Tracing Irish Ancestry Online: A Beginner's Guide
How to start tracing your Irish ancestry online
Do you have Irish roots and have 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 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
With thirty 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.
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!
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.
- 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
- Interview older family members
Check List - Do you have any of these gathering dust in a cupboard?
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.
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.
Do you have Irish roots?
For sure I do!
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.
My top tips would be to 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 start 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 Genes Reunited 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.
See the blue box on the right for guidance on where to begin.
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 made available 100 years after they were taken in the UK and a little earlier in Ireland) 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.
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 sites such as Ancestry 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.
Get To Know The Country - A Map Of The Irish Counties
Do You Know Whereabouts In Ireland Your Family Came 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
Did all of Ireland's records get 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 and
- 20th century censuses
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 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.
Very little remains of the census returns, and unless you can visit the National Archives in Dublin or Belfast then your only option is the 1901 and 1911 census returns.
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 by 2016, 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.
Online Resources I Have Personally Used to Search Church Records
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!
In England and Wales civil registration began in 1837, but Ireland was slightly later, with 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)
The Online Resources I Have Used to Search Civil Records
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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