Tracing your Irish Ancestors: 5 Top Tips

St Patrick’s Day – that time of year when millions of people across the world don their green hats and shamrock trappings and take to the streets to celebrate the patron saint of Ireland and their Irish ancestry (along with the countless others who are just along for the ride).

Of course, this day of epic celebration, exquisite parades and green drinks is a result of Ireland’s sombre history and the fact that, since 1700, an estimated 10 million people emigrated from this small country, usually as a result of very difficult circumstances including famine and extreme poverty. Today, in the age of smart phones and Skype, it’s difficult to comprehend the loss experienced by those leaving their family behind – many accepting that they may never set eyes their loved ones again.
Today, the Irish diaspora is estimated at somewhere in the region of 70 million people. For many of these people, finding out who their ancestors were, where they came from and their reasons for emigrating is a means of understanding their own identity. For these people seeking their Irish roots – here are some tips on where to start.

#5 Visit Ireland

If you know where your ancestors are from it can be useful to actually go there. Of course not everyone can manage to travel to Ireland, but if you can it’s an opportunity to do some detective work and possibly see the house where your relatives lived. This is really only beneficial if you have some information already. If your ancestors are from a rural area or a small village chances are you’ll be able to find their christenings, deaths or marriages recorded in church records. Don’t underestimate the memory of Irish people from small towns – ask around. Local knowledge is invaluable and you might find that people can point you in the direction of living relatives that you never even knew existed!

#4 Local libraries

If travelling to Ireland isn’t on the cards, contacting the library in the town where your ancestors came from is a great starting point. Send an email or even give them a call. Ask them to recommend any local history books that they know of that could help you to understand the context in which your ancestors decided to immigrate – the background story. Librarians are a great source of knowledge and, if they can’t help you directly, would be able to point you in the direction of someone that can. They will also be aware of other records and online databases that may help your search.

#3 Join your ‘clan’ at an annual event

You may not be aware that certain Irish families, with the same surname meet up annually. The ‘O’Driscoll Clan Gathering’ for example, meet annually in Baltimore, West Cork (in the South West of Ireland). O’Driscolls come from as far as Canada and the US as well as from around Ireland and Europe to meet in Baltimore Castle, their original stronghold. This is a great opportunity to learn about your ancestors, share information that you may have learned in your research and make some new friends. Have a look online and on social media to find out if your ‘clan’ meet regularly – if not why not arrange a gathering of your own?

#2 The National Archives of Ireland

The National Archives of Ireland is an invaluable resource when undertaking this type of research. They have a Genealogy Service which provides free advice and assistance to those visitors researching their family trees.You can arrange a one to one meeting with a professional genealogist who will give you guidance on how to approach your research (presumably this could be done by Skype if you can’t be there in person). The National Archives also has a great website with a genealogy section where you can access a range records including:
•    The Census Records
•    Prerogative and diocesan copies of some wills and indexes to others, 1596 – 1858
•    Diocesan and Prerogative Marriage Licence Bonds Indexes, 1623 – 1866
•    Catholic qualification & convert rolls, 1700 – 1845
•    Valuation Office house, field, tenure and quarto books 1824 – 1856
•    Shipping agreements and crew lists, 1863 – 1921
•    Will Registers 1858 – 1900

#1 Hire someone to help!

If you’re keen to find out about your family tree but don’t have the time or skills to actually do the research, you can hire someone to do it. They will keep you informed all along the way of what they find and you can be as involved as you choose. Having a contact in Ireland, who is familiar with Irish records, Gaelic pronunciations and the best methods of approaching this kind of research means that you don’t waste time and there is less chance of missing potentially important details. It doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to do your own searching online and having someone to liaise with about the project can keep you motivated. There are lots of companies that do this but it is wise to choose carefully and, if possible, go with a recommendation. ‘Your Irish Heritage’ is a great family run company and an excellent choice if you decide to go down this route. As a client of theirs, you will have access to a member’s forum, video training, exclusive resources and, of course, professional genealogists.

The idea of tracing your ancestors can seem a can seem a bit daunting, but discovering the story of those who came before is a worthwhile endeavour. You will learn something new about yourself and gain knowledge that you can pass on to the future generations of your own family. Plus you’ll have a great story to tell next St. Patrick’s Day!

Good luck and enjoy!

Erica McCarthy