Getting Started

With St Patrick’s Day just gone it seems like an appropriate time to talk about Irish ancestors. They say everyone is a bit Irish on St Patrick’s Day but how do you find out? The goal of this entry is to provide some basic tips on some of the initial steps you can take to get you started and perhaps even make it easier if you intend to hire a professional genealogist to undertake research for you later on.

The first step is to try and identify where in your family the Irish connection is. Even if you have a typically Irish name such as O’Connell and O’Neill, you may be surprised to discover your Irish connection isn’t as obvious as you would think. While the largest bulk of Irish immigration took place in the aftermath of the Famine, there have always been Irish people making their way out into the wider world. Just recently I came across an interesting article about how George Washington allowed his troops to celebrate St Patrick’s Day during the Revolutionary War in 1780. Irish people have been settling in the UK and Continental Europe for even longer.

Once you have identified the Irish connection, then the next step is to try and narrow down a county of origin. This isn’t always as easy as it might seem. Too often we have to sort through conflicting information. You might have folklore that has been passed down through the generations suggesting your ancestor came from a certain part of the country but documentation may suggest otherwise. The best way to be certain is to gather as much information as you can, marriage and death certs, census records and if possible, church records. It’s always possible a baptismal record may contain more detail than a standard birth cert. While people had little hesitation in fudging details when it came to government records, they would always be cautious about lying to their priest.

When you are ready to begin your search in Ireland, take a bit of time to become familiar with Irish geography. Remember that the 32 counties of Ireland break down into countless subdivisions of baronies, parishes, townlands, poor law unions, electoral districts etc. Depending on the time period you are examining, having some knowledge of these divisions can make your search much easier.

Irish Poor Law Union Map (Courtesy http://www.workhouses.org.uk)

Surnames can also be a valuable way to find an ancestor. Even common surnames tend to be typically found in certain counties. For example Ryan is most often found in Tipperary and neighbouring counties, Sullivan in West Cork and Kerry and so on. A very useful guide for the distribution of Irish surnames and their variants can be found courtesy of John Grenham on his website.

Irish records have a reputation for being difficult, partially due to the large gaps left by the Public Records Office fire of 1922. But the truth is that there is a lot of information available, starting with the 1901 and 1911 census. Parish records, land valuations, birth, marriage and death records and even historic newspapers can all be extremely valuable in your search.

Once you locate the county of origins for your ancestors it is also worth checking out the websites of local libraries and archives. They may have information and even transcripts of other records unique to that county or city. This may include specific estate records, commercial directories etc. More and more records are being made available so never assume nothing exists.

DNA can also be useful. Ireland may be a bit behind other countries in terms of how many people have taken commercial DNA tests but it is growing in popularity. Only recently, one of our most popular Irish talk shows The Late Late Show was devoted a segment to discussing DNA in genealogy. You can see an excerpt below and watch the full programme here:

Of course DNA testing isn’t a magic bullet. Sometimes it can cause more confusion but if you feel you’ve exhausted every other option then it is worth doing, especially as the costs for the various tests gradually become more affordable. The Internation Society of Genetic Genealogy has a very helpful introduction to the basics of DNA for tracing ancestry.

If you are seriously stuck and at your wits end, then feel free to consult a professional. We don’t bite and are always willing to offer some advice to get you started. You can find contact details for professionals in Ireland here and here. Local archives and libraries might also be able to put you in touch with an expert in the area you are searching.

The final piece of advice is to never lose hope. It can be tough going and there will undoubtedly be many false trails but in the end hopefully it will be worth it.

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