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3 Steps to Tracing Your Irish Ancestry Back to Ireland

Tracing your Irish Ancestry back to Ireland can feel like quite a daunting task. Here, we see a 3 -Step process that you can use to structure your search.

Do you ever wonder where your ancestors came from in Ireland? Maybe you already know the county? If you already know the specific house in the specific village or townland, then you’re one of the lucky ones.

Many people of Irish ancestry often come across no more than record or gravestone that simply states “Born in Ireland”. Some older members of your family might add “the story goes that our family came from County Cork originally” - or something like that!

This guide is primarily aimed at someone who is beginning to trace their Irish ancestors back to Ireland. However, even if you have started that journey, I think you’ll find useful reminders and suggestions in each of the steps below.

STEP 1. Trace back to your first-known Irish Immigrant in your country.


This is all about getting your KNOWN FACTS together - which come in the following four flavours:

  • NAMES: First names, middle names, surnames, maiden names, nicknames. Names of parents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles, neighbours, sponsors for baptisms and marriages.
  • DATES: Dates of birth, dates of baptism, dates of marriage, dates of immigration, dates of death.
  • PLACES: Places in your country (outside Ireland): point of immigration, early addresses, places of work. Places in Ireland: Point of emigration, last place of work (and occupation), place of residence (townland/village/town), place of court appearance (for some!), place of birth.
  • RELIGION AND OCCUPATION: What was the assumed religion of your ancestor on immigration? Were they Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist or other? This can have a big bearing on how to later search for Irish records. What was the occupation of your ancestor on immigration?

Where can you find these facts? There are two primary sources:

SOURCE 1. LIVING RELATIVES: In Ireland, if you want to find out something - you ask someone who knows already. The original Irish Google! This might sound a bit obvious, but through the centuries, we have placed a lot of emphasis on the oral tradition.

So, after you have jotted down the facts that you know - and you want to go back a step, say find the maiden name for your grandmother - it’s a good idea to ask someone who is alive already. And follow THAT question up with a “what do you remember about her”. You can then corroborate the memories you uncover with records at a later date. It is also useful to ask for photographs (often showing a date and place) as well as private correspondence.

SOURCE 2. RECORDS: Records in the country of immigration and records in Ireland.

  • Obituaries in papers.
  • Civil records: Births, marriages and deaths.
  • ​Census records.
  • ​Immigration and passenger lists.
  • ​Naturalisation records.
  • ​Military and military pension records.
  • Passport applications.
  • ​Church records.
  • ​Local newspaper articles and histories.
  • Gravestone and burial records.
  • Transportation records for convicts (Australia).

MORE ABOUT RECORDS.

How do you gain access to these records? Presuming you have uncovered some records in your extended family possession, I think its a good idea to take the following approach - starting with number 1 and seeing how far you get:

    1. GO TO YOUR LOCAL LIBRARY. Local libraries are often your gateway to local knowledge AND the online world - staffed by librarians who have been asked the same kind of questions many times. Libraries also often have access to memberships of online ancestry sites.

    2. SIGN UP FOR A PAID, OR FREE, ANCESTRY SITE. These sites typically do 3 things for you.

    • They give you a place to "plant and grow" your family tree records.
    • They help you to connect with other amateur genealogists - maybe even potential cousins - and compare notes.
    • They give you search-access to many of the records mentioned above. Remember, your local library can often give you free (sometimes limited) access to these services.

    The big Ancestry sites include:

    • FREE SITES: familysearch.org This is a free-to-use genealogical record site run by the Church of the Latter Day Saints. It allows you to build a family tree and search through a wide range of worldwide civil records, church records, census data and other record types.
    • PAID SITES: ancestry.com, myheritage.com and findmypast.com While ancestry.com is the largest of these sites - each offers a somewhat different experience in terms of user interface, speciality in certain types of records, price points and so on.

    A lot of local libraries offer free access to most of the services offered by one or more of these ancestry sites. Many of our readers have found membership of (or a visit to) their local historical/genealogy society a wonderful way to connect with like-minded people in their localities.

    Alternatively, you can access your local records more directly e.g. go to your local census site online, check out online grave records sites and so on. As you search progresses, you will probably go directly to the source site for records more often anyway.

    3. ENGAGE THE SERVICES OF A GENEALOGIST. This won’t be for everyone - but there are professionals out there who can accelerate your search by carrying out some, or all, of the research on your behalf. However, be aware that having something disproven can be just as valuable as something proven - but you may feel disappointed and wish you did not know!

WHAT YOU SHOULD IDEALLY END UP WITH AT THE END OF STEP 1.

 The aim of your preparatory research in this step, is to find as many facts that will differentiate your ancestor from someone else of the same name.

So, let’s say you have worked your way back to your earliest arriving Irish ancestor. Ideally, you will uncover their:

  • Full name.
  • ​Approximate date of birth.
  • ​Parents names.
  • ​Place of birth.
  • ​Name of spouse.
  • ​Date and country of marriage.
  • Names of children.
  • Date and Country of birth of children.
  • Names of siblings.

Be sure to differentiate between the facts you have evidence for - and the “facts” that are guesses!

However, even just some of these facts may be enough to start working with Irish records in Step 2.

A note of caution: you will come across many “guesses” presented as facts on ancestry sites such as ancestry.com . This does not mean they are useless - you just need to have a little due diligence, especially as you start to gather facts from others.

STEP 2. Use online Irish Records to Discover more about your Ancestor.


Now for what can be a tricky bit! Here are the important dates and facts you need to know before looking at Irish records:

  • The first full Irish census record, still surviving, is for 1901. Earlier censuses were fully, or partially, destroyed in a fire in 1922. However, there are a number of “census substitutes” that you can use to trace the location of an ancestor on a particular date prior to 1901.
  • It is difficult to find a BMD record in Ireland from before the early 1800s.
  • Civil registration commenced for non-catholic marriages in 1845. Registration for all births, marriages and deaths commenced in January, 1864.  
  • RC Church records were recorded and maintained by local parishes. Some parishes started to record in the early 1800s - and some not until as late as the 1860s. The quality of handwriting and spelling (as well as use of Latin in places) in these records can vary greatly. Over the years, many of these records have been transcribed onto more legible online records. However, the quality of these transcriptions vary - so check with the original record whenever possible. 

THE PRIMARY ONLINE SOURCES FOR IRISH RECORDS ARE:

  • Census Records: census.nationalarchives.ie You can search the 1901 and 1911 census, as well as earlier census fragments. Although your ancestor may have left Ireland before 1901, you are likely to find their descendant family members living in their original homeland.
  • Civil Records and Church Records (Births, Marriages, Deaths). These are available in a number of sources:
    • Civil records of BMD can be found on Irishgenealogy.ie - there you can search civil records - and see images of the record register for the whole of the island of Ireland from 1864. The images are being updated all the time, see the website for images currently available.
    • Church Records have been transcribed in a number of places. These include:
      • Rootsireland.ie (a paid access site): Contains church records and part civil records for the majority of the island of Ireland.
      • Irishgenealogy.ie (a free government-sponsored site): Contains searchable church records for Counties Kerry, much of County Cork (west and northwest), Dublin city and County Carlow. Note: The Civil records have had a large number of images attached to them (as of Sept 2016). This allows you to look at the original registers for many BMDs in Ireland.
      • The National Library of Ireland: For Catholic registrations only, registers.nli.ie allows you to examine the original record online. However, you need to know the parish in which your ancestor was recorded. 

    A WORD TO THE WISE: It is very useful to have an appreciation of Irish placenames, land divisions, naming conventions and other items when reviewing Irish records. We help people to understand this "local colour" with the following:

    Our free weekly Letter from Ireland. If you have yet to sign up - you can do so by clicking here.

    Our special members area - The Green Room - where we have genealogy assistance and local knowledge to help you break down those Irish ancestry brick walls. See how to join The Green Room by clicking here.​

  • Property Tax Registers: Given the lack of census material in 19th century Ireland, we are fortunate to have two classes of property tax registers available online. They are:
    • Griffith's Valuation: This is available to access freely at AskaboutIreland.ie - it provides you with a listing off all tenants across Ireland in the period 1850 - 1860. Remember that the majority of the population of Ireland were tenanted farmers that this time. You can focus in on your ancestor's homeland, sometimes their house, neighbours - and get an insight into life and land divisions of the time.
    • Tithe Applotments:  This survey of Irish landholders for the period 1823 to 1837 gives you an insight into who lived where at this time. It is less comprehensive than Griffith's Valuation, but allows you to travel back to a time before the onset of the Irish famine. 

WHAT YOU SHOULD IDEALLY END UP WITH AT THE END OF STEP 2.

Right - it might take you a while, and you might need some assistance with interpreting the information and connections you uncover in the Irish records. However, the following would be the ideal things that you would uncover at the end of Step 2:

  • ​The relations of your immigrant ancestor in the 1901 and 1911 census.
  • Irish church and/or civil BMD records for your ancestor and their family.
  • The house and land that your ancestor’s family lived in Ireland from Griffith’s Valuation of the 1850s.
  • The church they worshipped in, the school they went to.

All of these things would be ideal, indeed! It may take you days, weeks, months or years. However - it's important to remember that new records and connections are being made available all the time on many of the above sites. What is not available today, may be available tomorrow.

STEP 3. Visit Ireland and walk in the footsteps of your Ancestor.


Now, I realise that a trip to Ireland may be outside your means, or motivation, at the moment - however, once you have uncovered the likely homeland of your Irish ancestor - it can be a wonderful experience to connect with the area through visiting. This might involve connecting with possible cousins, visiting the ruins of their cottage, walking the land they once farmed, the church they were baptised in, the school they attended.

This sensory immersion can give you a wonderful insight into the life and times of your ancestor - a feeling of connection that no record can provide!

Well, I hope you enjoyed that overview of how to Trace your ancestors back to Ireland. If you have a question or comment on the approach that we suggest, please do leave it below. However, I’m afraid to say that we do not have the resources to answer specific questions related to an Irish ancestor - that’s why we created The Green Room - to give you that help in a friendly and affordable manner.

Many thanks to Jayne McGarvey, one of our Green Room-based Genealogical researchers, for her assistance in compiling the above.​

QUESTION: Are you tracing your Irish ancestors back to Ireland? Where are you on each of the steps above?

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