Trace your ancestor-Some background information

Trace Your Ancestor

Some background information



Ancestry tracing has a long tradition in Ireland. Indeed it has been said that family history is the oldest known form of history.

There is an urge or craving within each of us to find out where we came from and what are our origins. Were our ancestors the Lords in the stately castle, the humble tenant farmers or merely beggars going on the roads of the land? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor. Which of those were your ancestors?

In olden times each chieftain employed his own genealogist to recite a list of his glorious ancestors. Very few of us could afford this luxury today. Follow the guidelines which are laid down in this booklet and you too can experience the thrill of discovering your own ancestors.

The Irish Race

We Irish have always been proud of our nationality because being Irish meant something special. It meant that you belong to a gentle friendly cultured race of people who live in God’s Green Island. Are you proud of being Irish? Of course you are!

What class of race are we Irish?

We are a mixture of Celts, Danes, Normans, English, Scots, Welsh and Fleming. Each of these peoples contributed a portion of themselves to what has become known as the Irish race.

Man arrived in Ireland over eight thousand years ago. Various invasions occurred until 400 BC when the Celts arrived. At one time the Celtic peoples inhabited lands as far apart as Portugal, Russia, Turkey and Austria.

The Celts were an intelligent race with an organized society based on the family. They had their own lawyers, professors, genealogists and storytellers. A race possessed of the bright poetic imagination, these are the people we owe our fairy stories and legends to.

The marauding Viking raiders from the barren lands of Norway and Denmark commenced their attacks on Ireland in the year 795 AD. They terrified the poor Celtic monks who inhabited the ‘Island of Saints and Scholars’. The Danes, attacked at first as plunders of the rich Celtic monasteries, soon saw what a fine country it was and commenced building settlements. It is these settlements and merchant ports which became the cities of today. Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Wexford, Waterford were all Danish towns.

Eventually the Danes became so strong that they rivalled the Irish for control of the island. One Danish leader Turgesius set himself up as a ruler in 832 AD. Malachy the High King of the time was no match for this ruthless villain and was forced to submit. Turgesius decided to reinforce his position by marrying the High King’s daughter. Malachy agreed to the marriage on the condition that his daughter be accompanied to the ceremony by fifteen of her maid servants.

Malachy was a ‘cute’ man and he was not going to allow any nasty foreigner marry his little darling. He had fifteen of his mighty warriors dressed up as handmaidens and sent them off with his daughter to the Viking stronghold. At the wedding feast the warriors drew their knives and completely surprised the Vikings. Turgesius was taken prisoner and the High King ordered him drowned in Lough Owel. Poor Turgesius lost more than his heart when he fell in love. Danish power was finally broken at the Battle of Clontarf in1014.

Just over a century later the Normans arrived. This race of warriors arrived in Ireland via England and France from their homeland in France. All the Fitz’s, Burkes, and Walsh’s came to Ireland at this stage. Gradually these Normans inter married with the natives and became more Irish than the Irish themselves. There is more than one way of conquering and invading army.

The English as a group arrived with the plantations of the 16th century and many more arrived after Cromwell and the Battle of the Boyne to take up confiscated Irish estates.

The Scots appeared on the Irish scene in the 14th and 15th centuries and mercenaries. But it could be said that the Scots were really only coming back to their homeland. The Irish had colonised Scotland in the 6th century and the Scots were the descendants of these settlers. The greatest influx from Scotland occurred in the early 17th century with the plantation of Ulster.

Later additions to the Irish race include groups like the Hugenot French, the Palatine Germans and the Russian Jews who fled persecution in their own native lands to seek sanctuary in Ireland.

Your Surname

The first item to consider in tracing your ancestry is the family name itself. What is its origin? What does it mean?

Of course we know that all the “O”s and “Mac’s” are Celtic and Irish.

The “O”s and the “Mac’s” came into use in the 10th and 11th centuries. Up until this time each person only bore one name. There was no need for a second name because few travelled outside their own area. The Vikings disturbed this peaceful settled life.

The surnames taken were usually that of an ancestor or famous family figure. King Brian Boru gave his name to the O’Briens. Niall of the Nine Hostages lent his name to the O’Neills.

In other cases the name taken was that of a characteristic of an ancestor e.g. Sullivan – Suildubhan – Black eyed.

Nicknames gave us another form of surname. Where there was a great number of one particular family in one area an extra name or nickname was added to distinguish different groupings. The colour of a person’s hair led to the nicknames Rua(red), Bui(yellow), or Dubh(black). These nicknames were sometimes adopted as surnames with the original name being dropped.

Fitz means ‘son of’ and was introduced by the Normans. Other names like Barry and Burke also arrived with the Normans. Many people bearing the prefix “Mac” arrived with the Scottish settlers in the 16oos.

The origin and meaning of a surname can provide the researcher with significant clues as to their ancestors, place of origin, social class or occupation.

There was originally one standard Irish form of a name, for example, Mac Eoin which was later translated to the English MacKeown which was later corrupted to Muckion which in turn was translated to Piggot – Muc meaning pig in Irish. One would scarcely imagine that they had one source. Some names have been so corrupted that there may be a hundred or more different variations. When it comes to your search remember that and do not ignore some names just because they are spelt slightly different than the one you seek.

Another factor which led to the name being further scrambled was the immigration officials of the lands in which the Irish landed.

The Irish have one of the biggest commonwealths in the world, with large colonies in Britain, Australia, America, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina, France, Spain and virtually every country in the world. You will find an Irish man in every corner of the globe.

Beginning your search

To have a reasonable chance of being successful in your search you should know three factors about the ancestors you are tracing. These are:

  • Name
  • Location
  • Date

So where do you start your search for your ancestor? Start at home with your own family. Nearly every family has an accumulation of old papers, bills, receipts, letters and some families may be lucky enough to possess a family bible into which baptisms, marriages, burials and major family events were recorded. Search out all these papers from all your ancestors. Record the family stories of the older ones. Maybe your grandmother remembers her grandmother and you have gone back six generations straight away. But remember – check out these stories.

Not everybody in Ireland lived in a grand castle or had servants.

There are many a family legend about such a member being mean or having served a term in the country gaol. The black sheep of the family usually make the search more interesting. How dull and boring would it be if everybody lived by the straight and narrow and did nothing unorthodox. Collect the old photographs and identify the person portrayed in them.

When you commence your search make sure to keep a record of any facts which you find and you should have the source neatly written beside each detail and do not rely on your memory alone either as far as the sources consulted are concerned. List the ones you have searched even if the search has been unsuccessful. It will often save you from going back over the same ground again, unknown to yourself.

Digging up your ancestor takes on a whole new meaning when you read a recent book on Family History published in England which advocated digging up their ancestor to make a detailed scientific analysis of the bones or body to reveal aspects of the individual’s medical history – diet, wounds, diseases and cause of death. Personally I do not advocate this approach.

Check the national archives in your native country.

The Administrative Units of Ireland

To pinpoint the location it is important to understand the divisions of Ireland into administrative units. There are civil divisions and ecclesiastical (or church) divisions. First the civil divisions – Ireland is divided into four provinces – Munster in the South West; Leinster in the South East and Midlands; Connacht in the West and Ulster in the North. These correspond to the ancient Kingdom of Ireland. Originally there was a fifth province called Meath but that was absorbed into the others.

Ireland contains thirty two counties. The county as an administrative unit was introduced by the Normans, the first county being set up by King John in 1210. They correspond to the shires of England. In Ireland the administrative unit of importance today is the county. Local affairs are governed by the County Councils and prior to the County Council their affairs were organized by the Grand juries.

Baronies are based on the Celtic families holdings – tuath or tribe lands. During Norman times a lord or baron was appointed to rule over each barony. Many of the 17th and 18th century land surveys were organized at a baronial level.

Poor Law Unions were set up under an Act of Parliament in 1838. Each area was centered on a large town in which a workhouse was to be erected. The people within that union were responsible for all the poor of the area. No sooner than the workhouses were erected the famine struck and the system became overloaded.

Next comes the parish. This is the civil parish in contrast to the church parish. The civil parish owes its establishment to the state of the parishes in medieval times. There were many small parishes with a little church serving the local community. After the reformation the Established Church adopted this organization of parishes. However its numbers did not justify keeping all those churches and so many were shut. The Church of Ireland still retains this old parish system but now one clergy man serves a union of maybe nine or more civil parishes. The civil parishes were important in the surveys of the 19th century.

The townland is the smallest unit and it corresponds to one family’s holdings. In poorer areas the townland is large and in the richer areas it is small. There are over 64,000 townlands in Ireland and if you have the townland name and county it is usually fairly easy to locate on a map. The name of the townland itself gives an idea of what it looks like for example ones that start with ard—are likely to have high ground , cluain(a Marsh), cill(a church), lios(a ringfort) and so on. The townland has been established from an early period and has been used in many surveys.

On the church side the main administrative units were the diocese and the parish.

The dioceses were organized in the 12th century from the many smaller bishoprics of the monastic period. The church of Ireland still has the same dioceses as the medieval period but they are now joined in union. The Roman Catholic Church was not allowed to have fixed and rigid organisations during the Penal Times and were forced to operate underground during oppressive periods. In the late 1700s the Catholic Church was allowed back into the open and the Church adapted on the conditions than prevailing, it organized itself loosely on the basis of the old dioceses.

Similarly Roman Catholic Parishes were not based on the old civil parishes but on the towns and villages and centres of populations. The Church adapted itself to the changed times. Indeed new parishes were formed in recent years to cope with urban expansion.

To locate a particular townland or place the following are very useful;

  • Index to Townlands
  • Lewis’s Topographical Directory
  • A new Genealogical Atlas of Ireland
  • Ordinance Survey Maps

Starting Points

It is necessary to have a name and a location to be successful in your search. It is no good knowing that Pat Murphy your great grandfather left Ireland in 1847. So did 50 more Pat Murphy’s. However  if it is an unusual surname or Christian name you may have better hope of finding it with such limited information.

Look at the surname see where it most commonly occurs in Ireland see Griffith’s N.L.I.. You will have very little luck with a high frequency name such as Murphy but have a fair chance with a rarer name like Oldham.

Once you have identified your ancestor’s name and place of origin you can select your starting point. There are 3 points from which you may start:

  1. Census 1901
  2. Griffiths Valuation c.1850
  3. Tithe Applotment Books c.1830

Locate and identify your ancestor in, one of these records and see if you can trace the family back to the previous point or forward into the next period.

The Census

A census is an official count of the population and the gathering of related statistics like age, sex and education and is carried out by the government.

During Cromwell’s rule a survey was carried out of the land of Ireland and the principal landlords of each were given.

In 1776 the Irish House of Commons decreed that each clergyman record the names, religion and various details of his parishioners.

There were various proposals made to hold a census in the late 1700s but people were too suspicious as they saw the census as another way of the government getting information to put on more taxes. Even today there is still some suspicion on some questions asked in the census.

The first general census took place around 1813 but none of this survives. Some parts of the 1821 census are available. The name of each person, age, education and health were ascertained. Censuses were taken every ten years from 1821 to 1891.

The censuses of 1861 to 1891 were destroyed by government order to protect confidentiality of all concerned.

In1922 the records of the other censuses of the last century were virtually completely wiped out in the Irish Civil War. In some way to make up for this great loss it was decided to release 1901 and 1911 censuses early. The 1901 census is now the earliest completed census for the whole of the country available. This census gives the name, age, religion, occupation, literacy, marital status, country of origin, relationship to householder and ability to speak English and Irish, censuses were taken in 1926, 1936, 1946 and approximately every ten years up to the present day.

The Tithe Applotment Books

The tithe was a tax levied on all land occupiers in order to pay for the upkeep of the established protestant church. All land occupiers no matter what religion paid this tax. The tithe was paid in the form of goods and farm produce until 1823 when an Act of Parliament decreed that it should be paid in monetary terms.

Each piece of land in each parish had to be valued and the amount of tithe to be paid by the owner calculated. This valuation was recorded in the Tithe Applotment Books which are now located at the Public Records office Dublin.

For the early 19th century the tithe applotment books are of significant importance to the researcher particularly the census returns of those destroyed in 1922.

Land Records

Of the source for information in relation to the occupation of land include the Encumbered Estates Act, the Landed Court Act, the Returns of Owners of Land, Deeds, Estate Papers, Rent Rolls and Hearth Money Rolls.

The Encumbered Estates Act was passed in 1848 to deal with estates which had gone bankrupt. During the famine very many tenants could not afford to pay rent and so the land owners mortgaged their estates to obtain cash. This led to many estates having to be sold to meet outstanding debts. The Landed Estates Court Act of 1858 modified the operation of the 1848 Act. Books of the maps, descriptions and the tenancies of the affected estate were prepared for each sale. In 1873 a survey of the land owners of Ireland was carried out and land owners were listed alphabetically and by size.

The Registry of Deeds was established in 1708 to hold all deeds, leases, mortgages, marriage settlements and wills. The collection which is held at the Kings Inns Henrietta St are indexed by townland or by grantor.

Leases were usually granted for a number of lives usually 3 lives which will help the genealogist as children of the tenants were often used in this way.

Estate papers and rent rolls hold a great deal of information. However it is mainly the records of the larger estates which have survived. Bills, account books, leases and mortgages all provide detailed information for the researches particularly tenant’s and tradesmen’s names.

The Hearth Money rolls were compiled from 1663 onwards. A tax of 2 shillings on every hearth and fire place was imposed. The earlier lists included virtually every house in the area but in later years the poorer houses were made exempt. The hearth money rolls for the Ulster counties and a few of the southern counties have survived.

Criminal Records

The State Paper Office in Dublin contains much material on the criminal side. If you had a black sheep in the family here is the place to look for information. The convict papers, and registers give details of the people transported to the colonies for crimes they had committed. Some of these crimes were what we would regard today as very petty. In the state paper office the records of the Rebellions of Ireland are kept, also the records of the “outrages” committed when the people of Ireland fought to obtain the lands of Ireland. Here are the records of the evicted tenants, the secret societies and the dastardly informer.


Next we come to the Wills. Wills are important sources of information for the family historian as they give the name and address of the person concerned, a list of his possessions and often a list of relatives to whom legacies were given. These lists can include wives, children, grandchildren, nephews and cousins. In fact you could almost draw up a complete family tree from some wills. The will had to be proved and probated after the death of the individual. As this was usually shortly after the death some indication of the date of death can be obtained. The dates when the will was signed and when it was probated are known so the person died somewhere in between both dates.

A will lists the goods which was owned by an individual and this can give you an indication of what type of man he was and what sort of lifestyle he lived.

The Established Church had jurisdiction over wills up until 1857. There was consistorial court for those who owned property worth more than £5 in another diocese the will had to go to the Prerogative Court held by the Archbishop of Armagh. If the man owned property in England as well as a copy of the will was held Prerogative Court of Canterbury.

In 1858 a new court of probate was established with eleven separate Regional Registries.

The Wills from all the Consistorial and Prerogative Courts were sent to Public Records Office in Dublin and all went up in flames in June 1922. However, the index to many of the dioceses have survived. Also Sir William Betham compiled abstracts of many Wills which is practically all we are left with today. Sir Arthur Vicars edited a printed version of this first Index 1538-1810 in 1897.

Where do you go to seek out old wills? The following places can be searched – The Public Records Office, The Genealogical Office, The Registry of Deeds, The National Library, The Representative Church Body, Trinity College Library and the Society of Friends Library.


ewspapers contain a great deal of information of interest to the researcher, but it may be difficult to find the exact information you seek. Basically there are three items of interest in the newspapers:

  • Announcements of births, deaths and marriages
  • Advertisements
  • Articles

Newspapers in Ireland date from the late 1600’s, but only became important to the Genealogist in the mid 1700’s. Many towns issued a local paper prior to 1830 and almost every major centre had a newspaper by 1840. Where issues of a local paper have not survived the Dublin papers should be examined as these often reprinted the announcements of the provincial press.

Some announcements gave very little information, for example many announcements of births did not give the child’s name or mother’s name. An example of one of these – “March 3rd. 1845 at Gormanstown Castle the lady of Hon Edward Preston of a son”.

Problems of identification occur when no child’s name is given as you do not know which child it is. Thankfully, Marriage announcements give more detailed information.

Advertisements can give details like a person taking over his father’s business after his father’s demise. From this one advertisement you can obtain the father’s name his approximate date of death, the son’s name, the address and the occupation.

Articles in the newspapers can also give some information. Although most papers give mainly international news with only local snippets. There is a lot of interesting social history in every old newspapers. Beware when you start looking for births, deaths and marriages, you may be side tracked by all the other fascinating material.


Directories are what you could call the telephone books or golden pages of yesteryear. Various forms of directories exist – Dublin only, country wide and professional directories. The earliest Dublin directory was in 1751, but the first major provincial almanac was Piggots in1824. These directories list the principal people, the traders, the officials, merchants, doctors, school teachers, police, principal landowners and other notables.

There are various professional directories listing the clergymen of the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic Church, and directories of Doctors, Medical Practitioners and Lawyers.

Church Records

Now we come to a vital source to the researcher and that is the Church Registers. The earlier parish registers tend to come from the larger commercial centres, while those of the more rural areas commence much later.

Urban areas date from circa                            1750

Richer rural areas dare from circa                   1800

Poorer rural areas date from circa                   1830

Two thirds of the Church of Ireland registers from 1880 were destroyed in 1922. However do not give up hope just because the register was destroyed. There is a fountain of knowledge in the other parish records. The lists of Vestry men and the Vestry minutes can prove your ancestor was in a certain parish at a certain time. For Church of Ireland information, check first with the local clergyman but, many registers have been micro filmed and are in the Public Records Office. Some others were lodged with the R.C.B. Library.

Roman Catholics registers are in local hands with a microfilm copy in the National Library. For some dioceses, the permission of the parish priest is necessary before you can search the microfilm copy. Remember Saturdays and Sundays are the worst days for approaching a priest or clergyman and it is always better to write or phone to make an appointment first.

Very few Irish parish registers were published but in recent years many Heritage Groups have been set up to index parish registers. These indexes will save the researcher much time but do try and get a look at the original entries as well. These indexation projects record all the names in a register. A person searching through a register on their own may only pick up a half or two-thirds of the number of names which the indexation picks up.

When searching through registers remember to search carefully and if unsuccessful in one parish try the neighbouring parishes. Prepare a list in advance of what you want to find out and write down the possible, and then the likely dates to be searched first.

The priest or clergyman has as his first duty attendance to his parishioners and so if your query is going to interfere with that duty it is only right that you should be compensated. It is normal to give some gift to parish funds and it is better to be generous than stringy about it. You may even need his help again. The priest has to live too, and remember he does not have to go to all that trouble you.

I know of one priest who spent from 4 o’clock in the day until 12 that night looking for one particular entry and when he found it at midnight he spent another four hours tracing all the relations of that person. The following day he handed over his results and all he got was a Thank You Very Much.

A word now about the customs which affect the parish registers. The first born son was named after his father’s father, the second born son after his mother’s father and the third son named after his father. This was a fairly rigid custom in Ireland.

Up to the mid 1800’s it was usual to have only one Christian name. Certain names were common in certain areas for example Moses in Wexford. Roman Catholics mainly took Saints names as their Christian names.

Burials were usually in the ancestral graveyard, no matter if that was twenty or thirty miles away from the place where a man lived all his life. Very few records of burials exist in the Roman Catholic registers.

Civil Registration

The Government thought it could set up a better system, besides it was thought useful to have official information on each citizen. In 1837 civil registration began in England. From 1845, all Protestant marriages in Ireland were registered and from 1864 all births, deaths and marriages were registered. The early death certificated may not be accurate about the age of the deceased. Also many births in the early days were not registered because people were afraid that as their name went on the list they would be liable for some government taxes. All civil records are kept at the Register Generals Office, or at some local offices. Register Generals Office, Joyce Hse., 8/11 Lombard St., East, Dublin 2.

Gravestone Inscriptions

Gravestones can give you information which is not available in the parish register. Where there is no parish register the only remembrance of a person’s life is the gravestone. You will understand why they are called “The Annals of the Poor”.

Gravestones can give the occupation of the deceased, the cause of death, deaths abroad, relationships and other details. Often from one stone it is possible to draw up a detailed family tree.

There may be problems locating an old graveyard, the graveyard itself could be covered with weeds. A local person may be able to point out where your family were buried which will save you quite a bit of time.

Very few gravestones date from before 1800. Gravestones normally face east with the exception of the parish priest’s which faces west, so that the pastor may face his flock. In most cases burials take place on the southern side of the church, because the northern side was regarded as the devil’s side. Strangers to the parish were usually buried on the northern side.

Some stones may be very badly eroded and others may be covered with lichen and moss. Do not use a wire brush on headstones as it damages them. You can use soap water or a little chalk will bring up an inscription.

Many gravestone inscriptions have now been recorded. All Wexford and Wicklow have been recorded and all done by one man, Brian Cartwell. Co. Down is also complete. About a third of County Meath has been covered. Various groups and individuals have recorded inscriptions throughout Ireland. In 1888 a society to record the inscriptions was founded. This was the association for the preservation of the Memorials of the Dead and each year from 1888 to 1937 it published a journal containing inscriptions from every county in Ireland.

There are many funny inscriptions.

Where to next?

Now you know what is available? You have to make your plans. You should write down the places you want to visit and the items of information you are looking for. You will have to spend some time in Dublin and additional time locally. Remember when you are budgeting for time it will take some time to get certificates for the photocopies. You can wait for up to 6 weeks for copies from the Registry of Deeds. Try every source and be prepared for information turning up in the most unusual places.

Personally I think it is best if you do the research yourself. You could employ a professional genealogist, who will save you a lot of time, but you miss out on all the joy of discovering your own ancestors.

Your best method is to try it yourself, asking the various librarians and archivists for help. If you get stuck you can then get a consultation from a genealogist to put you back on the right track.

A word of caution. Not every search will be successful, but with most general information it should be possible to go back to the 1830’s. Remember you are going to end up with no more clues and you are going to have to cry halt. But, before you do make sure you have tried all the different possibilities.

It may be possible to get further back on the female line than on the male line.

A mere family tree is a lifeless skeleton. What you want to know is how your ancestor lived, where they lived, where they went to Mass, where they went to the Fair. Search out for books on the Social History of Ireland. Look out for old photos. Read the newspapers of the time and get a feel of what your ancestor was really like. How did he survive the Great Famine? Every ancestor you come across has a story to tell.

Come back to Erin, mavourneen mavourneen,

Come back aroon to the land of thy birth,

Come back with shamrock and springtime mavourneen,

And its Killarney shall ring with our mirth.


Happy Ancestor Hunting.


Check list

1536 – 1858                Prerogative Wills (Armagh) (Index only) PROI

1588 – 1729                The Funeral Certificates of Ireland (G.O.)

1613                            First Presbyterian Minister in Ireland

1622 – 1858                Prerogative Wills & Consistorial Wills

1641 – 1704                Books of Survey and Distribution

1650 – 1845                Marriage Licence Bonds Protestant PRO

1654 – 1656                Civil Survey

1659                            Census of Ireland circa. 1659

1663                            Hearth Money Rolls

1666                            First Hugenot Church in Ireland

1669                            Quakers records

1695 – 1858                Consistorial Wills (Diocesan) Index only PROI

1697                            Marriage Licence Bonds Index only (PROI)

1704 – 1838                Convert Rolls

1708                            Registry of deeds (To present day)

1709                            Palantines Arrive

1727 – 1838                Freeholders Lists

1750 approx.               City & Larger Towns Parish Registers

1750 – 1830                National Newspapers founded

1750 – 1850                Estate Papers (Some earlier, some later)

1771 – 1836                Prisoner’s Petitions (S.P.O.)

1779                            Volunteer Corps Records Militia

1780 approx.               Smaller Towns and some country areas Parish Registers commence

1790 – 1831                State of the Country Papers

1796                            Flax Growers List

1796 – 1807                Rebellion Papers

1800 – 1830                Rural Parishes Registers Begin

1800    c                      Parish Register (Church of Ireland) Some earlier. Many destroyed in 1922.