As well as an exciting pursuit, tracing your Irish ancestors can be a rewarding experience in that it allows you to leave a legacy of written family history for the following generations. Perhaps the most important stage in tracing the history of your ancestors in Ireland is what you might call ‘getting a foot in the door’, that is finding a record that definitely relates to your family that you can use to locate further family documents. For Irish people whose families have remained in the country, the process is a little easier, as Irish records will be available for more recent generations which can be traced back if needs be. For Irish emigrant families, documents in their new home countries can help in the same way.
1. Gather together your own information
For Irish families living in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Continental Europe, Africa etc. the records available in these jurisdictions should be followed up first to try to find as much information as possible on the Irish born immigrant from whom the present family is descended.
Marriage and death records in the emigrant's 'new' country can often provide substantial levels of detail that prove vital in tracing documentation on their lives in Ireland. Other records such as ship's passenger lists and naturalisation records can also be helpful in this regard. The important details to look out for in these records are the location within Ireland from which the immigrant originated, their date of birth and their parents' names.
As well as official documents, family documents (such as the family Bible) can often include valuable information to help you along. Family lore passed through the generations is certainly to be taken into consideration also when beginning your search.
2. Search for that first family document
With all of the information gathered you can try to find a record in Ireland to get that ‘foot in the door’. A birth or marriage record for the immigrant is usually the first step. The available records will depend on dates. If your ancestor was born after 1863 it will be possible to search for their civil (state) record of birth. Civil records are indexed which means that you don’t always need to have details of a location within Ireland. So if you know your ancestor’s date of birth the centralised index allows you to discover the number of children of the name registered as born in the relevant period. You can then take out the full records to check the exact dates of birth, and hopefully find your ancestor’s record.
Similarly if you have a rough idea of the period of their birth and you know their parent’s names you can identify possible matches in the index and then verify by taking up the full records. The index also includes details of the general geographic area where each birth took place which allows you to search on the basis of location also. The full record gives the exact place of birth and the family address which allows you to verify a record on this basis.
If your ancestor was born before 1864 church records are the most feasible source of information on their birth. Church registers of baptism (christening) can be searched manually once a parish of origin is known. Details of some church records have also been made available through online databases, which can help if you have not found your ancestor’s parish of origin.
If your emigrant ancestors married before they left Ireland the process for finding the record of this event is similar. Civil records (with a centralised index) are available for couples of all religious persuasions from 1864 forward and from 1845 in the case of non-Roman Catholics. Church records are the main source on marriages taking place before 1865/1845 and again you would need to find a parish to search for the church record.
3. Follow up on the information from the record you have found
Once the first family record in Ireland has been successfully found you can follow up on the record trail with confidence. Having a birth or baptismal record for your ancestor, the natural next step would be a search for their own parent’s marriage record and possibly in due course, the parent’s birth or baptismal records. How far you can go will depend eventually on the available church records for the parish (once the civil records have been exhausted).
Other sources can further help to flesh out the family history. Land Records, such as the survey known as Griffith’s Valuation, taken in the mid-1800’s are useful in this way. This survey lists the tenants and landlords in each village of Ireland at the time of the survey and sets out the area of land held by each. Searching the survey for any property the family may have owned/rented can give a good insight into the kind of life they lead. It is also possible to trace the development of any property through the latter half of the 1800’s and into the 20th Century to discover who the different owners/occupiers were and when they each were replaced on the property. This can underline the process of succession within a family and can help point to likely periods for searching death records for the head of each generation. Civil death records can be searched in the same way as birth or marriage records. They provide age, occupation, and cause of death information (and, in some cases, they mention a relative who registered the death).
If your ancestors were present in Ireland at the turn of the 19th century, searching the 1901 or 1911 census can add to your knowledge by illustrating family relationships and setting out occupational and age details that can help in further research. Census documents give possibly the best snapshot of family life as all the members of a household are listed together on one form (if they were present on census night).