Tracing your family tree in Ireland is a complicated job. In comparison to the UK, where records have been well documented and maintained, it is difficult for many families in Ireland to trace their ancestors prior to the 1800s when parish records first started being documented. In Ireland, we also have the added issue of a fire in the ‘Public Records Office’ in 1922 which resulted in the censuses of 1821, 1831, 1841, and 1851 being destroyed in addition to other significant documentation, more information on this is available here.
I began tracing my family tree last July whilst working in my local library and it became clear to me, very quickly, that genealogy in Ireland is a lot of detective work; trying to piece together information to get the bigger picture. I had to accept that the furthest I could likely and accurately reach was somewhere in the 1700s, I knew anything I found prior to that was guess work. There’s been a few little hiccups a long the way but overall, I’d like to think I’m doing quite well.
If you’re also of Irish heritage and thinking of tracing your family tree, here is essentially how I’ve been doing mine and some tips/hints/limitations I’ve discovered along the way:
I recommend from the beginning that you use a genealogy website to document all the information you gather. I used MyHeritage as a means to keep track of everything, as when I started gathering information, at first, I was only keeping note of them in a little notepad….this became increasingly more confusing as I retrieved more and more information. Having a tree template (image 1) in place from the beginning just makes the whole process very clear and you can follow it easily as you receive more information. MyHeritage was also a great site as it recommends to you possible matches in the information you are entering which allows you to retrieve more and more data from other sources or other people who may have a mutual ancestor in their tree; however, I do pay a monthly subscription fee for this feature.
I decided to start with my mother’s side of the family, as she was able to provide me with a lot of information that benefited me at the start of my search. Basically, with genealogy it’s recommended that you start from the bottom and work back, meaning that you essentially fill in every detail you know before you even try find anyone else. I began by entering everything I knew, the ‘easy’ stuff, eg. the names and birth dates (if known) of my siblings, parents, cousins, aunts/uncles, grandparents, etc… Following this, my mother was a great help as she was able to tell me the names of all her aunts/uncles, cousins, some of her cousin’s partners and children, and some information about her grandparents. She was also aware of various surnames she knew they were related to but wasn’t always 100% how. Most significantly of all, she was able to tell me the place of birth of her grandfather who was born in Co. Galway rather than in Co. Mayo….this was vital in me being able to discover earlier generations.
In Ireland, it was uncommon for people to move around a whole lot prior to the early twentieth century, primarily in rural areas like the west of Ireland. Most families married within the same parish, sometimes within the same village and it wasn’t all that common to find individuals marrying 2nd/3rd cousins (unfortunately). During the late 1800s into the early 1900s, the Irish Land Commission became responsible for sharing out Irish land because of this my great-grandfather was given land in Co. Mayo and settled there, later meeting his future wife, my great-grandmother, in this area.
After filling in all the basic information, the detective work finally began. The Irish Civil Records are the main sources I’ve used during this whole project as they retrieve the majority of birth, marriage and death records between 1850ish-1960ish. As mentioned above, a lot of Irish records are also unavailable, sometimes an ancestor you know existed may not have an available birth record or you might find their birth and marriage record but there’s no record of their death…. this may be due to their record having been lost, destroyed or potentially, there was never a record created in the first place (Us Irish were not great at the whole documenting process). I also noticed that while there are some birth and marriage records available during the 1850s, it’s more likely to not find a record than finding one. Likewise, birth and marriage records also fall scarce after 1920, likely because people born following this year may be still living. Death records were the best kept, in my opinion.
The search procedure of the Irish Civil Records isn’t overly complex. Image 2 (above), is the search engine on this website, you will have to enter the name and surname of the individual you are searching for and the district in which they were living, the trick here is to become familiar with district names (usually the main town closest to where the individual is living), eg. Clonmel in Co. Tipperary, or Macroom in Co. Cork. I know some districts seperated after particular dates, such as the district of Newport in Co. Mayo was formerly included under the district of Westport, so it’s important to be aware if a similar event happened in the district in which you are researching. A vague idea of the years in which you are looking is also helpful. From there, you often find yourself doing a lot of clicking in and out of records in order to find who you are looking for and making sure dates add up, the area in which they are living adds up and various other pieces of information. A huge tip is don’t always presume you have the correct person, try find other pieces of information from other sources to back up what you’ve found. Sometimes, you might not be able to find another source but common sense often comes into play, double check everything!!
In addition to using the Irish Civil Records, I found the census records of 1901 and 1911 particularly helpful as you can find the exact place name in which they are living, find information about occupations, general ages of all family members.
Before 1860, it is significantly more difficult to find information. During my search, I knew from the marriage records of my great-great grandparents the names of their fathers and the general area in which they were living but the civil records were not able to provide me any more information. From here, I used Find my Past which provided some early marriage and baptism certs, Griffith’s valuation records and other available records; however, Find my Past is a subscription based website and again, not all records are available. Griffith’s Valuation was the first property valuation done in Ireland completed between 1847 and 1864, it can also be accessed for free through the above link. In addition, many of the early marriage and baptism records are difficult to read (image 3, below) and often names were wrote in latin (eg. Patritus being Patrick, Michaelis being Michael).
To be honest, there’s no real ‘end’ to tracing your family tree; every new name you discover is a door to more and more names. Overall, it’s not an easy project and takes a lot of time and patience; however, it’s definitely worth it. On my mother’s side of the family, I’ve gone back directly 7 generations to some ancestors born during the 1750s…..however, I’ve accepted I won’t be able to go further than this with my direct line, so I’m now focused mainly on the marriages and descendants of my ancestor’s siblings which has led me to both the UK and US in my research. My father’s side of the family is complicated as he was adopted, for now I’ve only focused on his
(adoptive) family and I don’t think I’ll even consider researching his biological side for many years.
While there are many other means to study your family tree, these are the primary methods that I’ve used. If you want any more advice, or even some help with your own family tree please contact me and I’ll try my best to provide you with some answers.
A few More Tips
- As I mentioned above, many individuals in Ireland married within their own parish…when studying marriage records it’s always good to be aware of various villages within the parish you are researching, Townlands.ie was a great help with this as it gives you a list of neighboring villages to the one you may currently be situated in.
- However, don’t always assume that your ancestor has married locally just because it was common at the time….I’ve made this mistake. I had a lot of trouble locating my paternal grandmother’s parents and had very little information to go by as my Granny was an only child and her parents died when my Dad was very young so all he could provide me with my was Grandmother’s maiden name and the village in which she was born. I eventually found out my great-grandparents first names after discovering they were actually buried in the plot beside my aunt, I used the Find A Grave website for this. I then discovered that my Granny’s mother was born in a completely different district and the couple had married there (it is nearly always likely that the couple marry within the bride’s parish church).
- Be aware that sometimes surnames and place names are spelt incorrectly on records. Surnames sometimes have various spellings and are found to be spelt in different ways, eg. my granny’s maiden name is Niland but it has been spelt Nealand, Nyland, Neiland, etc…. on various records.
- Also, I’ve discovered ages often are recorded incorrectly. I’ve noted on several 1901 and 1911 census records that the ages of family members do not match up to their birth record (usually +/- 5) and often in the space of 10 years between the same family a member of the family might be 2 years older than they should be. Often individuals weren’t certain of their age in old Ireland as only the wealthy families celebrated birthdays.
- Sometimes you may not be able to find a death record for an individual in the district you are researching. This is sometimes because this individual may not have died in the district in which they were living and because of this, I recommend you also search the main town of that county as your ancestor may have died in the hospital located there, a workhouse or possibly, a mental asylum.
- I’ve also discovered great pieces of information from the online Irish Newspaper archives; however, this site also costs a subscription which is quite pricey. Many third level Irish institutions offer free access to their students (this is how I’ve gained access prior to graduating) so if you’re a student fire ahead. For those of us who are not willing to pay or in an Irish third level institute, it is likely that the County Library of where you are currently located with your research will have access to these for free.
- On the topic of libraries, County Libraries provide a local history section with a wide range of books, maps, microfilm, etc…. There is often a librarian (or several) who specialises in local history and will be able to help you with your research and point you in the correct direction.
- The National Library of Ireland also has access to additional resources and records that are not available online. I haven’t actually used their services yet myself, as I think you need to have a good idea of what exactly you are looking for when requesting records; however, it’s great for locating records you know definitely exist but are not available online.