. They can be in text, audio or even video form.


Many stories are known only to local communities - this humble grave memorial takes us outside the graveyard walls and into the local forge. 


We build nameclouds and attach them to place.


And different techniques for recording them. Here we see a newsprint rubbing taking place. They create 1:1 copies of the carved face of the headstones.






And light, sunlight in particular, is our main tool of discovery


Here we see a more accomplished carver and the potential for the use of flash photography in recording 19th century headstones.


Other details not always visible are the blacksmiths name stamped on a gate –we are interested in the iron gates, iron railings found in old graveyards as they tell us about an important part of 19th and early 20th century community and economy.


Stonecutters tools.


We will discover stonecutters with the lightest of touches


Here we see a simple but touching crucified Christ (unusually smiling) from Kilbehenny


Many of our volunteers are stimulated by their personal genealogies and these frequency word charts ( are a great tool for showing the more common names in a graveyard.

We can now map surnames across a landscape as we aim to record groups of graveyards within the parish system.


14 graveyards from North Cork = a regional surnames analysis.


We have written an android app which queries the Online dataset 


You can search by location or do keyword or name searches. The Grave finder will find grave memorial records but also the multimedia content attached to graveyards and grave memorials...


People tell us stories and also bring in primary documentation gathered by local historians.


Our focus has been largely rural and community based. Work is interrupted for tea and a slice of apple tart but soon resumes.


How to – record a graveyard


Simply out, we number each grave memorial with masking tape and a marker.

We then take one geotagged photo of each memorial in numbered sequence and upload this to the website.

Instant publication is highly engaging for our volunteer groups – theys ee immediate results for their work.

The geotagged grave memorial photo is then a hook that we can hang other media (audio and video stories) onto. We have become geolocated heritage media content publishers. Local people do the surveys, tell their stories and publish them to the web.


Key techniques

Our core technique is 1. number 2. photo 3. record 




Common elements
(learn the code)

Learn these common phrases and reading the headstones gets easier with practice...


Sketch plans are easy to draw and while not measured do have the relative location for every memorial in the graveyard. These are hand-drawn then scanned and put onto the graveyard website


Blank record sheet – phase 1 training confines itself to the front page



The sketch plan is always complemented by contact prints of the photo survey.



Community-based genealogy projects have a multiplier effect. A regional approach to heritage is supported and achieved by motivated participants. Digital technology empowers participants to share their work.

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