5 Keys to Researching Your Irish Ancestors
Are you researching your Irish ancestors? Or were your ancestors part of the Irish diaspora worldwide? Five key things to know before you begin your research.
1. North and South
Since 1921, the island of Ireland has been separated into two countries – the Republic of Ireland in the south and Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, in the north. It’s essential to know the distinction between the two before you begin. Northern Irish records are held in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in Belfast, whereas Irish records are held by the General Records Office (GRO) in Dublin. Some online databases are split between the two countries, but others include the whole island. To ensure you are researching your Irish ancestors in the right place, try to find out which region (e.g., county) in Ireland your ancestors came from first. Then you can focus on the most recent Civil records available from that country.
2. The Brick Wall of Irish Ancestry
Many researchers will despair when researching Irish ancestors before the twentieth century, and this is because of a great tragedy that occurred in 1922. Ireland conducted a nationwide census every decade from 1821 to 1911. At this time, all records were held by the Public Records Office (PRO) in Dublin. During the Irish Civil War, the building that housed the PRO was caught in the crossfire. An explosion and fire ravaged the building, and many of precious records were destroyed. This has caused many researchers to despair, but this Irish brick wall can be broken. The records that remained, which can still help you with your search, include the following:
- 1901 and 1911 censuses
- Fragments of the 1821-1891 censuses
- Civil Registration Records
- Some Church of Ireland Parish registers
- Baptismal, marriage, and death records for Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and Methodists
- Griffiths’ Valuation (a record of owned or rented land in the mid-nineteenth century)
- Indexes to wills and probate bonds
- And a good deal more
3. Civil v. Parish Records in Ireland
Civil records will be your primary go-to for researching your Irish ancestors after the mid-nineteenth century. These are records made by the state when it became compulsory to register a birth (1864), a marriage (1845), and a death (1871). Before this, you can rely on Parish records – baptisms, marriages, and burials made by churches – for individual members of each congregation. Some of the records go back to the 1600s, but you are entirely at the mercy of knowing which denomination your ancestors belonged to, how well the records were preserved, and whether they are digitized. You can find links to some of these at the end of this article.
4. Religion in More Detail
Religion is a significant part of the culture of Irish and Northern Irish heritage. Catholic and Protestant denominations are the key to many eighteenth and early nineteenth-century records that pre-date Civil records. These are mainly from the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, and the Quakers.
If you know which denomination your ancestors belonged to, you can focus on specific records and areas. Unlocking a denomination, or even a particular church, can lead you to helpful information in the form of gravestones and burial grounds. Surnames can also be a great help for this too: chances are, an Irish surname will land you in Roman Catholic records, whereas a Scottish or English surname might indicate Northern Presbyterian or Church of Ireland roots. This is not true of every surname, however, and there are always exceptions.
5. Online Resources for Researching Your Irish Ancestors
We’ve pulled together a list of the best resources online to help you get started:
This archive is the place to start if you know your ancestors were in Ireland in 1901 and 1911. You can search each census year by name, age, county, or street. You can also browse through the census if you know which county or area your ancestors came from. This resource also contains the few remaining fragments of the 1821-1891 censuses. The 1911 Census in particular gives you a wealth of information, including occupation, marriage year, number of children born, literacy levels, languages spoken and religious denomination.
Irish Genealogy – Free to use
This brilliant website contains most indexes to the Civil birth, marriage and death records, and Church records of baptisms, marriages, and burials, from most counties across the island. Some records include the original transcript, which allows you to get up close and personal with your ancestors’ handwriting and helps connect the dots through details such as occupations, addresses, and specific churches attended.
Ancestry – Paid Membership required
Ancestry has over 100 database collections for The Republic of Ireland, and 50 for Northern Ireland, including passenger lists, muster rolls, agricultural censuses, grave inscriptions, religious censuses, and Griffiths’ Valuations. The indexes are free to search, but membership is required to view the records in full.
Ulster Historical Foundation – Paid Membership required
The Ulster Historical Foundation is a wonderful collection of resources for researching your Irish ancestors from the province of Ulster, the nine counties in the north of Ireland. These are Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry/Derry, and Tyrone in Northern Ireland. Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan are found in the Republic of Ireland. This website also contains a wealth of unique alternative databases such as seventeenth-century plantation certificates, local newspaper notices, and workhouse inmate rolls. The main indexes are free to search, but membership and credits are required to view the records fully.
Don’t worry if you can’t find what you’re looking for immediately – many of these databases are continually digitizing and uploading new records. And if you’re in it for the long haul, the 1926 Irish Census will be released in January 2027!
Not Finding What You’re Looking for Online?
You may have trouble finding records because they have not been made digitally available (usually those in the last 100 years). If the Civil records are not available online, they may be able to view in person at the Reading Rooms in Belfast or Dublin. Other societies, such as the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland, hold exclusive records only available in their reading rooms. Through the Legacy Tree onsite researchers, we can assist you with your genealogy goals in Ireland.
If you are researching your Irish ancestors and would like help tracing their lineage, our experts can help! Contact us today for a free consultation to discuss which of our project options work best for your research needs.