Sources & Strategies for Determining an Irish Place of Origin

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Published November 12, 1999. Updated April 26, 2019

Sources & Strategies for Determining an Irish Place of Origin
By Kyle J. Betit, ProGenealogists. 2019 update by Rick Roberts, Global Genealogy

Irish research is among the most difficult in the world. Some lineages may never be extended outside of the USA or Canada, and all that will ever be known is that the immigrant was born in Ireland. However, by searching a wide variety of sources and by using effective strategies you can greatly increase the likelihood of establishing your family's origins in Ireland. A basic rule for Irish research is to examine all available genealogical sources relevant to the ancestral family. This means that you must become educated in the source material available both in Ireland and abroad. You should also consider what happened to the brothers and sisters of the immigrant ancestor.

I. What to Do if the Origin in Ireland is Unknown
If an ancestor's specific place of origin in Ireland is unknown, in most cases efforts need to concentrate on sources of the country where the Irish immigrant family settled. Many different sources in the adoptive country can hold the key to, or at least provide clues to, help identify a county or a more specific place of origin in Ireland. It is not advisable in most cases to try to use Irish records if nothing is known about the family's origins in Ireland.

Pursue sources in the adopted country

It is impossible to know in advance what source will reveal the place of origin in Ireland. Many sources will be useful in the research process of tracing an Irish immigrant back in time regardless of whether they specifically state the birth place. However, some sources are more likely to provide the key birth place information than others. Some of the most useful primary (original) sources include obituaries, death certificates, tombstones, censuses, church records, and local histories. Here is a list of a range of potentially useful North American record sources:
  1. Cemetery Records (tombstones, cemetery registers and lot descriptions)
  2. Census Records (federal, state, local)
  3. Church Records (baptism, burial, marriage, minutes)
  4. Directories
  5. Funeral Home Records
  6. Institutional Records (banks, homes, businesses, insurance)
  7. Land Records (petitions, grants, deeds of sale)
  8. Military Records (service records, pensions, draft cards),
  9. Naturalization Papers (declarations of intention, petitions)
  10. Newspapers (birth, marriage, death, anniversary notices)
  11. Occupational Records (professionals, clergy, work records)
  12. Passenger Lists (outward-bound, inward-bound, border crossings)
  13. Society Records (fraternal, benevolent)
  14. Tax Records
  15. Vital Records/Civil Registration (birth, marriage, death)
  16. Wills and Administrations
Pay attention to family traditions

Family legends are often half-truths. Statements that the family came from Dublin, Cork, Londonderry (Derry) or Belfast may actually be referring to the port from which they left rather than the place of origin. It is important to determine what may have already been compiled about the family in question. This is not to state that anything already written is necessarily correct, but sometimes compiled genealogies can be useful.

Observe migration patterns

Migration patterns among Irish immigrants are important clues to tracing any family's origins. Both group migration (in which relatives or friends immigrate as a group at one time) and chain migration (in which later immigrants follow relatives or friends who immigrated earlier) were prominent features of the Irish exodus. Some communities were settled largely by Irish immigrants from a particular place in Ireland. In urban areas, Irish from a particular county often concentrated in a particular section of a city over the years as friends and relatives from Ireland joined earlier immigrants. An example is Bruce S. Elliott's study in Irish Migrants in the Canadas: A New Approach - Second Edition of the chain migration of 775 Protestant families from County Tipperary, Ireland, to the Ontario and Quebec provinces of Canada.

Document the immigrant's life as a whole

Trace the immigrant ancestor step by step back in time, compiling documents from arrival in the adoptive country until the immigrant's death and burial. The details discovered in records in this manner will be helpful to documenting and reconstructing the family in Ireland. Other facts in addition to the birth place will be important clues to Irish origins, such as birth date and parents' names, especially mother's maiden name.

Research the extended family

It is important to consider not only records about the immigrant ancestor but also about any other relatives who may have come from Ireland, such as brothers and sisters. Trace the lives of these relatives and examine records created about them for preservation of the place of origin in Ireland.

Trace associations with friends and neighbors

Give attention to neighbors who may have been from the same place in Ireland. Immigrants from the same community in Ireland often emigrated together and settled together abroad. For this reason, if an ancestor's origins cannot be found, research may be more successful by focusing on the origins of neighbors. Neighborhoods can often be reconstructed through the use of censuses, land, tax and church records. A group of members from a particular congregation or surrounding geographical area in Ireland sometimes emigrated together. An example is the group of sixteen Methodist families from Bandon, County Cork, established the settlement of New Bandon, New Brunswick in 1817 (see Donald F. Parrot and Nora M. Hickey's article "New Bandon, New Brunswick" in Bandon Historical Journal). Examine the history of the churches the ancestors attended for evidence of this kind of group migration.

Trace the immigrant ancestors' descendants

Documenting an immigrant's children and extended descendants is also useful, since records created of or by them may identify the immigrant's origin in Ireland. A child's birth or death certificate may give the parents' origins in Ireland. Irish emigrants who left Ireland in the eighteenth century may have many thousands of descendants today, one of whom may have published a book or article preserving the family's origin in Ireland. Family records may have passed down in another branch of the family.

Identify intermediate countries of migration

When leaving Ireland many Irish families went to an intermediate country prior to settling permanently in a second locality. In particular, many immigrants spent some years in England, Scotland, or Wales prior to immigrating to the United States or Canada. Many who had been in Australia went to California during the Gold Rush. The country of choice depended on factors such as job availability, joining relatives, or even military service. There was a large amount of migration in both directions between the United States and Canada. It was common for branches of a family to be in both countries. The search for immigrant origins may require searching records of a middle country between Ireland and the final country of settlement. In fact, the Irish origins may actually be found in the records of an intermediate country.

Use Irish records in select cases

There are some cases where Irish records may be fruitfully utilized if no origin in Ireland has been determined. This is particularly true if the immigrant had a rare name. Huguenots and Palatines with French and German surnames settled in particular localities in Ireland. If an Irish immigrant ancestor had a surname of French or German origin, records regarding these settlements could be utilized.

If research has identified two surnames present in the place of origin (e.g., ancestor's surname and his wife's maiden name) the distribution of those two surnames in Ireland may be examined to see where both appear. Two of the most valuable sources for examining surname distribution in nineteenth century Ireland are Griffith's Primary Valuation and the Tithe Applotment Books. Full and free access to Griffith's Valuation is available on the Ask About Ireland website. Free access to The Tithe Applotment Books is available online at the National Archives of Ireland website

II. What To Do if Only the County in Ireland is Known

If a county of origin in Ireland is known, a further goal will be to identify the parish and townland or town of origin. This more specific locality information will be necessary for accessing local records such as church registers, estate papers, and cemetery transcripts. The following are some sources and strategies for identifying an ancestor's specific residence with a known county of origin in Ireland.

More research abroad may be needed

Even if a county has been identified, additional research in records abroad may be necessary to make sure that it is the correct county. Relatives within a family may have different counties of origin listed for them on documents. Places such as Cork, Dublin and Londonderry (Derry) were often the place of departure rather than the actual origin of the family. Also, the townland or parish may be preserved in records abroad.

Researching all branches of the family abroad

You may still need to trace where various family members emigrated to find a record abroad giving a specific origin within the county. There may be historical information available about where emigrants from the county went abroad (Clare to Australia, Longford/Westmeath to Argentina, e.g., Beara Peninsula (Cork) to mining areas such as in Montana and Utah in the United States) which can be used in tracing where family members may have gone. Heritage centres and history books are good sources of this information.

Also helpful is the series The Search for Missing Friends which includes extracts of notices in the Boston Pilot newspaper from Irish people looking for lost relatives. The Search for Missing Friends 1821-1920 database is available (free) on the New England Historic Genealogical Society's website,

Other information known about the ancestors

When a county of origin is known, additional clues about the family such as religion or occupation may suggest places of residence within that county. For example, minority religions such as Moravians and Quakers had specific settlements in Ireland; and miners from Cork may be from the Beara Peninsula copper mines and miners from Wicklow may be from the copper and sulphur mines of the Avoca area.

Using heritage centres in Ireland

Ireland has a group of heritage centres which have indexed records usually on a county basis. If a county of origin and enough details about the family are known, the centre's index can be searched for record of the family in a specific parish or locality. A centre will no doubt find multiple John Murphys and it will not be possible to know which is the ancestor without more information about the family. Possible additional details include a father's name, mother's maiden name, a birth date, or a group of siblings' names.

Irish records usable with a known county

Some types of Irish records may be accessed when a county of residence but not a parish or townland is known. These include:
  1. Civil Registration: Registration of non-Catholic marriages in Ireland began in April 1845. The recording of births, deaths and Catholic marriages began in January 1864. Many of these records are available on microfilm through the FHL.
  2. County and Local Libraries: The addresses of county and local libraries in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland may be found on the Library Council of Ireland's web site. Libraries in Ulster are detailed in Robert K. O'Neill's Ulster Libraries, Archives, Museums & Ancestral Heritage Centres.
  3. Griffith's Primary Valuation (1847-1864) and the Tithe Applotment Books (1823-1837)
  4. Registry of Deeds: The grantor (seller) index to the Registry of Deeds often indicates the county where the land in the transaction was located. Transactions for a particular surname within a county can thus be examined.
  5. Wills & Administrations: Wills were proved and estates were administered in the consistorial courts of each Church of Ireland diocese and the Prerogative Court of Armagh prior to 1858. Since 1858, wills and administrations have been the responsibility of district registries and the Principal Registry in Dublin.
  6. Indexed Sources for Specific Counties: Some counties have sources with county-wide indexes. Examples of cemetery transcripts compiled and indexed county-wide include Gravestone Inscriptions, County Down by R.S.J. Clarke and Memorials of the Dead in County Wicklow by Brian J. Cantwell. Census index examples include the index to the 1831 census of County Londonderry (Derry) produced on microfiche by the Derry Inner City Trust and the indexes to the 1901census of Fermanagh and Tyrone produced by Largy Books of Alberta, Canada.
Surname Interest Lists

Some Irish genealogical societies have compiled surname interest lists indicating what surnames their members are researching and the locations in Ireland where these surnames originated. Using these lists it may be possible to locate a researcher who has compiled material about an ancestor's family. Such societies include the Irish Genealogical Society International and Ulster Historical Foundation (UHF). The UHF surname interest list is available on the internet.

Addresses (Check their websites for the newest address and contact information)
    Allen County Public Library: Historical Genealogy Department, 900 Webster Street, PO Box 2270, Ft. Wayne, IN 46801-2270, USA; Tel: (219) 424-7241 ext. 3315; Fax: (219) 422-9688.

    Family History Library: 35 North West Temple, Salt Lake City, UT 84150, USA; Tel: (801) 240-2364.

    Irish Genealogical Society International: PO Box 16585, St. Paul, MN 55116, USA; Tel: (612) 645-3671.

    National Archives of Ireland: Bishop Street, Dublin 4, Ireland; Tel: (01) 4783711; Fax: (01) 4783650.

    National Library of Ireland: Kildare Street, Dublin 2, Ireland; Tel: (01) 6618811; Fax: (01) 6766690.

    Ulster Historical Foundation: 12 College Square East, Belfast BT1 6DD, Northern Ireland: Tel: (01232) 332288; Fax: (01232) 239885
References and Further Reading:
    Betit, Kyle J. and Dwight A. Radford. "Heritage Centres in Ireland," The Irish At Home and Abroad 4 (3) (3rd Quarter 1997): 135-140.

    Betit, Kyle J. and Dwight A. Radford. Ireland: A Genealogical Guide. Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: The Irish At Home and Abroad, 1998.

    Betit, Kyle J. and Dwight A. Radford. Place Names and the Irish Immigrant," The Irish At Home and Abroad 5 (1) (1st Quarter 1998).

    Cantwell, Brian J. Memorials of the Dead in County Wicklow. 4 vols. 1974-1978. Clarke, R.S.J. Gravestone Inscriptions, County Down. Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 1966-.

    Elliott, Bruce S. Irish Migrants in the Canadas: A New Approach - Second Edition. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988.

    Mac Conghail, Máire and Paul Gorry. Tracing Irish Ancestors. Glasgow: Harper Collins, 1997.

    MacLysaght, Edward. The Surnames of Ireland. 6th ed. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1985.

    O'Neill, Robert K. Ulster Libraries, Archives, Museums & Ancestral Heritage Centres. Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 1997.

    Parrot, Donald F. and Nora M. Hickey. "New Bandon, New Brunswick," Bandon Historical Journal 7 (1991): 45-48.

    Phillimore, W.P.W. and Gertrude Thrift. Indexes to Irish Wills. 1909. Reprint, Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1970.

    The Search for Missing Friends. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society. Multiple volumes; ongoing project.

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