Posted by Crista Cowan on March 15, 2012 in Research

One in eight Americans claim Irish ancestry according to an American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2008. That works out to about 36 million people. But, as we approach St Patrick’s Day this weekend, I’m betting a whole lot more than that will be “getting their Irish on.”  I know I’ll be wearing green and cooking up some corned beef and cabbage.

If you are looking for the specific origins of your Irish immigrant ancestors here are a few of my favorite tips and tricks for finding the exact piece of land your forefathers called home on the “auld sod.”


Exhaust all U.S. resources first

As tempted as we are to jump right into Irish research, do all the U.S. research you can first.  This will save you from beating your head against the proverbial brick wall as you try to sort through all of the John O’Briens and William Kellys you will find.

Use records like naturalizations, obituaries, military service records and newspaper articles. Be sure to search for records regarding the children of your immigrant ancestor as well. You never know when the obituary of one of those children will list the birthplace of their father.

Research the lives and origins of the whole family. Also pay attention to friends, associates and neighbors. Who lived near, worked with, and worshipped with your ancestors? Could they have all come over from the same place in Ireland?

Once you have a location in Ireland, it will be much easier to narrow in on your ancestor in available Irish records.


Educate yourself about the Irish census records and census substitutes

The Irish censuses of 1821-1851 were destroyed in an explosion in 1922 during the Irish Civil War. The 1861-1891 censuses were also destroyed. The remaining censuses are 1901 and 1911. These are available for free at

There are some substitutes and other resources to help get around the missing census records. Which takes me to our next tip…


Check Irish record collections available on

Go to the Card Catalog. Filter by location to Europe | Ireland. That will give you a complete listing of all databases containing Irish records. Filter by collection to see the different types of records available. There are over 28 million Irish records online at as of the writing of this post. Be sure to explore all 150+ database titles to see which ones might be pertinent to your family history. And, when you click through to a database you are interested in, be sure to scroll down past the search box to read the database description.


Look for free resources available online elsewhere

A couple of my other favorite free resources for Irish research are:

Missing Friends Advertisements in the Boston Pilot – These advertisements were placed by people looking for immigrants who came to the United States.  Many list the relationship to the person they are looking for and the town in Ireland they came from.  These records cover the years 1831-1921 and can be found at

Will calendars for Armagh, Belfast and Londonderry from 1858-1943 can be found at the website for the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.  Abstracts from these records contain not just the name of the deceased but sometimes names of family members the left for America as well.


Watch the Find Your Irish Ancestors in America & Ireland webinar for more clues and tips

Under the Learning Center on, you will find Webinars. There is one there called Find Your Irish Ancestors in America and Ireland. This is a full hour of great ideas from two of the best Irish genealogists around.  Be sure to watch this for more tips and tricks to finding your Irish ancestors as well as some ideas for learning more about them in Irish records.


For a quick tutorial on how to use some of the resources mentioned in this blog post, feel free to watch the Ancestry LIVE broadcast I did earlier today.

Now, I just need to find some time to sort out what I know about my great-great-grandfather, John O’Brien, who was born in either Ireland or Ohio in either 1829 or 1835.  (The man couldn’t keep his story straight.)

Until next time…

P.S. One other free resource that we discussed in the chat after the broadcast is GenUKI.

Crista Cowan

Crista has been doing genealogy since she was a child. She has been employed at since 2004. Around here she's known as The Barefoot Genealogist. Google Twitter


  1. MsWinston

    Giles (#1) that is my situation as well. I have been able to obtain much information on the families I am tracing from Ireland to Canada. One of the great things in the Canadian census is that it gives the religious affiliation of each family. My families were all Catholic, but so many Irish families used similiar names that checking for religion saved me from attaching the wrong people to my tree. The down-side for the census is that it is about two decades behind the U.S. in releasing the census records. Also, don’t assume that just because your family came from Ireland that they didn’t settle for a time in Quebec I have found some records in French in Quebec. Hope this helps a little.

  2. leslie

    I also have families that came from Ireland to Quebec Canada. I have found quite a few living in and around Montreal and found birth cert. and marriage cert.Then the families scattered most ending up in Ottawa,Ontario Canada. Its so hard to research because of the privacy act. I’m now stuck and hit a dead end. My 4th great grandfather lived in Ireland but can’t find anything.

    My other question which is not related to Ireland but how do you find someone that left England came to Newfoundland which was still British before it became Canada which I think was 1949. I’ve hit a dead end there as well. It would be interesting on your live feed to do something for Canadians.

Comments are closed.