Searching for Your Irish Ancestors, Part 1 – Getting Started

This is part one 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.

Researching your ancestry in Ireland can be a challenge.  This is because of the loss of records such as the 19th century census returns and the lack of sources that document the labourers, small farmers and tenement families who occupied this island over 100 years ago.  Although finding your ancestor in Irish records might be difficult, there is plenty of work that you can do in advance that will help you on this journey.  You never know what scrap of information gleaned from a census return, newspaper death notice or an old family letter, will be the crucial clue that locates your family in Ireland.

You should start by confirming which of your ancestors was actually born in Ireland.  Don’t just rely on family tradition or the fact that your surname is Irish.  Your Irish born ancestor may have emigrated in the 18th century or even earlier.  Start by locating your family on census returns. Census returns should state where your ancestor was born.  US census return will tell you where the parents of your ancestors were born, which will help if you are unsure which generation of your family was born in Ireland.

Year of Birth

The census will also help you to establish when your ancestor was born.  Don’t just rely on one particular census for a year of birth for your ancestor, always check every census during the period your ancestor was alive as you may find that their year of birth may differ.  This was not uncommon as many Irish emigrants did not keep track of their age or knew their exact date of birth.  Don’t get too attached to a particular date of birth, even if your ancestor celebrated this date as their birthday.  I have rarely found an Irish emigrant who was actually born on the date that they gave.  When required to provide a date of birth for a form, some emigrants adopted a new date of birth such as the date of their arrival, Christmas day or St. Patrick’s Day.  These dates may not be their true date of birth.  You might also find that your ancestor was five or even more years older or younger than they stated, so use the ages given on census returns and other documents to establish an approximate year or period when your ancestor was born.

It is always important to try and find your ancestor in all surviving census returns.  Information required for census returns varied from decade to decade.  Some returns may indicate the year of emigration or the number of years married.  You may find another family member, such as a sibling or widowed mother, residing with your ancestor in one particular census, you never know what other family members might be in your ancestor’s house on a given year.

Parents' Names

Parents’ names can be vital when it comes to searching for your ancestors in Ireland.  You may find that there are numerous children born in Ireland with the same name during a particular period.  For example, if you have established that your ancestor was James Reilly who was born in Ireland in about 1873, you will probably find seven or eight children of this name in the Irish civil birth register.  In order to identify the correct child, you need to know his place of birth or his parents’ names.

Parents’ names can often be recorded on civil death certificates and for this reason you should make locating death certificates for any of your Irish born ancestors one of your priorities.

Parents’ names can sometimes be recorded on marriage records, such as marriage licences or church marriage records.  If you find a marriage certificate for your ancestor, but it doesn’t record their parents’ names, check for other documentation, such as a licence or church record, which may have the information you need.

If your Irish born ancestor emigrated as a child, they were likely accompanied by one or both parents.  Search for evidence of their parents in census returns.  You can sometimes find that the widowed mother of the emigrant followed her family overseas and may be found living with your ancestor, you might also find a parent buried in the family grave.

If you cannot find marriage or death records for your Irish born ancestor, try searching for the same records for a sibling who also emigrated.  A death certificate for a brother or sister may hold the key to your search.

Place of Birth

Place of birth is also another vital piece of information that you will require before you start your research in Ireland.  Prior to 1864, when civil registration of births, deaths and marriages was introduced in Ireland, there is no one indexed source for all births, deaths and marriages for the entire country.  For this reason, unless your surname is very unusual, you will need to know at least the county of birth of your ancestor, so that you can focus on the surviving records for that area.

There are a few sources that can sometimes record your ancestor’s place of birth.  Start by searching for a gravestone inscription or newspaper death notice for your ancestor, these can sometimes state a place of birth.   Although census returns generally only recorded the place of birth as Ireland, always check for more specific information.  The 1891 UK census often recorded a county or town of birth in Ireland.

Passenger and emigration records can also contain a specific Irish addresses for your ancestor.

If you don’t find any records for your ancestor that state their place of birth, try searching for the same records for the parents or siblings of your ancestor who also emigrated.

If you are still having difficulty locating a place of birth, you could try looking at other emigrants who settled in the same area.  If your ancestor emigrated in the early 19th century, it is most likely that they emigrated with or followed other family members or neighbours from the same part of Ireland.  Try looking for evidence of where their Irish born neighbours originated.  If they all came from the same place and settled together after emigration it could be the clue you need to identify the place where your family originated.

Year of Emigration

It can be helpful to try and determine when your Irish born ancestor emigrated.  There are a number of reasons for this.  First of all, a year of emigration might lead to you to passenger records.  Passenger records may identify other family members who travelled with your ancestor or a family member who was already settled in the country of destination.  Later passenger record can also record a home address in Ireland.

The year of emigration may help you to establish whether your ancestor married and had children in Ireland prior to departing for the new world.   When searching for your family in Ireland, you should always start with the latest event in their lives, as there is more likelihood of a record surviving.  This may mean that you start your search in Ireland looking for the birth of your ancestor’s children or a record of their marriage prior to emigration.  These records may point to a place of origin where you can identify earlier generations of your family in Ireland.

Not all of the records that I have recommended are available on websites like  and you may need to contact state archives and records offices for marriage and death records or look for the graveyard where your ancestor died for a gravestone.   You will need to find out where historic newspaper collections are held to search for death notices.  Although this information may not be online at tips of your fingers and may require time to track down, it will be vital for locating your family in Ireland.

Family history research is about leaving no stone unturned in your search for your ancestors, and you never know what wonderful little gems or vital clues you will uncover as you dig. I was recently searching for a family in Co. Mayo.  At the outset, all we knew was that John O’Brien was born ca. 1856 in Co. Mayo to a father named Michael.  I found that there were just too many children named John born to fathers of that name in Co. Mayo for us to identify the correct family.  However, an old family letter that came to light gave us some important clues.  In the two letters written from Ireland by John’s sister, Mary, she referred to the death of their landlord, a Mr. Hare, to John’s brother, Richard, who was still at home, and Richard’s son, James.  There was also a reference to the death of John’s father, Michael.  Using the dates on the letters we were able to establish when Michael died.  A search for his death certificate found a number of men of this name who died during the relevant period.  When we cross referenced the addresses on the death certificates with the names of landlords in Co. Mayo, we found only one O’Reilly family who were leasing their property from a man named Hare.  A bit more digging found that in the same parish a Richard O’Brien married and had a son, James, at the same address where Michael O’Brien died.  The vague clues from these letters provided us with the proof that we needed to identify the house and land holding for John O’Brien’s family in Ireland.

So don’t give up searching for clues and if you don’t find what you need on Ancestry, it doesn’t mean it’s not out there, it might just take a bit more leg work to track down. 

Next time, I will be looking at where to start with Irish records.

Find more help for researching your ancestry.

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.

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Tags: Ancestry, Genealogy

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on May 16, 2014 at 11:03am

Excellent!  Thanks, Nicola.

My last born Irish ancestor came over earlier than many -- the 18th century, as you mentioned.  This makes it much more difficult for me;

Comment by Jean Sullivan Cardinal on May 16, 2014 at 4:25pm

Thanks for the information.

Comment by mary mc ginnis on May 18, 2014 at 5:27am

I have actually been twice to the village where my Irish Granny was born, and couldn't get any information. The Parish priest didn't give me the time of day. Maybe I wasn't asking the right people. We are going back in the next two months to have another go. Maybe this time I might have some luck. Could do with some hints on how to go about it. 

Comment by Mary Collins Dolan on May 20, 2014 at 2:47am

Check with the county library as often old records have been given over to them.  Also, sometimes a local historian is the keeper of old records so ask around.

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Comment by Timeline Genealogy on May 20, 2014 at 11:42am
HI Mary. Parish registers are the property of the Catholic church and unfortunately, the parish priest is under no obligation to let you access the registers. However, there are other routes you can take. The National Library of Ireland holds microfilm copies of nearly all parish registers for Ireland from their earliest date until 1880. If your granny was born prior to 1880, you can search for her baptism in the National Library collection. If she was born after 1880, it is likely (although not guaranteed) that her birth was registered with the General Registrar's Office. You can search for a copy of her birth certificate at the General Registry Office Research Room, which is now located on Werburgh Street in Dublin City. Her civil birth certificate should state more information than her baptismal record. It should state her name, place of birth, parents names, mother's maiden name, father's occupation and family address. If her parents married after 1864, you can also search for their civil marriage certificate, which should record the names of the fathers of the bride and groom. There is a genealogy advisory service available in the National Archives of Ireland on Bishop Street in Dublin between 10am and 1.30pm every day. It might be worth stopping in there first to get a few pointers about the best place to search for records for your family. If you cannot make it to Dublin, I would try the county library and archive for the county in which your granny was born. They may be able to provide you with some relevant records for the area in which she originated. I hope this helps. Nicola
Comment by Mary Collins Dolan on May 20, 2014 at 1:30pm

Thanks for the info.  I have found that, often in the case of Church of Ireland records, a local person has records for safekeeping, particularly listings of graves within an old disused cemetery/graveyard, although the [Church of Ireland] Representative Church Body in Dublin has most of them and you can see records by appointment.

Interesting blog!


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