Posted by Juliana Szucs on March 11, 2016 in Website
St. Matthew Chapel, Parish of Milltown, Co. Westmeath, Ireland
St. Matthew Chapel, Parish of Milltown, Co. Westmeath, Ireland

I feel like the doors to my Irish ancestry have suddenly been opened wide with the recent addition of more than 10 million Irish Catholic Parish Registers on Ancestry. For many of us, this collection represents the best chance of discovering a written record of our ancestors and their families online.

The National Library of Ireland has been working to preserve these records since it began microfilming them in the 1950s. While the records can date as far back as the 1600s and as recent as 1915, the majority of the collection dates from the late 1700s to the early 1880s. Recently the images were digitized and indexed and can now be searched and viewed on Ancestry (free through March 17th). I’ve had some great luck in this collection and have put together some search tips that will hopefully help you as you explore your Irish roots in this historic collection.

Where and When in Ireland?

You’ll have the best chance of success if you have an idea of where in Ireland your family lived. Not sure where they’re from in Ireland? Download our guide here for tips on where to look.

Know Their FAN Club

Irish names are often very common names, so distinguishing your James Kelly from others can be a challenge. This is not a time for tracing your direct ancestors alone. Gather as much information as you can on extended family and get to know their FAN Club (Friends/Associates/Neighbors). Look at the people they interacted with after they left Ireland. If you’ve done research in Catholic records here in the States, make note of sponsors (godparents) and witnesses at marriages. Make note of the names of people they travelled with and their neighbors in the U.S., particularly those that lived around them soon after their arrival. Immigrants often travelled with and settled near neighbors from the old country.

Be Flexible with Spelling

Spelling of both first and last names varied widely, so be flexible. Huggins can become Huggin, Huggans, Higgins, Higgans, Huggens, Hugens, etc.  Wildcards can help when you’re searching for name variants. On Ancestry, a question mark (?) will replace one character (great for folks who treated vowels as interchangeable), and an asterisk (*) will replace zero or more characters. So H?g*n* will capture all of the above renderings of Huggins. Because you may get a lot of variants depending on the name, wildcards are most useful when you can specify a particular parish. (Be sure to choose the place from the drop-down menu and use the Exact link to restrict results to that place.)

William or Guilielmus

Many of the records of the Catholic Church in Ireland are in Latin and while it’s not difficult to interpret them for the most part, you will want to keep this in mind when you’re searching. If you’re not finding the English version of your ancestor’s surname, try searching for a Latin equivalent. (If you’re not sure, just use a search engine and search for “Latin for [NAME].”) Be aware though, that here again, spelling wasn’t uniform.

Because many Latin names have the same root as their English version, wildcards can help here, as well. Marg* will pick up Margaret, Margarita, Margaretta, Marguerite, etc.; Pat* will find Patrick, Patricii, Patricius, Patritius, Patk., and other spellings.

Search for Just a Surname and a Parish

If you’re searching for ancestors in less-populated areas, try searching for just the surname and the place. When searching for my Huggins family in Milltown, County Westmeath, with all the variants I got a list of 127 hits, which I printed out, noting the most promising entries. Focusing first on those that most closely matched the Huggins spelling, I was able to quickly identify my immigrant ancestor’s family. I found some children that I was not aware of prior to this. They don’t show up with the family in the passenger lists or in American records that I’ve found.

Using my printed list and clicking through to the image, I created a Word document and began sorting out the baptism records into families using the parents’ names. Rearranging the records by family and in chronological order, I added in details not found on the index, such as maiden names and sponsors/witnesses.

20160310 Huggins

With this technique, I was able to easily piece together several families, including one in which my immigrant ancestor fit perfectly, with parents Roberto and Bridgitta. We’ve long speculated a relationship between our Huggins family and the Murtagh family (sometimes spelled Murta in the records) because of the appearance of Murtaghs with our Huggins family in several other records. Of  9 baptisms in Robert and Bridget’s family, 6 of them had at least one Murta/Murtagh sponsor listed.  Although none of these baptisms gave the mother’s maiden name, I was beginning to strongly suspect I had found my Murtagh connection.

I reviewed the list of matches from my search one more time and found one entry that I had initially missed because it had been indexed as Haggan. The luck of the Irish was with me on this one. It was the only baptism that listed Bridget’s maiden name. Murtagh. (Cue happy dance.)


Once you’ve found a parish, don’t be shy. Browse the parish records. Think of it. When my mom was fortunate enough to visit the church in Milltown years ago with my dad, they caught the parish priest just as he was running out on a holiday. He was kind enough to look up a few records for them, but all we got was my 3rd great-grandmother’s baptism and her parents’ marriage. There wasn’t time for more. We now have access to these records 24/7, and in just one night I was able to expand greatly on what we know about that family, taking it back another generation. And I’m just getting started. Going forward, we’ll be able to piece together entire communities.

Also keep in mind that indexes are not perfect. In looking over the list of baptisms chronologically, while the spacing between baptisms was typically 1 ½ to 2 years, in one case I found a gap of 6 years between two children. I used the browse to locate the years where the pattern dictated that more children might have been born and was able to fill that gap with two more children.

The doors are open, and your Irish Catholic ancestors are waiting. Dig in and start exploring your Irish roots today in the Irish record collections on Ancestry.



Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 20 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program.


  1. Patricia

    They really are – wide open! Never in my dreams could I have imagined. Great tips Juliana. I’ve been glued to the NLI site since July and now with the indexing on Ancestry (and FMP), it is even more a dream come true. Thank you.

  2. Terry

    I am very disappointed that ancestry did not advise its members of the week of free access to the indexed Irish records through Findmypast. I found FMP to be more effective than Ancestry. With FMP I found my family in Dublin and was able to go back another generation. Ancestry, on the other hand, I found to be ineffective.

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