How to start researching your family history in Ireland. Irish roots and genealogy for beginners.
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Start researching your family history in Ireland

Irish genealogy for beginners. Where to dig for Irish roots.

Irish Roots – beginners

Even to start researching your family history in Ireland can seem absolutely daunting. It shouldn’t. Irish genealogy really isn’t as difficult as it might appear, nor as difficult as some people might have told you.

There are many, many more sources of information than you have probably been led to believe.

Sure, a lot of priceless records were lost in the 1922 fire at the Public Records Office in Dublin, but an awful lot of other sources were not stored there and have survived.

That doesn’t mean finding your ancestors is as easy as ABC; it just means most people can throw at least some light on their Irish roots when they start looking.

So where to start?

  • Start with yourself and work backwards. Write down as much information as you already have about your parents, your grandparents and your grandparents' parents. Verify your sources as you go. You'll immediately see the gaps in your knowledge. Use these free blank genealogy forms to start recording your Irish roots.

  • Talk to your relatives. First of all, ask your oldest relatives for their memories of the family. Then move on to younger ones who may have heard stories or might remember some pertinent details about your Irish roots. Start with some clearly focussed questions but allow your relatives to reminisce – you might pick up some gems in the process. Learn more about finding family history stories through your relatives' memories.

    derelict cottage on Cape Clear
  • Find your ancestor's place of origin in Ireland. For many family historians this can be the biggest hurdle to connecting with their Irish roots.

    If you already know the townland (an Irish land division) where your ancestors used to live, you're one of the lucky ones.

    If you know only that they came from Ireland or that they came from a specific county, your biggest task will be to pin down this all-important location.

  • Deal only with facts. Family legends can be a source of guidance but are rarely 100% accurate. The ‘chartered accountant’ may turn out to have been a clerk in an accounts office.

    The ‘ancestral farm’ may have been a simple hovel with a potato patch outside. Stirring tales of daring-do and selfless kindness have probably been much embellished over the years and, while there is often a grain of truth to these stories, they should not dictate the entire course of your research into your Irish roots.

  • Be prepared. You are likely to find one or two skeletons in the cupboard once you start researching your family history. Accept that the truth may be somewhat less attractive than its telling in family tales, and be honest in your recording.

  • Develop a research plan. Think about which lines to follow. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on. You have to draw the line somewhere! Decide which branch of your Irish roots you are going to study. It’s traditional to follow the male line from your father and the female line from your mother (which is always more tricky than the paternal route), but it’s entirely up to you. Just choose one line for now. You can return to start another line at a later date.

    Irish family history form
  • Record your data. You're going to accumulate huge amounts of information from a variety of sources; you won't be able to retain it all in your head. Get in the habit of carefully recording every piece of new data as you uncover it. There will be times in the future you'll be so glad you did!

    Use these free family history forms to get you started.

  • Get organised. If you scribble down notes on scraps of paper, you're going to lose valuable data. You really need to approach your family history research in an orderly fashion. Here's some ideas for documenting family history data in an organised manner.

  • Don’t be too ambitious. For the majority of us with Irish ancestors, searching for our Irish roots leads us to poor, landless labourers. As such, their lives were not well documented and, where records do survive, they are unlikely to date from much before 1810, at best. For many, the first half of the 19th century will be as far back as you can go.

By the time you have completed this first stage of your research, you will have a much deeper sense of your Irish heritage and of the future direction of your family history research. You will also be ready to take the Next Steps in your Irish family history.


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Family memorabilia

Rummage about for mementos or echoes of your ancestors in the attic, the bottom of wardrobes, and in any old boxes you may have tucked away.

Look out for family bibles, memorial cards, family documents, newspaper clippings, war medals, birth announcements, diaries, invoices, wedding invitations, official papers, and old letters.

irish genealogy memorabilia

Cherish the latter as they may contain outstanding clues to your Irish roots; envelopes may show return addresses or clear postmarks.

Ageing photos of your Irish ancestors are also an excellent source of information; not just from the image itself, but on the flipside where there may be dates, names and places scribbled.

Watch your spelling I
When it comes to finding your Irish roots, you'll need to be rather relaxed about the spelling of your ancestors' surnames. With the majority of the pre-20th century population illiterate, the spelling of a name was a matter for whoever was recording it rather than for the person to whom it belonged!

So the parish priest might have had a different way of spelling the name to the Superintendent's Registrar, who in turn may have recorded it differently to the immigration official, or the civil servant, or the solicitor.

Take all name spellings with a pinch of salt and look at all possible variations.

Irish genealogy - free booklet

Click image for Irish Genealogy Toolkit's free 20-page booklet listing all the new and upgraded Irish family history records released in 2014.

Watch your spelling II

Heavy or unfamiliar accents may have been the reason surnames changed over time but there's another spelling mistake that you'll see all too often when you're researching family history. Geneology. It also appears as Geaneolgy, Genology and in at least another half dozen guises.

The correct spelling is:


If you're having trouble remembering how to spell the word, see if this helps.

Inside Botanic Gardens Dublin

No matter the season, Dublin's Botanic Gardens are always a delight to visit, and they're conveniently located adjacent to Glasnevin Cemetery.

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By Claire Santry, Copyright© 2008-2015 Dedicated to helping YOU discover your Irish Heritage.
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