How to trace your Irish family history: a step-by-step guide

It’s easier than ever to trace your ancestry, using online church records to DNA kits

The only cast-iron rule of family history is that you start from what you know and use it to find out more. Take your granny and work back from her.

The only cast-iron rule of family history is that you start from what you know and use it to find out more. Take your granny and work back from her.

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There has never been a better time to research Irish family history. A revolution in access to Irish genealogical records has taken place over the past decade. From being a laggard in providing online record transcripts, Ireland has become one of the world leaders. 

Some credit must go to competition in the marketplace to meet researchers' demands. But most of the change has been driven by the Irish and Northern Irish public sectors. Their increased awareness of the huge numbers who descend from emigrants, and who cherish that historic connection, has had a dramatic effect. Politicians and public servants now accept that it should be as easy as possible for members of the Irish diaspora to unearth the historical detail of the connection, their family history. Publicly-funded websites such as IrishGenealogy.ie, genealogy.nationalarchives.ie, askaboutireland.ie, databases.dublincity.ie and nidirect.gov.uk/proni have gone about supplying the tools to make that possible.

The result is that most people of Irish origin can now take their family back to the second quarter of the 19th century quickly and easily and, for the most part, without payment.

This guide contains links to those many free resources, as well as paid genealogy services which could help speed up the process or guide you towards records you may not have known existed. It also covers new ways to trace your ancestry using increasingly popular home DNA kits.

Getting started

Before you go near any records, talk to your family. It makes no sense to spend days trawling through databases to find out your great-grandmother’s surname if someone in the family already knows it.

So first talk to parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents - find out what they know before they’re gone for good. Most families have at least one individual who keeps track of the extended network of relatives, and if you can buttonhole her (it usually is a her), you’re off to a good start. To begin with, quantity is less important than quality - there’ll be plenty of time for precision later.

The only cast-iron rule of family history is that you start from what you know and use it to find out more. Don’t begin with Attila the Hun and try to work forward to yourself. Take your granny and work back from her.

What you can expect to find

What you’ll uncover depends on the quality of the surviving records for the area of origin, on the point where you start and the most important ingredient of Irish research, luck.

For the descendants of Catholic tenant-farmers, the limit is generally the starting date of the local Catholic parish records. 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 17th century, and its subsequent impoverishment and oppression in the 18th century, left a gulf that is almost unbridgeable.

That said, exceptions immediately spring to mind. One Australian family, starting with only the name of their great-grandfather, his occupation and the date of his departure from Ireland, uncovered enough information through parish registers and State records of births, marriages and deaths to link him incontestably to the Garveys of Mayo, for whom an established pedigree is registered in the Genealogical Office stretching back to the 12th century.

An American family, knowing only a general location in Ireland and a marriage that took place before emigration, discovered that marriage in the pedigree of the McDermotts of Coolavin, which is factually verified as far back as the 11th century.

Discoveries like this are rare, however, and are much likelier for those of Anglo-Irish extraction than those of Gaelic or Scots Presbyterian extraction.

Online resources

For Irish online research, the glass is both half-empty and half-full. A huge quantity of irreplaceable records was blown up in 1922 - almost all 19th century censuses, to name just one - and nothing will ever bring them back. On the other hand, there are only four universally relevant sources, civil records, church registers, censuses and tax surveys, and nearly all of them that survived is online and free.

The easiest win for most people starting out is the free National Archives of Ireland census website (census.nationalarchives.ie). It’s plain but powerful and serves up images of the original returns for the earliest complete censuses, 1901 and 1911, complete with great-grand-parents’ signatures and overviews of names, family relationships and occupations. Be warned: being able to wander around streets and townlands peering into the neighbours’ households can be powerfully addictive.

The next step will usually be to search the civil records of births, marriages and deaths. Registration began for everyone in 1864, with non-Catholic marriages starting in 1845. The indexes are free to search up to 1958 at the Mormon site FamilySearch (familysearch.org/search/collection/1408347). The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht runs an excellent free site at irishgenealogy.ie that includes full images of the original registers (births 1864-1916, marriages 1870-1941 and deaths 1878-1966). Be sure to work the “More Search Options” page as hard as you can.

Griffith’s Valuation (1847-1864) is a vast and minutely detailed property survey carried out to assess local taxes (aka “The Rates”). If we hadn’t blown up the 19th century censuses, it would be an afterthought. As things stand, it’s the only comprehensive census substitute before 1901. It’s free online at askaboutireland.ie, a site run, strangely enough, by the Local Government Management Agency.

Like the census site, askaboutireland doesn’t take variant surname spellings into account, so ingenuity may be required. One of its glories, however, is the huge collection of accompanying valuation maps, overlaid on contemporary Google maps, making it possible to match the precise locations of houses and field boundaries in the 1850s with what survives today.

The last of the universally relevant sources is the most important and the most tricky. For the years before civil registration in 1864, church registers of baptisms, marriages and burials are virtually the only direct sources of family information.

Roman Catholic registers generally start in the late 1700s or early 1800s in the more prosperous East and South-East, but only in the 1840s or later in poorer western counties. Almost all pre-1880 Catholic registers have been microfilmed by the National Library and digital images of the microfilms are freely available at registers.nli.ie.

They can be hard going. Two commercial genealogy sites, FindMyPast and Ancestry, have transcribed them, with access free only on FindMyPast. Another commercial site, rootsireland.ie, has been making transcripts since the 1980s and covers about 80 per cent of pre-1900 registers. One significant difference is that the rootsireland transcripts were made from the originals, not microfilm, and the difference in the quality of the transcripts can be striking.

The Church of Ireland was the state church until 1870 and after disestablishment parish records before that date were regarded as public records. As a result, a large number were in the Public Record Office in 1922 and were destroyed. The largest collection of original registers is in the Representative Church Body Library in Dublin, which also maintains an online listing of what was destroyed and what survived (goo.gl/4eHlIZ). The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has an excellent collection of microfilm of records of all denominations in the nine counties of Ulster (goo.gl/ok8NuR).

Presbyterian records can be hard to track down. The best collection is in The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, with a lot of material also in the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Detailed guides to which records are where can be found at www.johngrenham.com. The site is free for light users, with a soft paywall for more persistent souls. Claire Santry’s Irish Genealogy News (irishgenealogynews.com) is the go-to site for all news of record releases and publications and also includes a free “Irish Genealogy Toolkit”, which gives a good overview of what’s available.

Free research

Unlike any other country in the Anglophone world, a large majority of the most important Irish records are free online. Why?

The main reason is Ireland’s unique imbalance between diaspora and the Old Country. There are more than ten times more people claiming Irish descent in the US alone than there are in Ireland, a disproportion found in no other country.

In the 1990s, as that began to dawn on official Ireland, it became government policy to make as many records as possible freely available online. They’re all in different formats, in different locations, each with its own quirks and flaws. But they’re there and they’re free.

Paying a genealogy company or expert

So why would anyone doing Irish research need to subscribe to commercial record-transcriptions sites such as rootsireland or ancestry.com or findmypast.ie?

Because they give levels of access not found in the free records. Rootsireland, for example, is purely Irish and uses the transcripts produced by the network of heritage centres set up in the 1980s. It makes possible all sorts of weird and wonderful searches. Want to see everyone who died in Ardnurcher, Co Offaly between 1864 and 1900? Or every marriage involving a woman called Matilda in Co Derry between 1821 and 1921? Rootsisreland is your only man.

Even the global genealogy sites have their uses. Many of the records free to search elsewhere are set up much more conveniently on Ancestry and FindMyPast. For example, if all you know is that your ancestor John Sullivan had a daughter Mary who was born around 1890, you can use ancestry to search the 1901 census for all John Sullivans with a 10-year-old daughter Mary, something not possible on the National Archives site. (There are 138 matches.)

Professional researchers can also be very useful. Someone who’s been scouring the records for decades, as most professionals have, sees angles, connections and shortcuts that elude a newcomer. At the very least, they can do in an hour what might take an amateur a day or more. And no decent professional thinks of themselves as doing all the work. They’re just helping.

Accredited Genealogists Ireland (accreditedgenealogists.ie) includes many (but not all) of the self-employed professionals in Ireland. The Irish Family History Centre (irishfamilyhistorycentre.com) run by long-established research and publishing company Eneclann provides advice and commissioned research and has a walk-in centre as part of the emigration museum EPIC on Dublin’s Custom House Quay.

Ancestry has its own team of highly experienced professionals (progenealogists.com), focused primarily on North America, but with deep expertise in Ireland also.

Local document research

One of the first things every researcher learns is deep scepticism about records and record transcripts. Taking a transcript alone as gospel truth is tantamount to accepting the word of a stranger in the street that he knows you’re descended from Brian Ború.

Always look at the original. Thankfully, it is now standard practice online to combine a transcript with the original record image, providing an opportunity to see how flawed the transcript is. All transcripts are flawed, because all human beings are flawed. People misspelt the names of their children, record-takers misheard surnames, transcribers mistook “Ts” for “Fs”, database designers left out entire sections of records … If you’re researching records online, know that this is the price you’re paying.

And of course, there are plenty of records not online, from militia and British Army records in the English National Archives in Kew, to estate rentals only available in the National Library or in local archives, through to ephemeral but invaluable local histories that might only survive in a local county library.

Because of what happened in 1922, Irish research is much more dependant on fragmented sources like these than is the case elsewhere. You’ll need to consult a county-by-county (or parish-by-parish) reference for what survives. Online guides are at IrishGenealogy.ie, irish-genealogy-toolkit.com and johngrenham.com. The standard published books are James Ryan’s Irish Records: Sources for Family and Local History (2nd ed Ancestry.com, 1997) and John Grenham’s Tracing Your Irish Ancestors (4th ed. Gill, 2012).

Working with voluntary organisations

Ireland is blessed (or cursed) with a standing army of local and family historians. The main genealogical organisations are:

Cork Genealogical Society corkgenealogicalsociety.com

Clare Roots Society clareroots.org

Genealogical Society of Ireland familyhistory.ie

Huguenot Society of Great Britain & Ireland huguenotsinireland.com

Irish Family History Societyifhs.ie

Irish Genealogical Research Society irishancestors.ie

North of Ireland Family History Society nifhs.org

Ulster Historical and Genealogical Guild ancestryireland.com

Western Family History Association (Galway) wfha.info

Lackagh Parish Centre wfha.info/locations/lackagh-parish-centre

Genetic (DNA) genealogy

Genetic genealogy is the use of DNA testing to assist genealogical research. The key word is “assist”: DNA testing can never take the place of research, though it can be a very useful tool in solving particular problems.

There are three kinds of DNA test used for genealogy, Y-DNA, mtDNA and atDNA. Y-DNA testing concentrates on the Y-chromosome, which exists only in males and is passed from father to son in a way that mimics the European practice of patrilineal surname inheritance.

Because of this, Y-DNA tests are particularly useful in single-surname studies, as they can provide a rough estimate of when the most recent common male ancestor lived. When a mutation or transcription error occurs in a particular man’s Y-chromosome, that mutation or error is then passed down to all his male descendants, making it possible to trace every male with that error back to him, the common ancestor.

Different parts of the genome mutate at different rates, varying from only three or four times in the history of humanity - useful perhaps for prehistoric migration studies - to once every six or seven generations. These latter more rapidly mutating “SNPs” (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms) are the ones targeted in all three genetic genealogy tests.

The second type of test, mitochondrial or “mtDNA”, follows the maternal line. Mitochondria are energy-producing organelles that are long-standing symbiotes in the cells of many living things. Their DNA is not part of the human genome, but is passed from mother to daughter in a way analogous to the male Y-chromosome.

Men receive their mitochondrial DNA from their mother, but do not pass it on. Again, testing for mutations can provide evidence for the period when the most recent common female ancestor lived. The big difference is that mitochondrial DNA changes much more slowly over time than Y-DNA and is thus of use mainly for deep ancestry.

Autosomal or atDNA testing uses DNA taken from the 22 non-sex chromosomes, in other words all of the genome apart from the X and Y chromosomes. Because everyone inherits half the DNA in these 22 from each parent, the average share of DNA inherited from direct forebears halves at each generation.

So everyone has, on average, a quarter of their DNA from each grandparent, but only one-16th from each great-great-grandparent. This means that when comparing autosomal DNA tests, the results are reliable only out to second-cousin level, perhaps a century and a half. Beyond that, how results can be interpreted depends on documentary research or on having multiple family members tested.

One point to be kept in mind is that all genetic genealogy depends on examining the here-and-now and deducing information about the past. In other words, test results are compared with the results of others and a statistical analysis of those results is then performed. The quality of the analysis depends entirely on the number of other test results in the comparison. Many of the problems with genetic genealogy stem from collections of test results that are just too small to draw sound conclusions.

Other problems stem from the fact that all genetic genealogy depends on commercial testing done by companies whose profitability depends on not having to say “There is not enough evidence”. Much snake oil is sold. See University College London’s ‘Debunking Genetic Astrology’.

The three main companies are Ancestry.com, Family Tree DNA and 23andMe, all based in the US though offering tests worldwide. Ancestry and 23andMe sell tests in Ireland as a subset of the UK market. All three provide extensive online interpretation and follow-up on their websites.

Ancestry only does autosomal testing and has by far the largest database of results for comparison, with more than four million test results. Because of this its “Genetic Communities” section can provide very useful solid evidence of 19th century place of origin in Ireland. The other two companies perform all three tests. Family Tree DNA, in a piece of enlightened self-interest, allows the upload and comparison of test results from the other two.

A very useful way to compare results with as big a collection of tests as possible is via the free, open-source website, www.gedmatch.com. This allows the upload of any of the commercial test results together with a family tree in the standard GedCom format. Multiple DNA comparisons are then possible, as well as a cross-check with family information.

Resources tailored for Ireland include:

- The Ireland y-DNA project (familytreedna.com/groups/Ireland-heritage);

- The Ireland mtDNA project (familytreedna.com/groups/Ireland-mt-dna);

- The Ulster DNA project (ulsterheritage.com).

The Genetic Genealogy Ireland YouTube channel has some excellent explanatory videos. The Irish DNA Atlasis published in Nature.

Connecting with relatives

One of the most satisfying aspects of family history research is the awareness of ever-expanding interconnectedness. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents … So nine generations back, about two and a half centuries ago, you have direct links to 128 families. Think of the average size of Irish families then. Think of all the cousins, second, third, fourth in each generation and you’ll soon be agreeing with the central tenet of hippiedom: “We’re all brothers, man.”

More concretely, most families have members who have been forgotten or written out of history. Many men who joined the British Army to fight in the first World War in 1915 - at the urging of the leader of the Irish Volunteers, John Redmond, remember - returned in 1919 to a country that shunned them. Many newly-Republican families simply rejected these men. The act of reconnecting with them through family history can be irresistible. That sense of righting historic family wrongs is powerful and addictive.

One of the most innovative social media initiatives of recent years is also based on that compelling sense of healing the extended family and re-knitting lost kinships.

Ireland Reaching Out (irelandxo.com) is a volunteer-based, non-profit group that aims to build links between the global Irish diaspora and parishes of origin in Ireland. The way it works is simple: a group of local volunteers in Ireland (very often local historians) act as a liaison between emigrants or emigrants’ descendants and their locality of origin.

The real aim, of course, is to reconnect with living relatives and it happens much more than it used to. For one thing, we’re a bit less anxious than we used to be about the Yanks coming back to claim the inheritance we neglected to inform them about.

For another, DNA and the digitisation of records have made reverse genealogy, following families forward in time rather than back, much much easier.

John Grenham is a consultant genealogist. He has authored a number of books on ancestry, his most recent being the 4th edition of Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, published by Gill & Macmillan (2012).

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