This is part two in a series of articles on "Searching for Your Irish Ancestors" written by Ireland-based professional genealogist Nicola Morris of Timeline Genealogy. You can find the other installments of this series here.
In the last post ‘Getting Started’ I recommended information that you should try to gather about your Irish-born ancestor from the sources in the country in which they settled. If you have been successful in identifying your Irish-born ancestor, their name, approximate year of birth, place of birth and the names of their parents, you are ready to start searching for evidence of your family in Irish records. Even if you have not found all of this information, you may want to start looking for evidence of your family in Ireland.
Birth or baptismal records are one of the first places to start when searching for your ancestors in Ireland. There are two sources for births in Ireland: Records for civil registration, and parish baptismal registers.
Civil registration in Ireland commenced in 1864, when it became compulsory to register all births, deaths and marriages. It should be noted that non-Catholic marriages in Ireland were actually registered from 1845.
If your Irish-born ancestor was born or married in Ireland after 1864, you should start by searching for a record of this event in the civil birth or marriage registers. Irish civil birth certificates record the name, date and place of birth of the child as well as the names of the parents, the mother’s maiden name and occupation of the father. The address given on an Irish civil birth certificate will be the townland where the family were residing at the time of the birth. This is the most specific address that you will find for your family in Ireland.
Irish civil marriage registrations are even more informative. While recording the names, ages and occupations of the bride and groom, a marriage certificate also recorded the names and occupations of their fathers and their addresses prior to marriage, the name of the church in which they married and the names of the witnesses. If you don’t know where your Irish-born ancestor originated in Ireland - but you know that they married in Ireland - their civil marriage record should help you to establish their family address as well as the father’s name and occupation.
To start with, you need to identify your ancestor in the civil birth index - an annual index of all registered births in every county in Ireland - which dates from 1864. The index can be searched by surname. Before you start searching the index, make sure you are aware of all possible variants of your ancestor’s surname. Surnames like McDonagh can come in many different variations, and you should check all variants in the index. Although your own family may have used a specific spelling of your surname, it doesn’t mean that the clerk who recorded the birth entry used the same spelling.
You should also try to identify the registration district in which the birth is likely to have taken place. The registration district corresponds with the Poor Law Union or Union. In fact, it was the responsibility of the local medical dispensary of the Union to record the registration of births.
In order to identify the registration district in which your ancestor might have been born or married, I would recommend consulting the following Poor Law Union Maps:
Just because a family lived within one registration district, does not mean that they didn’t use a neighbouring district. If the neighbouring district was closer, they would most likely have gone there, so include some of the neighbouring districts in your search.
The indexes for the Irish civil birth and marriage registers are available to consult in the GRO (General Registry Office) Research Room on Werburgh Street in Dublin. These index books also include any late registrations, which are often entered by hand in the margin or are indexed at the back of the book as well as overseas and army births. These can be important for Irish men serving overseas in the British Army and whose children were born abroad.
If you cannot make it to Dublin to consult these indexes, you can access them online at www.FamilySearch.org. The Irish collection on FamilySearch includes many sources; if you want to just look at the Irish civil birth registration indexes, make sure you specify this collection when you are filling in the search form. The indexes, online or in Dublin, will provide you with the name of the individual, the year of the birth, the registration district in which the birth was registered and the volume and page number on which the birth registration appears. From 1878, the books were also divided into quarters. Don’t forget to make a note of which quarter the event was registered in.
If you locate a reference in the index that is relevant to your family, you will need to order a copy of the original registration in order to see the parents’ names and family address and exact date of birth. Once you have the year, registration district, quarter, volume and page number, you can order copies online at:
Although it was compulsory to register all births, deaths and marriages, it is estimated that up to 15% of births and marriages and an even higher percentage of deaths went unregistered in the 19th century. This may explain why you cannot find your Irish born ancestor in the Irish civil birth records, their birth simply may not have been registered. As it was compulsory to pay a fee to register a birth (and you were fined if you registered a birth late), some families avoided registration altogether.
In some instances, in order to avoid the fine of late registration, I have seen families change the date of birth of the child so that it fits into the three month window in which the birth should have been registered. This means you might find the case of a child who was baptised in March 1873, but was given a registered birth date of October 1873 nine months later!
Children who were born in hospitals and institutions were often registered without a first name. In the index they will appear as an unnamed female or male child. This can make it particularly difficult to locate a relevant record.
From 1903 the Irish civil birth index also recorded the mother’s maiden name. Unfortunately, the online index at www.FamilysSearch.org (and also at www.FindMyPast.ie and www.Ancestry.com) fail to introduce this additional reference until the 1930s.
When you are searching the records on www.FamilySearch.org, you may also find that there are abstracts of birth records from the Irish civil birth register. These records were part of the International Genealogical Index and are abstracts from the Irish civil birth register. Unfortunately, these abstracts don’t include father’s occupation or the townland address at the time of birth, which means that it may still be necessary to purchase the original registration entry.
If your ancestor’s birth was not registered or took place prior to 1864, you will need to consult parish baptismal registers for evidence of their baptism.
Next time, I will tackle locating and searching parish registers for baptisms in Ireland.
Read the first article in this series: Searching for Your Irish Ancestors – Getting Started
Nicola Morris is a consultant genealogist for the Irish Ancestry Group at The Wild Geese. She has a degree in History from Trinity College Dublin. She has worked in genealogy since 1999 and in 2007 set up Timeline Irish Research, offering professional genealogical research services to clients at home and abroad. As well as offering a professional genealogical research service, Nicola also works on house and building histories and histories of institutions and organisations and wrote a history of the Fulbright Commission in Ireland in 2008. Read more about Nicola.