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Irish Ancestry

Family Bibles, census reports and land valuation records are valuable when researching family history.

Researching your ancestry should always begin with interviewing your family's oldest members. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Researching your ancestry should always begin with interviewing your family's oldest members.

Irish Ancestry

Irish ancestry is a source of great interest and pride to many people, especially in America. But until the rise in the use of the Internet, tracing an Irish family tree was an arduous, virtually arcane process. The search is still difficult to carry back more than a century or two because the records of Catholic families often end abruptly between the 16th and 18th centuries; many parish churches were burned by the English during that period. However, there are plenty of records and resources available to those who want to trace their Irish ancestry.

Start With Family Records

The cardinal rule of genealogy is to start with the known information, whatever that may be, and use it to find more. To get the basic information, a discussion with an older family member may be in order. An old family Bible maintained by Irish Catholic ancestors might contain many names and dates, and diaries or even old letters and family photos can hold valuable information about family members who are no longer around.

Researching Ancestors Who Lived in Ireland

According to The National Archives of Ireland, the best starting point for researching ancestors who lived in Ireland depends on the time frame. Knowing approximate dates of birth, marriage or death as well as names and where they lived will make this task easier. The 1901 and 1911 censuses are a good starting point for ancestors who lived around that time. For ancestors who lived during the 1820s through the 1860s, land valuation records may be the best source of information, since the 19th-century census records were nearly all destroyed.

Using Irish Census Data

For families that lived in Ireland in the past century or so, a researcher can use the 1901 and 1911 censuses; these are the only surviving full censuses, covering 32 counties in Ireland. The type of information that households reported on the census included name, age, sex, relationship to head of the household, religion, occupation and marital status. The National Archives of Ireland maintains the census records in its holdings, where researchers can access them. It is in the process of digitizing and posting all the 1901 and 1911 census data. Thus far, the 1911 census data for counties Antrim, Down, Dublin and Kerry is available online at The National Archives of Ireland. Search criteria include surname, forename, county, townland/street, district electoral division (DED), age and gender. A townland was the smallest division of land; streets were used in urban areas.

Using Irish Land Valuation Records

According to the National Library of Ireland (NLI), land valuation records are an alternative to lost census records. The Tithe Applotment Books cover the years 1824 to 1838, and include name of occupier and townland. The Primary Valuation of Ireland, or Griffiths Valuation, ranges from 1848 to 1864. Between the two sources, a researcher can likely find much of the data from the missing census years. These documents are available through the NLI.

Other Online Resources for Tracing Irish Ancestry

Several Irish genealogy websites exist, and some of the general family research sites have sections devoted to Irish ancestry, such as:

  • The Irish Ancestral Research Association (TIARA), which has many links to online sources, both in Ireland and countries of immigration
  • UK & Ireland Genealogy (GENUKI), which offers information about tracing Irish ancestry, mainly within Ireland
  • The Irish Times, which allows researchers to input an Irish ancestor's name and find information from 18th-century Irish records
  • Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet

Some Challenges of Tracing Irish Ancestry

Until 1844, only marriages performed by a Church of Ireland (not Catholic) priest were legal in Ireland, so most of the marriages in Ireland that took place up to that time were documented by that Church. Unfortunately, more than half of the Church of Ireland's records (along with many other documents) were destroyed when the Irish governments Public Records Office burned in 1922. Some Church of Ireland parishes kept copies of their registers, so many of those documents are still available, but several decades of 18th-century data were completely lost in the fire.

The NLI holds microfilms of many Roman Catholic parish registers for counties in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland from the mid-18th to the late 19th century. However, those who are searching the Catholic parish registers for ancestors may run into problems reading them. Historically, these baptism and marriage records were written in Latin, so the actual Irish or English names of those involved can be difficult to decipher.

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