Tracing Irish Ancestry Online: A Beginner's Guide
How to Start Tracing Your Irish Ancestry Online
Do you have Irish roots? Have you put off trying to trace them because you thought tracing Irish ancestry was impossible? I would like to show you that with an increasing amount of Irish ancestry appearing online, it is becoming easier to trace your Irish ancestors.
I have one grandmother with Irish descent, and my husband has three Irish grandparents, so I decided put my fears to one side and find out just how difficult it actually is to research our Irish family trees using on-line resources.
The scientific development of DNA testing has changed genealogy beyond all recognition, but if you want to build a tree that is accurate it is more important than ever to have a solid idea of what you need to do to find your long lost relatives and how you are going to find them.
With almost fourty years of genealogical expertise, I would like to share with you what I managed to discover about the availability of records in Ireland, my favorite online resources and what steps you can take to make your research successful.
1: What Do You Already Know?
What Information Do You Already Know?
No matter what branch of your family tree you are trying to trace, the easiest way to begin is to gather as much information as you possibly can.
Check out what certificates (birth, marriage or death) you or other members of your family might have and find out if there are baptismal certificates, family letters, a family bible or old family photos.
Even things like Grandma's old address book or birthdays list can provide invaluable information. When we cleared my Gran's house when she died we found rent books, a receipt for the solicitor they used when they sold their first house, copies of wills, old birthday cards, postcards and letters and a stack of photographs - some of which had been annotated on the rear.
As a child I always used to ask my Gran if she would let me read a letter that she had from her older brother where he talked about visiting Ireland and meeting family members. Fascinating stuff to me as a child but also full of useful snippets that can help me in my research!
A really valuable resource is to ask questions from anyone in your family who might have information about the family's history.
This will usually be someone from an older generation than you, but this is not always the case. Maybe you have a sibling or a cousin who has already started tracing your family tree.
I first became interested in genealogy as a young child, which although unusual was also beneficial. Most people do not become interested in family history until they get older, by which time most of the older generations of the family will have died and there will be no-one available to help with information and anecdotes.
At the age of eight or nine I still had two grandmother's a great grandmother and great-great aunts and uncles to pester with my questioning.
I asked them lots of questions and wrote it all down in a note book.
Of course, not everything they told me was 100% true, as often they were recounting facts that had been passed down to them, and I know now that they missed information out and embroidered other bits, but nonetheless it gave me a fantastic start.
And whilst it is interesting to uncover new generations and find new ancestral links, to me it is even more valuable to be able to pad out these facts with interesting stories and anecdotes.
Checklist: Do You Have Any of These?
This is a check list of resources that I suggest you look for before you begin your research.
There is no point at all in wasting time and money researching information that is already available in your family.
And most importantly, do not forget to tell other members of your family what you are doing and ask if they have any old records that you could look at.
- Birth, marriage or death certificates
- Baptismal certificates
- Family bible
- Family photographs
- Old address books
- Old family letters
- Copies of Last Wills and Testaments
- Travel documents, passports or immigration paperwork
- Old newspaper cuttings
- Professional qualifications
- School yearbooks
- Birthday cards
What About DNA?
DNA testing has changed genealogy beyond what anyone could have ever imagined, but before I share my top tips to helping your to use DNA in your Irish Ancestry research I want you to familiarise yourself with the basic research tools. Watch out for a new Irish Genealogy DNA article coming very soon!
2: Where to Begin
Where to Begin
- It is probably easiest to begin with yourself and your own full name, date of birth and place of birth.
- You then need to enter the same information for both of your parents. You now have two surnames to research.
- Then you need to enter the information for your four grandparents if you know it.
- Lastly you can fill in the details for your spouse, children and grandchildren.
Make sure that you record every bit of information that you find, including where you found it, take copies of any certificates or photographs that people are willing to lend you and most importantly, don't jump to conclusions.
How to Begin to Assemble Your Family Tree
For those of you who have not attempted to research your family history before I will give you some useful pointers.
Once you have searched through your old files and photo boxes and asked other family members what they can remember you need to start to piece together all the information that you have.
Online family tree programs such as Ancestry.com and My Heritage allow you to enter your information and it will build your tree as you go.I have accounts with both but in my opinion the tree is easier to navigate on Ancestry. These are also two of the companies that have DNA testing facilities, but I will cover this later.
Most people do not just go backwards with their research, but sideways too. You will therefore probably want to enter the details for siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws etc. And, whilst step relatives are not related by blood it is nice to see where everyone slots together on the tree.
Once you have exhausted all the information that you were able to find out the proper research begins.
The traditional way to move back a generation is to start with a known fact.
If you know someone's age, or approximate age you can begin to look for a birth record. The certificate should give you the names of the parents.
Working backwards you can then search for the marriage of the parents. Their wedding certificate should give you their full names and age, their father's names and the names of two witnesses, who may or may not be related.
Once you are back far enough to look at census returns (these are usually made available 100 years after they were taken in the UK and a little earlier in Ireland and the US) you will be able to find whole families very quickly.
Be warned that people were not always truthful on legal certificates - either by ignorance or on purpose. It was not uncommon for people to lie about their ages, either because they needed and were unable to get parental consent to get married or because they wanted to make the age difference look less than it was. A lot of people were illiterate and dates became forgotten or misremembered. It is not uncommon to be find birth dates varying by ten years or more on census returns.
It was also common for Irish men, and less often women, to emigrate in search of work with the intention of saving enough money to send for their spouse and children. However, once settled into a new life it was not unusual for them to acquire a new partner and family, leaving their original family destitute and deserted.
Once you see your tree start to piece together you will probably be hooked on this highly addictive hobby.
Using on-line genealogy sites enables you to piece together a basic family tree quite easily, but the temptation is to add people and events without checking out the credentials of the information.,
If someone else is tracing the same family as you, don't take all their information as the gospel truth. Look at the information on their tree and then try and find out for yourself whether the information is accurate.
When I first started tracing my family tree I hand wrote all my trees and kept paper files. Each generation further I went back was validated by birth, marriage and death certificates and census returns.
However, I have notice that with the explosion of on-line information the temptation is there to try and cut corners, by accepting the on-line information as 100% accurate without actually acquiring the evidence to back up the connections.
Yes, the internet has revolutionised family research and made it possible to trace family branches in other countries, but tread carefully, check all your sources and do not be too quick to add people to your tree if you are not 100% certain of the connection.
Your Irish Ancestors: A Guide for the Family Historian—A Personal Review of the Kindle Edition
This family history book by Ian Maxwell is divided into two sections.
The first section is devoted to Irish social history, with nine chapters on Birth Death and Marriage, Irish Country Life, Life in the Towns and Cities, Religion, Primary Education, Industry, The Poor Law and the Famine, Migration and Emigration.
The second section is a research guide with 12 chapters on Where to Start, Census, Birth Marriage and Death Records, Census Substitutes, Wills, School Records, Landed Estate Records, Land and Valuation Records, Church Records, Poor Law Records, British Records and Emigration Records.
As an experienced family historian I did not feel that the research section told me much that I did not already know or could easily find online. But, if you are a novice and do not want to have to search for the information online then it does contain useful tips.
What I did enjoy was the section on social life and conditions in Ireland, and I am sure you will find it useful in providing background information to how your ancestors lived.
3: Getting to Know Ireland
Get to Know the Country
Where in Ireland Was Your Family From?
Once you have gathered all the information you can on your family you will hopefully have an idea of which area of Ireland they came from.
When you are searching for relatives it is really helpful if you can at least say which county they came from, and maybe even a town or townland.
I know that my family come from County Monaghan and County Armargh. They are adjoining counties in the old administrative area of Ulster. However, if I ever have the chance to visit Ireland and want to try and obtain records I need to be aware that Armargh is in Northern Ireland and a part of the United Kingdom, and therefore all post 1922 records are kept at Belfast. Monaghan however, is a part of the Republic of Ireland and its records are housed in Dublin.
You also need to be aware that most records are filed according to parish and parish boundaries do not necessarily follow the administrative ones.
If you are struggling to find your relative in the county where you think they lived then try the surrounding counties, particularly if they lived close to the county border.
It is also important to have an idea of the geographical area that your family lived in because it will help you to determine if you have found the correct Patrick Finnigan for example. Even with unusual names you could still have problems determining if you have found the right person.
Above you will see a map that shows the four provinces that Ireland used to be divided into, the thirty two counties (twenty six in the republic and six in the north) and the main towns in each county.
Tracing Your Irish Ancestors Webinar from ancestry.com
4: What Records Are Available
What Irish Records Were Destroyed in 1922?
What Was Saved Or Destroyed?
The biggest losses were:
- Census returns from the 19th century
- Approximately 70% of the Church of Ireland parish registers that pre-dated 1870
- All of the wills that were probated in Ireland.
Amongst the records that survived were
- Parish records from non-Church of Ireland chuches
- The civil birth, marriage and death records
- Property records: The Tithe Applotment Books (c. 1823-1838) and Griffith's Valuation (1847-1864)
- 20th century censuses
- Extracts from 1842 and 1851 census returns.
What Was Destroyed and What Survived?
This is a popular misconception that stopped me from even trying to find out more about my Irish roots for a long time.
I travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles pouring over dusty records in County Records Offices, and spending hours winding microfilms in the local Mormon library in search of my English roots and ignored my Irish ones.
So what happened and what survived?
Between 1919 and 1921 the Irish War of Independence was fought, when Irish republicans declared their independence from British control. In 1921 an agreement was reached that divided Ireland into two states: 26 counties to become a free ruling member of the British Empire, and the remaining six counties to become an integrated part of the United Kingdom.
Not everyone was agreeable to this agreement, and in June 1922 when the pro-treaty party won the first government elections the problems escalated and resulted in civil warfare, with one of the first casualties being the Four Courts, which housed the National Archives Collection.
The strong room where the records were kept was being used as an ammunition store, and when shell fire hit the room, it resulted in an enormous explosion that destroyed much of what was stored there.
Whilst this may seem catastrophic in terms of genealogical research, not everything was lost.(See the blue box above right for more details).
A lot of what was destroyed had already been transcribed, and that, along with small pieces of original records and records that had not been deposited in Dublin at least allows us a glimmer of hope that we can find enough information to trace our Irish roots.
Just like in the rest of the United Kingdom, census were completed in Ireland every 10 years, beginning in the early nineteenth century.
Unfortunately the 1861 and 1871 censuses were destroyed soon after they were taken, the 1881 and 1891 were the victim of a paper shortage during World War 1 and were pulped, and those from 1821 to 1851 were the ones that were destroyed in the 1922 fire.
There are some extracts of the 1841 and 1851 census returns that are available to search. When the UK governement introduced old age pensions in 1909 people had to prove their age. In Ireland civil registration did not begin until 1864 so the 1841 and 1851 census's were used to provide evidence of an applicants birth date. The pages that were copied for this purpose were not destroyed in Dublin and you might be fortunate enough to find your family listed in this way.
If you family were still living in Ireland in the twentieth century then you can check the 1901 and 1911 census returns. If your family left beforehand it is still worth checking in case other family members remained in Ireland.
The census returns are organised by streets in urban areas or an area of land known as a townland in rural areas.
The 1901 contains the following information for every person in the house: their name, age and sex, how they are related to the head of the house, their religion, occupation and marriage status, their county (or country) of birth, whether they could read or write and whether they could speak the Irish language.
The 1911 census has the same information as the 1901 one, with a few added extras: women who were married had to say how long they had been married for, how many children they had given birth to and how many were still alive.
There is also additional information available that will help you to see what kind of house your ancestors lived in.
If you are struggling to find your relatives on the Irish census it is always worthwhile searching on the English, Scottish and possibly American censuses. Prior to 1922 the whole of Ireland came under British rule and as such there were no restrictions on movement between Ireland and the rest of the UK, and people often travelled backwards and forwards.
I know that my great-great grandfather travelled between Ireland and the US many times during the 1840's and 50's and I cannot imagine that this was a unique state of affairs. I also know that on the 1911 census my husband's grandfather was living in Ireland with his brother and grandparents while his parents and baby brother were living in England. And, just to make it more confusing the two brothers in Ireland were born in England and the one in England was born in Ireland.
Ireland did not have a census in 1921, due to the political unrest, and the next census was undertaken in 1926. There are plans to release this to general public viewing before 2026, but this is not finalised yet.
Although Ireland is generally considered to be a Catholic country, before 1869 the official church was the Protestant Church of Ireland.
When the church was disestablished, baptism and burial records prior to 1870 and marriage records prior to 1845 were classified as public documents. These were deposited in the Public Records Office in Dublin and subsequently destroyed in the 1922 explosion.
If you have Protestant Paletine ancestors (as my husband has) from Germany, who settled in Ireland during the 18th century you will probably find that they attended the Church of Ireland church.
The majority of Ireland was Roman Catholic, and the National Library of Ireland has copies of more or less all the surviving records. The only exception to this are records that cover parts of the counties of Tipperary and Limerick that the Archbishop will not open to general research. The only option there is to pay the Tipperary Family History Research to check the records for you.
If your family came from the counties listed below you can search online, for free, at the Irish Genealogy website:
Carlow - Church of Ireland Parishes
County Cork (Cork and Ross except most of Cork City)
Dublin City The church records for some Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland parishes and a small number of Presbyterian records from Lucan.
Kerry - Roman Catholic Diocese (includes parishes in western and north-western areas of County Cork) and Church of Ireland parishes
In England and Wales civil registration began in 1837, but Ireland was slightly later, with non Catholic marriages registered in 1845 and full civil registration not starting until 1864.
The original records are still held by the local Superintendent Registrars. The GRO (General Records Office) in Dublin, retains the master indexes for all of the 32 counties until 31st December 1921 and for the 26 Republic counties after 1921.
The records for the 6 northern counties from 1922 are held at GRONI (General Register Office of Northern Ireland).
It is also now possible to search for civil registration at the Irish Genealogy website. The records held with them can be searched in two ways. Certain dates will only allow you to search the indexes, but more and more digital images are being released so that you can see an actual image of your ancestors registration. This ability to see the actual records has been extremely helpful in allowing me to confirm that I have the correct ancestor and it has opened up new research opportunities. For example, we had recorded the death of my husband's great great grandfather in Mayo in 1888. He had a very unsual name and we claimed him as our man, but we were never 100% sure. Just this past week I have been able to view the record and not only did it turn out to be the correct man, it also gave us then name of the person who registered the death, a previously unknown to us grandaughter. He was recorded as being a widower and we were then able to search backwards and find his wife's death record, which was registered by a daughter that we did not know about.
Indexes to the Civil Records of Irish Births, Deaths and Marriages:
Births: 1864 to 1916
Marriages: 1845 to 1941 (Catholic from 1864)
Deaths: 1864 to 1966
Images of the Civil Records of Births, Deaths and Marriages
Births: 1864 to 1916
Marriages: 1870 to 1941 (will eventually start from 1845)
Deaths: 1878 to 1966 (will eventually start from 1864)
5: My Top Tip Resources
Online Church Records Resources
I do not have one favorite online resource for Irish church records, but there are a few that I use regularly. In my experience you are best checking several of them just in case you find a snippet of information that is different.
If you are struggling to find your ancestors in the Irish church records then do not forget to search in the English and Scottish records too. If your family emigrated to the US, Canada or Australia for example it is possible that they lived and worked in England for a while beforehand, and it is even possible that they were born there too.
Useful online church record resources include:
If you are fortunate enough to have ancestors from Kerry, Dublin City, County Carlow, Cork and Ross then this is a fantastic resource. At the moment they are working on Catholic records for county Monaghan.
When searching for a baptism you will hopefully get the person's name, birth date, address and parents names and the sponsors (god parents) names.
Marriage records contain the names of the couple getting married, their addresses, occupations and parents names. You will also find out the name of the priest who conducted the service, the husband's father's occupation and the names of the witnesses.
Burial records will contain the name , address, age, date of death and occupation of the deceased.
If you are lucky you will receive all of the possible information, but there are gaps. I have not had the occupation or father's occupation on any of the records that I have viewed, and the address will probably just say the name of the townland or street, it won't be an exact address.
This the website that belongs to the Church of The Latter Day Saints (Mormons). As part of their religious beliefs they have undertaken a huge amount of work transcribing records, and these can be viewed online. Please be aware that the information has been transcribed by real people and therefore is subject to a margin of error.
Church records that are available online include Ireland, Births and Baptisms, 1620-1881, Ireland, Deaths, 1864-1870 and Ireland, Marriages, 1619-1898.
Typical information for baptisms would include the child's name, gender, date of birth, parents name and address and where the christening took place.
In my experience information can be a bit patchy, but I have been successful in finding out family information from this site and it is in my top 5 online resources.
I am all in favor of obtaining as much information as possible for free, but sometimes you need to invest money to aid your research. Ancestry has the following Irish church records available:
Irish Births and Baptisms, 1620-1911, selection of Catholic Parish Baptisms, 1742-1881, Catholic Parish Marriages and Banns, Irish Marriages, 1771-1812, 1742-1884 and Catholic Parish Deaths, 1756-1881.
This is a website with a limited free search facility but you need to pay for records. I used this to find the death record for Tully Hennigan, my husband's great-great grandfather and it cost me 5 euros. Oddly, I could not find it on Ancestry, but once I entered the details into my ancestry family tree it proceeded to find it in its own records!
Online Civil Records Resources
As previously discussed above, this is an excellent resource and enables you to search the indexes or view the actual record entry for your ancestor.
The Latter Day Saints site has the Irish civil records from 1845 - 1958.
They have the Irish civil registration births and deaths Indexes from 1864-1958 and the marriage indexes from 1845-1958.
What Other Records Are Available
We have covered census, church records and civil records, so what other records are available to help you to add some detail to your family tree?
The Church of the Latter Day Saints website has the following records:
- Irish landed estate court records from 1850 until 1885
These records document the sales of bankrupt Irish estates and contain hand-drawn maps and lists of tenants.
- Irish Prison Registers from 1790 until 1924
Hopefully you won't find your descendants here, but if they did become imprisoned you can search to see if you can find them.
- Irish Tithe Applotment Books from 1814 until 1855
These contain the records of the value of the tithes (taxes) that were paid to the Church of Ireland by Irish landowners.
Ancestry.com has a wealth of Irish records which include:
- Military Records - Remember that if your Irish ancestor served in the armed forces prior to 1922 then he probably would have served for the British armed forces.
- Immigration Records - Whilst documentation was not required for Irish people travelling to England, shipping lists are available for those who emigrated farther afield, like the US and Canada or Australia. Sometimes people sailed direct from Ireland but often they went from Liverpool in England.
Probably the most valuable thing about a site like ancestry.com is that you can view other people's family trees and you might just be lucky and find someone searching the same ancestors as yourself.
Check List - Recap of useful links mentioned in this article
Online family tree site, also availabe as amazon.co.uk
- Genes Reunited
Online family tree site, also available as genesreunited.co.uk
- The National Archives of Ireland
Search the 1901 and 1911 Irish census' free of charge.
- Irish Geneaology Tooolkit
Information on the release of the 1926 Irish census
- Family Search
The Church of The Latter Day Saints (Mormon) website that contains church records and the IGI
- Roots Ireland
Irish records site with a limited free search facility. Records cost 5 euros each to access.
- The General Records Office of Ireland
Home to the civil records for all Ireland pre 1922 and the Rebublic post 1922
- General Register Office of Northern Ireland
Home to all civil records for Northern Ireland post 1922
- National Library of Ireland
Houses copies of Catholic records
- Tipperary Family History Research
Able to search Tipperary/Limerick church records
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