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...
We recommend joining us in our new Embrace Your Irish Roots - History & Genealogy group on Facebook.
👨👩👧👦 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 relatives' 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. Your name is a great place to start the hunt for your Irish roots.
🆓 Step 3. Best Free Online Tools for Tracing Irish Roots
If you're even vaguely interested in tracing your Irish roots, then you're probably aware of, or have even tried, 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 FREE online genealogy tools you can use to trace Irish roots. 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.
Irish Genealogy is a wide-ranging website that offers FREE searches in several historic public databases. Included are church records (baptisms, marriages and burials) as well as civil records (births, marriages, deaths). Enter your ancestor's name, press GO and see what comes up!
Dúchas.ie is the official Irish heritage site. There's a wealth of information available. For example, the surname database is a simple but effective tool that offers spelling and Irish/Gaelic language variants of popular family names - very useful while engaged in genealogical detective work.
John Grenham's Irish Ancestors website pulls together name records from censuses and other historic sources. You can search for FREE up to 3 times before being asked to register and/or pay. The results are displayed in an attractive, map-based format.
Family Search pulls together records from several sources. Global records are available for name searches, not just Ireland. You have to register with your email address but you can find some great nuggets of information with this FREE account.
AskAboutIreland.ie offers a FREE name-based search of Griffith's Valuation. This is a register of property covering the specific dates 1847-1864.
🛬 Step 4. After Arriving In Dublin...
After doing all your homework you'll want to do some research on the ground in Dublin (the gateway city for all our tours).
Here are a few places you can visit in Dublin to further your Irish family roots research:
Step into the National Library of Ireland (NLI) in Kildare Street, Dublin for another great Irish family roots resource. It holds microfilm copies of parish registers up to 1880. The NLI offers a genealogy advisory service. It's also worth mentioning that the National Library building is spectacular.
You can access civil records on births, marriages, and deaths for the entire country at General Registrars Office in Werburgh Street. You can also get them online (at IrishGenealogy.ie - see above). If you need to see the hard copy, this is the place to go. Records go back to 1845.
Another useful place for Irish family roots is the Dublin City Archive in Pearse Street. As well as maps and census records, this archive holds copies of Thoms Directories, with household records in the Dublin area. First published in the 1860s, 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. You can currently get FREE admission to EPIC in our #SeeHowEasySummerCanBe promotion with all Vagabond and Driftwood Tours departing in June/July 2020.
📚 Step 5. Local Genealogy Resources Outside Dublin
The vast majority of records relating to family history in Ireland remain undigitised. The only way to access them is by physically locating and reading them.
If this sounds daunting, never fear! A network of local archives, libraries and heritage centres exists around Ireland.
The Roots Ireland website has two big selling points: it has a FREE and searchable database of Catholic Church records. But it also offers a map-based index of local heritage centres - often the best way to narrow down a search for an ancestor.
Libraries in cities and towns around Ireland often hold excellent local records, as well as historical studies and primary source documents. Find out more about Ireland's local library network. Here is the equivalent library website for Northern Ireland.
Don't forget about graveyards! Ancient burial places are spread the length and breadth of Ireland. If you've succeeded in narrowing your search to a local area, try visiting the local graveyards to gain more clues. IrishGraveyards.ie has documented graveyards all over the island. Here's a handy list of graveyard-related links from IrishGenealogy.ie.
🇬🇧 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.
If you know, or suspect, that your family originated in the six counties of Northern Ireland, check the website for the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). Not everything is digitised but the site will point you in the direction of historical maps, censuses, business, school and hospital records.
🙋 Step 7. Find A Friend, Ask A Friend
Stuck? Remember, 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 or a premium family roots service.
Genealogists are specialists in family detective work. They will unearth clues that you might miss. Read about the detective work undertaken by a professional genealogist on our blog.
What Else Should I Know?
- The prefixes O or Ní or Mc or Mac were sometimes dropped or adopted, depending on if someone was trying to sound more or less Irish. So it might be useful to try searching for your name with/without these prefixes.
- Exact names and dates of birth 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 can't find the information you need in a centralised location, churches can be a great place to turn to. It is best to contact them in advance of turning up. Please be aware that the primary role of churches is not to provide genealogy services. Be polite and consider giving a small donation for their time.
We hope this quick start guide to tracing your Irish family roots was useful. Start your genealogy research and you never know what you'll unearth!
And if this Irish genealogy guide has inspired you to experience your Irish roots first hand by taking a trip to Ireland, take a look at our active Vagabond Tours of Ireland and our relaxed Driftwood Small Group Tours of Ireland.