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Resources for Irish Genealogy

Posted by Sean Daly on Jan 7, 2023
Visual of Irish scenes and a document

Ireland has a special place in genealogy in the English-speaking countries and elsewhere due to the massive emigration in the 19th century and in the century before and after as well. Learn about resources to overcome the challenges of Irish genealogy!

Anyone with ancestors in the Emerald Isle has encountered the many challenges of Irish genealogy: the paucity of pre-Famine records, the wild variations in name spellings, the nearly unreadable parish registers, and particularly the disappeared censuses lost one hundred years ago prior to and at the time of the Record Treasury explosion and fire of 1922 (see our article about the recently launched Virtual Record Treasury for more information). How many of us have eagerly obtained a marriage or death certificate in the US or UK, Canada or Australia, and under “Place of Birth” just seen: “Ireland”?

Don’t despair! Although research is roundabout due to the absence of censuses, there are substitutes, and complementary sources, and a number of recent initiatives that have been undertaken to make these sources readily available in the digital era.

Before getting started on our list of resources, let’s review some rules of thumb concerning Irish genealogy, then take a moment to understand how Ireland’s recent history has made Irish genealogy difficult for the uninitiated.

This postcard with a view of Co.Wicklow is part of our Postcards collection!

A few rules of thumb

  • As always, start with what you know and work backward. Did your Irish people immigrate to your country? If you are in the US and haven’t yet located their immigration record, see our two-part article, Finding Your European Immigrant Ancestor’s Ship (Part 1, Part 2).
  • Birthplace: The key to breaking down brick walls in Ireland is to find the place of birth or marriage. The county of origin is a good start — you will want to know if the county is in today’s Northern Ireland or not, as the archive repositories are different on either side of the border. For pre-civil records, it’s the civil or Catholic parish of baptism or marriage you are after, and ideally the “townland” level, a small enough parcel of land that you may be able to locate individual houses if they still exist. Knowing the place allows you to search alternate resources such as property tax records (the Tithe Applotment Books 1823-1838, or Griffith’s Valuation 1847-1864), cemetery records, probate records, criminal records, and so on. In the US, a death certificate usually won’t tell you the town or county of origin of an Irish person. However, a naturalization record, cemetery tombstone, or newspaper obituary might!
  • Last name spelling: You will almost without exception find variants in the spelling of your ancestor’s name. For example, names originally spelled in Irish (Gaelic) were transliterated into English. Do you know anyone named Caoimhín Ó Súilleabháin ? Why, that’s just Kevin Sullivan! And did you know that Dermot = Jeremiah? Many people were illiterate. Spelling was not standardized until the late 19th century in any case. Outside of Ireland, names known to everyone in Ireland were mangled by hapless census takers or certificate registrars who wrote Burk for Burke, or Dailey for Daly. Prefixes like “Mc” or “Mac” (“son of”) were dropped, or “O'” (“grandson of”) was added. “Mc” was sometimes spelled “M'” in documents, as in M’Mahon instead of McMahon. Be ready to search variants with wildcards, and to accept that there was no original perfect spelling of your family name!
  • Middle names: In rural Ireland, among the tenant farmers (in other words, not the Ascendancy or the gentry), middle names were uncommon. Many families followed a traditional naming system (firstborn son after the paternal grandfather, firstborn daughter after the maternal grandmother, etc) which often produced three or four first cousins with the same name. In Ireland, they each had a nickname so they could be told apart, and that worked fine in a small community. But in a city like New York, you may find four immigrants in the same period with the same name, with no way of knowing which one is your ancestor! In that case, it’s helpful to do a process of elimination, with quick temporary genealogies of each “candidate” until they are eliminated as a family member. And look for middle names in the children of immigrants!
  • Town and city directories can be valuable resources if for example you know that your ancestor was a grocer or a blacksmith. Sometimes, you can locate siblings or aunts & uncles living at the same address or next door.
  • Birth vs. baptism dates: If a baptism register date and civil registration birthdate differ for the same person, it is more likely the baptism date is the correct one. Irish parents baptized children as quickly as possible after birth.
  • Irish newspapers may or may not have information nuggets, particularly from the 1870s onward.
  • DNA matches may be helpful to connect with recent cousins (i.e. the genealogical period), but keep in mind that the thousands of very distant matches won’t help at all, as far enough back parents may themselves have been related; rural Ireland was insular!
The counties of Ireland. Co.Laois was formerly known as Queens County and Co.Offaly as Kings County.

Some historical context

It is estimated that some 80 million people living people around the world have Irish ancestry. Why so many? To understand why, we need to briefly review the recent history of the “land of saints and scholars”.

Ireland was dominated by its stronger neighbor for centuries until hard-won independence came in 1921, at the price of partition of the island into Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the Civil War which ended in 1923.

Emigrants in the 17th and 18th centuries were mostly Catholic military officers and men who sought military careers in continental Europe because of religious discrimination. Then, in the early 19th century, many Ulstermen, skilled in trades, started emigrating to the United States. At this time England first “transported” convicts to Australia, many of them Irish (and convicted for very minor offenses).

As the Industrial Revolution and empire building transformed Britain in the mid-19th century, Ireland remained mostly rural except for the large cities of Dublin and Cork and the industrial port of Belfast. This was due in part to Ireland’s limited coal reserves, but also to disinterest on the part of absentee British landowners throughout the island. The Acts of Union 1800 which united the kingdoms and merged the Parliaments in 1801, did however bring the (now lost) censuses starting in 1821 and the Irish Ordnance Survey which mapped and documented the place names of Ireland from 1824. Ireland in the first half of the 19th century had a population boom.

However, the Great Hunger — an Gorta Mór — which began in 1845 and continued for several years killed at least a million Irish people and sent up to a million and a half others, mostly Catholic, to England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and of course the United States. Most of these emigrants never returned to their home villages in the old country, and connections were lost. Even today, Ireland’s population is lower than on the eve of the famine.

Some of the Catholic parish registers were lost; many are quite difficult to read. However, the single greatest loss for historians and genealogists was the Record Treasury explosion and fire in Dublin during the civil war in 1922, when seven centuries of Irish documents — including most of the 19th century census returns — went up in flames.

Civil registration began islandwide for non-Catholic marriages in 1845 and Catholic marriages and all births and deaths in 1864, and fortunately most of those records do survive. Marriages are rich in information, as parent’s names are often mentioned, providing clues to go back another generation.

Some Irish emigrants farmed in their new country of residence, but most turned their backs on rural life and took on work others didn’t want: on the docks or the railroads, in the mines or in the factories, on city streets as firemen or policemen.

Sir Richard Griffith’s work was always of interest to Parliament.

Irish genealogy resources

Here is a list of resources for Irish genealogy which will help you with your research. If you know of a good resource we missed, let us know in the comments!

Did we miss any resources? Please let us know in the comments! And don’t hesitate to ask for help in our forums where we have an Ireland section. Geneanet members are helpful and questions are monitored by support!


Great article. I’ve finally found my BEATTIE [birth family] with a g-g-g-parent who came to the USA, mid 1899s. But no one knows what Ire county they were from.
And at a local historical society meeting on Ire surnames, I discovered the BEATTIE [Ire, not Scots] were victualers [AKA supplied foods, beverage, etc. for the crew of a vessel] but the BEATTIE’s in Ire did so for the clans!
So I can’t search by county or parish. But I Will copy your Long list [more than I’ve been able to find] & keep searching. Go ranbh maith agat & grazie millie

Fantastic resource, thank you so much!

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