Irish Genealogy

John Grenham

Genealogy has long had an important position in Irish society: a large proportion of the surviving medieval Gaelic manuscripts consist of accounts of the pedigrees of the native elites. From one perspective, this is just the universally familiar legitimation by the powerful of their power. Another aspect of early Irish society may also have contributed, however. Under Brehon law, property was not vested in individuals or families, but in the derbhfhine, a large kin-group extending out to second cousins, descendants of a common great-grandfather. In other words, what you could own depended on who you were related to. Such a perspective on genealogy, with present kinship as its focus, is still a deeply embedded part of Irish culture. My own mother, who could recite from memory the family connections of what seemed like most of East Galway and North Roscommon, responded to my questions about her grandparents and great-grandparents with “What do you want to know about them for? Sure aren’t they all dead?” For all the changes in Ireland over the past twenty years, extended family connections can still be of great consequence.

Destruction of the Public Record Office

For anyone wanting to research ancestors in Ireland, there are a number of myths that can be an obstacle. The one most uncomfortably close to the truth is that all the records were destroyed in 1922. What actually happened was bad enough. The strong-room of the Public Record Office of Ireland, repository of the vast majority of administrative records of the island of Ireland from the 14th century on, was used as an ammunition store by the anti-Treaty side in the civil war. Hit by a shell fired by the pro-Treaty forces, the munitions exploded and destroyed all of the records. Only those few records in the PRO Reading Room at the start of the conflict survived.

From a genealogical point of view, the most significant losses were:

While the loss of the census returns in particular still casts a long shadow over Irish research, any records not in the PRO in 1922 have survived. These include non-Church of Ireland parish records, civil records of births, marriages and deaths, property records and later censuses. And for much of the material that was lost, there are abstracts, transcripts and fragments of the originals. Indeed, with a little straining to see the bright side, the disaster of 1922 can be said to have simplified research on Irish records, though in much the same way that Cromwell’s visit in 1649 simplified Ireland.

Are Irish records “difficult”?

Another myth is that Irish records are uniquely difficult to use.. The fact is that from 1800 to 1922 the UK was The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In other words, for almost all of the period of interest to genealogists, the two islands formed part of the same country. The first consequence is that there are no official records of migration to Britain, since the Irish in Britain at this period were simply moving from one part of the country to another. But the most important consequence for researchers is that there are strong similarities between the record systems of Britain and Ireland, particularly in the formats of the various civil registration records, in the systems used for taking censuses and, to some extent, in the parish system.

Irish records are also very centralised – almost everything of interest can be found in the Dublin institutions. The only major pre-1922 records held exclusively outside Dublin are the Ulster dissenters’ church registers in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast.

What do you need to know to start?

Location, location, location. And location. Unless your ancestor had an outlandish surname, the minimum you’ll need to know is the county of origin, and if the surname is common even a county or a parish may not be specific enough. The vast majority of Irish records before the 1860s are location-specific, and the reliance on fragments or local census substitutes which is one of the results of the 1922 disaster means that even neighbouring parishes may have quite different record profiles. Both of the standard guides to Irish research, my own Tracing Your Irish Ancestors (Gill & Macmillan, 3rd edition, 2006) and James Ryan’s Irish Records (Flyleaf Press, 2nd edition, 1998) include detailed listings by county showing what records survive.

Finding an Irish place of origin

Some detective work may be needed. For North America, naturalisation records, obituaries, burial and cemetery records and military record may provide vital clues. British census returns from 1841 to 1891 sometimes supply a specific place of birth but more often simply give “Ireland”. One way around this is to examine other Irish households in the same district: migrants from the same areas in Ireland were very clannish and tended to stay together. There is a good chance that a county of origin recorded for some of the neighbours may be the relevant one. The fact that so many of these 19th century returns are now online makes it much simpler to cast a net very wide.

But when it comes to Irish location information, the standard starting advice for any genealogical research applies doubly: talk to your granny. Family tradition, though it might need some decoding, can save you much pointless pain later on.

Irish sources

When you get to the point of research in Irish records you will almost certainly be using one of the four main categories that are relevant to almost everyone. These are:

Civil records

State registration of non-Catholic marriages began in Ireland in 1845. All births, deaths and marriages have been registered in Ireland since 1864. The main points of access are The General Register Office of Northern Ireland and The General Register Office in Dublin.

The Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has microfilm copies of almost all of the 19th century birth records, which can be examined through their Family History Centre network – every LDS temple has such a Centre. The first 12 years of Irish birth records, 1864-1875, are part of their International Genealogical Index and as such are available via the main LDS website, www.familysearch.org.

Census Records

The earliest surviving comprehensive returns are for 1901 and 1911 and are both available on microfilm in the National Archives of Ireland and via the LDS. Eventually all of these will be searchable for free at www.census.nationalarchives.ie. For the moment, the site includes the 1911 returns for Dublin.

Church records

Before the start of civil registration for all in 1864, church records are virtually the only direct source of family information.

Roman Catholic: The vast majority of the population of Ireland were Roman Catholic, and the single most important source of Irish genealogical information is Roman Catholic records. As a result of many years of microfilming, the National Library of Ireland has copies of virtually all the surviving registers. All are open for public research, with the exception of the records of the diocese of Cashel and Emly, covering parts of counties Tipperary and Limerick, which are closed at the behest of the Archbishop. The only access to these is by paid research via Tipperary Family History Research.

The LDS Family History Library has microfilms of around 40% of the registers, available through the Family History Library network and their CD British Isles Vital Records Index, 2nd Edition has transcripts of 12 parishes, mainly in Co. Roscommon.

In addition, the local heritage centre network has database transcripts of about 85% of the Catholic registers, but these are available only by commissioning research. A very basic A list of the centres can be found at www.irish-roots.net

An overview of the various copies of the records can be found at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/browse/counties/rcmaps.

Church of Ireland: When the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1869, its marriage registers before 1845, and baptismal and burial registers before 1870, became public records. As a result, around two-thirds of the total registers were held in the PRO in 1922 and these were all destroyed. Fortunately many transcripts had been made. In all, some material survives for about 60% of Church of Ireland parishes. The National Archives of Ireland and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland have microfilm copies of almost all of the surviving registers. Most of the originals are now in the Representative Church Body Library in Dublin.

Presbyterian: Generally, Presbyterian registers start much later than those of the Church of Ireland. Early records of Presbyterian baptisms, marriages and deaths are often to be found in the registers of the local Church of Ireland parish. Apart from records still in local custody, the main collections of Irish Presbyterian registers are in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Belfast.

Property records

The destruction of 1922 has lent an unnatural importance to two sets of records dating from the early and mid nineteenth century, respectively the Tithe Applotment Books of 1823-1838 and Griffith’s Primary Valuation of 1847-1868.

The Tithe Books comprise a parish-by-parish survey carried out to determine how much would be payable by each landholder who was liable. They are patchy, with many exemptions, but they constitute the only country-wide census substitute for the period. Microfilm copies are available at the National Archives, the National Library. the LDS and PRONI (for the six counties of Northern Ireland).

Griffith’s Valuation is far more substantial, recording all occupiers of property in Ireland in county-by-county volumes published between 1847 and 1868. Perhaps because the volumes were published and are out of copyright, it has by far the most transcripts and indexes of any Irish source. A count of householders, broken down by civil parish is available at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/. A paying service, with full index and scanned images of the original pages can be found at www.origins.net.

The Land Valuation Office has a set of the revisions carried out on the original Valuation, which can be used to trace descendants up to the mid twentieth century.

What does Irish genealogy teach us?

Family history research in Ireland can be difficult, but it also can be rewarding in unexpected ways. For a country so bedevilled by historic unresolved arguments, the worm's-eye-view of history that genealogy provides regularly throws up rich contradictions defying the logic of tribes and statistics: Protestant natives and Catholic settlers, marriages across cultures, Gaelic families with English surnames, immigration, social mobility, ... If you manage to get back far enough, we all came from somewhere different, and someone different. Genealogy teaches that there are no pure races or tribes. Its only incontrovertible truths are we are all mongrels and all cousins.

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