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Tracing your Irish roots - where to start?

10-03-2014 17:30

Genealogical research in Ireland has always depended on records that are more fragmented, localised and difficult to access than anywhere else. The internet is changing that. But where to start and which online resources are the most helpful? John Grenham is a leading expert in Irish genealogy and his book, ’Tracing Your Irish Ancestors’, is considered by many as Ireland’s Genealogy Bible. Read on for some hints & tips!

Where to start

The first question asked by anyone embarking on ancestral research is "What do I need to know before I start?" Unfortunately, there are as many answers as there are families. Although the painstaking examination of original documents has its own pleasures, in genealogy it is usually better to arrive than to travel hopefully. So, while it is theoretically possible to start from your own birth and work back through records of births, marriages and deaths, parish records and census records, in practical terms, the more that you can glean from older family members or from family documents, the better; there is no point in combing through decades of parish records to uncover your great-grandmother’s maiden name if you could find it out simply by asking Aunt Agatha. Nor does the information you initially acquire this way need to be absolutely precise. At this point in your research, quantity is more important than quality.

Later on, something that seemed relatively insignificant - the name of a local parish priest, the story of a contested will, someone’s unusual occupation, even a postmark - may well prove to be the vital clue that enables you to trace the family further back. In any case, whether or not such information eventually turns out to be useful, it will certainly be of interest and will help to flesh out the picture of earlier generations. For most people, the spur to starting research is curiosity about their own family, and the kind of anecdotal information provided by the family itself rarely emerges from the official documents.

In order to use the record resources fully and successfully, three strands of information are vital: dates, names, and places. Dates of emigration, births, marriages and deaths; names of parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, in-laws; addresses, townland names, parishes, towns, counties ... needless to say, not all of this is essential, and again absolute accuracy is not vital to start out with. A general location and siblings’ names can be used to uncover parents’ names and addresses, and their parents’ names. A single precise name and date can be enough to unlock all the other records. Even a name alone, if it is sufficiently unusual, can sometimes be enough. In general, though, the single most useful piece of information is the precise locality of origin of the family. The county of origin would normally be the minimum information necessary, though in the case of a common surname (of which there are only too many), even this may not be enough. For the descendants of Irish emigrants, the locality is often one of the most difficult things to discover. There are a variety of ways of doing this, however, both in the records of the destination country and in Irish records online. The best time to do it is certainly before coming to Ireland.

The only absolute rule in family history research is that you should start from what you know, and use that to find out more. Every family’s circumstances are unique, and where your research leads you will depend very much on the point from which you start. Thus, for example, knowing where a family lived around the turn of the century will allow you to uncover a census return with the ages of the individuals, leading to birth or baptismal records giving parents’ names and residence, leading on in turn to early land records, which may permit the identification of generations before the start of parish records. At each stage of such research, the next step should always be determined by what you have just found out; each discovery is a stepping-stone to the next.

What you can expect to find

What you will uncover about your family history depends on the quality of the surviving records for the area of origin and, again, on the point from which you start out. In the majority of cases, that is, for the descendants of Catholic tenant farmers, the limit is generally the starting date of the local Catholic parish records, which varies widely from place to place. However, it would be unusual for records of such a family to go back much earlier than the 1780s and for most people the early 1800s is the more likely limit. In Gaelic culture genealogy was of crucial importance, but the collapse of that culture in the seventeenth century, and its subsequent impoverishment and oppression in the eighteenth century have left a gulf which is almost unbridgeable.

Starting Research Online

The internet is now the first stop for most people beginning family history research, and transcripts of the four major record sources of universal relevance for Irish research are now online. Or rather part-transcripts are partly online. As we shall see, the devil is in the detail.

For someone who had an ancestor living in Ireland in the first decades of the twentieth century, the National Archives of Ireland census website, is the obvious starting point. It is completely free, leaving plenty of scope for trial and error, every single item on every return from 1901 and 1911 is searchable, and it includes images of all the returns, which are printed and follow a thoroughly consistent format. The sheer ease of use of the site means that even someone whose ancestors left Ireland long before 1901 can glean extremely useful information. Perhaps your great-great grandfather emigrated in 1850, but if you can pick out his nephews and nieces in 1901, you’re well on the way to identifying living relatives in Ireland.

The next step in most cases will be to General Register Office records: the State registered all births, deaths and marriages from 1864. The Mormon website has a complete transcript of the central indexes to these registrations up to 1922 for the entire island of Ireland and to 1958 for the Republic. The site also has part-transcripts of the actual birth registrations up to 1881. Another website, the pay-per-record, has full transcripts of civil registrations up to 1900, but only for a minority of areas. Otherwise, it is necessary to use the index entry obtained online to purchase a printout of the registration entry from the General Register Office itself.

Once research goes back past the start of civil registration, only two classes of record are invariably useful, the property tax records of Griffith’s Valuation, and church baptismal, marriage and burial registers. Griffith’s is freely searchable at and can provide valuable information about a family’s location and economic circumstances, as well as a key to the (offline) records used in drawing it up and in keeping it up to date.

Church records, probably the single most valuable source for genealogical research, are transcribed online in two main places, and The former is free, the latter paying. Only some of the transcripts on are accompanied by record images, which means that a certain amount of interaction with offline microfilm and original records becomes necessary in most cases. For Catholic records, the National Library of Ireland ( is aiming to make images created from its microfilm copies of pre-1880 parish registers available online in the near future. Some caution is needed in using online transcripts of church records: the originals can be in poor condition, fragmented and the transcriptions can be poor.

The internet has been a wondeful boon to Irish genealogy, bringing distant records close and making opaque records transparent. But it has its dangers. The sheer ease it brings to research can be all too seductive, masking gaps in the originals and flaws in the transcripts. Anyone tracing their ancestors online has to keep in mind that everything, absolutely everything, they are searching is merely a copy of the original, with an inevitable layer of error.

This fourth edition of Tracing Your Irish Ancestors embraces online research as an essential part of any Irish family history project. Grenham includes detailed guides to Irish online records throughout the book, discussing the idiosyncrasies of the digital versions of sources and outlining research strategies. The sheer scale of digitisation can make it both easier and more confusing to do research, and makes a guide such as this all the more essential. John Grenham’s well-established and detailed guide has thorough descriptions of all the relevant sources and county-by-county reference lists — all expanded, updated and indexed to make the book easier to use than ever before.

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