Edward J. O'Day

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

When Margaret Dickson Falley published her pioneering effort on Irish and Scotch-Irish ancestral research almost forty years ago, there were virtually no other guidebooks in the field. Though still a standard reference, Falley's book slights the important preliminary work that must be done in American sources before attempting research in Ireland, and it no longer reflects the state of Irish public records, many of which have been indexed, reorganized, or relocated in recent years. Perhaps the most significant development since the appearance of Falley's book has been the publication of numerous genealogical aids to Irish family research during the last two decades. Genealogical atlases, cemetery collations, indexes to newspapers, and computerized church records, virtually unknown in Irish genealogy a generation ago, now significantly enhance access to documents and make it easier to interpret what one finds.(1)

Irish-American Genealogy

Pursuing genealogical research in Ireland demands knowledge of at least the county origin of one's forebears, but that once cherished awareness of regional identity has passed from the consciousness of many Irish-Americans. Since all family research begins with oneself, in the present time and place, evidence of Irish roots must first be compiled on this side of the Atlantic. Seek out from relatives and friends memorabilia which link the family to its past--Bibles, letters, photographs, and the like--and write down proverbs, unusual expressions, names (including nicknames), and oral tradition retained in the family folklore. Make note of even seemingly trivial items; some may develop significance as evidence mounts. Contact anyone who may have knowledge of the time, place, and circumstances of your ancestor's emigration from Ireland. Inquire about the parish as well as the county of origin, and about religious affiliation and occupation while in Ireland. Information thus collected, though fragmentary and frequently contradictory, provides the body of data to be later checked against evidence found in public records here and abroad.

One without prior experience in family history should consult a basic primer on genealogical research methods, or attend workshops or lectures sponsored by a genealogical society, archive, or local college. Books on the Irish ethnic experience in American history and about the history of Ireland may also be useful, because all immigrant ancestors were part of larger waves of migration which shaped their individual experiences.(2) Techniques for tracking an emigrant's passage to the United States (which may have included intermediate stops in several locations) will vary according to the time period of the immigration, but general reading can help to define what records to look for. As might be expected, emigration within the last century is usually easier to verify. On the other hand, an Irish person going to the American colonies in the eighteenth century may have left few tracks in either land, and no trace at all of passage over the broad Atlantic.

Once a preliminary survey is complete, and some background knowledge acquired, the search of United States records can begin. The decennial United States census, now open to research through 1920, is a major tool used by all genealogists; since it documents residence at a specific place and time, it can be a vital key to locating other sources. All members of the household were listed on federal censuses after 1850, and that of 1880 began to show relationships between individuals. Twentieth century censuses include the year of immigration for the foreign-born, and indicate which of them have been naturalized. These later censuses also have reasonably complete indexes which facilitate their use.

Tracing an entire family group over as many decades as possible is recommended, since a composite picture may give clues that an individual record alone does not reveal. Dates and places of birth for children may suggest a migration pattern, or define within a year or two the date of immigration. While a direct ancestor may have died before 1900, the census record of an Irish-born sibling who lived to appear on the census of that year could indicate when the family arrived in the United States. Microfilm copies of the census are readily available at Regional National Archives and in many genealogical libraries.

Developing a group picture of the Irish ethnic community in which an ancestor lived--its employment, its churches, its fraternal organizations, its affiliations with the old country--may provide indirect evidence of the probable county of origin. In urban ethnic neighborhoods, immigrants often clustered together with others from the same county or region of Ireland, marrying and trading within the sub-group from the old country. Though identifying these groups can be difficult, census rolls, city directories, or parish and business histories can give important clues to the Irish counties which peopled these neighborhoods.

If not previously ascertained, the Irish birth county (and sometimes the parish) may appear in a naturalization paper, military pension record, will, death certificate, or cemetery monument inscription. These items should stand high on the research priority list. The information they contain will vary widely, and many will prove disappointing, but those that are detailed are well worth the search.

Descendants of the first wave of Irish immigrants, those who came in colonial times, will find no lack of secondary sources about that group, especially for the two out of three who were Presbyterians from Ulster, often called "Scotch-Irish." Wills, land records, and tax lists are the major sources for locating these ancestors in colonial and early United States records. Many came in entire family or community groups and continued to intermarry for several generations. However, one in three colonial era Irish settlers were from a different province of Ireland, or of a different religious denomination, and many of these individuals can prove difficult to document.

By the 1820's Catholics from Ireland's southern counties began to arrive in increasing numbers in the northeastern states, seeking and finding work in factories or on construction projects in the newly industrializing American republic. Tracing ancestors from this era is challenging, but it is usually possible with persistent effort. Many of these pioneer Catholic Irish went unrecorded individually in the census, and were often uncounted for tax purposes, since incomes were meager. Only as children attained school age, or families accumulated sufficient funds to purchase house or land, did they begin to appear in civil records. Priests found them when civil officials did not, and one must often use church records to document their presence. Locating the correct parish file will be challenging, since most Catholic records remain in local custody. Some early records have been printed however, and a few dioceses with centralized archives have published indexes of their holdings.(3)

Approximately one and a half million Irish landed on American shores during the famine decade (1846-1855). In haste to flee their starving land, family members may have arrived on different ships in widely separated ports, and tens of thousands died on route. Their numbers overwhelmed established Irish-American communities, and these immigrants quickly scattered throughout the land. Yet, most of this famine horde who survived until the next census can be identified and traced. Ship lists of passengers on vessels to New York have been indexed and published, and an on-going project also indexes newspaper advertisements from the Boston Pilot which were taken out by those who had lost track of relatives and loved ones.(4) Either index may be a useful tool for identifying an ancestor from this era.

Irish Genealogy

During the second half of the nineteenth century American census records, ship lists kept by customs officials, tax and school lists, and vital records kept by government agencies all became much more complete than those maintained earlier in the century. The same is true in Ireland, where Catholic Emancipation and a devotional revolution in the Catholic Church fostered more widespread and systematic recording of births and marriages by clergy. Civil registration of some marriages began in l845 and full civil recording, including births and deaths, began in l864. Extensive evaluation lists of property, listing both owners and tenants, began during the famine years and were updated annually thereafter. Although censuses were taken throughout this period, the earliest surviving manuscripts are those of 1901. Consequently, descendants of post-famine emigrants should have the most abundant and reliable records from which to document their Irish roots. They should have a fairly high rate of success.

Political and religious strife, which continue to take their toll on Ireland, have militated over the centuries against careful record keeping, lest government or opposition religious group use the evidence against named individuals. Documents of vital importance to genealogical research, including wills, censuses, and church records have been destroyed, some intentionally, others by accident or neglect. The surviving historical record in Ireland is much more fragmentary than for the United States in the nineteenth century, where the loss of the 1890 census and the burning of an occasional courthouse are annoyances which can usually be worked around. Working around the destruction of Irish records, many of them centrally housed when the Four Courts burned in 1922, takes a great deal of ingenuity and more than an ordinary portion of Irish luck. Many Irish-Americans can ultimately trace lines to the end of the eighteenth century, but breaking through to Irish roots of the seventeenth century or earlier is a rare occurrence, and is usually possible only for those of upper social and economic standing in Irish society.

On the brighter side, Irish genealogy can begin in the United States. The Newberry Library in Chicago and the Allen County Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana both have excellent collections on Irish genealogy, local history, and geography to sustain the first steps into Irish printed records.(5) The all important mid-nineteenth century census substitute which records heads of all Irish households, commonly known as "Griffith's Valuation," is available on microfiche at a number of major American libraries.(6) Several indexes, one prepared by the National Library of Ireland, another by All-Ireland Heritage of Dunn Loring, VA, facilitate access to Griffith. Regretably, the CD Index produced by Heritage World and Genealogical Publishing (Broderbund CD#188, 1998) contains only partial data and entries are unreliable.

By using the resources of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or one of its local Family History Centers, the Irish-American genealogist can begin accessing Irish manuscript sources. Microfilms produced by the Genealogical Society of Utah include the 1901 Census of Ireland; Catholic sacramentary records to 1880 and those of most other churches; transcripts of deeds and leases beginning in 1708; and records of the Valuation Office, covering over a century of land evaluations, both predating and postdating Griffith's data. Some files of the Genealogical Office in Dublin have also been filmed, but these will be useful mainly for tracing gentry and members of the titled nobility.

When approaching Irish genealogical sources for the first time, the researcher confronts unfamiliar administrative terminology and a maze of overlapping jurisdictions--civil and ecclesiastical parishes which have the same name, but cover different territory; nineteenth century electoral districts and Poor Law Unions superimposed on older English administrative units, the counties and baronies. At the lowest level of organization stands the townland, of which more than 60,000 dot the countryside; identically named townlands may exist in a dozen or more counties, or even in the same county.(7) Before attempting research in original Irish sources (manuscript or microfilm) it is imperative to find out by which of these divisions the material was collected and reported, and to study the administrative geography of the area being searched. Church, land, and census records are each organized according to a different system, which to the beginner may seem to be no system at all. It is only prudent to keep an atlas or county map nearby whenever using Irish records.(8)

Most committed Irish genealogists will eventually need to tap sources found only in Ireland. Dublin and Belfast are the main research centers, but specialized holdings in church libraries or repositories in other locations may also need to be consulted. More than thirty regional "Heritage Centers" are now operating, employing people to transcribe and computerize parish records from all denominations, part of an island-wide project coordinated by the Irish Family History Foundation. In some counties indexing has just begun, but centers which are further advanced offer fee-based research service.

Those willing to do their own digging will gain free access to the National Archives in Dublin and to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland located in Belfast. Small but helpful staffs can help guide researchers to estate papers, which may be filled with genealogical data about tenant farmers. Unfortunately, there are relatively few large collections, and fewer still are indexed. Other archival sources include the original 1901 and 1911 censuses, will indexes and some wills, State of the Country Papers (reports by British officials), famine relief files, school records, and numerous maps, among others. City directories, cemetery books for some areas, Irish Manuscript Commission publications, county historical journals, newspapers, and local histories may be accessed at the National Library in Dublin or the Linenhall Library, a private library in Belfast which is the island's oldest. While some of these published sources are available in the United States, collections and series are more complete in Ireland.

Original deeds and leases for land are preserved in the Registry of Deeds in Dublin, but deed registration was not compulsory, and only a small fraction of transactions in the eighteenth century will be found here. Entries became more numerous, but far from universal, after restrictions against Catholic ownership of land were lifted in the 1780's. Using these records is arduous and expensive, with a search fee levied for each day's use, but it can be very rewarding. Search fees and copying costs are also assessed at Joyce House (the Registrar-General's Office) in Dublin, which houses vital records.(9)

Not all Irish research need be carried on within bureaucratic or fee-collecting agencies, however. Research in Ireland should come full circle, seeking out and speaking with family and friends of one's ancestor, but this time in the region from whence she or he came. Even if emigration occurred generations ago, the Irish people have long been skilled in oral tradition, and someone in the area, especially if it is a small village, will have a very long memory. You might even find that someone there has been looking for you!(10)


1. Margaret Dickson Falley, Irish and Scotch-Irish Ancestral Research, 2 vols. (Evanston, Ill Reprint Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1984). A recent addition to the field, likely to become a standard, is John Grenham, Tracing Your Irish Ancestors (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1992).

2. The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, edited by Stephan Thernstrom (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1980 has excellent short articles by Patrick J. Blessing on the Irish and by Maldwyn Jones on Scotch-Irish. Each is accompanied by suggested additional readings on Irish-Americana. The Irish Experience (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989) by Thomas Hachey, Joseph Herndon, and Lawrence McCaffrey, a series of interpretive essays on Ireland from Celtic times, has a good bibliography, including more recent works on the Irish-American dimension than found in Thernstrom. The most up-to-date resource guide is Patrick J. Blessing, The Irish in America: A Guide to the Literature and the Manuscript Collections (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1992).

3. Records of Chicago area pastors for 1833-1834, when Chicago was a religious outpost of the dioceses of St. Louis and Vincennes, appeared in the Illinois Catholic Historical Review, III (1920-21): 404-434; IV (l92l-22): 6-21, 38l-396. Joliet parish records for 1838-1851, indexed by Nancy C. Thornton, are appended to Norman C. Werling, The First Catholic Church in Joliet, Illinois, 2nd edition (Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1987).

4. Michael A. Glazer and Michael Tepper, eds., The Famine Immigrants: Lists of Irish Immigrants Arriving at the Port of New York l846-l85l, 7 vols. (Baltimore, l983-87). Ruth-Ann Harris and B. Emer O'Keeffe, eds., The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot, 7 vols. (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1989-99). Volumes published to date cover the years 1831 to 1876.

5. For Irish-related repositories in other areas of the country, consult Patrick Blessing's The Irish in America, or Irish Research: A Guide to Collections in North America, Ireland and Great Britain (New York and Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1987).

6. The full title is General Valuation of Rateable Property in Ireland (Dublin: Alexander Thom and Sons, 1848-1864). Richard Griffith, Commissioner of Valuation, oversaw this massive project. The original volumes, arranged by barony and county, are unnumbered and scarce. The microfiche edition (Dublin: Irish Microforms,1979) is more readily available.

7. An indispensable aid to identifying Irish place names is the General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes, and Baronies of Ireland, an index to the 1851 Irish census, first published in 1861 and reprinted in 1984.

8. Samuel Lewis' Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, an excellent older work (1837), contains detailed word descriptions of parishes and towns, and is accompanied by an atlas of county maps. Brian Mitchell's A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1988) illustrates parishes, poor law unions, and baronies for each of the thirty-two counties.

9. The Dublin office includes records for all of Ireland 1864-1922, and for the Republic since that time. Certificates for births, marriages, and deaths occurring in Northern Ireland since 1922 are obtained from the Registrar-General in Belfast.

10. For an Irishman's search to learn what had become of his emigrant great-grandfather in the United States, see Michael Coady, "Oven Lane: the Use of Memory," Eire- Ireland, 25, 4 (Winter 1990): 18-33.

[An earlier version of this essay appeared in Illinois Libraries, 74,5 (November 1992): 408-412.

Copyright 2001 Edward J. O'Day
Last revised: August 20, 2001