Irish Genealogy: A Guide To Tracing Your Irish Family History
If you have Irish ancestry and have started tracing your Irish family tree, you’ve probably noticed that Irish genealogy is…complicated.
What with Ireland’s wars, schisms, and a lack of a cohesive public records system, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Fortunately, this article can help you get on your way to tracking down your Irish ancestors.
The Lure of the Emerald Isle
Ireland has always been shrouded in mystery and folklore, and it hasn’t changed much in this regard.
Ancient inhabitants of Ireland (Druids, Celtics, etc) used to believe in magical power. Most of these beliefs spread to current-day legends narrated over and over throughout the country. Stories of fairies pulling pranks on farm owners, leprechauns hiding their treasures at the end of a rainbow, and warriors with all the world’s knowledge add to Ireland’s mysterious appeal.
These tales take numerous forms and are different from one family to another since every household has its own variation on a legend. Families throughout Ireland will gather around an elderly person and listen keenly as they’re taken on an epic adventure filled with excitement and danger.
Members of the Irish diaspora often feel a mystical connection to Ireland, even if they’ve never visited . This connection has been preserved through the generations. If you’re an Irish-American yearning to learn more about your family ancestry, this guide is for you!
Understand The Irish Diaspora
To understand your Irish ancestry, you should learn about the political and social issues Ireland through its different eras.
Some of the major themes you should explore include: the history of Catholicism and Protestantism in the country; regional differences between Irish counties; the relationship between Ireland and England; the Gaelic Revival; and Irish emigration.
You should especially learn all you can about the conditions that resulted in your Irish ancestors leaving everything that was familiar and taking a perilous journey to a new land.
In most cases, Irish fled their country to escape poverty, religious conflict, or both.
The Mass Irish Exodus
The largest and most well-known outflow of Irish to the New World occurred during the Great Famine (also known as the Great Hunger, the Irish Potato Famine, or, more simply, the Famine), 1845-1852.
The poor had only two choices: depart or die. Around a million people died of starvation, while another million fled the country, most of them to England and the United States.
Irish in the United States
In the period from 1700 to the present, around five million Irish emigrated from Ireland to the United States. Today, there are more than 41 million Irish-Americans in the United States. Or, if you prefer, nearly an order of magnitude more Irish in the US than in Ireland!
Why is Irish Genealogy So Difficult?
Irish genealogy is so difficult because Ireland has had some rough patches. Also because, from an administrative standpoint, Ireland is a complicated mosaic of recordkeeping.
After all, the country is an island; isolated from the UK and mainland Europe by water, they’ve always done things a bit differently.
When seeking marriage records, birth records, and other records for family history research, you’re likely to hit some brick walls due a confluence of factors, including the following:
- A 1922 fire burned a sickening amount of records that were housed in the Public Record Office in Dublin.
- Up until the 20th century, a limited pool of Irish first and last names ensured a lot of redundancy (many people of the same name).
- The schism of Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland added further complication.
- Ireland never had a standardized bureaucracy for managing records; instead, records were kept in turns by counties, baronies, civil parishes, religious parishes, and other administrative entities.
- The Protestant-Catholic schism added a layer of complexity to an already complex social fabric; Catholic records were generally kept separately from Presbyterian records.
- A multiplicity of record sources, paired with a high rate of records being destroyed, leaves us with…confusion.
But, fear not, there are still some excellent resources to help you on your way. Toward the end of this page, we’ll cover some excellent online resources for Irish genealogy.
Irish Genealogy Quicklinks
The 1922 Irish Courthouse Fire
You might have heard that most Irish genealogy records were lost in a courthouse fire in 1922.
An explosion did set fire to the Four Courts complex, which houses the Public Record Office of Ireland. The PROI housed records from many Irish parishes (more on these below).
Many important historical documents were lost, including original wills from the 16th century, 19th-century Irish census returns, and 1,000+ Church of Ireland parish registers.
While the loss of the PROI records is catastrophic from a genealogical perspective, more than 600 parish registers were not housed there, but remained in custody of the local parish.
The Difficulty of Irish Names
When doing Irish genealogy, you can’t escape Irish naming conventions. The Irish had some peculiarities in the appellation department that make for interesting research.
The Same Irish Names, Over and Over
Before the 20th century, Irish parents drew from a surprisingly small pool of first names for their kids.
Irish surnames, also, are fairly repetitive, with a handful of common last names dominating the records books.
It’s not enough to know that your great-great-great grandpappy was Patrick Sullivan. You’ll need to know which hamlet, town, or village your ancestor hailed from…and even then you might need more information.
Patrick Sullivan of Clonmel? You might find 8 different individuals matching those parameters for your target timeframe. You may need to narrow the search further with your ancestor’s occupation, date of birth, or other information.
The Gaelic Revival
In the late 19th Century, Ireland experienced a nationalistic and nostalgic wave that led to the revival of Gaelic culture and language.
If your ancestors were still living in Ireland in the late 1800s and early 1900s, you’ll probably notice a de-Anglicizing of their names.
John became Eoin, Eugene became Eoghan; Sarah became Sorcha, and so forth.
Northern Ireland and the Rest of Ireland
Ireland divided into two in 1921. Northern Ireland (with six counties in Ulster’s northern province) split off from the rest of Ireland (the other 26 counties).
Originally, both Irelands remained in the U.K. After the Irish War of Independence, however, the south seceded from the U.K. to create the Irish Free State (currently the Republic of Ireland). Northern Ireland opted to remain in the U.K.
A 310-mile border separates Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland.
Irish Boundaries and Recordkeeping
Much like the U.S., Irish records were gathered at various jurisdictional levels based on their purpose. The Northern Ireland / Republic of Ireland schism had many impacts on recordkeeping.
Irish Administrative Terminology
A common frustration in Irish genealogy is that there are so many different administrative units! It’s important to understand the difference between a province, county, parish, townland, barony, and civil registration district.
Ireland has four provinces, based on ancient kingdoms:
There are 32 historical counties in the two Irelands combined. In many instances, records were gathered and archived by the county.
Today, many online Irish records databases are organized by county.
Irish counties were more important in the past than they are today, politically-speaking. For example, in Northern Ireland, counties have been replaced by districts for administrative purposes.
However, Irish counties are still vital to Irish identity—and to Irish genealogy.
Baronies were divisions based on ancient clan territories. At times, baronies were used as administrative districts for tax collection; at other times for land records or censuses.
From the 20th century onward, baronies were not used much for administrative or recordkeeping purposes.
In terms of recordkeeping—and record-seeking—the Irish parish is an important administrative unit. Parishes are smaller administrative districts often associated with a religious community.
Parishes are one of the most slippery and complex administrative districts to make sense of in Ireland. There are several types (civil, Protestant, Catholic) with different rules applying to each.
In some instances, different parishes occupy the same territory. For example, the civil parish of Templetogher contains the Roman Catholic parish of Williamstown, Boyouanagh and Glenamaddy!
See, we told you that Irish history is complicated. No wonder you’re looking for help with your Irish genealogy!
Civil Parishes in Ireland
Parishes are subdivisions of Irish counties (though occasionally a parish straddles counties, making things even more complex). Ireland contains 2,500 total civil parishes.
Some civil parishes have remained consistent throughout history, while the boundaries of others have changed over time.
Church of Ireland Parishes
In the 16th century, the Church of Ireland became the established church…of Ireland. The Protestant population, though a minority, held power, and the Church of Ireland became a de facto ruling power in matters of land rights, recordkeeping, and more.
In some respects, the Church of Ireland became so intertwined with Irish civil administrative power that the two can’t really be thought of as separate.
Marriage records, land records, death records, birth records, and many other types of family history records were kept by the parish, effectively as an arm of the Irish government.
The Church of Ireland housed many of its parish registers at the Public Records Office of Ireland in Dublin city. In the aforementioned tragic fire, these were burned and many church records lost forever.
Of the remaining registers in local custody, some vanished into private collections.
For a fairly comprehensive guide to surviving records, Ruth Mathewson’s “Church of Ireland Parish Records Finder” is hugely helpful.
Especially in Southern Ireland, many Church of Ireland parishes have the same boundaries and names as the civil parishes. However, this is not always the case.
Roman Catholic Parishes
Though Protestantism was the religion of the ruling class from the 16th century onward, the majority of Ireland’s population was Roman Catholic.
Religious tensions kept many Irish Roman Catholics practicing on the down-low, but in certain parts of Ireland the Roman Catholic Church had enough prominence to have parishes (usually referred to as dioceses) of its own.
It all gets very complex, but Shane Wilson’s website is a good place to get started untangling the issue.
An Irish Townland is the smallest administrative unit. Townlands are an ancient division of land, pre-dating the arrival of the Norman Invasion. Townlands range in size from a single acre to more than seven thousand acres.
Confusingly, a Townland is not the same as a town. A town may contain one or more Townlands. A Townland may contain one or more towns. A Townland may straddle one or more towns. A town may straddle one or more Townlands. And so forth.
As of 2014, Ireland contained more than sixty thousand townlands.
OK, we’ve explored how complex Ireland can be; now let’s look at what you can do to trace your Irish family tree!
Getting Started with Irish Genealogy
To have the best success in your Irish ancestry quest, observe the following steps…and good luck!
1. Understand Irish History
Knowing the history of Ireland will help immensely. Famine, emigration, political turmoil, religious and cultural conflict, and the many vagaries of the Irish administrative apparatus: understanding such influences will put you miles ahead.
2. Preparation and Organization
Any genealogy research, specifically Irish research, needs to be done methodically and systematically to achieve the best results. Keep a proper research log to save yourself many hours of lost time.
3. Write Down All You Know
Make an inventory of everything you know about your Irish ancestors, starting with your immediate parents and their parents.
Draw a simple family tree that includes everything you know about your family history. Include dates, births, deaths, marriages, maiden names, and counties or parishes that your Irish ancestors hailed from.
4. Talk to Living Relatives About Irish Ancestors
Older living relatives can be a goldmine of family history. Talk to parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Add their knowledge to your family tree (step 3 above).
Note: if you were adopted and have Irish genetic heritage, you may want to find your birth parents and other family members so you can enlist their knowledge.
5. Understand Irish Name Variants
Generally, Irish names often had different spelling variations. Emigration exacerbated the variations.
Since many immigrants were illiterate until the early 20th century, immigration officials would often write down names phonetically.
In response to pervasive anti-Irish discrimination, Irish immigrants sometimes modified their own names to be less Irish-sounding.
6. Look for Geographical Clusters
Often, people living in proximity in Ireland would emigrate together and wind up living in proximity in America.
In many instances, clusters of neighbors also shared genetic kinship; in other cases, they followed one another to preserve a sense of community in the new world.
Look for these clusters on census forms. By researching the family histories of your ancestors’ neighbors, you might get some useful information.
7. Search for Other Documents
Records like passport applications, manifests, naturalization records, and passenger lists can provide valuable clues to the birthplace of your ancestors.
Often, such records include the subject’s country, county, and even town of origin.
8. Take a Genealogical DNA Test
DNA testing can speed up your Irish ancestry research. However, not all test results are easily interpreted.
A professional genealogy service can help you quickly make sense of your DNA test and correlate its findings to archival research and other evidence.
Read the Origins comparison of 23andMe vs Ancestry DNA tests to learn which one we recommend.
9. Dive Into Family History Through Irish Records
Take a deep breath and plunge into the murky world of Irish genealogical records.
We’ve already described the fragmented nature of Irish historical records. Now you can experience it for yourself.
Fortunately, in recent years, online resources for Irish genealogy have exploded. Many valuable Irish records are online, and are often free to access.
Finding Irish Records
When it comes to tracking down marriage records, birth records, and other Irish historical resources, you might get lucky and quickly find what you need…or you might find nothing but frustration. If you wind up with the latter, contact Origins for help.
Ireland’s original census occurred in 1821 and was subsequently carried out every decade until 1911. After 1911 the census was spottier. For example, the 1921 War of Independence precluded a census.
Sadly, many census records were burned during the Irish Civil War when the Four Courts property was set ablaze.
The Irish government also pulped other records during World War One to have a source of raw materials for creating paper. However, some records survived. The National Archives of Ireland website has an excellent database of available Irish census records.
If you can’t find your ancestors in the National Archives census records, try the census records for the specific county or parish that they lived in.
Parish registers are a goldmine of information for births, deaths, and marriages as far back as the late 18th and 19th centuries.
You can access Irish church records from both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church by visiting The National Library of Ireland website.
From 1848 to 1864, each civil parish was evaluated for taxable land and property.
“Griffith’s Valuation” (named after Richard Griffith) is an important record for 19th-century research. Most surveyors noted the names of landowners and heads of households, the value and acreage of the land, and the tax assessment.
Such lists are organized by townland, civil parish, poor law union, barony, and county.
Each of the entries was allocated a reference letter/number that matches the Ordnance Survey maps established in the 1830s. Since these maps outline buildings, fields, and other land features, you can often pinpoint the specific location of your Irish ancestral family’s home.
Ask About Ireland is the only free genealogical website for searching Griffith’s Valuation. The site can be sluggish at times; if you have an Ancestry.com or Findmypast.com subscription, you can access much of the same information there.
Bear in mind, however, that the maps are not always identical across the different websites.
Although Catholic marriages were first registered in 1845, civil registration didn’t start in Ireland until 1864.
You may look into the Civil Registers of Births, Deaths, and Ireland Marriages records online using the Irish Genealogy website.
The Tithe Applotment Books on the National Archives of Ireland website can be a great resource if your Irish ancestors owned land and belonged to a Church of Ireland parish.
The Tithe Applotment Books recorded tithes that Irish landowners paid to the Church of Ireland. These are free to access.
Find My Past is a genealogy website offering access (paid) to Landed Estates Court, the Irish Prison Registers, national directories, the complete Griffith’s Valuation, gravestones and church memorials, indexes to Irish wills, emigration records, Military records, and obituaries.
10. Get Professional Genealogical Help
Do-it-yourself genealogy is fine…until it isn’t. Especially with Irish genealogy, you’re likely to hit a point at which you’re ready to tear your hair out.
If you really want to get connected to your Irish heritage, a professional genealogy company can fast-track your process.
At Origins Genealogy, we have experts in genetic genealogy, archival research, and Irish history.
We’re located near the Family History Library, which contains the largest repository of non-digitized genealogical records in the world. Our dedicated researchers log plenty of hours in the FHL, scouring transcripts, documents, publications, and images, on behalf of our clients.
Additionally, Origins has researchers on the ground in Ireland, ready to scout out civil records, birthplaces, personal details, and landmarks of your ancestors.
And finally, we can arrange an Ireland heritage tour once we’ve provided you with a detailed report on your Irish ancestry. You’ll be able to experience the places, monuments, and buildings of your ancestors.
About Origins Genealogy
Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, Origins helps our customers around the world connect to their heritage and locate family members. Our services span the gamut of genealogical needs, from genetic genealogy to traditional ancestor research.
Whether you’re an adoptee looking for your biological father, an Irish-American learning about your heritage, or someone wanting to meet a biological sibling who’s been missing from your life, Origins can help.
Irish Genealogy FAQ
Irish family history can be traced back to the 1600s or beyond, especially if you have other family members who have done the same research long before you. Otherwise, you can contact a trusted genealogy company that has the resources to trace your Irish family history for you.
If you have genealogical records that trace your ancestors back to Ireland, that should serve as proof. Otherwise, you can take a genealogical DNA test to show Irish ancestry.
MyHeritage, along with the genealogy websites we’ve mentioned above, are the best resources for Irish records. While we prefer FindMyPast and AncestryDNA for researching Irish records, MyHeritage can still provide you with a wealth of information that other genealogy websites cannot guarantee.
Irish birth certificates would usually have the following information:
- The child’s full name and gender
- Date and location of birth
- Father’s full name, address, occupation and position
- Mother’s full maiden name
- Signature, qualification, such as a parent or someone who was there at the informant’s birth and residency.
If you need information about Irish marriage birth certificates for your Irish genealogy, here are the details you might expect:
- Wedding date and location
- Groom’s name, age, marital status, position or profession, and residence
- His father’s name, rank, and occupation
- Bride’s name, age, marital status, occupation or position, and place of residence
- Her father’s name, rank, and occupation
- Bride and groom’s signatures, as well as the signatures of two witnesses
An Irish death certificate would usually have the following:
- Death date and location
- The deceased’s name, age, sex, marital status, age, and occupation or position
- Cause of death and length of sickness
- Informant’s signature, qualifications, and address
Yes, AncestryDNA testing is 99% accurate. They have the largest genetic genealogy database in the world and will only accept their own DNA test results. You can get your DNA testing kit from AncestryDNA in addition to FindMyPast to ensure the best results for your Irish genealogy project.
In Ireland, civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths began in 1864. Births were previously recorded in parish registries, many of which have since been lost, destroyed, or are otherwise unavailable.
To obtain Irish civil records from 1864 onward, either birth, marriage, or death certificates, contact General Register Office of Ireland at +353 90 6632900 or email them at [email protected].