Tracing Irish Family History for Free—a Guide to Online Resources
Who Do You Think You Are? Tracing Your Family History on the Web
Ireland currently has a population of about 4.5 million people, and around 36 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. During the years of the Great Famine, which was at its worst in 1847 and was caused by failure of the potato crop due to blight, one million people died. A further two million emigrated during the following decade—mostly to Britain and the continent of North America, but also to Argentina. Large-scale emigration continued well into the 20th century. Transportation to penal colonies in Australia was also a standard punishment (even for relatively minor crimes), and large numbers of convicts were sent there from the late 18th century onwards. With the advent of the Internet—and the scanning of paper records and computer storage—it is now easier to research details of our ancestors.
Basic Facts About Ireland
84,421 km2 (32,595 sq mi)
Republic of Ireland:
Northern Ireland 1.85 million
Republic of Ireland 4.75 million
System of government:
Parliamentary democracy with a ceremonial/non-executive president. A separate head of government leads the executive
Irish Free State was founded in 1922 and remained part of British Commonwealth
Ireland became a republic in 1949
The country is split up into provinces: Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaght
There are 32 counties (geographical and administrative regions) in Ireland. The province of Ulster in the north of the country consists of 9 counties. Six of these counties are part of the United Kingdom
Tracing Your Irish Roots Online
Many records have now been scanned and made available in online databases. Access to many of these databases is free and scanned images of original records can be downloaded.
The following information is available:
- 1901 and 1911 census
- Church Records
- Civil Records
- Grave Inscriptions
1901 and 1911 Censuses
The 1901 and 1911 census records records have been scanned and indexed in the past few years and are free to access on the National Archives of Ireland website. Names, ages etc have been indexed so searching and sorting is easy. Some census records pre 1900 were destroyed by the IRA during the Irish Civil War in 1922 when the besieged Four Courts building was set alight. Others were pulped by the government during WWI to provide a source of raw materials for making paper. Orders were even given to deliberately destroy some records. Some pre 1900 census fragments do remain however and these have been made available in early 2014.
How to Search the 1901 and 1911 Censuses
When searching, it is important to remember that spellings of names may vary somewhat and the name you are searching for may be spelled slightly different in the census to what you think it should be. Therefore try not to narrow down a search too much initially. If you know the townland or town where your ancestor was born, the county, and approximate age, you can leave out the name, perform a search and sort the results by age. Usually when I search the records, I select a county and surname while leaving out the first name, and this produces several thousand results. Then I narrow down the list by either sorting the results by first name or age. Basically you need to be patient and try different options while searching.
Using Church Records for Tracing Births, Marriages and Deaths
Civil records in Ireland only extend back to 1864. So to trace your ancestors before that, you need to trawl through church records. These records record births, marriages and deaths extending back to the early 19th or late 18th century. Usually Church of Ireland records go back further. The Anglican Church of Ireland (Protestant) was the official established church in Ireland until it lost this status following an act passed in 1869. These records can be viewed on microfiche at the National Library of Ireland, however it's now possible to also view them online on the National Library of Ireland website. According to the NLI, unlike online census records, these scans wont be indexed or searchable for the moment due to lack of staffing resources, and are simply scans of registers.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints runs a website called Familysearch.org. A free search of the civil records index is possible on this site and information is available showing years of birth, death, marriage and sometimes names of parents. It is possible to view prison and court records on a subscription or pay per view basis.
Although civil records in Ireland only extend back to 1864, a record of death often indicates the pre-1864 birth year.
Databases of Tombstone Inscriptions
Headstones are another useful resource to work out the relationship between members of families. Also it can be a poignant discovery to find the grave of an ancestor. The Dublin Headstones Photos database is a collection of tombstone images and inscriptions for the three largest cemeteries in Dublin.
Historic Graves is also a growing database and is updated sporadically as local history groups and school projects add new cemeteries.
- Civil Records of Births, Marriages and Deaths from 1st January 1864 at the General Register Office
Other Useful Links
- The Ordnance Survey of Ireland website has large scale maps that are useful for identifying townlands listed on the 1901 and 1911 censuses. Historical layers can be overlayed with contemporary maps in order to examine changes in infrastructure and buildings
- Griffith's Valuation was a large scale valuation of property in Ireland carried out between 1847 and 1864. It provides details about tenants and shows the location and boundaries of rented property
- Slater's Commercial Directory of Ireland for 1846 lists tradesmen and businesses in each town.
- Tithe Applotment Books Tithes were taxes on agricultural produce which tenants had to pay to the Church of Ireland. These records list the names and townland of those who paid the taxes
- Passenger lists and names of ships arriving at the port of New York. Useful for tracing emigrant ancestors
© 2012 Eugene Brennan