Irish genealogy can be a difficult task to begin – particularly for those whose ancestors emigrated generations back. The first step in the process is to work with all available records for all known ancestors (and their family members) in your own country. Before you can even begin to do research in Ireland, you have to be able to focus in on the town and/or townland from which your ancestors hailed. For many of us, that location can take years to discover. Once you do make that breakthrough, however, there are a number of strategies for beginning a successful search for ancestors using Irish records.
The records of Ireland’s Roman Catholic churches can be the best starting point and can play an important role in that search. Many a beginner seeking their Irish family tree has been disheartened by the news of the 1922 fire which destroyed all of the civil records (administrative, court and probate) that had been collected nationwide and stored at the Public Record Office of Ireland (some dating back to the 13th century). Thankfully, in the majority of cases, Roman Catholic registers were kept in individual parishes and did not suffer a catastrophic loss similar to the loss of civil records. They are, therefore, a much more comprehensive resource for the genealogist researching in Ireland.
Before civil registration extended to all of the country in 1864, church records were the only registries to record family information. Although the Church of Ireland had a presence in the country, the majority of the people were Roman Catholic, and those Church records are important to many in their search for Irish roots. Throughout the 16th to 19th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church faced severe persecution by the state, and accurate record-keeping was not always in the best interests of the Catholic faithful. It is difficult, therefore, to find Catholic parish registers dated earlier than the 1820s. However, records can be found as far back as the 1680s in urban areas and in anglicized regions in the eastern half of Ireland, though they are rare.
Irish Roman Catholic records with genealogical interest come in both the Latin and English languages (very rarely Irish) and are primarily limited to baptismal and marriage records. Unfortunately, burial registers for Roman Catholics are difficult to come by, and those that do exist are typically found in the northern half of the country. An interesting sidenote regarding burials in Ireland: Irish gravestones today represent only 1% of the population, so don’t count on finding too many ancestors’ gravestones in a local Catholic cemetery.
But there’s good news in Irish genealogy – very good news! First of all, not only do some of the local parishes allow access to their records, but the National Library of Ireland (NLI) and the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) are also repositories for many such records. NLI has copies of almost all of the surviving registers from Irish Catholic parishes throughout the island dated earlier than 1880. (See their guide to Family History Research Sources at the NLI for more information.) PRONI has microfilmed copies for Ulster Province and beyond, including most of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan; some of Louth and Leitrim. (See their Guide to Church Records for more information.)
The incredible news for 2015 is that the National Library of Ireland and the Catholic Church are partnering to digitize their entire collection of 390,000 parish register images and make them available online later this year for free. (Talk about the luck of the Irish!)
If you can’t wait for the big online reveal by the National Library of Ireland, and also can’t make the trip in the mean time over to the National Library of Ireland yourself, try searching the LDS Family History Library Catalog. Approximately 30% of the Irish Roman Catholic Church registers have been microfilmed by the LDS – maybe you’ll find that your ancestors’ parish is within that group.
Another great resource for Irish Catholic records is the strong network of heritage centers located in each county of Ireland. Visit the Irish Family History Foundation’s Roots Ireland website for information about county heritage centers throughout the island. The site features a map indicating each heritage center by county with links to a searchable index for each heritage center with an online presence (which is most of them).
For a good start at learning which records might be available for your ancestors and where they might be located, visit the Irish Times’ Roman Catholic Records map of Ireland.
An Irish Genealogical Researcher’s Pot of Gold
The Irish diaspora throughout the world continues to keep alive a worldwide interest in Irish culture and genealogy. Thanks to strong loyalty to their ancestral land, there is a wealth of resources available to those researching their roots in the Emerald Isle.
If you are beginning work on your Irish family tree, or you are well into the lifelong search we call genealogy, you may find the following websites and resources helpful:
• Family Search’s wiki resource page on Ireland
• Irish Times’ Roman Catholic Records map of Ireland
• National Library of Ireland (NLI)
• Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI)
• Irish Family History Foundation’s Roots Ireland website
• Joe Buggy’s Townland of Origin: Irish Genealogical Research in North America
• Claire Santry’s Irish Genealogy Toolkit
Good books that can aid you in your search for Irish genealogy in Roman Catholic records include:
• Tracing Your Irish Ancestors by John Grenham (updated 4th edition will be published on March 30, 2012)
• Irish Records: Sources for Family and Local History by James Ryan
• How to Trace Your Irish Ancestors by Ian Maxwell
• A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland by Brian Mitchell
• A Guide to Irish Parish Registers by Brian Mitchell
• Guide to Irish Churches and Graveyards by Brian Mitchell
There are many well-written blogs which focus on Irish genealogy. Some of my favorites include:
• Jennifer Geraghty-Gorman’s ‘On a flesh and bone foundation:’ An Irish History
• Donna Moughty’s Genealogy Blog
• Deborah Large Fox’ Help! The Faerie Folk Hid My Ancestors
Article 2 of the Irish constitution states: “The Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.” On this St. Patrick’s Day, as you wear your green and take pride in your family’s ties to Ireland, The Catholic Gene – and this half-Irish author – wish you the luck of the Irish upon your genealogical search.
Most of this article was previously published here at The Catholic Gene. It has been updated to reflect new available resources for Irish genealogy.