How to find your ancestors on a trip to Ireland
Genealogy is a hobby that can be packed up and taken along on your travels — especially Ireland.
Here, perfect strangers really will be interested in stories of your great-grandfather Emmett and aunt Mary Scholastica. Share a pint and a tale of immigration to America and you might hear that your ancestors were among the better-off poor: They could afford the cost of a steerage ticket. The poorest lot had to go to England, typically Liverpool. Of the most famous four people to ever come out of Liverpool, three of them — John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr — had Irish forebears.
Teasing out one’s Irish heritage can lead down country lanes in Kildare and to an Omagh church yard, from Dublin’s Merrion Square to County Mayo and the edge of the sea.
And while Irish genealogy research is not a beeline from Brian Boru to thee, it is craic — Irish for fun, for a good time, for lively, laughing conversations.If a saint turns up in the family tree, or even better, a scoundrel or three, that’s a bonus.
Getting going takes some understanding of what records are available. Irish archives are complicated by history:
- Civil registration of births, deaths and Catholic marriages began in 1864. Civil registration of Protestant marriages go back to 1845.
- On June 30, 1922, the Irish Public Records Office in Dublin was destroyed, along with millions of vital records.
- The establishment of Northern Ireland dictated another national registry, creating a twinset of repositories of Irish record houses, the National Archives in Dublin and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast.
TALK TO YOUR FAMILY
Usually there’s one person who listened as the old folks chatted. That cousin or aunt or sibling can have clues about names, places or dates that need to be jostled from memory.
Location is the most important information because records are linked to parish, township or country. If that knowledge has been lost, surname maps pinpoint a name in time in a particular place in Ireland, which allows for some reasonable assumptions.
Take the McGolrick name. Between 1847-1864, there were 41 McGolrick households in County Cavan, 34 in Fermanagh and one in Monaghan.
Be careful of name variations, a problem for genealogists throughout Ireland. McGolrick is often spelled McGoldrick or Golrick and, in the way of Irish nomenclature, is actually a branch of the O’Rourke clan of Leitrim.
HIT THE INTERNET
The Irish government has powerful search tools available to genealogists. Reconnecting the Irish Diaspora with today’s Ireland is a matter of Irish national policy and cultural initiatives. The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (Irish for Irish-speaking regions) is putting as many records online as possible and has a website devoted to Irish genealogy,irishgenealogy.ie.
Heather Humphreys, department minister, writes, “My Department and I are conscious of the importance of genealogy as an important way of connecting with those abroad who wish to trace their roots.
GO TO IRELAND
With location in hand, the first step is a trip to the family home site.Drop by the church to check what records show up with your family names.
Wander the graveyard to find gravesites that match names and dates. Keep in mind that there may be no gravestones, however. After family dispersed to America, there was often no one to maintain the burial spot. Likely, though, the church will have a map to the graveyard.
While in town, find the local county library; most have librarians with some knowledge and interest in genealogy. Almost all have the names of a local genealogist for hire.
For a chic alternative, the Shelburne Hotel in Dublin provides guests with a “Genealogy Butler,” acclaimed genealogist Helen Kelly. Don’t want to pay a five-star price but want a five-star genealogy experience? Kelly maintains a private practice, as well.
PRONI is a one-stop shop, housing Northern Ireland’s Public Record Office, County Record Office, a manuscript collection, and records of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches for the six north counties.
In Dublin, the National Library of Ireland staffs a Genealogical Advisory Service with professional genealogists from May to October, the most popular months for ancestor hunting in Ireland. This service is free and on a first-come, first-served basis, so get an early start after an Irish breakfast of blood and white sausages, bacon, eggs, potatoes, grilled tomatoes and soda bread; you’ll need the fortification for the day ahead. The line is long.
At the National Library of Ireland, Maeve Mullin and her colleagues will take a jumble of notes and put order to them, outlining a specific route. They can explain how to use the information-rich Griffith’s Valuation or where to locate church, census and property records. They can demonstrate the tracking of family blackguards through the Petty Session Court records.
Need to decipher the vital distinction between civil parishes and parishes of the Roman Catholic Church? Confused by the two different house numbering system in Ballynahatty in 1901 and 1911? Want to know why great-great-grandmother Kathleen is listed as householder? The National Library of Ireland staff does this and more and then often sends researchers onward, usually to the General Register Office.
At the General Register Office, a 15-minute walk through the heart of Dublin, copies of birth, death or marriage records relinquish more vital information. In addition to occupation and religion, literacy is noted and names of witnesses, themselves very often relatives.
Some Irish family trees hark back to septs, or clans, related to Irish high kings. More typical are searches that become stalled in the 18th century.
As Alex Haley, author and genealogist, noted, “Every genealogical researcher shares one frustration that I know I will always live with. Was there something else I should have uncovered?” Probably there is one more fact, one more person to be added to your Irish family tree and therein lies the charm of the sport.
A BRIEF TOOL LIST
- General Register Office, Werburgh St., Dublin 2.
- Helen Kelly, 30 Harlech Crescent, Clonskea, Dublin 14.
- National Archives, Bishop St., Dublin 8.
- PRONI, 2 Titanic Blvd., Belfast BT3 9HQ.
- Shelburne Hotel, 27 St. Stephens Green; Dublin 2.
- Others: There are hundreds of Irish-related sites, so it’s critical to identify sites that can aid you. In addition to government resources, one of the most useful is irish-genealogy-toolkit.com.
Catherine Shannon Ballman earned a Genealogy 1 certificate from the American Library Association. On her genealogy journey, she has uncovered no saints, a handful of rascals and an appreciation of the hardships and the opportunities of immigration. Reach her firstname.lastname@example.org.