Archive – Shanley – Irish Railway Workers

Fiona answers Sheila Shanleys’ research question:

Hello Fiona – trying to find information on my great-grandfather, Christopher Leonard, born Meath 1863 – worked as a Wagon Fitter for Irish Railway, probably at Broadstone, Dublin – he is mentioned in 1911 Irish Census. Cannot get any trace in 1901 Census. I tried a couple of letters enclosing S.A.E to Irish Railway Association, plus e-mails, and didn’t get any reply. Would like to know more of him and his family – any advice greatly appreciated.

Hi there Sheila,

On first reading your question I focused in on the supposed Broadstone connection, and began to pull my old research notebooks from the filing cabinets to see what railway records survive.

Tracing railway records in Ireland is never straightforward, because the railways and the canal systems were privately owned.  Consequently, from the 1830s and 40s, Irish railways were developed in stages, and from early on were sold and merged to form bigger lines.  By the second half of the 19th Century there were ten principal railway companies in Ireland.  Of these, the Midland Great Western Railway was the third largest, and had its main terminus in Broadstone.

Today, the main repository for these records is the Irish Railway Records Society, who have a library and archive, located at the carpark entrance to the rear of Heuston Station in Islandbridge, Dublin.  The archive is open to visitors between 19.30 and 21.45 on Tuesday evenings only, and is closed during July and August.

Unfortunately, like so many Irish records collections, the railway records are incomplete.  The greatest coverage is for the Great Southern and Western Railway, which operated from this site at Heuston (formerly Kingsbridge).  Coverage of the other lines, even for the Midlands Great Western Railway – one of the “Big Four” networks, is very poor.  Similarly, prior to the 1920s there are significant gaps in these records.  And, what employee records do survive, mainly relate to train-drivers and guards – there are no records for engineers and fitters for example.

This probably won’t suit Sheila, but hopefully it will be of use to other readers of this newsletter.  For anyone who does visit the archive, the archivist will direct you to a set of alphabetical index books, in which you can identify the employee’s record number.  You can use this to trace a more complete employment record of the individual.

The question remains, where are the records of the Midlands Great Western Railway?  Were they purposely destroyed, neglected to the point that the records decayed, or does any significant part of the collection survive?  As a working genealogist moving between the archives and records repositories, I often hear stories of large collections that haven’t yet been accessioned by any of the cultural institutions.  The two rumours that have most traction relate to a ‘lost’ shipping archive in an abandoned city building, and a ‘hidden’ railway archive placed 20 years ago in the hands of an eccentric recluse who now refuses access to them.  Hidden archives do exist: the reason I know this with certainty, is because the archivists at Eneclann have worked on large collections of immense historic importance, previously lost or abandoned.

If you are interested in tracing institutional records that haven’t been deposited in any of the main cultural institutions in Dublin or Belfast, in the relevant county library or archive, or in a related archive or history society, then your first step in tracing the records should be to research the history of the institution.  In particular, you can use directories to trace where the institution was housed/ the site where it carried out its main business, and who were the principal founders and administrators.  In the past, institutional and administrative records may have been passed down in family collections.

A final note for Sheila:

Take a look at Joseph Lecky’s Records of the Irish Transport Genealogical Museum, which should still be available in the National Library of Ireland or Trinity College Library, both of which are copyright libraries.

You may also like to get a copy of Ernie Shepherd’s The Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland which has a separate chapter on railway personnel, and some great photos. (ISBN13 1857800087).

Oh, and in the immortal words of Columbo, ‘just one more thing’.  Sheila wrote that she searched the online census returns, and couldn’t find her great-great grandfather in the 1901 Census, but that he was there in 1911.  There are a small number of exclusions in the online version of the 1901 Census, which have yet to be fixed.  To the best of my knowledge, the greatest number of exclusions were rural, particularly county Clare.  You may be lucky, and find that on the night of the 1901 Census Christopher Leonard was in one of the townlands or city districts that was inadvertently excluded from the online 1901 census.

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