How to start your research?

Before you begin tracing your Irish ancestry try to establish the following: 

Who you are looking for?

Trying to locate a particular person in the millions of Irish records can be daunting. A name or surname is not enough.  You should try to compile as much information as possible before you can start searching records in order to have the best possible chance of locating your ancestors.  It is also easier to focus on one or two individuals initially as you gain experience in your research.  Establish who you are looking for as having a name only is not enough; you will need to assemble as complete a picture as possible.

You should start your research where you know the ancestor spent the last years of their lives. Where did they raise their family and where did they die?  Do they appear in census records in their adopted country? Are there other Irish families in the same town/neighbourhood? Was there an obituary in a local paper? Did they name their farm after a place in Ireland?  Did they marry in Ireland or elsewhere? Did they have children born in Ireland or elsewhere? 

If you start in your ancestorís home county or country and go back from location to location retracing the ancestorís footsteps you will be able to pinpoint locations where you need to search for records. If your ancestor emigrated from Ireland do not start your research in Ireland.  It is also important not to skip generations.

What makes up a picture of your ancestors?

  • Name and name-variations
  • Age
  • Physical description
  • Occupation
  • Religion
  • Likely parentsí names
  • Spouseís name
  • Likely associates
  • Other family members
  • Educational level
  • Social/economic status
  • Likely age of parents

Where did they come from in Ireland?

This is the key and is often hardest question to answer regarding Irish genealogy. Locating the county of origin is the central and essential question to tracing any emigrant line in the country of origin.  Start looking where they ended their lives and move backwards to the port of arrival. Important clues may be found in the new adopted homeland. Things to look for could be obituaries and gravestones; church records that may record where they were baptized or married; any record that might include their birthplace or place of origin. Sometimes the answer will be given as Ireland but a county, parish, or even townland may be given in some sources.

There may also be clues amongst the records pertaining to anyone who may have emigrated with them including siblings, relatives or neighbours from Ireland.  Look at any organizations they may have belonged to and look at family papers such as a bible, diary or letters. Family lore should not be neglected as a source either.

When did they leave Ireland?

It is important to try to establish this as it may help to establish their age when they emigrated. If they were very young they may have been with their parents or other siblings. If older they may have already been married and travelling with a spouse and perhaps even children born in Ireland.

The year of emigration can be checked with particular events in Irish history as different groups migrated at different times from particular locations.  If you can learn when your ancestor left Ireland it may point to a particular location in Ireland.

If there is a significant gap in years between when they left Ireland and when they arrived at their final destination this may indicate that they spent time along the way in some other country. Knowing where and when can lead to finding records about them in that country.

How did they get to their final destination?

If you can establish the ship, date and port of arrival you can look for the passenger list for a particular voyage.  This can provide information about whether they traveled with family members, neighbours or friends. Check the names of fellow passengers against land, church or census records.

If your ancestors did not leave Ireland you will still need to follow the same steps, working back from the present, generation by generation.  Use gravestones, memorial cards, family memories etc. to flesh out the facts. 

You will need to know a first name and surname.  Remember there may be variations of the surname.   At a minimum you will need to have an idea of a possible year of birth, marriage or death, and place of origin in Ireland.  It is important know the religious denomination; it is helpful if you can learn any of the following - their parentsí names/parentsí birth years; spouseís name/birth year; any other family members; an occupation. 

There are many people who do not have a county or parish of origin for their Irish ancestor.  This means that a search can be impossible in some cases where the surname is very common; however, it can still be possible for some people to locate their Irish ancestor because of an unusual first name or because a combination of a husbandís name and a wifeís name reduces the likely possibilities.   The Online Research System offers you the ability to search across all the participating countiesí records or to select one or more counties to limit/extend your searches. If you know when the ancestor left Ireland it can help to establish their age; depending on this they may have been accompanied by parents and siblings or a spouse and perhaps children born in Ireland. 

Problems you may encounter

If your ancestor was born or married before 1820 it can be difficult to locate records.  Many Catholic parishes did not keep records until around this time.  The start dates of parishes vary from county to county.  Church of Ireland (Anglican) parishes can be available from a much earlier date; sadly, however, a lot of these records were lost during the Irish Civil War. 

Sometimes a name and a date have too many possible matching records.  A county genealogy may be able to assist by pinpointing the occurrence of a surname in a particular parish or location within a parish.

You may locate only part of a family if some family members were married or baptized before record keeping commenced in the parish. 

The original parish records can be inaccurate; there may be omissions, gaps, mixing up of names, incorrect dates, torn or damaged pages etc.