Genealogy and the economic drain on Ireland: Unintended consequences
First Monday

Genealogy and the economic drain on Ireland: Unintended consequences by Emily Heinlen

In the last decade, with the increase in the digitization of genealogical documents and the prevalence of the Internet across the globe, online genealogical research has become a popular pastime among the citizens of the western countries. While this increase in popularity has been an economic boost for online companies that specialize in genealogy, it has had the unintended consequence on Ireland of decreasing the incoming revenue of the genealogy tourism industry. In this paper, I explain the situation and its causes, as well as the current practices being used to stem the decrease and possible solutions to be used in the future.


Computer-related genealogy and economic problems
Other drawbacks of computerized genealogy
Alternative ways of increasing revenue




Ireland is a country rich with history and proud of its heritage. To that end, Ireland has gone to great lengths to preserve public and genealogical documents in order to help those interested in their journey to finding their past. Today, many libraries, universities and public institutions are digitizing these documents in order to help preserve and provide open access to them. While this digitization effort was begin as a way to help the country as a whole (see the works of Robert Kling for information on the beginning of social informatics and its effect on society), it may be adversely affecting Ireland by causing it to lose a key source of tourism revenue, namely visitors to the island who conduct genealogical research. This paper will address the ways in which the digitization of public and genealogical records is affecting the economy and institutional configuration of Ireland’s tourism sector. I will also document the solutions that are currently underway to reverse this trend and add further proposals for a comprehensive shift in priorities. The sources used for this paper range from academic articles in peer reviewed journals to daily newspaper articles published in prominent Irish newspapers.



Computer-related genealogy and economic problems

Ireland’s long and often bloody history has fueled the main tourism attraction for the country for years, genealogical research. However, in recent years, fewer and fewer tourists have been venturing to the Emerald Isle in search of the records that would definitively answer questions about their family forefathers. Instead, genealogists are turning to the Internet for online searchable databases and family trees in order to locate these much needed records and information, a trend that the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, applauded during a speech in 1996, “The magic of e-mail surmounts time and distance and cost. And the splendid and relatively recent technology of the World Wide Web means that local energies and powerful opportunities of access are being made available on the information highway.” [1] What Robinson did not realize, however, was that while the ability to access certain genealogical resources online, or contact those with such information, has increased since the early 1990s, the trend toward using these services is hurting the mainstay of Irish tourism (see Table 1).

Tourism numbers begin decreasing shortly after the launch of three important genealogy Web sites:, which came online in 1998; The Church of Latter-day Saints, which came online in 1999; and the Ellis Island searchable records, which came online in 2000. In the last five years alone, the number of tourists visiting Ireland for genealogical research has dropped by half (Burns, 2005) and the trend is expected to become worse as experts say that “ancestry” is now the second-most popular search on the Internet (Murphy, 2005).


Table 1: Genealogy tourism visitors — 1999-2004.
Source: Bord Fáilte (Irish Tourist Board).
Overseas Visitors (000’s)199920002001200220032004
M Europe221120
North America. USA617449203726
Australia/New Zealand1114184310


The ability to access these records online is only part of the reason why tourism has dropped so dramatically in the Celtic country. In times past, not only did the genealogists come for an initial visit to find the long-lost tombstone or church record that would knock down a wall for them in their research, but, once they had visited the country, they often formed a bond with the land of their forefathers and, therefore, came back for repeat visits. Today, the ability to access these records digitally, either through databases or e-mail, has taken away this physical connection, thus giving genealogists no reason to return, if they even decide to visit in the first place (Burns, 2005).

With the spread of Internet access across the globe, researchers also have access to other types of genealogy help, in addition to digitized records. This increase in Internet access and knowledge has caused “the advent of local studies groups, part-time diploma courses and free advisory services from the National Archives of Ireland and the National Library.” [2] These services allow amateur family historians to find the knowledge, resources and help that they need in order to discover their family history without ever leaving the comfort of their own homes.

Instead of traveling to the home country to find specific records, genealogists can simply log on to Web sites such as the Roots Surname List Name Finder (Rootsweb, 2006) and search online family trees that individuals have placed on the Internet for that purpose. This Web site also allows you to find other individuals who are researching the same name, thus allowing you to contact distant relatives that you never knew existed and, also, placing you in touch with potential research allies who might live in the country of origin. If these new relatives do, in fact, live in the country of origin, then these new allies are simply another deterrent to the genealogist taking a trip to that country to look for records, as they can often ask the new-found relatives to do the research for them (Kirwan, 1996).

Another place genealogists and distant relatives can connect is through the newsgroup Usenet (http://news:soc.genealogy.ireland). This “newsgroup is for genealogy and family history discussion among people researching ancestors, family members or others who have a genealogical connection to” a specific group of people or ethnic group. In this case, one only has to log in to the Ireland and U.K. newsgroup (; see and place an inquiry (Kirwan, 1996). The other individuals who belong to the newsgroup then read the messages and, if they can, help the poster with their research or provide them with much needed information.

...many tourists who come to Ireland looking for genealogical assistance often have to pay 45 Euro for a basic records search ...

Customer service issues also add to the tourism problem. According to the Genealogical Society of Ireland, many tourists who come to Ireland looking for genealogical assistance often have to pay 45 Euro for a basic records search, which may take longer than the tourist is willing to wait. These fees and delays only force genealogists to search for cheaper and more efficient means of finding the needed information, which often means turning to online databases, fellow Internet genealogists and even microfilm records at local genealogy centers (Burns, 2005). According to Michael Merrigan, the Secretary of the Genealogical Society of Ireland, “People are drifting away from our over-priced information service to what is freely available” and once they have tasted the ability to gather the information at no cost, it will be hard to convince them to move back into the paying realm of genealogy (Burns, 2005).

Microfilm records, while appearing to be harmless, have contributed to the decrease in the tourism industries for countries that wish to draw genealogical tourists. These records often contain older data that would ordinarily have had to be viewed at the church or other such location where they were originally recorded. Instead, these records can now be viewed in the privacy of any library or genealogy center that chooses to purchase them, thus further taking the travel out of genealogy research.

Microfilm records are not only detrimental in their original form, but, once they are purchased by an outside company, they can be digitized and placed on the Internet, as the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has done. The Church of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, placed, in 1999, “an enormous searchable database of births and deaths” [3] on their Web site (, 2006; Ryan, 2001). These records include many Irish church records (Ryan, 2001) and provide free access to any researcher willing to travel to Utah, or in some cases, to the LDS Web site.

Another site that contains useful genealogical records is the Ellis Island Web site. While these records are only of those immigrants who entered the United States through Ellis Island, they do contain biographical information that, oftentimes before, had to be sought on birth and death records that could only be found in the home country. Since these records have been placed online, you can now find not only the name of the ship that your ancestors came to American on, but, also, where they were born, their ages at the time of their immigration and other family information (Burns, 2005).

Eneclann, based at Trinity College in Dublin, has digitized a large portion of specialized Irish records including the 1798 Rebellion, back issues of the Irish Genealogist from 1937-1993, Ireland’s Memorial Records from WWI, migration and immigration records from 1858-1879, the 1831 Tithe Defaulters, a list of Irish Surnames, the 1851 Dublin City Census and an Index of Irish Wills 1484-1858 (Eneclann, 2006). Before these documents were digitized by Eneclann, many, if not all, would have had to have been gone through by hand in the country of origin and, oftentimes, in many different counties and villages. Now, that these records have been digitized and placed on CD, genealogists can either pay Eneclann to search for individuals within these titles or they can purchase the CDs and search for the names in the comfort of their own homes.

In 2002, added new records that further hurt the genealogical economy of Ireland. These records included “historical parish and probate registers from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, adding approximately 50 million names that range from the early 1500s to the late 1800s.” [4] “’s New York Port Arrival Records for Irish immigrants during the potato famine [added] records for one million men, women, and children who immigrated to the U.S. through the port of New York from 1846 to 1851.” [5] The addition of these records provides genealogists, who are willing to pay a subscription fee, access to these records for much cheaper than it would cost them to travel to Ireland.

The Internet and non-Irish companies are not solely responsible for the decrease in the genealogical tourism industry in Ireland. In 1988, the Irish government decided to digitize 28 million of the country’s important genealogical documents. These documents included church and civil records, the 1901 and 1911 censuses and Griffith’s Valuation and Tithe Applotment books (Anonymous, 2005).

Since 1997, the Irish government has invested 2.5 million Euro into a project known as the Irish Genealogical Project. While this project has the potential to further hurt the Irish tourism economy, it is currently behind on its digitization schedule. The Irish Genealogy Ltd., which is in charge of the project, wanted to be 90 percent finished by 2007, but “because of a lack of FAS trainees, the work has slowed to a trickle and, at current rates, it will take more than 20 years to input the 3.2 million church records outstanding.” [6] Now, Irish Genealogy Ltd. is planning on outsourcing the project, an unexpected plan considering Ireland’s reputation as a technological country, and one that will further remove economic benefits from the country (Burns, 2005).



Other drawbacks of computerized genealogy

While many people rely on these digitized records for important information, they often do not understand the dangers and pitfalls that are associated with this type of information. Often, online, uploaded family tree information contains misspellings and inaccurate dates and locations. This information is also often not properly cited and, therefore, Internet genealogists must simply trust that the information is correct. This trust can often lead genealogists down false trails that, if never caught, can ruin a researcher’s family tree research.

Another widespread, related problem can be found with common surnames. “If you have a very common surname and do Internet searches, you may end up moving in a totally wrong direction.” [7] This is doubly true for Web sites that do not cite their sources or have retyped documentation (records that were once handwritten and have been scanned in with an OCR program or retyped by hand) as they often have misspellings or inaccuracies in them as well. The only sure way to know that the information you are looking at is, in fact, genuine and that the person you are searching for is the person whose record you are looking at is to hold the document or a copy of the original document in your hand and read it yourself.

The loss in tourism revenue is not only affecting the typical Irish tourism industries, but is, also, affecting places that specialize in genealogy research and related topics.

The loss in tourism revenue is not only affecting the typical Irish tourism industries, but is, also, affecting places that specialize in genealogy research and related topics. One such location that is feeling the crunch is the Irish Genealogy Centres. These centres were created in the 1980s to help tourists locate genealogical information. According to FAS, Ireland’s National Training and Employment Agency, (FAS Ireland, 2006) currently, the centres only receive an average of 500 visitors and 250 callers per year. That’s a tiny number considering that 70 million people worldwide are of Irish descent (Burns, 2005). Due to the fact that the centres never grew in popularity after they opened, they might, now, be forced to close. Not only would their closure be a loss for researchers, but, also, it would place the workers in the unemployment line, further hurting the Irish economy.



Alternative ways of increasing revenue

There are currently a number of short, medium, and long-range approaches being used to attempt to help reverse the decline of genealogical tourism in Ireland. These approaches include value-added services for a fee, diversified research assistance and institutional reforms. For example, the Ulster Historical Foundation is attempting to combat the decrease in genealogical tourism by creating online databases that are available only to foundation members. Members also receive an annual publication and are given guidance services. In the case of the Ulster Historical Foundation database, it contains “one and half million birth, death and marriage records.” [8] The Foundation also uses the membership dues to fund the digitization of more records (McCusker, 2005).

Something that must be considered in regard to pay databases, however, if the ability of the members to provide the data, free of charge, to non-users after the paying members have taken the information from the database. Due to the fact that most of the information found in the database would be information in the public domain, there would be nothing to stop the users from freely distributing the information after finding it in the database. This distribution would then hurt the integrity of the database and, perhaps, could even cause such a project to fail.

The General Register Office of Ireland is attempting to help the tourism industry by providing digitization services to the public, while at the same time requiring the patrons to either come to Ireland to find the records that they desire or pay for someone to research the records for them. As a deposit for birth, marriage and death records, the Register’s Office is of vast importance to anyone doing genealogical research. On their Web site, they provide information as to what is contained within their archives, but do not give digital access to this information and, thus, researchers must visit the country if they want to see these records first hand (General Register Office, 2006).

The Irish Family History Foundation Web site works much in the same way, but on a broader scale. The Foundation is attempting to entice tourists to come to Ireland in search of genealogy records and is providing them with the resources needed to plan their trip. On the “Genealogical Sources” page of their Web site, the Foundation lists six categories of Irish records: Parish Registers, Tithe Applotment Books 1823-1838, Primary Valuation of Tenements 1848-1864 or Griffith’s Valuation, Gravestone Inscriptions, Census Reports and Civil Registration (Irish Family History Foundation, 2006c; Irish Family History Foundation, 2006d). The Web site then provides a brief description of each type of record, where the records might be found and, in the case of the Parish registers, where to locate these items, contact information for the location and what each specific location contains (Irish Family History Foundation, 2006a). The Web site also provides a page of links, with a section specifically devoted to tourism information (Irish Family History Foundation, 2006b).

The National Library is attempting to further draw individuals interested in genealogy research by providing information on their Web site as to what its collection holds in regard to genealogy. Like other such institutions in Ireland, the list includes what the collection holds, but does not include the records in digitized form, thus requiring the researcher to travel to the library in order to access the documents. The Web site also provides information on free genealogy services, thus helping visiting genealogists to schedule their visitation times at the library around these specific hours. Web sites such as this one help to provide an incentive for genealogists to visit the country because they may stumble across an item that they did not know existed, decide that it is imperative to their research that they study this document, and, if the document is not digitized elsewhere, eventually, become motivated to book a trip to Ireland (National Library of Ireland, 2006).

In addition, to their current approach, the National Library could partner with Web sites such as GENUKI, which provides a detailed list of reference sources that are available offline in Ireland, and other parts of the United Kingdom. If the library could match patron requests with useful sources available offline, the knowledge of the existence of these sources could begin to build the desire within that patron to physically visit Ireland in order to discover these resources firsthand (GENUKI: UK and Ireland Genealogy, 2006).

Another partnership that not only the National Library, but all libraries, could also investigate is to join forces with the Irish Genealogy Centres. This idea was first developed by Michael Merrigan, the Secretary of the Genealogical Society of Ireland, “[t]hese genealogy centers should be attached to the county libraries, and the information given free of charge. Visitors should get a free service instead of being ripped off.” An alternate approach to charging researchers to search records, which would compete with an activity that they may be able to conduct online or in digital databases for free, is to focus on other forms of genealogical research, such as locating distant relatives, finding old family homes or businesses or promoting the concept of “visiting homeland” tours. These other concepts could provide a unique way for individuals to get in touch with their Irish roots, while, at the same time, allowing the centres to stay open, albeit in a slightly different capacity, and the centre workers to keep their jobs.

These centres could be used to help visiting genealogists and family historians find birth, death and other important records that could then be used to formulate a tour of the homeland specific to their family. This would help them to, in the words of Merrigan, “form a long-lasting identification with parts of the country. Family history should be used as a tool for people to create an affinity with the country, and give them a desire to visit.” [9] If these centres were provided with the information eventually available from the Irish Genealogical Project, they would be able to give the interested individuals enough information to, in the words of Eamon Rossi, the Chief Executive of Irish Genealogy Ltd., “sell the emotional experience of coming here and walking the land.” [10] The use of both the centres and the project would not only merge the two endeavors into one, but, coupled with the personalized tour concept, the new entity would have a high potential of bringing in genealogical tourism capital to the country.

Another way that the personal tours could help the economy would be to couple them with Family History fairs such as the one held by the Community Relations Council and the Ulster Historical Foundation in 2005. The second annual North of Ireland Local and Family History Fair had exhibits from the National Archives of London, the National Archives of Scotland, the local Northern Ireland Public Record office and the editorial staff of Ancestor magazine. Not only would these groups be able to answer questions as to what their archives contain, but, also, would be able to point genealogists in the correct direction as to where to find rare records through their “basic introductory sessions on using the national archives for tracing Irish family history, and using PRONI, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, to trace [their] ancestors.” [11]

Irish Genealogy Ltd. is fast-tracking the input of some of the data waiting to be digitized by the Irish Genealogical Project, thus allowing their database to contain three million names as of 2005 and, as of October 2005, the database has seen over 250,000 searches. If only a portion of these individuals were enticed into booking a personal family history tour of Ireland, the Irish economy would benefit substantially (Burns, 2005). Furthermore, if the Irish Genealogy Project were to outsource some of the digitization of these records to companies in Ireland that are not currently affiliated with the project, they would be able create more jobs and help bolster the economy. While, in the long run, this outsourcing might further hurt the genealogy industry by simplifying instant access to genealogical records, it would be a quick, short fix for the present.

One logical candidate for local outsourcing would be the Irish Genealogy Centres themselves. By allowing the full-time workers to work on this project and have amateur genealogists act as volunteer assistants to answer patron questions, the centres would be able to become sustainable. These centres would further benefit if they were able to secure this outsourcing contract, while at the same time attach themselves to libraries, which, most likely, already have volunteers that would be able to work with the patrons.

One way that the National Archives and the National Library of Ireland are attempting to battle the decrease in tourism is by offering free genealogy classes. These classes are offered to anyone who wishes to learn more about genealogy and are available at any time during normal business hours. Many hope that these classes will provide an incentive for genealogists to continue to come to the country in search of elusive, non-digitized records. These classes teach users how to use the library system, which tools to use and what items are located in which collection (Murphy, 2005).

Before the National Cultural Institutions Act of 1997, which changed the libraries in Ireland from being government run organizations to being private institutions and, thus, causing the government to revoke its funding, the libraries in Ireland were subsidized by the government, which allowed them to provide the public with resources and support at a lower cost. In order for the libraries to utilize the free genealogy classes in the best way possible, the government would need to begin to subsidize the program. If the government of Ireland provided the National Library with only a fraction of the funding that they had previously given, this funding would allow the library to provide free genealogy help, on-site only, that could then be coupled with the genealogy family tours and, also, support the diverse non-digitized Irish history collection that is housed within the library. This collection contains newspapers, periodicals, manuscripts, prints, drawings, maps and photographs as well as collections of literary manuscripts and the personal libraries of well-known authors such as James Joyce, William Butler Years, Sean O’Casey and Brian Friel and a heraldry department that reproduces coats of arms for requested family names (Fahy, 2005).

The National Library provides day and week passes for individuals wishing to do research in specific portions of the library collection. If this program were expanded to include the specialized genealogy collections, especially if tied to the free genealogy classes and advice offered by the library, the library might be able to entice visitors to pay a small fee in order to view the records that have not yet been digitized and, therefore, would not otherwise be available (Fahy, 2005).




While the digitization of genealogical records has made the research of family histories easier and, therefore, has allowed genealogical research to become a major pastime of the western world, it has also had unintentionally harmful effects on the tourism industry in Ireland. Even though more people seem to be interested in genealogy than ever before, the number of tourists venturing to Ireland in search of ancestral documents is dwindling. This is partially because, now, with a good portion of important records online, individuals no longer have to travel large distances in order to find the genealogical information that they need, but, instead, can connect to distant relatives via genealogy sites and, through these new connections, have someone else research the information and find important documents for the interested party for free or cheaper than a trip to the home country would be.

Thus, in this case, not only is the Irish tourism economy being undermined, but also historical centres and genealogically associated research facilities and specialized businesses may have to close. The closure of these businesses would place hundreds of individuals out of work, further placing downward pressure on the economy. In addition, genealogical researchers may increase the volume of data collected, but may be missing out on a qualitative appreciation of their family history that can only be gleaned from a personal visit to the land that they came from.

If something is not done to stop this loss of revenue, the domino effect could eventually force other sectors of the Irish economy to falter. Only through a change in strategy will Ireland be able to adapt to an ever-changing digital genealogical world. While this paper has offered some suggestions as to the direction that change could take, it is up to the people of Ireland to decide their own path. End of article


About the author

Emily Heinlen is a second year graduate student in the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University-Bloomington. She is a graduate of Ball State University with Bachelors Degrees in Telecommunications with a News Option, History and Political Science. She is employed as the Administrative Assistant for the Center for Applied Economics and Policy Research in the Economics Department at Indiana University-Bloomington. She is also a freelance editor, proofreader and ESL tutor.
E-mail: eheinlen [at] indiana [dot] edu



1. Kirwan, 1996, p. 32.

2. Murphy, 2005, p. 1.

3. Burns, 2005, p. 8.

4. Anonymous, 2002, p. 52.

5. Anonymous, 2002, p. 53.

6. Burns, 2005, p. 8.

7. Murphy, 2005, p. 3.

8. McCusker, 2005, p. 13.

9. Burns, 2005, p. 9.

10. Ibid.

11. McCusker, 2005, p. 11.



The author would like to thank Christina Courtright, James Walker, Valerie Heinlen and Timothy Davis for their guidance in editing and formatting this paper. She would also like to thank John Towler from the School of Humanities at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Galway, Ireland for the use of his data.



Anonymous, 2005. “Ireland; CandAG’s Report: In Short,” Irish Times (5 September), p. 8.

Anonymous, 2002. “Gale Adds Content to Online Genealogy Tool,” Computers in Libraries, volume 22, number 5, p. 52.

John Burns, 2005. “Tourism Loses Out as Ireland’s Expats Find Roots on the Web,” Sunday Times (London) (2 October), p. 7.

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Catherine Fahy, 2005. “Recent Developments in the National Library of Ireland,” Alexandria, volume 17, number 1, pp. 13-16.

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Tom Kirwan, 1996. “Finding Family Through the Internet,” Irish Voice, volume 10, number 46, p. 32.

Eugene McCusker, 2005. “Opinion — Finding Your Roots with the Historical Foundation,” Irish News, (14 October), p. 10.

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Editorial history

Paper received 5 September 2006; accepted 15 December 2006.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2007, First Monday

Copyright ©2007, Emily Heinlen

Genealogy and the economic drain on Ireland: Unintended consequences by Emily Heinlen
First Monday, volume 12, number 1 (January 2007),

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