Interest in genealogy is exploding. 70 million people worldwide claim ancestry from Ireland. A drop of Irish blood is worth its weight these days! Here we've run down a step-by-step guide to tracing your Irish roots.
Step 1. Do Your Homework
Don't touch that laptop! Before you even think about opening a search engine, try to get as much information as possible from your human resources.
Grandparents. Parents. Elderly neighbours. The first step in tracing Irish roots is to turn to your older relatives, if possible.
Here is a list of information you should to try and gather from your folks:
- NAME. The full name of your Irish ancestor(s), including nicknames or birth names (for everyone) and maiden names (for married women).
- DOB. Your Irish relative's approximate date of birth - even the year will help!
- PLACE. Place of origin in Ireland of your Irish family. Get as exact a place as possible, be it townland, parish, county or country (Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland.
- RELIGION. The religion or religious denomination of your relative. For example, Protestant or Catholic, Anglican or Presbyterian.
- FAMILY NAMES. The full names of your Irish ancestors' spouse(s), parents, children or other family.
- EMIGRATION/IMMIGRATION. Where did your Irish relative arrive into your country? What port did they leave from? What was the ship's name?
- OTHER IMPORTANT EVENTS. Their date and place of marriage and/or death. These details were recorded historically and are searchable in public archives (as you shall see below).
The first three on this list are vital; the others will help make the task easier. But don't worry if you only have a name and a year to work with. Sometimes that's enough!
Once you've gathered a profile of information around your Irish ancestors, move onto Step 2.
Step 2. Study The Clues From Your Name
Your name says alot about you. The name of your Irish ancestor might not mean much on its surface. But to a genealogist, a historian or even a local in Ireland, your relative's name will tell a story (or even multiple stories!).
This is particularly true of Irish family names. Here's a quick example...
The Back Story to the O'Sullivan Name
O'Sullivan (or its common spelling variant, Sullivan) is one of the top 3 Irish surnames globally. It might not mean much to you at first glance. But O'Sullivan has strong historical connections to the southwestern corner of Ireland, specifically West Cork and Kerry. Even more specifically, O'Sullivans are forever linked to the Beara. The Beara is a remote and beautiful peninsula, located hundreds of miles from Dublin and far from cities and 'civilisation'.
Why is the Beara the land of the O'Sullivans? It's largely due to the legend of the 'Prince' Dónal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, the last great Gaelic Chieftain of West Cork and South Kerry. Our tours visit Dunboy Castle near Castletownbere, where Dónal and his people were besieged by British crown forces back in 1602. This event in turn led to O'Sullivan's March, a 500km flight northward that is commemorated today by the Beara-Breifne Way hiking trail.
If you have an O'Sullivan in your genes, the Beara would be a natural place to start searching. It's a dramatic example. But the point is that many Irish family names bear a connection to a specific place. And this place will be a great place to start your hunt for Irish roots.
Step 3. Best Free Online Tools for Tracing Irish Roots
Lots of paid-for tools exist for finding records and tracing your DNA. 23andMe.com. Ancestry.com. If you're even vaguely interested in tracing your Irish roots, then you're probably aware of these premium genealogy tools. Most are excellent. But all cost money!
The good news? No matter where you live in the world, there are several excellent online tools you can use to trace Irish roots for free. Here are our favourites.
The National Archives of Ireland website allows you to browse detailed records for the island of Ireland, free of charge. These include censuses from 1821 to 1911, as well as military records and legal documents like prison records and wills. The 1901 and 1911 census details cover the whole country while the earlier ones only cover certain counties.
Step 4. When You Arrive In Dublin...
After doing all your homework and before your Vagabond or Driftwood Tour of Ireland, you'll arrive into Dublin. Here are a few places you can visit in Dublin to further your research.
The General Registrars Office in Werburgh Street is one such place. Here you can access the civil records on births, marriages, and deaths for the entire country. For Roman Catholics, these records go back to 1864, for Protestants the records go back to 1845.
The National Library in Kildare Street Dublin is another. It holds microfilm copies of parish registers up to 1880.
Another useful place is The Gilbert Library in Pearse Street. This holds copies of Thoms Directories, which contain the name of householders in the Dublin area. The directory was first published in the 1860s and there is a copy for every year up to the present day.
The EPIC Museum of Emigration is not only a great genealogical resource but a fascinating visitor experience too.
Step 5. Local Archives Around Ireland
The vast majority of records relating to family history in Ireland remain undigitised. The only way to acces them is by physically locating and reading them.
If this sounds daunting, never fear! A network of local archives exists around the country.
Step 6. Don't Ignore The UK...
Any picture of Irish genealogy is complicated by the fact that prior to around 1922, the entire island of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland.
Several important placename changes occurred post-independence. The port of Cobh was called Queenstown. The port of Dun Laoghaire was Kingstown. Offaly was King's County. Laois was Queen's County.
What does this mean for your search? You should also spend time in UK archives if nothing has appeared already in Ireland. The Public Record Office in the UK offers a free family history resource. These include searchable records like census results, military records and passenger lists.
Step 7. Phone A Friend
You are not alone! There's a massive community of fellow amateur genealogists out there. More than likely, there are people asking similar questions to you. Or maybe there's someone who has already solved the Irish roots riddle you're stuck on.
Who to ask?
We are biased. But we'd recommend joining us in our new Embrace Your Irish Roots - History & Genealogy group on Facebook. Hundreds of friendly people are asking questions and sharing stories, with dozens of new members joining each week.
Step 8. Go Pro!
If you've reached a brick wall in your research, don't be afraid to reach out to a professional genealogist. Genealogists are specialists in family detective work. They will unearth clues that you might miss.
What Else Should I Know?
- The prefix O or Mac was sometimes dropped or adopted, depending on if someone was trying to sound more or less Irish.
- Exact names and D.O.B.s may not always match up. This can be for a variety of reasons. The most reliable way to confirm the identity of someone is to get their parents names. As it is unlikely that two people of the exact same name would have had a child with the same name at a particular time and place.
- It can be a good idea to broaden your search around a particular ancestor. This will make it easier to cross-reference any facts relating to them. As discussed previously facts may not always match up.
- If you cant find the information you need in a centralized location, churches can be a great place to turn to. It is best to contact them in advance of turning up. Also let us know ahead of your tour, and we will see if we can facilitate a quick stop over. Be aware that the churches primary role is not to provide genealogy services. So be polite and possibly consider giving a small donation for their time.
I hope this article was useful in helping you start of your genealogy research. Also that your research efforts open up knowledge of a past you didnt know you had.