Irish Genealogy 101

A Guide to Researching Irish Ancestry

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Powell, Kimberly. "Irish Genealogy 101." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/irish-genealogy-overview-1420619. Powell, Kimberly. (2017, March 3). Irish Genealogy 101. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/irish-genealogy-overview-1420619 Powell, Kimberly. "Irish Genealogy 101." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/irish-genealogy-overview-1420619 (accessed September 25, 2017).
Can you trace your ancestors back to Ireland?
County Kerry, Ireland. Jorg Greuel / Getty

Irish genealogical research has long been plagued by myths and stereotypes: the records were all burned, my ancestors dropped the 'O' on the boat, it's almost impossible to trace immigrant ancestors back to Ireland... Many would-be genealogists assume before they even start that they have no chance of finding their Irish ancestors. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. While Irish genealogy does have a few challenges, a recent explosion of interest in Irish genealogy has led to dozens of how-to guides published in print and on the Internet, improved access to records and a plethora of researchers willing to help each other in the quest for knowledge.

It is now easier than ever to learn about your Irish roots.

Where Do I Start?

Just like with any family history project, begin with yourself. Make sure that you know everything you can find out from family members. Look at home sources for clues in certificates, family Bibles, obituary notices, diaries and similar sources. Tombstones are another good place to start for names, dates and places. Organize the information you find and record it on Family Group Sheets or with a genealogy software program.

Important Questions to Ask About Your Irish Ancestors

  • Which parish or townland did they come from?
  • Approximately when did they live there?
  • What religion were my Irish ancestors? If Protestant, then what denomination?
  • If my ancestors emigrated from Ireland, when did they do so?
  • Were there any family members who remained behind in Ireland?
  • What was my family's social status in Ireland?

As you ask these questions of family members, friends and relatives, please keep in mind that family stories and traditions may not always be correct.

It is fairly common, for example, for a tombstone or family record to confuse the port of departure with the place of origin. Don't let that keep you from writing down everything you are told as clues - just remember that clues are all they are until they can be verified through other sources.

Next > Tracing 'Em Back to Ireland

If your ancestor's specific place of origin in Ireland is unknown, then it is usually best to begin your search in the country where the Irish immigrant family settled. Just knowing that your ancestors came from Ireland is not enough - you usually must identify the specific parish or townland from which they came. This is primarily due to the destruction of the Record Tower in Dublin Castle in the early 18th century and the disastrous 1922 fire in the Ireland Public Record Office, which obliterated important genealogical records, including census returns (1821-1851), pre-1858 original wills, and many Church of Ireland parish records.

Successful research for Irish ancestors, therefore, depends in large part on access to parish and townland records.

If your Irish ancestors have lived in those countries with large Irish communities, namely the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand,the following sources may contain this information:

It is important to keep in mind that the chance that any of these records will pinpoint your ancestor's specific townland in Ireland will differ based on location (state, country, etc.) and time period. The key is persistence. Most records may just give "Ireland" as the place of origin, but if you keep looking you may finally locate one that mentions at least a county, if not a parish.

I've Checked These Records and Still Can't Find Anything

If you can't find any mention of a hometown for your immediate ancestor, then cast a wider net and look for siblings, cousins, friends, and neighbors.

The Irish tended to immigrate in groups and cluster by village in the country of immigration. Investigate the records of all known family members. If need be, then expand the search to other associates — the Irish family living next door, the man appearing as witness to deeds and other transactions, etc.

What if I Can Only Find the County?

For the sake of genealogical research, the goal is to get down to the specifictownland in Ireland, but there are many useful levels of organization above that one including parishes, baronies, poor law unions, dioceses, probate districts, and counties. These subdivisions were all used at some point in Ireland's history and there are specific records that were compiled by each geographical division. If you find a listing for your ancestor which mentions one of these specific administrative divisions, then you can either try searching the records specific to that division for your ancestor (this is really only practical when the name is an unusual one), or begin working with surname distribution studies to narrow down the field of research. If the time period is appropriate, the 1901 and 1911 Ireland census may also help you narrow the possibilities if all you can find is the country or county.

I Have a Town Name But Can't Find it in Ireland

If you know the name of a town that your ancestors came from but cannot find it on a map, the IreAtlas Townland Database can help locate it! Search for a particular Irish place name, or enter a townland or county to generate a list all of the civil parishes, poor law unions, and townlands in a particular area.

Next > Find Them in Irish Records

While many people assume that all Irish records have been lost or destroyed, that is just not the case. From the point of view of genealogy, the most significant losses from the 1922 Ireland Public Record Office fire were the 19th-century census returns, the Church of Ireland parish registers, and the testamentary collections. Other records not maintained in the PRO have survived, however, including civil records of births, marriages, and deaths, non Church of Ireland parish records, property records, and later censuses.

Even for much of the material that was lost, there are abstracts, transcripts, and fragments of the originals.

The four main categories of Irish records that are relevant to almost everyone doing research on Irish ancestors include:

Civil Records of Birth, Death & Marriage in Ireland

Births, deaths and marriages have been registered in Ireland since 1864. State registration of non-Catholic marriages began in Ireland in 1845. Records are split between the General Register Office of Northern Ireland (GRONI) in Belfast and the General Register Office (GRO) in Dublin, due to the division of Ireland in 1922. The main points of research access are:
  • The General Register Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast
    Research in the Belfast Office is limited by space constraints, and pre-booking up to two weeks in advance may be necessary. Only the indexes, not the actual registers, are open for public inspection. There is a flat fee charged for up to six hours' research time at GRONI, which includes up to four verifications of index entries (a check of the actual register for details to confirm it is the family you're looking for). Additional verifications are available for an added fee. A full certified copy of a birth, marriage or death certificate costs £6 and can be obtained for you by the staff. Note: Pre-1922 marriage certificates cannot be obtained through GRONI, only through the appropriate local register office.
  • The General Register Office in Dublin
    Research in the Dublin Office is allowed on the indexes only, with the purchase of a photocopy necessary to obtain further information.

Irish Civil Registration Indexes are online through several sources. The largest, free collection is at FamilySearch.org which offers access to the indexes of births (1864-1958), marriages (1845-1958), and deaths (1864-1958).

The maiden name of the mother is not included in the birth indexes, and there are no records for the six counties of Northern Ireland after 1921.

Irish Census Records

Government censuses were conducted for all of Ireland once each decade from 1821 - 1911. The census records for 1821, 1831, 1841, and 1851 were largely destroyed in the 1922 fire at the Public Record Office in Dublin, although some surviving fragments exist. The Irish census records for 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 were completely destroyed prior to 1922, by order of the government for confidentiality purposes. Therefore, the earliest surviving comprehensive census returns for all of Ireland are for 1901 and 1911.

Because of this, the normal rule that census returns should not be available to the public for 100 years has been suspended in the Republic of Ireland. The returns for both 1901 and 1911 can be consulted on microfilm in the National Archives of Ireland. A full microfilm copy of the 1901 census is also available at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City and through local Mormon Family History Centers. Indexes, in published or database form, are available for the 1901 returns of some counties. Copies of the 1901 returns for the six counties now in Northern Ireland are available at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

In addition, some of the local heritage centers have computerised transcripts of the 1901 census returns for their areas.

Irish Church Records

Through the 19th century about 85% of the population of Ireland were Roman Catholic, 5% were members of the Church of Ireland, and the remaining 10% consisted primarily of Presbyterians. Prior to the onset of civil registration in Ireland in 1864, the records of these churches are virtually the only sources for family information.

Irish Property Records

Because of the destruction of 19th-century census returns, surviving land and property records from the period have become significant for genealogical research. Two surveys, each covering the entire country of Ireland, are a rich source for genealogists:
  • Tithe Applotment Books, 1823-1838
  • Griffith's Primary Valuation, 1848-1864

    Next > Irish Genealogy on the Web