Tracing your roots online using old records of Irish gravestone memorials and “Mems Dead”

Mems Dead website and directory.
The Mems Dead website simplifies the search for gravestone inscriptions recorded in the Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland.

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The Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland is a wonderful resource for Irish genealogical and historical researchers. Begun in 1888, the journals sought to record all gravestone inscriptions in Ireland, many of which are now lost to time. The Mems Dead website features useful tools and tips for accessing and searching this invaluable material.

In this guide, you’ll learn about the rich, eclectic nature of the records contained in the journals and how to access them online for free. You’ll also be introduced to the Mems Dead website (another 100% free resource), where samples of records and further in-depth assistance are available to fast-track your research.

Irish Memorials Association

In 1888, Philip Doyne Vigors embarked on a mission to improve the maintenance of Irish burial grounds. He drew public attention to the risk of the valuable information inscribed on gravestones being lost through neglect, weathering and vandalism. Vigors formed a committee for the purpose of preserving and recording memorials of the dead.

He also established the Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland (also known as the Journal of the Irish Memorials Association) to publish the gravestone memorials and galvanized support from subscribers as well as volunteers to carry out the work. Vigors, and subsequent editors, curated the contributions and printed them in the journals.

Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland.
The 1909 issue of the Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland. From 1888–1939, the journals recorded gravestone memorials and other relevant information. Using the journals to research your Irish ancestry is made easier with Mems Dead.

Over the next 50 years, contributors to the journals recorded gravestone inscriptions in every county in Ireland and some for Irish people overseas. By the time the final issue was published in 1939, over 8,000 pages of content had been produced.

What’s in the Journals of the Irish Memorials Association?

Contributors to the journals had diverse skills, interests and motives for participating. As well as historians and antiquarians, they included clergy providing information about their parishes and people researching their own ancestors.

There was limited coordination of their activity – the editors outlined the type of material they wanted, but they did not give directions about which locations to survey or what exactly to submit.

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This crowdsourcing approach generated an eclectic and unpredictable compilation of material; the type of content, and its scope, varies considerably from one place to another. Accordingly, the journals will prove useful for researching some subjects more than others.

Nonetheless, most of the journals’ content is gravestone inscriptions. Since the majority of these inscriptions were transcribed over a century ago, the journals can be a valuable substitute for originals that have since been lost or become illegible.

Transcription of Eadie-Osborn-Stevenson gravestone inscription at Derry Cathedral and photograph of the inscription which is now worn, broken and overgrown.
Journal entry (left) of the transcription of the Eadie-Osborn-Stevenson gravestone inscription at Derry Cathedral and photograph (right) of the original, which is now worn, broken and overgrown (© Mems Dead).

Drawings and photographs of especially interesting gravestones were included. Particular attention was given to recording engravings of coats of arms so the journals will appeal especially to those with a penchant for heraldry.

Kein-McIlwain gravestone inscription at Ballykeel, Islandmagee, Co. Antrim, along with a drawing of the coat of arms that was carved on the 18th-century gravestone.
Journal entry of transcription of 18th-century Kein-McIlwain gravestone inscription at Ballykeel, Islandmagee, Co. Antrim, along with a drawing of the coat of arms that was carved on the gravestone.

A wide variety of supplementary material can be found in the journals too: transcripts of parish registers, funeral entries and newspaper clippings; snippets of family history and local history; lists of ministers who served a parish; extracts from history books and more. With a mix of information that mainly relates to the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, the journals provide evidence of events that pre-date conventional genealogical sources like civil registrations and parish registers.

>>> READ MORE: A guide to navigating Northern Ireland’s church records

Gravestone memorials of people of all religious denominations are recorded in the journals. Members of the landed gentry had the means to commission larger, more elaborate funerary monuments that were more likely to survive and, therefore, be represented in the journals.

The journals often provide information about family groups, including women and children – something that can be difficult to find in most Irish sources pre-dating the mid-19th century. Clergymen are well represented; other occupations commonly identified include military, merchants and civic leaders, such as politicians.

The 1897 issue of the Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland.
The 1897 issue of the Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland, showing gravestone inscriptions, a coat of arms memorial carving and related commentary.

There is less chance of finding information about tenant farmers, labourers and the working class generally as they typically lacked the means to commission stone memorials.

But even if the family or precise location that you’re researching isn’t mentioned in the journals, it’s still possible to find something of interest and value for your genealogical and historical research.

For example, the journal entries can provide local context and signpost relevant records or publications that may not otherwise have come to your attention. Then, you can track down the underlying sources to see if they contain useful information.

As well as those researching their family history, the journals are of interest to archaeologists and historians as they often documented and illustrated artefacts and other monuments found in and around church sites.

>>> READ MORE: Galway’s award-winning digital graveyard project records over 40,000 memorials

How to access & use the journals

Original print editions and microfilm copies of the journals can be found in some libraries and archives in Ireland and elsewhere but conveniently, for present-day researchers, digital scans and images of the journals can be accessed online for free.

Journals of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland are online.
Issues of the Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland can be accessed online for free.

However, searching the journals, whether digitized or in printed form, is not like searching a database. It takes a good deal more time and effort!

The online versions are fragmented and scattered across several websites, such as Internet Archive and FamilySearch, as well as in other collections. Even when you find them, navigating the journals is not straightforward.

Fortunately, there is a useful online resource to help researchers find and use the journals – Mems Dead – and it’s 100% free to use!

Mems Dead

The Mems Dead website provides researchers with several useful features free of charge. One of the most helpful tools is the Mems Dead directory, which lists every issue of the journal with links to the digitized versions.

But before you delve into the database, be sure to check out their detailed guide on how to search the journals. It explains their idiosyncratic structure and page numbering, enabling you to navigate the journals successfully. It also gives details of many finding aids that could shortcut your search and offers helpful tips based on first-hand experience of using the journals.

In addition to an in-depth overview of the journals and an account of what’s in the journals, the Mems Dead website includes a sizeable sample of transcribed journal records that can be searched and explored by journal entry, by person, by place or by map location. While a large portion of the sample relates to Co. Derry, you will find records from all over the country.

Transcribed entries from the Journal of the Irish Memorials Association on Mems Dead.
A sample of transcribed entries from the Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland is available on Mems Dead.

This sample gives a good indication of the variety of information that can be found in the journals, while more examples of journal entries are regularly posted on the Mems Dead social media accounts – follow for a daily dose of Irish genealogical inspiration!

Mems Dead is the brainchild of Ciara Chivers, a qualified genealogist and founder of Shamrock Roots based in Northern Ireland.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T Shamrock Roots.

While pursuing her master’s degree in genealogy, Ciara’s research on the Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland earned her an award from the Register of Qualified Genealogists. Mems Dead shares her findings with the wider genealogy community.

Esteemed Irish genealogist John Grenham had this to say about the initiative:

“Thanks to the work of genealogist Ciara Chivers, it is at last possible to get an overview of what the Journals contain, where there are copies online, and which bits are indexed where. Her website, Memsdead.com, is a wonderful example of the clarity that single-minded focus can achieve. In particular, her directory of the full set, complete with direct links to everything that’s online, will be the go-to guide for years to come.”

Visit the Mems Dead website to learn more about the Journals of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland and to start your own research using their incredible records.

Connect with Mems Dead on Facebook, X, Instagram and Mastodon to get your fix of Irish genealogy every day!

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