A guide on how to start your genealogy research to your Irish ancestry


Who do you think you are? From digging for records online to grilling your granny for information, tracing your family tree should be fun for everyone! Fiona Fitzsimons, director at the Irish Family History Centre, outlines a dozen tips and steps to beginning your search!

In the last decade, Irish genealogy has become one of the fastest growing pastimes in the world. How can we explain this? The interest in family history is driven first and foremost by better access to the records, many of which are now online.

In this decade of centenaries, we are curious to find out if our ancestors were caught up in the Irish Revolution (1913-23), First World War (1914-18), or both. Irish people have greater leisure time than ever before to pursue interests. The success of TV programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? is a factor, as it shows that every family has its own narrative.

Genealogical research allows you to ‘play detective’ — to develop research skills, and to explore issues of personal identity within your family. Genetic inheritance can determine a person’s eye-colour, or specific talents — a facility in music or maths, for example. In a more challenging way, family history can sometimes reveal hidden or lost family stories.

The best way to learn anything is by doing it, and not to be afraid of making mistakes as you go along. Here are some guidelines on how to research your family history.

1. What records are available online?

  • The largest collection of Irish records online, including the Census and free Catholic parish registers and Deaths and some Catholic and Church of Ireland records are available on www.irishgenealogy.ie
  • Findmypast.com offer access to many overseas records, and specialise in helping North Americans trace their European ancestry
  • The best known of all the websites, albeit with a focus on ‘overseas’ records is www.ancestry.com
  • The National Archives has Irish records online including the census

2. Start from what you know, and work into the unknown

The nature of genealogical research is to work methodically backwards from each generation to the previous one. Document your research at every step, by tracing records made at the time of events.

3. What’s in a name?

Find out whether your family use their actual names as they appear on baptismal or birth records, or if they use informal Irish versions or diminutives of their names.

Eg: Seán or Séan (Shane) for John; Dermot for Jeremiah; Peg for Margaret; Delia for Bridget.
If searching online, check if the search-engine uses ‘Soundex’ (Findmypast, Ancestry) or if  you need to enter every variant spelling (National  Archives website).

4. Talk to older relatives

In family history, personal observation is key. Your own living grand-parents, aunts and uncles, older siblings, parents or cousins are sources, so start asking questions! Do they remember visits, letters,
or even stories of relatives that had left Ireland, but remained in touch with family at home?

You can sometimes prompt memories by asking an older relative about the family’s experience in key historical events. Did any participate in either World War, for example? Were they or any family member active during the War of Independence or the Civil War?

  • Do use old photographs to try and prompt the memory of the person that you’re talking to.
  • Don’t be shy of taking notes during the conversation, or with their permission you might even decide to tape them.
  • Do ask where the bodies are buried, and then follow up your interview with a visit to the graveyard(s) to see if you can find a burial record or headstone.

5. Contact the family archivist

One of the first things you should do is to check whether you have a family ‘archivist’. Almost every family has someone who keeps old family records, documents and photo-albums. Where others have thrown out the clutter from their houses, these magpies have gathered up every keepsake and family document they could lay their hands on.

Having spent years compiling this information, don’t expect them to just hand everything over. They are usually quite happy to sit and discuss your shared family history, and to let you look through what documents they have.

  • Do bring a pencil and paper to copy any records relevant to your search.
  • Do ask if they’re willing to photocopy old documents for you, but don’t take offence if they say no. Photocopiers can damage old documents, and a copy (transcript) of the original document will suffice.
  • Do take a copy of any family tree that the family archivist may have prepared, but don’t forget to check it after for potential errors.

6. What to look for

Births, Marriages and Deaths; Church certificates of Baptism, Communion, Confirmation; news- paper-cuttings; postcards, letters and telegrams; Memorial (Mass) cards; Wills; receipts for costs for significant family events — wedding or funeral party, or burial; family photos or cine-camera footage; artefacts and mementos. Anything that has names, dates, place-names, or a story attached that is relevant to your family.

7. Write it all down!

Record the dates, places and any stories of births, marriages, deaths and any other key events. Don’t forget to make a note of your source, whether it’s a story told by your uncle, or a legal document — a will or birth record.

Work out the relationships so you understand how each person within your family is connected, eg your great-uncle; your grandfather’s first wife’s brother; your mother’s first cousin’s wife.

Early deaths mean we have ‘blended families’ — where second marriages introduced step-parents, step-brothers/sisters, and half-brothers/sisters. This can sometimes lead to a ‘tangle’ in your family tree. Try to unravel these knots before you start research, so you know ‘who’s who’.

8. Keep your research notes in order

Keep track of what records you use during research, and the time- frame searched, eg: civil births 1871-1881/burial records 1820-30. This is important whether you’re researching online or in an archive. In the archives always record the reference number of any document used, otherwise you may not be able to find it a second time.

9. A family tree is a good visual aid

As you branch out on your maternal and paternal lines, keep each generation on the same level. For example, your father’s and mother’s generation should be parallel to one another, likewise your paternal grandparents’ should be parallel with your maternal grandparents. One of the most common errors is to confuse and mix-up the generations. This is a simple way to avoid this problem.

10. Searching online

An index is not a record. Always look at the original record, and only believe what you see with your own eyes. Subscription sites like Ancestry and Findmypast usually link their index to digital images of the original documents.

11. Try to achieve a better understanding

When researching your family history, don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re dealing with real peoples’ lives, and always keep an open mind about what you discover. You may find that your ancestors are as full of inconsistencies and contradictions as anyone alive in your family today.

12. And finally...

If all else fails, and you find you have reached a roadblock in search, you can always call in the professionals! The Irish Family Centre's team of dedicated genealogists have decades of experience in researching Irish ancestry, and are available to help you. Personalised online consultations are available, with prices starting from €60.

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Want to learn more about researching your family history and the amazing work the Irish Family History Centre do? Then click here to find out how you can discover your Irish roots!