How to trace Irish ancestors
by Mary Quinn & Ruairí Blaney
1. Starting out
An estimated three million people in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) are of Irish descent. Some Irish ancestors arrived here as far back as the early 17th century, others as recently as just after the Second World War.
London and Dublin were connected from early times by the silk and linen trade, which brought many Irish immigrants to London. However, the rapid growth in Ireland’s population, combined with harsh working conditions, saw the rate of immigration increase in the 1790s. By the 1830s many Irish communities were established in London as well as in Scotland and Wales, where Irish workers became an essential element in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.
The biggest wave of immigration came during the Great Famine of 1845-1847, when more than one million people left Ireland. Most fled to America but a substantial proportion made for Great Britain, with Liverpool the most popular destination for famine refugees.
As the 19th century progressed, a steadier influx of Irish was accompanied by a wider distribution throughout the country.
Whilst searching Irish records, you will need to bear in mind that the spelling of Irish surnames varied considerably during the 19th century, especially in the use of prefixes “Mc” or “O”. The surname “Maguire” may be spelt “McGuire” or “MacGuire”. The Surname “Blaney” may be spelt “O Blaney” or “McBlaney”.
Start by finding out as much as possible about your Irish ancestors from living relatives. Follow one line (surname) of your family at a time. Your parents should be able to provide approximate dates and places of birth, marriage and death for their parents, and possibly their grandparents. Family bibles, letters, notebooks and diaries may help fill any gaps in your knowledge.
Collect as much information about your ancestors in Great Britain before turning to Irish records. British sources include the General Register Office (for births, deaths and marriages), parish registers and census returns, all of which may provide you with that vital location in Ireland – the name of a county, parish or townland.
Once you have identified a location in Ireland, your search of Irish records can commence.
2. Civil records: births, marriages and deaths
Birth, marriage and death certificates are the foundations on which to build your family tree. Birth certificates will provide details of your ancestor’s full name, parents’ names (including mother’s maiden name), father’s occupation and the family address.
Marriage certificates will provide the full names of the bride and groom, together with their addresses immediately prior to the wedding, as well recording their respective fathers’ names and occupations.
Death certificates will provide details of an ancestor’s age (enabling you to determine their date of birth), and address prior to death.
The registration of births, marriages and deaths commenced generally in Ireland in 1864 (non-Catholic marriage registration commenced in 1845).
For Northern Ireland, a central index is held by the General Register Office in Belfast (GRONI), which you can visit in person. Provided you have details of your ancestor’s approximate year of birth, marriage or death, and location (townland, parish or county), you can apply for a search and a copy certificate online from the GRONI website.
For the Republic of Ireland, the central index can be searched at the General Register Office in Dublin (GRO), and should you require a copy certificate, a search form can be downloaded from the GRO website.
The Church of the Latter Day Saints Family History Library (LDS) also holds copies of the central indexes, and more importantly, has many birth, marriage and death records (copied from the original registers) on microfilm. These can be viewed at the Family History Centre in Hyde Park, London, or ordered from other Family History Centres in the UK.
3. Census returns
Irish census returns were compiled at ten-yearly intervals from 1821. However most early returns were destroyed and the only surviving and complete returns are for 1901 and 1911. If your ancestor was in Ireland during this period, the information they contain is invaluable.
Census returns record details of family members, lodgers, servants and visitors, together with their age, county of birth, marital status, occupation, religious denomination, literacy level, and the ability to speak English or Irish. Disabilities were also recorded.
The 1911 returns required married women to record the number of years they had been married, the number of live births they had, and number of children still alive in 1911.
Though not yet online, the National Archives of Ireland (National Archives) is working with the Library and Archives of Canada to digitise the 1901 and 1911 census returns. A new National Archives website is expected later this year, which will see the 1911 census returns for Dublin online, with the completed project expected in 2009.
In the meantime, census returns are available at the National Archives, and microfilms of the 1901 returns are held at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). County libraries throughout Ireland also hold copies of local returns on microfilm.
4. Church records
To progress your research beyond civil records and into the early 19th century, a search of parish registers is required. The principal religious denominations in Ireland are Church of Ireland, Catholic and Presbyterian.
Most Church of Ireland registers commenced in the 1700s. However many original registers were deposited in the Public Records Office in Dublin, only to be destroyed in the Irish Civil War of 1922. All surviving pre-1870 registers are held at the National Archives (for parishes in the Republic) or in PRONI (for Northern Ireland parishes). The Representative Church Body Library also holds details of all baptismal and burial registers from 1871, and marriages from 1845, and offers a search service.
Catholic registers generally commenced in the 1820s and are still held locally in each parish. Microfilms can be searched at the National Library and the PRONI dating up to around 1880. The Family History Centre in London has microfilms of approximately 800 (mostly Catholic) parishes.
Presbyterian registers (principally found in Northern Ireland) date mainly from the 1830s and microfilms can be searched in the PRONI and the Presbyterian Historical Society.
It is important to remember that penal laws in force in Ireland in the 1700s meant that some Catholic and Presbyterian baptisms, marriages and burials were recorded in Church of Ireland Registers. These should definitely be checked too.
Additionally, the Irish Manuscripts Commission has published a list of Convert Rolls for 1708-1838, listing those converting to Church of Ireland during this time, which may prove useful.
5. Land records - Griffith’s Valuations of Ireland 1848-1864
The lack of 19th century census returns has meant that land records have taken on increased importance in the search for Irish ancestors. The most important compilation is Griffith’s Primary Valuations of Ireland (1848-1864), which lists every landlord and tenant in Ireland during this time.
Arranged by county, and sub-divided into Poor Law Union, barony, parish and townland, Griffiths enables you to locate your ancestor and the property they owned or leased. Griffith’s can be found at the National Archives, National Library, PRONI, or the Family History Centre in London. An index to Griffith’s can also be searched online at www.irishorigins.com.
Valuation Office records
The Valuation Office holds surveys of land for the Republic of Ireland from 1850 up to the present day, and records of changes in ownership and tenancy. Once you have located your ancestor in Griffith’s, these records can provide details of owners and occupiers of your ancestor’s property spanning more than 150 years.
All changes were dated, helping you identify dates of death or migration, and the sale of the property. Searches can be undertaken in person, or by application in writing.
For Northern Ireland property, PRONI holds changes in ownership/tenancy from 1864 to around 1929, and from 1935 onwards. These can be searched in person.
Registry of Deeds
The Registry of Deeds is a unique resource for genealogical research. Established by the Registry of Deeds Act 1707, a penal law preventing Catholics from owning leases of land for more than 31 years, the Registry holds more than five million memorials (summaries of deeds) recording conveyances, leases, mortgages and marriage settlement deeds from 1708 to the present day. Many of the memorials pre-date the Irish Land Registry records by 200 years (the Land Registry was established in 1891).
While the Registry initially recorded deeds involving Protestants, the relaxation of penal laws in the 1790s meant that deeds made between Catholics were registered too. Although the registration was voluntary, the Registry can help locate memorials signed by your ancestors and identify the location of their property during the 18th century.
Indexes to the Registry of Deeds are also available on microfilm at the Family History Centre in London.
6. Other resources
Wills and testamentary records
Wills are another useful resource, often revealing an extensive network of family ties, as well as identifying your ancestor’s property and showing how their possessions were distributed after their death.
Beneficiaries often included spouses, children (detailing daughters’ married names) and grandchildren – providing a wealth of family connections to help you compile your family tree.
Although original (pre-1900) wills were destroyed in the Irish Civil War, transcripts of wills proved in district registries (excluding Dublin) from 1858-1900 have survived, together with some pre-1858 wills indexes. Those for Northern Ireland can be found at the PRONI and those for the Republic at the National Archives. A partial index to wills of the Prerogative Courts (1536-1810) is also available online at www.irishfamilyresearch.co.uk.
The Registry of Deeds also has wills books dating from 1708-1832, and abstracts have been published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission, and can be viewed at the British Library or the National Archives, Dublin.
The Journals of the Association for the Preservation of Memorials of the Dead (1888-1931) are indispensable in locating early headstones. Most gravestones recorded by the association date from the 1700s, providing an invaluable link to Irish ancestors, pre-dating parish registers and civil registration. The Journals have been transcribed and are available online at www.irishfamilyresearch.co.uk.
Residents’ Directories can pinpoint where your ancestors lived in the 19th century, and provide details of their occupations. While early directories listed gentry, professionals, merchants and traders, later directories included farmers (but excluded small tenant farmers, those living in tenements, and servants).
Newspaper research is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about your ancestors, and the era in which they lived. Obituaries often provide an outline of the deceased’s life, listing chief mourners. You may find your ancestors took part in local community events, which also were regularly reported.
The British Library Newspapers have a large collection, as does the National Library of Ireland.
7. Visiting Ireland: the practicalities
The key to successful research is to plan ahead of your visit. Identify records that may help you in your search, and their location. The National Archives, PRONI, and National Library have useful websites detailing their collections. You can email them for details of more specific records available to help in your search.
To search births, deaths and marriages indexes on your visit, Northern Ireland records can be accessed in the public search rooms at GRONI by appointment. Be sure to make an appointment two weeks in advance – call 028 90252 000, or email: email@example.com. The GRO in Dublin does not have a booking facility but space is limited, so plan your trip around their opening time of 9.30am.
Appointments are not required for visits to PRONI or the National Archives – both are open from Monday to Friday, but opening hours vary. Both will require some form of photo-ID (passport/driving licence) in order to issue you with a reader’s card.
The best day to visit PRONI is on Thursday, when it is open from 10am to 8.45pm.
To view parish registers, contact the RCB Library (Church of Ireland) to identify what registers exist for your ancestor’s parish, and where they are held.
All Catholic parish registers are held in local custody, so you could write to the local parish priest and make an appointment to view the registers on your visit. Find the relevant contact details here www.catholicireland.net/pages. Alternatively you can view some registers at PRONI or the National Library in Dublin (email them first to see what registers are available).
Finally, when visiting your ancestral townland, remember to speak to local people. In more rural parts of Ireland, families have lived in the same area for generations, and recollections of older members of the community are invaluable – especially if they remember some interesting or colourful snippet of information about your ancestors.
8. Useful online resources
- Directory of Irish genealogy websites
- Searchable Irish genealogy databases, plus free research advice on tracing Irish ancestors
- Irish genealogy information, including Griffith's Primary Valuation of Ireland records and various maps
- The Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland
- Hire a professional researcher from the research consultancy who investigate Ireland for the Who Do You Think You Are? TV series
- Specialists in researching Northern Ireland
- General Register Office (Northern Ireland)
- General Register Office (Republic of Ireland)
- Find your nearest LDS Family History Centre
- The National Archives of Ireland
- The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
- Church of Ireland, RCB Library
- Valuation Office Ireland
- The Property Registration Authority
- The Irish Manuscripts Commission
- The National Library of Ireland