In recent years, newspapers have become an increasingly useful source for genealogical research. This is due to the massive digitization projects that have been undertaken, making it easier to conduct broad searches for specific references to surnames and place names.
Newspapers start to become valuable for genealogical research in Ireland from about the 1750s, when we start to see the publication of birth, marriage and death announcements as well as advertisements. These advertisements are not strictly what we think of in the modern sense. They were notices designed to disseminate important information. This could often include information or a personal nature. Advertisements might refer to a business changing premises or seeking creditors after bankruptcy or a son taking over his late father’s business. Advertisements could also refer to an elopement, the desertion of a soldier or instructions from a husband that local businesses were not to give credit on his account to his wife.
In a notice published in Faulkner’s Dublin Journal in June 1763, Isaac Read of Dundalk instructs businesses not to credit his wife, Mary Read (nee McNaughten) on his account because she had joined with ‘some wicked malicious and ill minded people in order to hurt him’. He also notified the readers that after she had ‘made a practice of raising large sums on her said husband’s credit in order to supply her said associates’ he had separated from her.
Mary Read, not to be discredited by her husband’s claims, published a response in the following issue, denying the charges against her and claimed that ‘to be turned out of doors by force, without being permitted to take with her even a change of linen or any one necessary’ could not be considered a separation ‘which should discharge him from the support of a wife …whom he has for upwards of thirteen years enjoyed.’ She accused Isaac Read of ‘much repeated acts of cruelty’ against her but demurred from ‘shock[ing] the public’ with the details.
These notices contain a fascinating amount of detail about the lives of this couple in Dundalk in the 18th century and there are many such announcements that can be found in 18th and early 19th century newspapers, alongside traditional birth, marriage and death announcements.
Traditionally it was the landed gentry, professional and merchant classes, irrespective of religion, who published notices in the Irish press and less so the general working or farming population. Which means that as a genealogical source early newspaper are limited to certain classes. However, newspapers also revelled the goriest and salacious details of court cases and many papers contain word for word transcripts of court proceedings. They cover cases from the most benign petty sessions to lengthy murder trials and these reports don’t discriminate on a class basis. A search of digitised Irish newspapers can often turn up references to family members in relation to crimes and court cases, either as witnesses, victims or perpetrators.
Searches of online Irish newspapers can also pick up obituaries, sporting achievements, academic prizes, graduations, the sale of property, membership of a society or organisation, details which tell us so much more about the lives of our ancestors.
Even if you don’t find your ancestor referred to in an Irish newspaper, just browsing the newspapers for a local area for a specific period highlights the events that formed the backdrop of their lives. Letters pages during the famine contain heart rending accounts from parish priests and local landlords about the suffering that has been inflicted on their congregation, neighbours and tenants. Reports during the War of Independence tell a story of the ambushes and military activity that was happening in a particular neighbourhood. Local newspapers during the Land War describe the ground swell of support for the Land League and the conflicts that took place at eviction sites. All of these stories help us to understand a little bit more about the context of the lives of our ancestors.
The number of Irish newspapers available online is growing and there are a number of different websites where you can access Irish newspapers. The first to go online was the Irish Times which dates from 1859. Access to the newspaper is by subscription.
The Irish News Archive is much more extensive with a large collection of Irish newspapers representing the counties and provinces of Ireland. This collection includes the Freeman’s Journal, which dates from 1763. This is an excellent resource for newspapers local to a particular area. The more local the newspaper the better the chance of a reference to your family. Finally, www.FindMyPast.ie also has a growing collection of Irish papers, which were scanned by the British Newspaper Library.
Of course what is currently available online represents only a drop in the ocean to what actually survives and there are two repositories that hold the largest microfilm and hard copy collections of Irish newspapers
The British Newspaper Library actually holds the most extensive collection of Irish newspapers and holds copies of all Irish newspapers from 1826 and of course holds many from before that date. The National Library of Ireland holds the next largest collection of Irish newspapers and there is a very helpful page on their website that can be used to identify the extent of newspapers that survive for a particular county. This database can be searched by county or by town of publication and is a great way of identifying newspapers that might prove useful to your research.
For the Irish that emigrated, newspapers in the country where they settled can also be a useful resource. Newspaper death notices in US papers can often state a county of origin in Ireland. This may be the only clue to determining where your ancestor originated. The ‘Missing Friends’ column in the Boston Pilot contains advertisements for family and friends seeking contact with Irish emigrants. The notices can help to identify parents or siblings of your ancestor and their home address in Ireland.
Newspapers are a treasure trove for the genealogical researcher and well worth pursuing for references to your family members.
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.