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Article Published August 27, 1999
Irish Research: Suggestions For the Beginner
By: Kyle Betit
Many researchers who begin Irish genealogical research have the goal in mind of finding out from where in Ireland the immigrant ancestor came. Usually the beginner soon discovers that approaches to research need to be tailored to the social status of the ancestor and the time period of immigration. Tracing the impoverished ancestor, or the ancestor who immigrated in the 1600s or 1700s, may be very difficult or in some cases, impossible. However, with diligent research using effective strategies the origin of an ancestor in Ireland can often be determined using North American records, opening up the Irish records of that place of origin to be explored to further document the immigrant family.
What can you expect to discover?
Whether conducting research yourself or hiring a professional to do it, you need to remember that there are limitations to just how far an Irish family can be traced back. It depends on time time period, the area of research (such as the county they lived in) and the availability of records.Success in Irish research has to be judged by different standards than, for example, Scandanavian, English or Scottish research.
Most Irish Catholic and Presbyterian church records simply do not begin until the 1820s. Consequently, the average Catholic or Presbyterian lineage can only be traced back to about the year 1800. The Church of Ireland (also known as the Anglican or Episcopal church in other countries) was the Established Church of Ireland. Although the Church of Ireland registers often commenced earlier, over half of these registers were destroyed during the 1922 Civil War when the Public Record Office of Ireland at the Four Courts (now replaced by the National Archives of Ireland) was burned.
Passenger lists for emigrants leaving Ireland are practically non-existent. Moreover, in Canada, the arrival lists often simply state "Ireland" or "Great Britain" as the place of birth or last place of residence. Another factor that complicates research is that Irish names can be so common that it's very hard to tell which Mary O'Connor or Patrick Kelly is the ancestor.
Depending on where an Irish immigrant settled (or was deported to), there may be records in the new country to fill the void left in Irish records. For example, if an ancestor was a prisoner sent to Australia, penal records may provide the exact place of origin in Ireland. If an ancestor was an Orangeman (a member of a Protestant masonic organization) and immigrated to North America, there may exist a transfer certificate identifying his former lodge in Ireland. Often, tombstones in Canada will tell where an immigrant was born in Ireland.
Not all Irish lineages will come to a halt in the early 1800s. In the case of gentry or the upper class, there are frequently extensive Irish pedigrees which can take a family back hundreds of years. Although very few such pedigrees exist for peasant families, don't assume your ancestors were peasants simply because they left Ireland. In general, a family had to have at least some money to pay for passage out of Ireland.
Where should you start?
Sources of information generated in the country of settlement should be thoroughly examined first if only "Ireland" is known as the place of birth. If an Irish county is known or if the surname is uncommon, then some Irish records may be utilized. For example, if just a county is known, it may be that one of theHeritage Centres in that county has an index that could help pinpoint where an ancestor lived (i.e. church, census, tax, or tombstone indexes). This can quickly solve an immigration problem. .
Helpful sources in Canada can include the following: family stories and legends, obituaries, society records, church records, military and related records, local histories,civil registration (births, marriages, and deaths), as well as tombstones and other records kept by cemeteries. Such records can be accessed in a variety of places, such as provincial and national archives, university libraries, local and provincial historical and genealogical societies, county courthouses, and church archives. Some sources are still found only in local custody.
Weren't all the Irish records destroyed?
It is true that some significant Irish record collections have been destroyed, but this is by no means a reason to avoid researching your Irish ancestors. During the 1922 Irish Civil War, the Public Record Office of Ireland (PROI) at Four Courts in Dublin was destroyed by fire, and seven hundred years of Irish records were lost. The PROI housed a No. of key genealogical records of use to those researching their Irish ancestors. The pre-1858 wills, pre-1901 census records, and over half of the Church of Ireland parish registers were among the casualties in 1922.
The destruction of the Public Record Office forever impacted the course of research for the Irish genealogist. However, it was only one national repository. Still remaining are all of the records contained in all of the other national repositories such as the Registry of Deeds, General Register Office, National Library of Ireland, Genealogical Office, Valuation Office, and the Public Record Office in London. In addition to records at the national level, there are numerous records of local governments, ecclesiastical records, occupational records, and records in private keeping such as estate, school, hospital, prison and society records. Irish research is complicated by the loss of key records in 1922, but by no means made impossible.
A Few Final Words
Successful Irish research requires that you become well educated as to what sources are available and how they can be used most effectively. You often need to research the lives of all the brothers, sisters, other relatives, and descendants of your immigrant ancestor(s) in the hopes that a document about their lives will divulge the Irish home origin. Hard work usually pays off in the long run, and the end result could be a visit to the exact home site where the ancestors originated and even the home itself in Ireland. There are not many places where you can actually walk through the same doorway that your ancestor did before leaving Europe.
More Irish Resources