Maximising Your Family History Research


View of Nenagh from the top of Nenagh Castle

I’m not long back from a great week of genealogy at the Clans and Surnames event held at theĀ  Nenagh, Tipperary. The event was run by the esteemed Lorna Moloney of Merriman Research and involved a week of talks, outings to Portumna, Co. Galway and family history consultations from professional genealogists such as myself. I delivered a talk on the first day of the event titled “Maximizing Your Family History Research: Tracing Your Regional Ancestry”. This talk was delivered mostly off the cuff, without any detailed notes, and no PowerPoint presentation. However, I felt that it might be helpful to put together some of the main points from the talk for anyone who is interested. Some of what I’m about to say may seem obvious but all too often it is the obvious which can trip us up.

My first piece of advice for anyone researching their family history is to discover what they can from their own family before going online. How far back is the Irish connection? Which particular surnames connect you to Ireland? Write all this stuff down and keep it with you. That way if you get an opportunity to dive in your research you will know where to begin.

Don’t put all your trust in genealogy websites. This is not meant as an attack on these particular services, far from it. The various online databases have made a massive contribution to genealogical research and cut down on the amount of time it takes to do research. However, like Google or any other search engine, these websites exist to tell you what is there, not what isn’t. They won’t tell you that a particular record set has a specific gap for the area where your ancestors came from. Instead they will aim to provide you with the closest match. Any online transcription is also prone to errors. Some were transcribed by people who were unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of Irish spelling or came from a faded microfilm copy of the records, rather than from the original source. For these reasons it is important to double check and cross reference with other available sources. Hopefully no one database has exactly the same errors as every other. One mistake could have major consequences for your research and cost you years of work.

When searching for your Irish ancestors, familiarise yourself with the historical geography of Ireland. The different types of administrative division can seem confusing at first, especially trying to differentiate between civil and ecclesiastical parishes and wondering what a townland is. But it is impossible to avoid these terms and fortunately there are some excellent books and websites out there that help explain how these different divisions functioned.

Be mindful of distances. It’s easy to look at a modern map of Ireland and assume that your ancestors could have travelled throughout the county or traversed half the country in a single day. The reality is that most of our ancestors probably never travelled further than the neighbouring parish until the early 20th century. This is important to remember if you know your ancestors came from West Cork or Kerry, but you found someone with a similar name in Dublin a year later, and then have your ancestors back in the home parish immediately afterwards. It’s not impossible that this could be your family but ask yourself how would they have travelled such a distance in a time before paved roads, cars or public transport? The majority of Irish people at this time were farmers, who may have been lucky to own a horse and cart. The terrain in many parts of the country wasn’t easy to traverse and many rural roads were even worse than they are now.

There is no substitute for local knowledge. Not everything is online, or at least not with the big websites. Even when they add so many thousands of individual records regularly, they will never get everything. It is often assumed that anything that wasn’t lost in the 1922 Public Record Office fire, must be held in Dublin. That is far from the case. Ireland is fortunate to have an excellent network of county libraries and archives. While not all of them have an abundance of online resources, that doesn’t mean they should be discounted. Once you’ve narrowed the search for your ancestors to a particular area and feel you can’t go any further, why not check to see what is available locally. Perhaps land records, newspapers or street directories held by the local library or archive will provide you with the information you’ve been searching for. Local historical societies are also worth contacting. Perhaps someone transcribed a now lost record set. It can also be worth contacting the parish your ancestors came from directly. Perhaps some registers survive which weren’t included in the National Library microfilms or were simply missed when these records went online.

That being said, there is a lot of valuable information contained in the National Library of Ireland and the National Archives. Only a fraction of their collections are online and they contain a lot of other records which may not seem relevant to your family history at first glance. But they might provide you with some useful context for understanding how your ancestors lived.

DNA can be helpful for getting around brick walls, but it is best used in conjunction with the paper records. It can also create more confusion if all your research tells you that your ancestors came from one part of Ireland but your DNA is matching strongly to another area. This is why double checking your research is important.

The most important lesson is persistence. Genealogy is a marathon, not a sprint. Even professionals run into occasional brick walls. As frustrating as it is, don’t lose hope. There is always a possibility of a new record set appearing which provides you with that elusive clue or maybe just stepping back for a bit to recharge will bestow a sudden flash of inspiration. Perhaps fresh eyes might spot something you overlooked. Some ancestors may always be out of reach, but you can still try to understand the history of the period they lived in. No matter what obstacles you encounter, remain positive.