Ethnic holidays - such as St. Patrick's Day for those with Irish ancestry - often spur an interest in family history. According to the New York Times, the Irish diaspora in the United States numbers more than 36 million people, more than eight times Ireland's population. Many are searching their roots, and creating demand for accessible resources.
Every ethnicity has its own challenges, but the international interest of Irish researchers means there are many websites, online databases, and a community of researchers willing to assist.
The most important place to start researching any ancestry, of course, is your own family. Ask questions and record the answers. Try to get names and towns of origin, dates of immigration and other pertinent details. Ask about immigration and citizenship documents, obituaries and cemetery records, family bibles, and other types of documents.
For Irish research, it is important to know the origin (parish or town) of your family and what religion (Protestant, Catholic or did they belong to the small but vibrant Jewish community). When did they live in Ireland? To where and when did they immigrate? What were their occupations?
As you speak to relatives, remember to record all stories and customs. While not everything may be true, or may have been embellished over the years, there is usually a kernel of truth. Write down everything as even the smallest of clues may be valuable.
Each category of ethnic research has its own problems - Irish genealogy is no different, and in fact the field suffered three major losses which effect research:
- In the early 19th century, Dublin Castle's Record Tower was destroyed.
- During World War I's paper shortage, the government ordered the destruction of the censuses for 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891.
- Most civil records (including the censuses of 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851) were burned in a 1922 fire at the Ireland Public Record office.
Ireland took a census every 10 years from 1821-1911. Today, the oldest ones available are 1901 and 1911, which are microfilmed and available at the Mormon Family History Library and international centers; 1901 has databased or published indexes.
To go back in time, it is essential to find the town or parish of origin. Although the 1922 fire destroyed the 19th-century censuses, parish registers of the Church of England and other important collections, records kept in other offices survived. These include vital civil records (birth, marriage, death), other religious records, later censuses and property records.
Many Irish immigrants went to Australia and New Zeland, the UK, the US and Canada, so useful resources will include passenger arrival and naturalization records, gravestones, military service, obituaries, land deeds, family bibles, wills and other items. Information may be different depending on the country and year.
Also search for cousins and siblings, friends and neighbors who may have arrived with your ancestor or who may have belonged to the same parish church, community or neighborhood organizations. The Irish, like many immigrant groups, tended to live together in certain areas and to associate with people from their hometowns.
Irish research can be somewhat complicated in that there are many geographic levels, such as towns, dioceses, counties, parishes and others. Different records may be found for different areas and historical period. Document categories include civil vital records (registration began in 1864), while non-Catholic marriage registration began in 1845.
Belfast's General Register Office is a major record center, as is Dublin's General Register Office, which allows index research.
Church records are organized by religion, so it is important to know your family's religion in Ireland. In the 19th century, 85% were Roman Catholic, 5% Church of England, and 10% Presbyterians. Church records are the only source of family information prior to 1864, when civil registration began.
Property and land records are important with two country-wide surveys: Tithe Applotment Books (1823-1838) and Griffith's Primary Valuation (1848-1864).
The man behind the site, IrishCentral.com, is Niall O’Dowd, the New York-based Irish publisher who puts out the weekly Irish Voice, Irish America magazine and the newspaper Home and Away. The new site includes genealogy information, top tourist spots in Ireland, breaking news and breaking fluff.
The site - see the "Roots" tab - offers articles, resources, hints and tips for Americans to research Irish roots
Here are more sites. Some are completely free, others offer free index searches but charge for copies or images, some are subscription sites.
IreAtlas Townland Database: Can't find your ancestral town on a map? Enter a place and get a list of all parishes, poor law unions and townlands in a certain area.
Irish Newspaper Archives: Digitized, indexed online Irish newspapers. Free search, fee to view/download. Millions of pages of content. Subscription site.
Irish Family History Foundation: Network of genealogy research centers in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Island. Computerized 40 million Irish ancestral records online. The Index is free; fee for detailed records.
Irish Origins: Subscription site for Irish Wills, 1851 Dublin City Census, military records and online Griffiths Valuation. Free name search; subscription for details and images.
National Archives of Ireland: Free searchable databases including Ireland-Australia Transportation Database and helpful aids to other record series, digital 1901 and 1911 censuses. Free search.
Emerald Isle Ancestors: Vital records for about 1 million people in Ulster's six counties. Indexes and some transcription. Subscription site.
Irish Family Research: Some exclusive 19th century materials, gravestone transcription. Subscription
Failte Romhat: A personal website offering free online Irish databases including 1876 Landowners, 1796 Flax Growers, 1824 Provincial Directory, cemeteries, photos and more. Free.
Famine Irish Collection: Immigrants to America during the famine (1846-1851). More than 600,000 records of passengers to New York; about 70% from ireland. Free.
Want to know what your Irish surname means? Click here for a list of 50 common Irish names and meanings.
Because many Irish names are commonly used by so many families - which may or may not be related - DNA has proven an excellent research tool to help confirm or discount genealogical connections. MyHeritage partners with FamilyTreeDNA.com. Check to see if your name is already included in a surname project.
Good luck with your research!
If you have researched your Irish ancestors, write a comment. Your experience may help other researchers. I always look forward to reading your comments.