Getting Started on Your Irish Family History Research, by Eileen M. Ó Dúill, CG

As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, do you yearn to start the journey in search of your Irish ancestors? From the 1st of February, the feast day of Ireland’s female patron saint, Saint Bridget, until the March feast day of her more famous male counterpart, is the ideal time to make a start on your road to the “Island of Saints and Scholars.”

The ultimate goal for many people of Irish descent is to walk the land of the Irish immigrant from whom they are descended. Identifying the exact parish and, hopefully townland, where the ancestor was born is the key to finding your ancestral home. 

Many people are discouraged by the belief that Irish research is difficult due to the fact that “everything blew up.” It is true that many records were lost over the years and, most dramatically in the disastrous fire at the Four Courts in Dublin in June 1922.

It is also true that no civil records of birth, marriage, or death from 1864 to the present have been lost. Parish registers of baptism and marriage have been indexed in recent years on a county by county basis and are more accessible than ever before.

While census records are lacking for most of the nineteenth century, the census of 1901 and 1911 have been released to the public and within the next eighteen months will be available, free of charge, on the National Archives of Ireland website.

Where Do I Start?
You search for your Irish ancestors as you search for all ancestors, by beginning with yourself and working back systematically through the generations. Interviewing elderly relations is the ideal place to begin.

Be discreet in your approach however. You won’t get far “grilling” Aunt Nora or cross-examining Uncle Mick. Be organized and have your questions ready. Write or tape the information, if your relation is agreeable. If it doesn’t mean anything to you now, it may later. Don’t be too nosey or you’ll get a snappish “What do you want to know for?” from dear Aunt Maggie. Reassure your relations that you are after the “gold” of information and not the family silver.
Family papers such as Bibles, journals, and letters are the best sources of information which will help pinpoint the place your ancestor came from in Ireland.

You may discover correspondence in the Irish language (Gaelic). By identifying your ancestor as an Irish speaker, you have narrowed your search to the Gaeltacht areas of Ireland where Irish is the primary language. A letter in Irish can be translated by most Irish speakers. The Consulate General of Ireland nearest your home will be able to refer you to a translator. You could also contact Sean Ó Dúill, our resident expert on Irish documents in modern or old Irish. (He’ll be happy to help with letters, but may have to request a small fee for longer documents.)

Photographs can often offer clues. By examining the back of photographs you may locate a date and place of the photograph. Some formal portraits show the name of the studio where the photo was taken. When you do make your trip to Ireland, bring copies of these family photographs to share with your Irish cousins. Family resemblances are strong, so you may yet discover the ancestor who gave you that distinguished profile or piercing blue eyes.

Seeking Documentation
When you have gathered all the available records from family sources, you are ready to set out in search of documentation. You are, no doubt familiar with the available sources in the United States and Canada which detail the progress of your ancestor’s life. Somewhere among the marriage and death certificates, obituaries and headstones, naturalization applications, wills and other public documents, your ancestor may have provided the vital clues that can bring you back to Ireland.

Seek out your ancestor’s household on the census. Often you will find just “Ireland” as place of birth but every so often you will see a county of birth. Make notes of the Irish surnames of the neighbors. They may all come from the same parish in Ireland. 

What You Need to Know
The essential identifying information you need to know to begin research in Ireland is:

  • Name of the immigrant ancestor
  • Approximate year of birth
  • Parent’s names
  • County or parish of origin

The names of your ancestor’s parents are the most crucial pieces of information. Since the Irish were frequently inaccurate about their ages, parents’ names are the most reliable identifying fact. Without the parents, it would not be possible to identify your Patrick Murphy from among the 104 Patrick Murphy births registered in 1865.

Irish Citizenship
If you have successfully documented your connection to an Irish grandparent, you might consider applying for Irish citizenship. Irish law recognizes that Ireland is a nation in Diaspora. Therefore, any person who has an Irish grandparent may qualify for Irish citizenship and an Irish passport. You can apply to the Irish embassy in Washington or to the Consulate General of Ireland nearest your home for application forms. There are delays in the busy consulates like New York and Boston but it is well worth the wait. Further information is available from the consulate nearest your home.

Preparing to Visit
Having gathered as much information as you can in U.S. and Canadian sources, you are ready to give yourself an “Irish Genealogy 101” There are many good books on Irish genealogy, particularly John Grenham’s “Tracing Irish Ancestors.”

Once you have identified the county of origin, you may choose to commission a search of the records which have been indexed by the county heritage centres. Their report or possibly a report by a professional genealogist will assist you in finding living relations in Ireland. At this point, it is time to plan that trip to Ireland!

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Eileen Ó Dúill, a Dublin-based professional Irish genealogist who specializes in legal and probate research. She is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland and serves as a Director of Irish Genealogy Ltd., the Irish government’s advisory body on genealogy. Eileen is the International Trustee for Britain and Ireland of the Association of Professional Genealogists of the U.S.A. She has lectured at National Genealogical Society Conferences and at the Federation of Genealogical Societies Conferences since 1999.

10 thoughts on “Getting Started on Your Irish Family History Research, by Eileen M. Ó Dúill, CG

  1. My great-great grandfather came from County Cork. According to family stories, he left Ireland about 1810 and came to the United States. The only document I have that gives his name is the death certificate of his son, my great-grandfather Harlow Jackson. According to the death certificate, Harlow was born in 1821 in New York and his parents were James and Hannah Jackson. Is there any way of discovering more about this James Jackson, such as when and how he left County Cork? Birth and marriage records are kept by counties and there are many counties in New York.

  2. It is a pleasure to find this information. My husband only knows where his relatives came from Ireland. No parish or place. Thank you. We did go to Ireland once but had no clue where to look and being with another couple we could not do research. It is one beautiful country. Thank you.
    Sincerely Jeannette

  3. Most general genealogical sources say that the name “Tulley” indicates an Irish origin. I have family documentation back to 1540 in Sussex so any link must be earlier than that.

    When I started looking at on-line sources, I found a paragraph in a newsletter or similar publication saying that there was a parish named Tulley or Tully in County Donegal, but I haven’t found any other reference to that. Unfortunately I didn’t record the location of that original mention.

    Where can I look?

  4. I have researched my irish ancestors for the last five years fortunately for me they have lived on the same farm for 250 years with lots of letters & photos to help me
    I still find it difficult to trace births deaths & marriages even though I go to Ireland to research three or four times a year & have access to church records
    Th public record office in Belfast has micro film of many church records plus old newspaper records in local libraries are an excellent source thanks to ancestry’s immigtration records I have traced my irish kin to America & canada

  5. This article contains a lot of beneficial information. However, I would love to see something similar for those of us of Scots Irish descent, our ancestors having come to America via Belfast. In my case, my Irish grandparents arrived in Philadelphia circa 1840, and are very well documented from that point on. They were married and had one child before leaving Ireland, but I have not been successful in finding their parents.

    Any ideas about where to go from here?

  6. Unfortunately the only information I have on my great-great grandparents is John Kerrigan born about 1838 in Ireland & Bridget Delaney born about 1836 in England. They were married in Boston, MA in 1860 & had 5 children. Only 1, my great grandmother survived early childhood. Bridget died in 1874. I have not found John’s death record but think he died not to long after. Bridget’s has different names on marriage and death record. I think they may have been from Northern Ireland as no evidence of a Catholic background.

  7. I was interested in Eileen’s comments about “Irish Citizenship.” If I have documented my husband’s connection to an Irish gggrandparent, could he apply for citizenship or does it have to be a grandparent? Secondly, how does applying for Irish citizenship help with genealogical research, or why is it, as Eileen says, “well worth the wait?”

  8. How do you go about finding the parents names of your ancestors in Ireland when all you have is the ancestors names and birthdates, but have not been able to find any mention of parents names. A county has been mentioned.

  9. my john and margaret lyon lewis came to the colonies in the mid 1700s with their five sons all of whom fought in the rev. war. son, brig. gen. andrew lewis, is my 6 greats grandfather. how do i find any irish information about them.
    i have names of john’s father and grandfather and margaret’s father (maybe!!)
    terry zeman

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