Linda Clyde | Aug 18, 2017

Getting Started with Irish Ancestry? Here’s What You Should Know

This is first in a two-part series that offers historical insight and valuable resource tips for those interested in discovering their Irish roots. Read part two.

So, you’ve recently discovered you’re a bit Irish, and now you’ve got an itch to make some family history discoveries? Before you get started, there are a few things you should know that are unique to Ireland.

  • First, a bit of history: Ireland had a civil war in the early 1900s. On June 30, 1922, the Four Courts building in Dublin was bombarded. At the time, the west wing of the building housed the public records office, and many precious records were lost, including census returns (1821, 1831, 1841, and 1851), wills dating back to the 16th century, and hundreds of parish records that included baptism, marriage, and burial records. There are still fragments that remain, but this loss makes it difficult to follow a family from census to census.
  • Second, a bit of geography: Today, the island of Ireland is divided into two separate countries. The Republic of Ireland comprises the majority of the island and has no formal bond with the U.K. The small country to the north is called Northern Ireland and is part of the U.K., together with England, Scotland, and Wales. This is important to keep in mind when researching Irish genealogy; there will occasionally be some physical division of some record collections.
  • The Irish potato famine that occurred between 1845 and 1849 resulted in the death of approximately one-eighth of the Irish population from starvation and famine-related disease. This also triggered a mass emigration: by 1855 two million people had fled the country for America, Canada, Australia, and other countries.
  • Ireland was a lineage society ruled by clans. Clans were groups claiming common descent from a noble ancestor or early settler. As you begin tracing names into Ireland’s past, it’s important to remember that illiteracy was common. Those who could spell usually did so phonetically, so expect family names and spellings to be inconsistent. It can also be helpful to know a bit about the evolution of naming conventions in Ireland.
  • Irish administrative districts have changed a lot over time. It’s helpful to know the difference between terms referring to land and how it was divided. Terms include townland, townland sub-division, parish, barony, union, county, diocese, and province. Knowing the difference between these terms can be helpful as you start to pinpoint places in your research.

Start Where You Are

If you’re American, start your research in America, recommended Richard Sayre, 2017 RootsTech presenter. “Conduct reasonably exhaustive research in America to discover the place of origin of your Irish ancestor. The goal is to discover at least the county of origin in Ireland, or, even better, the townland. Other important details include name of spouse, date of immigration, and religion. Knowing these details can make online research more productive and less frustrating.” Spend a little time interviewing family members too. It doesn’t make sense to go digging for information online that a relative can offer you via a quick phone call. 

Establish a System

It’s wise to establish a filing system for any genealogy work, but this is particularly true for Irish genealogy, for which it can be challenging to make and verify connections. From the beginning, plan to record everything, and prepare for the research you’ll do by creating a physical or online space to organize collected information. You could use the latest and greatest software, or a box with alphabetized index cards. Use what works best for you. This simple step will make it much easier to quickly find and reference valuable information later.

Stay Optimistic

Though there may be additional barriers to overcome with Irish genealogy, there are plenty of reasons to be excited and optimistic about the future. Existing resources are expanding and improving, and new resources are popping up online all the time. So don’t despair if you can’t find something today; there’s a good chance you’ll have better luck tomorrow.

Linda Clyde

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