Tracing Irish roots online

Tracing Irish roots online

Whether you are tracing roots within Ireland or your family left there generations ago, there are many resources online which can help. Nicola Morris explains how to make the most of them

Nicola Morris, works on the UK and US versions of the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?

Nicola Morris

works on the UK and US versions of the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?

If your family were in Ireland in 1900, the first object of your search should be to locate them in the 1901 and 1911 Census of Ireland. But before you go rushing off to check the census it is vital that you estab­lish the names and addresses of your ances­tors who were alive at the time. I have met many people who have plucked a family out of the census without confirming that it is the correct household and spent months working on someone else’s ances­try! Genealogical research is about working methodically backwards linking one gener­ation to the previous.

The 1901 and 1911 censuses of Ireland are the only complete surviving censuses for the country. Both census returns recorded the name, relationship to the head of the household, religion, education, age, occupation, marital status, place of birth, language and whether the individual was blind, deaf, dumb or a lunatic. The 1911 census also included a section for the particulars of marriage, which recorded the length of time that a couple had been married, the number of children born to the marriage and the number of children still living at the time of the census.

The information on the return will help to identify earlier generations of your family. The entire 1901 and 1911 census returns for Ireland have been digitised and are avail­able at Each search field requires the exact spelling of the surname, first name or townland, as it was recorded in the return.

family in County Clare evicted by their landlord
A family in County Clare evicted by their landlord during the Land War, c1879. From the 1870s to the 1890s there was ongoing civil unrest sparked by tenants having few rights

At the time of the census your family may have used a different variant of your surname when they filled in the return. I would recommend using the Surname Search facility on John Grenham’s website here to identify the various spellings of a partic­ular surname that were in use in the 19th century.

First names can also be recorded in different ways, for example, Patrick may be recorded as Pat or even Patt and Catherine may be recorded as Kate or Katie. You may have to try different variations of a name before you locate the correct return.

If you are having difficulty locating an indi­vidual in the census, try searching for all occupants of a particular townland. You should be able to establish a townland address for your family using a birth or mar­riage certificate for an event that took place close to the time of the census. The correct spelling of a townland can be obtained from the Placename Search at here .

A Cork street scene in 1910
A Cork street scene in 1910 Irish Examiner

The advanced search option allows you to search the census returns by county of birth, occupation, religion and marital status.

I would always recommend using a broad search, such as all males with the surname Murphy who were married and would have been approximately 35 years old in 1911 and were born in Co. Kerry. You can then organise your list alphabetically by fore­name to try and identify the individual you are looking for.

Individuals who were inmates of prisons, workhouses and asylums at the time of the census were recorded only by their initials. If a family member is missing from the house­hold census return, you can search for them by their initials to see if they might appear in a workhouse or prison. Other informa­tion, such as gender, age and county of birth, may help to identify a potential family member residing in an institution.

The website will show you a transcribed version of the census return. Remember to tick the box “Show All Information” in the top right hand corner, as this will reveal all of the information recorded on the return. Any scrap of information on the census return may prove vital to your research so make a note of everything.

Census form BI
Census form BI is worth looking at as it provides information about the house where your ancestors lived

Below the transcript is a link to the original household return. Always check the origi­nal record to make sure that the informa­tion in the transcript is correct. Below the link to the household return are also links to other associated forms. I would always rec­ommend taking a look at Form B1, which is a description of the building occupied by the family.

Form B1 records the material that the build­ing was constructed out of, how many windows were at the front of the house and how many rooms were occupied by the family. There is also a return for the number of out offices or farm buildings on the prop­erty, describing the function of each build­ing. All of this information can help to build a picture of the life and circumstance of your family.

Armed with the information on the census returns, you can now start tracing your family back into the 19th century. Vital records for the 19th century come in two forms: parish records and civil registration certificates.

Civil registration of births, deaths and marriages in Ireland commenced in 1864. Non-Catholic marriages were registered from 1845. It should be noted that in the early years of civil registration an esti­mated 15% of births and marriages went unregistered.

The indexes for births, deaths and marriages registered in Ireland from 1864 are held by the General Registrar’s Office (GRO). You can now search the GRO indexes online. Volunteers from the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) have transcribed the indexes up 1958 (excluding most records from Northern Ireland after 1922) and these are available free at .

When you arrive at the site, enter the details of the individual that you are searching for. Keep your search broad to start with and only enter the name and year of the event. I always recommend searching at least two years either side of an approximate date of birth or marriage, as given dates were rarely accurate in the 19th century.

On the left hand side of the results page there are options to filter the results. In the ‘Collections’ filter you can select Ireland, civil registration indexes, 1845 – 1958 (see the illustration below). This will narrow the results to this source only. Make a record of the name, registration district, year and quarter, volume and page number for the birth or marriage you are interested in. This information will be necessary if you want to order the original certificates from the GRO.

If you are searching for a marriage, the refer­ence details for the bride and groom should be exactly the same, indicating that they both appear on the same page of the mar­riage register.

The FamilySearch website will provide you with the reference details for the birth, death or marriage certificate, but not the information on the certificate itself. Once you have identified the relevant references you can either visit the GRO research room in Dublin to purchase the certificates or you can order them online on the GRO website: here. If you enter the GRO reference information the correct certificate will be supplied. Unless you require the certificate for legal purposes, you only need a photocopy – it is cheaper and contains exactly the same information.

It should be noted that the index on the FamilySearch website was com­piled by volunteers and as with any transcribed online records there is always the potential for errors and omissions. If you fail to find the entry you require in the online index, I would recommend having someone search the original index books in the GRO.

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The FamilySearch website also includes some abstracts of birth certificates from the 1860s and 1870s. If you are searching for an ancestor who was born in Ireland in the 1860s or 1870s and you know their parents’ names, you can search this collection to iden­tify your ancestor or one of their sib­lings. It is possible that their birth cer­tificate has already been transcribed. The online transcript does not include all of the information from the birth certificate, so the original should still be purchased.

Prior to 1864, you will be relying on parish registers in order to find baptismal and marriage records. For the descendants of emigrants who left Ireland in the mid 19th century, parish registers may be the only source that will record the births and mar­riages of your ancestors.

In order to locate baptismal or marriage records for your ancestors in parish regis­ters, it is helpful to know the county and preferably the parish in which they origi­nated. The 1901 and 1911 Census of Ireland will indicate the county in which an individ­ual was born. Civil certificates will record the townland address for the family. Although some families may have moved around, most families remained in the same parish for generations.

The smallest denomination of land in Ireland was the townland and this was the address usually provided on a civil birth or marriage certificate. Townlands were organised into civil parishes.

A civil parish is different from a Roman Catholic parish and it is important to dis­tinguish between the two. If you can iden­tify the civil parish in which your family were living you will need to translate this into the corresponding Roman Catholic parish. This can be done at here, which, for a fee, will list the corre­sponding Roman Catholic parishes and the survival dates and location for each parish register.

Roman Catholic parish registers for Ireland can commence at any point between the 17th century and the mid 19th century. The majority of registers really only date from the 1830s and registers for counties like Mayo largely only date from the 1860s.

It is possible to search Roman Catholic parish registers online. However, the records are fragmented and located on several differ­ent websites.

Remember, you will only find a record of your ancestor if the registers for the parish in which they were born survive for the period of their birth or marriage.

Despite the famines of the mid-19th century, potatoes remained an important crop for Ireland National Library of Ireland

From the late 1970s centres were estab­lished in each county of Ireland to transcribe Roman Catholic parish registers for the pur­poses of genealogical research. Each county ran its own transcription programme, so the quality of the records vary from county to county. Nearly all county collections are available online at the pay-per-view site There is a map on the site, so before you sign up, check that the county you are interested in is covered by their col­lection.

When searching for an event at the site it is important to note that the search engine will identify variant spell­ings of a surname but only exact spellings of a first name. For this reason, I would search for a Patrick Murphy using the search terms, Murphy for the surname but only use ‘Pa’ for the first name. ‘Pa’ will take into account all variants of the first name Patrick.

Roman Catholic parish registers were written in Latin and in some online collec­tions the records have been transcribed in their Latin form. This means that first names such as Mary or William may appear as Maria or Gulielmus.

You can also search this collection using the surname of the child and narrow your search using the first name of the father or maiden name of the mother. This can help to iden­tify siblings of your ancestor. If the registers do not survive for your ancestor’s birth, you may be able to find younger siblings who were born during the period for which the records do survive. This would at least iden­tify the parish that your family were living in.

Only Roman Catholic records tended to record the mother’s maiden name, so this search facility will not work as well for Church of Ireland records. The collection on RootsIreland also includes some (but not all) surviving Church of Ireland registers. This was the established church in Ireland and its registers were deposited in the Public Records Office. A large portion of Church of Ireland parish registers were destroyed in the 1922 Public Records Office fire during the Irish Civil War. This means that there are very few Church of Ireland registers that survive for the 19th century and earlier.

You can determine the location of surviv­ing Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland records using John Grenham’s online guide here. This will tell you whether these records are online at one of the County Heritage Centres represented at or whether they are held at a repository such as the National Library of Ireland or in local custody. This site also identifies the loca­tion of similar holdings for the Presbyterian, Methodist and Quaker congregations.

The National Library holds copies of nearly all Roman Catholic parish registers for Ireland on microfilm. You can find a cata­logue at its website: here. You may want to use this catalogue to determine whether the collection on RootsIreland is complete for the area of your search.

Some of your Irish ancestors may be listed in the census at an orphanage or other institution

The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) has published an excellent catalogue of parish registers for counties in Northern Ireland. The catalogue allows you to identify all relevant parish records for every denomination, their extent and location. PRONI also hold registers for some border counties of the Republic of Ireland. For useful advice, consult PRONI’s guide at here .

For counties not yet available at RootsIreland, Kerry, Dublin City, Carlow and parts of Cork, you can find the parish registers indexed at here. This collection has been pub­lished by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and access is free. Digital images of many of the registers are avail­able on this site and the link to the digital image can be found at the bottom of the page. You can search this site by surname and then use the filters on the left of the page to narrow your search.

The registers for County Clare stand alone and are accessible through Clare Roots, Their records are not available online and a research request must be made through the website.

While the online transcripts of Irish parish registers are a valuable resource for the Irish genealogist or family historian, there are drawbacks to these collections. On an almost weekly basis I have discovered errors in the databases, such as missing entries and misspelled surnames or first names. There can also be a lack of clarity about the extent of the registers actually available online. Some parishes that are located on the border between two counties have been ­excluded from the collection by both coun­ties and are not available online.

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If you fail to locate your ancestors in these online collections, it may be necessary to have the original registers searched.

This article is an edited extract of her guide Tracing Your Irish Ancestors on the Internet.

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