In my view, to stand the best chance of success of getting this information you need to thoroughly research your family in your own Country before you tackle Ireland. Many people (myself included) have started researching Irish records before they’ve got this information and have been unsuccessful initially. These steps should help you get started. The first four steps are for those of you just starting your family research, although there may still be some useful advice here if you have already done some work.
Step 1; read some Irish history
If you don’t know much about Irish history, I suggest reading up on it as it will help with an understanding of the reasons why your ancestors probably emigrated. This will also put your research into context. I recommend reading YOUR IRISH ANCESTORS: A Guide for the Family Historian by Ian Maxwell. The first half of the book is a great overview of Irish history over the last 400 years, especially during the time of British rule and looks at what everyday life was like for the majority of the population. The second half of the book looks at the surviving genealogical records in Ireland.
Click here to see it on Amazon.
Step 2; preparation and organization
For best results, any genealogy research, especially Irish research should be done systematically and methodically. Everything should be logged so that you don’t waste time in the future going over the same stuff again. I recommend keeping a proper research log. If you haven’t already done so, you could subscribe to Bespoke Genealogy (above) so that you can get a free research log template along with some other useful forms and charts.
Everything you find should be given a source citation so that you and future generations know exactly where a particular reference or document came from. There is a useful guide for citing sources on Family Search.
Once you’ve started to accumulate information, you’ll want to organize it all. The best way is to start a digital family tree. You have a few options here; you can start a free online tree with Family Search or one of the subscription sites like Find My Past or Ancestry However, I recommend getting a family tree software package and keeping it on your computer or tablet. Family tree software usually is much more flexible than online trees and has more options. There are also privacy issues with the online trees. You can always upload your tree later to a website if that’s what you want to do.
There are several software packages available; two of the most popular are Family Tree Maker and Roots Magic Both these packages can be synced with Ancestry online trees. If you don’t want to pay for software initially Gramps is a good free open source package. I started off using Gramps and it was perfectly adequate to begin with.
Step 3; write down all you know
Write down everything you know about your family. I recommend also drawing a simple family tree; include birth, marriage, death dates and maiden names if known. Or if you have an online tree or a software package, use these.
Step 4: talk to living relatives
If your parents, grandparents or aunts and uncles are still alive, talk to them find out what they know. For every new name that you can add to your tree, get as much information as you can from your relative. If possible, you need to try and find out:
- Full names
- Where deaths occurred, dates and places of burial
- Marriage dates and places
- Names of spouses including maiden names if applicable.
- Children’s names and places of birth
- Occupations and places of work
- Military service; which service, regiment, ship or squadron
- Schools and colleges attended
- If there are any newspaper clippings or photographs.
- If any family member has already done any family research.
- If they have any relevant documents that you can copy (even if it’s just with your phone)
If you know of any cousins or other relatives that you can contact, you should go through the same process with them.
Incidentally, a really good way of finding more cousins who may have already done some research into your family is to join Lost Cousins. Ideally, you need to have traced your family in your own Country back to the 1880 census in the US and the 1881 census in Canada, Scotland, England and Wales. There is more information about how it works here.
If you are really lucky, you will find a relative that has a family Bible containing useful information including the parish in Ireland the family came from.
Step 5; understand Irish name variants
Irish names often had several different spelling variations. Most immigrants were illiterate up to the early 20th century, so names were written down by officials as they were heard. Also, names were deliberately altered to become less Irish sounding. An example of this is my own name, McGowan, which has been anglicised to Gowan, Gow and Smith. A good source for finding variants is John Grenham’s website.
Step 6; thoroughly research your family in your own country
Before you start looking at Irish records, you need to thoroughly research your family in your own country and make sure no stone is left unturned as you may find a document that gives a clue to your ancestors’ origins in Ireland. This means looking at your direct ancestors and all the collateral lines, ie your cousins and their spouses families. This probably means looking at online records at the database sites as well as research in local archives if necessary.
Step 7; determine your ancestor’s arrival date
You need to find the date your ancestor arrived in your country to have the best chance of success with Irish research. The best online site for immigration records in the US is probably Ancestry. Note that many Irish immigrants into the US traveled via Canada in the late 19th century as the fare was cheaper.
Step 8; look for clusters
If you haven’t been able to determine where in Ireland your ancestor came using the steps above, then try to look for clusters on census forms (if possible). Often families emigrated with their friends and acquaintances from their local communities in Ireland and they settled down together in their new neighborhoods. So by tracing the family histories of the neighbours (with Irish names) of your ancestors, you may find some useful information.
Step 9; look for other documents
Records such as passenger lists, naturalization records, and passport applications often had the county as well as the country listed as the place of birth of a person. Some of the database sites have these records available online, so it’s worth checking them for your country/state:
Step 10; Start researching Irish records
Hopefully from steps 1-9 you will have been able to get enough information to start researching Irish records. For the next step, researching Irish records, see the Find your Irish Ancestry page which will take you to articles about the main record sets and how to access them.
See also the following pages:
FindMyPast has the best collection of online Irish records. You can sign up for a 14 day free trial here. An overview of their Irish records can be found here.
I also recommend reading Claire Santry’s excellent book, The Family Tree Irish Genealogy Guide. This was published last year so is up to date with what is currently available for Irish research and with plenty of tips to help you make the most of it all.
Click here to see it on Amazon
For many other Irish websites, see the Irish Genealogy Links page.
For more on finding your migrating ancestors, see: 10 Tips for finding your Emigrant Ancestors
And for more Irish genealogy articles, please visit the Ireland page here.
I hope this all helps. Good luck with your Irish research.
Some other genealogy books that might be of interest are: