Updated: Sep 16, 2020
The four pillars of Irish family history are:
Census of Ireland 1901 and 1911
Civil Registration (Births, Deaths and Marriages)
Using these four sources will help you locate your ancestors without parting with any cash.
Step 1: Ideally when embarking on your research, start at the beginning. Start with yourself and populate your family tree with the information you know.
Step 2: Gather all the old documents, photographs and other information you can. Memorial cards are great resources. These cards are issued after a person’s death with the aim of commemorating the deceased’s life. Typically they will include a photograph, address, date of death and age. Finally, don’t forget to ask questions as other relatives may have additional information.
Figure 1: Memorial Card for Michael Collins
Step 3: With information gathered, next in the process is to use the free online resources at your fingertips.
Census of Ireland
I find the best place to start is with the Irish Census. Unfortunately the majority of the census information prior to 1901 is no longer available due to the fact the records were destroyed due to various conflicts. However the census returns available online at the National Archives will bring you within touching distance to locating information about your ancestors. The 1901 and 1911 census provide a wealth of information, including details about a family, their house and their neighbours.
All the census records have been transcribed but be aware there are transcription errors, townlands may have been spelt differently and of course just because your surname is for example O’Connell in the twenty first century, this may not have been the case in the twentieth, and it is quite possible you will find your ancestor with the surname Connell with no O’ in sight. Also remember Co. Offaly was known as King’s County, Co. Laois as Queen’s County and Co. Derry was Londonderry. In addition, many towns had different names prior to Ireland becoming a republic e.g. Cobh in Co. Cork was known as Queenstown.
You can either search by person or by location. In addition, you can always extend your search by clicking on the ‘More Search Options’ box. This can be useful if you want to restrict the search results to all single people etc.
Figure 2: 1901 Census for Michael Collins (age 10), Woodfield (Coolcraheen, Cork)
Births Marriages and Deaths
Births, marriages and deaths began in Ireland on 1 January 1864. Non Catholic marriages began to be registered on 1 July 1845. Copies of certificates are available online at the Irish Genealogy website for deaths over 50 years, marriages over 75 years and births over 100 years. A word of caution though, whilst a copy of a certificate for a death occurring in 1966, a certificate may not be available for a death registered in 1864. The system is being updated with the most recent records and gradually back to the first records in 1864. If no certificate is available you will need to fill out the form available here and post or fax to the details as outlined on the form. To note, the certificate you will receive is for research purposes only and does not constitute an official certificate.
The very useful thing about the Irish Genealogy website is that if you conduct a basic search via the user-form you will get results from 10 websites.
Figure 3: Registration of Michael Collins birth 16 October 1890
Church records play an integral part in Irish family research as in many cases they are available for years prior to civil registration (1864). The Irish Genealogy website has a limited number of records available. However, the microfilmed church records held in the National Library of Ireland (NLI) have been made available online and the information is much more extensive. One caveat is the records are not indexed. Conversely, Findmypast have indexed the records and provided you have signed up for a free account you can search and view the results.
Records are organised by county, diocese and parish. The interactive map at the NLI site is very useful to aid the location of a parish. Additionally, remember church parishes and civil parishes are not the same. For example the Roman Catholic parish records of Glanmire in Cork and the Civil Parish of Rathcooney are more or less equal. You can find further help at Shane Wilson's excellent site.
Figure 4: Church of Ireland Baptismal Record, Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, Dublin, 1847.
Land Records are another useful census substitute as Tithe Applotment books are available for the period 1823 to 1837. The origins of the tithe books reside in an act of parliament in 1823. This act involved a valuation of the country, by civil parish under the direction of parochial commissioners. The books show the denominations of titheable lands and their valuations, including the landholders. Tithes were finally abolished by the Irish Church Act 1869 which disestablished the Church of Ireland.
The books are available online for the twenty six counties of the Republic of Ireland at the National Archives site. These records list the names of individuals who hold agricultural land. They cover almost all parishes and in most cases note the acreage of the land as well as the value. A word of caution, some of the land is measured in Irish or Plantation measure meaning it is 1.62 times larger than a statute acre.
The next invaluable land record is Griffiths Valuation which has left a legacy of priceless historical information, in absence of census information prior to 1901. The valuation was undertaken to ascertain the monetary value of all landholdings and buildings in the country for tax purpose. In addition, the valuation exercise has left a number of other records, known as house, field and tenure books. Furthermore, there are a series of cancelled books, thereby enabling the progression of land occupiers to be tracked from the mid nineteenth century to the 1970s when domestic rates were abolished in Ireland.
Sir Richard Griffith, born in 1784 was a geologist and civil engineer, who conducted and oversaw the Primary Valuation of Ireland. The fruits of his labour are available online at askaboutireland.ie. In addition the records which underlie and inform the printed Griffiths Valuation are digitised and they contain more information about households and landholding than can be found in the printed version. They can be found at here
Figure 5: Griffith's Valuation for Derrynane, Co. Kerry, home of the liberator, Daniel O'Connell (note R.C. chapel)
Figure 6: Derrynane House and Chapel, 21 June 2017