Irish genealogy is notoriously difficult to perform. Many people out there have Irish ancestry, and the ones who choose to research it may find themselves being quite frustrated at times by what they see as lack of progress due to brick walls. Brick walls are infamous in Irish genealogy research. Why is Irish genealogy such a challenge, and what can you do to make it easier for you? Here is an explanation, as well as some tips to maybe open some doors to further your quest for your Irish family heritage.
Irish genealogy is difficult to do because there is a real lack of records. There used to be records. The Irish were meticulous about keeping them, as most of the Island was Catholic, and record keeping is important in the Catholic church and religion. However, most of the best and most useful records for genealogists have been destroyed over the years. Ireland has experienced wars, famine, natural disasters, poor care of records, fires, and deliberate destruction of records in religious conflicts. All of this means that the records you seek may once have been there, but were probably destroyed or lost a century or more ago.
If you have been doing Irish genealogy research for any length of time, you have probably used Griffith’s Valuation, census records, and parish records. All are good sources for finding your Irish ancestors, but they have their limitations. Griffith’s Valuation only lists heads of household. Census and parish records are all fairly recent if they exist at all. You might get back to the mid-1800s with the parish records (census records are far more recent than even those), but that’s about it. Even going to the National Archives isn’t guaranteed to get you the information you want on your Irish family. The records just simply aren’t there.
So, what do you do if you want to research your Irish ancestry and actually have some success doing it? You’re going to have to start thinking out of the box. The answers you seek may have simply vanished with the passage of the centuries, but they might also still be there, waiting for you, in the most unlikely or unusual of places. You have to go beyond what most Irish genealogy researchers know is available and go for more obscure sources.
One good source is passenger records. This is an excellent source to use if you know the name or names of your Irish immigrant ancestors. There are a number of places online that have passenger records, from Ancestry.com to FamilySearch.org, and more. FindMyPast.com is a subscription website devoted almost entirely to Irish (and a little British) genealogy, and they have passenger records, as well. You can also look up records at the Ellis Island and Castle Garden websites for incoming arrivals to the United States.
Passenger records may not give you much more than a name and an age and point of departure. However, if you are lucky, you may find other people with the same last name traveling on the same ship, who may be relatives, you may find the birthplace, occupation, and even destination in America for your passenger. All of these are clues to who your Irish ancestor was, and to whom they were connected. It can give you additional clues to use to search for their family in Ireland.
Old newspaper articles are also an excellent clue to your Irish family tree. You can sometimes find mentions of your ancestors in old Irish newspapers, but the best thing to do is to look for their names in newspapers in the United States. You never know when you will come across an article about your Irish immigrant ancestor that mentions their family in Ireland. It may be an article about something notable they did, or it may be an obituary, but it will give you clues to follow.
There are also a host of classified ads in the late 19th century/early 20th century newspapers in the United States that were posted by people IN Ireland who were searching for relatives who came to the USA who they never heard from again, or who they hadn’t heard from in years. If you can find someone searching for your immigrant Irish ancestor in an American newspaper, you can get some good details on their family in Ireland that you can use to do more research in the “mother country.” You might even get the name of their county and/or township of origin. If you can get the township, you have often struck gold, because Irish families did not move around much. They tended to stay in one place for generations. Once you have the township, you have a treasure trove of potential records to search, usually in Ireland itself, in the parish churches and the national archives. It may open up your Irish family tree in magical ways you never imagined.
There are Irish baptism records online, mostly at FindMyPast.com, but some at Ancestry.com, and even at FamilySearch.org. You can search there for your immigrant ancestor and obtain the name and often dwelling place of their parents. This gives you a new avenue to search for more ancestors in Ireland. You can also order the death certificate for your immigrant Irish ancestor in the United States; if their American family knew anything about their Irish family, the names of their parents may be on that certificate, and you can use those parent names to search other databases.
If all else fails to break down that brick wall, you can always do a DNA test. DNA may put you in touch with other people who are descended from the same Irish family as you. Request to be in contact with these people through your DNA testing website, and they might have information on your Irish ancestors. Or, the two of you can piece together your individual information to create a family tree, or at least come up with the clues needed to build one with more research.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)