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Irish ancestry: the hunt for the townland, Part I

Your Irish ancestry research will make huge strides once you narrow down your family's place of origin

Finding your family's townland



The origin of your Irish ancestry is out there somewhere
View from hills above Graigenamanagh, co Kilkenny, Ireland

The key to your Irish ancestry lies in the name of your family's townland in Ireland. If you already know this you can move on to the Next Steps in your Irish family history quest.

For those who don't know the exact location of the ancestral home – and they make up a sizeable proportion of the descendants of emigrants – this is the first and biggest stumbling block they encounter. Many people who would love to know more about their family roots never even start their research because they don’t have this single, crucial clue to their Irish ancestry and they don't know where to look for it.

The good news is that there are techniques and many sources to help you establish your ancestors' origins. Unfortunately, it isn't possible to know in advance which one source will reveal your family's original location on the island. It would be great if it were, but it isn't.

You may spread your net wide and not find it until your reach the last sources on your list, or you may find it in the first place you look. The only certainty it that you need to keep the focus on finding the name of a townland or, at the very least, a county.

If you already know which county (but not the townland), much of the advice below is still relevant but you should also follow the link at the bottom of the page.

Where to start?

Where you start your research will depend on what you already know about your Irish ancestry. Before you go any further, answer a few questions.

  • Have you fully exhausted the sources suggested on the
    Start Researching your family history page?
  • Have you interviewed the older members of your family?
  • Have you rummaged through old letters, newspaper clippings and momentos?

If not, get cracking.

There is no point going from one archive to another, nor flitting between genealogy databases when the information you seek is gathering dust in the attic or awaiting liberation from great aunt Ellen's head!


Search in your ancestor's adopted country

If your first steps have not identified a townland, you need to concentrate your efforts on the records of the country to which your ancestors emigrated (see link below). All manner of information about your immigrant ancestors will have been recorded and you should not limit your research to just your direct line. You may find that one of your ancestor's relatives left behind a record of his or her exact place of origin, even if your direct ancestor did not.

Top Toolkit Tip

It is worth bearing in mind that when filling in official forms in his or her new country, your immigrant ancestor may have given the name of a civil parish, ecclesiastical parish, port or county of embarkation as his or her place of origin.

As far as I'm aware, this was not done intentionally to upset their genealogist descendants!

Patrick Doyle's memorial card Of course, if your many times great grandfather left the ancestral home in the early 18th century, he could now have several hundred descendents scattered about. Don't be side tracked by maths!

It's perfectly possible that only one of his children was meticulous with their record keeping or passed on the detail of their Irish heritage.

If you really want that detail, that nugget that will allow you to unravel your Irish ancestry, you may have quite a search ahead.

The best places to look for that crucial piece of your Irish ancestry jigsaw are death certificates, immigration records and census returns. Newspaper reports or local histories can also be very helpful.

In addition, you can try the following sources, in any order that seems pertinent to your family:

  • Civil registration: births, deaths and marriages
  • Financial and tax records: held by banks, employers, insurers; accountant's notes; tax returns
  • Death documentation: hospital admission details; coroner's report; death certificates; undertaker's records; gravestones
  • Property and Land records: property deeds; repair or conservation grants
  • Military records: draft cards, service records, pensions
  • Immigration records: passenger lists; naturalisation declarations
  • Newspapers: announcements of births, deaths, marriage, anniversaries; obituaries; news reports
  • Occupational records: apprenticeships; professional qualifications; trade directories
  • Probate and Administration: executor's comments; wills.


Look out for migration patterns

Migration patterns can also be extremely informative for narrowing down the geographical origin of your Irish ancestry. Two types of migration pattern are common. The first is called Group Migration and describes a group of relatives or neighbours leaving Ireland and arriving in their new destination together. The second type is called Chain Migration and occurs when one or more ‘pioneer’ emigrants set off for a new land and were followed by family and friends.

Administrative land divisions

In Ireland, genealogy sources are mostly recorded by locality so it is worth gaining an understanding of how the country is divided for administrative purposes such as civil registration, church registers etc.

It may not be the most scintellating of subjects, but it could save you a lot of headache and fruitless searching as you continue your research into your Irish ancestry.

If you are not very familiar with Ireland's geography, it may also find it helpful to have handy a county map of Ireland, and another on a more localised scale.

An example of this is the migration of a branch of the Santry family from the townland of Currahevern East, County Cork, over a 40-year period. Jeremiah left Ireland in 1883 at the age of 19 and settled in Rockland, Boston.

In 1909 his 20-year-old niece, Minnie, arrived and a year after that his 23-year-old nephew William made the journey to his door. When Minnie and William's younger brother Michael (born 1891) crossed the pond four years later, he went to William's home, also in Rockland, as did brother Timothy (born 1898) in 1925.

By sticking together, many tightly knit communities emerged in America, Canada and Australia made up of people who came from the same areas in Ireland. You can look into migration patterns by examining the neighbours of your ancestors in their adopted country. If they exist, census returns are the easiest and most accessible records for this type of investigation.

Follow the records over the lives of these neighbours, if possible; just because one census return records the place of birth only as 'Ireland' does not mean a more specific location is not given in a much later census. And don't ignore emigrant children. They should be 'followed' through the census years as well as the emigrant adults.


When to start looking online for your Irish ancestry

Hester, Edmond and Patrick Tierney in Athlone 1941
Posing with his two children outside their new
home in Athlone, Co. Westmeath, in 1941 is my
Grandad, Edmond Tierney. He was born in
Ballymacadam, Tipperary, in 1903.
Most genealogy books and websites tell you not to reach for the internet until you know the townland of your ancestral home. To some extent I'd agree. But I cannot categorically state that you'd be wasting your time. Why? Simply because if I had not known the county where my paternal ancestors had lived, I'd have found it very easily online on two of the major online Irish ancestry resources: Family Search and Griffiths Valuation (links below)

If only for genealogical purposes, I'm lucky to have an unusual surname: Santry. By looking in Griffiths Valuation, I'd have found just 24 Santry householders recorded in Ireland in the 1850s. Each one was in County Cork, and all but one was in West Cork. My hunt for a county of origin would have been over.

Similarly, if I had entered my surname in the LDS FamilySearch database, specifically the Irish Civil Registration collection, it would have been quite clear not only that Cork was where I should be looking but that Clonakilty seemed to be the stronghold; at least 80% of the 377 Santry births recorded from 1864 to 1900 were registered in that town. So, in just a few clicks I'd have been confident that my family came from South West Cork.

Now comes a great big BUT.

If I'd been looking for my mother's family names – Tierney and Doyle – neither of these genealogical resources would have been any good to me. Sure, an index of Griffiths could have told me that the counties most associated ie numerically with these names are Tipperary and Wexford respectively (and from where, incidentally, both 'my' families happen to have originated), but there were hundreds of Tierney and Doyle households outside those two counties too.

It would have been impossible to narrow down my Irish ancestry search based on the thousands of names returned in one of these searches.

The 32 counties

No matter what stage your research has reached, you'll find it helpful to know a little about each of the 32 counties of Ireland.

Find out about:

  • Antrim to Down
  • Fermanagh to Louth
  • Mayo to Wicklow.

  • These sources are not, therefore, going to be much practical use to most people at this very early stage of their research.

    There's no harm taking a look anyway, even if only to satisfy your curiosity. If nothing else, they will give you an indication of the scale of your search for your Irish ancestry. Just don't be put off by the numbers!

    Both searches are free: Family Search and Griffiths Valuation.

    Where next?



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