Tracing your ancestors – general ideas.

John Grenham has written THE book on tracing your Irish ancestors. It is called “Tracing Your Irish Ancestors”, published by Gill and Macmillan and has been reprinted a number of times. In today’s (23/12/20) Irish Times he offers an article which is very helpful. In another post we will look at Youghal specifically but this is John Grenham’s article:

“There has never been a better time to research Irish family history. A revolution in access to Irish genealogical records has taken place over the past decade. From being a laggard in providing online record transcripts, Ireland has become one of the world leaders. 

Some credit must go to competition in the marketplace to meet researchers’ demands. But most of the change has been driven by the Irish and Northern Irish public sectors. Their increased awareness of the huge numbers who descend from emigrants, and who cherish that historic connection, has had a dramatic effect. Politicians and public servants now accept that it should be as easy as possible for members of the Irish diaspora to unearth the historical detail of the connection, their family history. Publicly-funded websites such as and have gone about supplying the tools to make that possible.

The result is that most people of Irish origin can now take their family back to the second quarter of the 19th century quickly and easily and, for the most part, without payment.

This guide contains links to those many free resources, as well as paid genealogy services which could help speed up the process or guide you towards records you may not have known existed. It also covers new ways to trace your ancestry using increasingly popular home DNA kits.

Getting started

Before you go near any records, talk to your family. It makes no sense to spend days trawling through databases to find out your great-grandmother’s surname if someone in the family already knows it.

So first talk to parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents – find out what they know before they’re gone for good. Most families have at least one individual who keeps track of the extended network of relatives, and if you can buttonhole her (it usually is a her), you’re off to a good start. To begin with, quantity is less important than quality – there’ll be plenty of time for precision later.

The only cast-iron rule of family history is that you start from what you know and use it to find out more. Don’t begin with Attila the Hun and try to work forward to yourself. Take your granny and work back from her.

What you can expect to find

What you’ll uncover depends on the quality of the surviving records for the area of origin, on the point where you start and the most important ingredient of Irish research, luck.

For the descendants of Catholic tenant-farmers, the limit is generally the starting date of the local Catholic parish records. It would be unusual for records of such a family to go back much earlier than the 1780s, and for most people the early 1800s is the more likely limit.

In Gaelic culture genealogy was of crucial importance, but the collapse of that culture in the 17th century, and its subsequent impoverishment and oppression in the 18th century, left a gulf that is almost unbridgeable.

That said, exceptions immediately spring to mind. One Australian family, starting with only the name of their great-grandfather, his occupation and the date of his departure from Ireland, uncovered enough information through parish registers and State records of births, marriages and deaths to link him incontestably to the Garveys of Mayo, for whom an established pedigree is registered in the Genealogical Office stretching back to the 12th century.

An American family, knowing only a general location in Ireland and a marriage that took place before emigration, discovered that marriage in the pedigree of the McDermotts of Coolavin, which is factually verified as far back as the 11th century.

Discoveries like this are rare, however, and are much likelier for those of Anglo-Irish extraction than those of Gaelic or Scots Presbyterian extraction.

Online resources

For Irish online research, the glass is both half-empty and half-full. A huge quantity of irreplaceable records was blown up in 1922 – almost all 19th century censuses, to name just one – and nothing will ever bring them back. On the other hand, there are only four universally relevant sources, civil records, church registers, censuses and tax surveys, and nearly all of them that survived is online and free.

The easiest win for most people starting out is the free National Archives of Ireland census website ( It’s plain but powerful and serves up images of the original returns for the earliest complete censuses, 1901 and 1911, complete with great-grand-parents’ signatures and overviews of names, family relationships and occupations. Be warned: being able to wander around streets and townlands peering into the neighbours’ households can be powerfully addictive.

The next step will usually be to search the civil records of births, marriages and deaths. Registration began for everyone in 1864, with non-Catholic marriages starting in 1845. The indexes are free to search up to 1958 at the Mormon site FamilySearch ( The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht runs an excellent free site at that includes full images of the original registers (births 1864-1916, marriages 1870-1941 and deaths 1878-1966). Be sure to work the “More Search Options” page as hard as you can.

Griffith’s Valuation (1847-1864) is a vast and minutely detailed property survey carried out to assess local taxes (aka “The Rates”). If we hadn’t blown up the 19th century censuses, it would be an afterthought. As things stand, it’s the only comprehensive census substitute before 1901. It’s free online at, a site run, strangely enough, by the Local Government Management Agency.

Like the census site, askaboutireland doesn’t take variant surname spellings into account, so ingenuity may be required. One of its glories, however, is the huge collection of accompanying valuation maps, overlaid on contemporary Google maps, making it possible to match the precise locations of houses and field boundaries in the 1850s with what survives today.

The last of the universally relevant sources is the most important and the most tricky. For the years before civil registration in 1864, church registers of baptisms, marriages and burials are virtually the only direct sources of family information.

Roman Catholic registers generally start in the late 1700s or early 1800s in the more prosperous East and South-East, but only in the 1840s or later in poorer western counties. Almost all pre-1880 Catholic registers have been microfilmed by the National Library and digital images of the microfilms are freely available at

They can be hard going. Two commercial genealogy sites, FindMyPast and Ancestry, have transcribed them, with access free only on FindMyPast. Another commercial site,, has been making transcripts since the 1980s and covers about 80 per cent of pre-1900 registers. One significant difference is that the rootsireland transcripts were made from the originals, not microfilm, and the difference in the quality of the transcripts can be striking.

The Church of Ireland was the state church until 1870 and after disestablishment parish records before that date were regarded as public records. As a result, a large number were in the Public Record Office in 1922 and were destroyed. The largest collection of original registers is in the Representative Church Body Library in Dublin, which also maintains an online listing of what was destroyed and what survived ( The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has an excellent collection of microfilm of records of all denominations in the nine counties of Ulster (

Presbyterian records can be hard to track down. The best collection is in The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, with a lot of material also in the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Detailed guides to which records are where can be found at The site is free for light users, with a soft paywall for more persistent souls. Claire Santry’s Irish Genealogy News ( is the go-to site for all news of record releases and publications and also includes a free “Irish Genealogy Toolkit”, which gives a good overview of what’s available.”

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