Jim's Irish Genealogy Pages

Irish Genealogy Resources

GENEALOGICAL RECORDS

People of Irish descent are sometimes discouraged from researching their family trees, put off by the sad tale of the burning of the census records during the Irish civil war. The fact is that there are surviving records in Ireland that can take you back to the time of the first census--if you know where to look for them.

Knowing specifically where your Irish ancestors came from is the big hurdle for many researchers. If family tradition has not passed down the name of the village or parish, or at least the county, that the family emigrated from, it's difficult if not impossible to go back much further. Unfortunately, death certificates of Irish immigrants tend to merely say "Ireland" as the place of birth.

Among the most important genealogical records in Ireland are these:

  • Griffith's Valuation. This was a land survey of Ireland, taken for tax purposes and published between 1848 and 1864. For every piece of property in Ireland, it lists the head of household who possessed it (usually a tenant farmer), along with brief description of the property and its value. If you know the name of the specific locale in Ireland where your ancestors came from--a village or parish--it is relatively easy to find out what households bore your name there in the mid-19th Century. An index to Griffith's Valuation is available from Family Tree Maker, which provides a fairly good substitute for the actual records.
  • Tithe Applotment Books. This was a survey of land taken between 1823 and 1838 for purposes of determining how much each household had to pay to the Church of Ireland. (The mostly Catholic population deeply resented these tithes, and they were abolished in 1838.) Though not as complete as Griffith's Valuation, it does provide much information about heads of households a generation or so earlier. Family Tree Maker has issued a Tithe Applotment index, but unfortunately it only covers the six counties of British-occupied Ireland.
  • Civil Records. Births, marriages and deaths have been recorded by Irish counties since 1864; non-Catholic marriages have been recorded since 1845. It is possible to obtain records by mail from country registrars' offices.

THE IRISH NAMING SYSTEM

Since neither Griffith's or the Tithe Applotment Books gives much if any indication of relationships, it may be difficult to determine which of the often several people listed with your name is your actual ancestor. An educated guess, however, can often be made by considering the traditional Irish naming system. There was a usual sequence for the names given to the children in Irish families: The first son was named after the father's father, and the second son after the mother's father; the first daughter was named after the father's mother and the second daughter after the mother's mother. This tradition was not always followed, but it was observed often enough for it to be useful. For example, if you don't know the names of your great-great-grandparents, but do know the names and birth order of your grandparent's siblings, you can use the naming system to make some tentative suggestions.

One caveat: Even when the system was followed, the grandchild may have a name that is an anglicization of the grandparent's name (e.g., Bernard for Brian). Or the grandparent and grandchild may have names that are different anglicizations of the same Celtic name, as with Anthony and Owen, both of which were used as replacements for the Irish name Uithne (pronounced "Owney").

TALK TO YOUR RELATIVES!

While doing genealogical research may seem like a daunting project, there's one kind of research that I would urge anyone with even the slightest interest in family history to undertake: interviewing your oldest relatives and writing down what they know about family traditions. Barring the collapse of civilization, most of the records that now exist will still be here in 20 years, if you put off becoming a family historian for that long. They'll probably even be here in a hundred years, in case you want to let your great-great-grandnephew do the work for you. But who won't be around forever is your grandmother's sole surviving sister, who no doubt knows much more about the family's origins than you do. Sit down with her and ask her to tell you the names of all the relatives she can think of, along with any places or approximate dates she can remember. Write it all down, type it up and send copies to everyone in your family. Someday someone will want to trace the family roots, and these notes will make the job so much easier.

I speak from personal experience, because my uncle, Tom Kearney, did a very thorough job interviewing his parents in 1958, and interviewed his mother again in 1983. His notes from those interviews are the foundation of this website, and I certainly would not have gotten as far in tracing the tree back without his work.

Don't put this off! No one is getting any younger, including you.

CLAN GENEALOGY

The burning of the records is a handicap for Irish genealogists, and many Irish-Americans are at this point no longer able to trace their ancestors back across the Atlantic at all. But being Irish does have one genealogical compensation: In many cases, it is possible to tell just from your family name(s) the clan that you are descended from. While people named Johnson may be descended from any number of sons of otherwise anonymous Johns, someone named O'Keefe (to take a name at random) is very likely to be actually descended from a specific person named Art Caemh (pronounced "Keev"), who lived around 900 and whose father was the king of Munster. Even when there is more than one origin for the same Irish surname, if the county your ancestors came from is known, a pretty good guess can often be made as to which clan your line comes from.

What's more, the Irish in medieval times were enthusiastic genealogists, and remembered long lists of the ancestors of the founders of the clan. So from the person your family is named for, you can trace back your line through the kings and warriors of Celtic Ireland.

Of course, oral histories passed down over centuries are not necessarily reliable, and as genealogy was a highly political subject in Celtic Ireland it's likely that the family records were deliberately altered at times (to give powerful people correspondingly powerful ancestors). As you move up these trees you go from historical figures to the possibly legendary to the certainly mythological. (These pedigrees go back to Milesius, a supposed Spanish king who is the founding father of the Irish, and beyond him through Noah back to Adam.) Still, tracing back the history of your family name can provide you with a vivid connection to the history and rich folklore of Ireland.

A good introduction to the Irish (and Scottish) clans, Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland: An Ethnography of the Gael A.D. 500 - 1750, can be found online.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Some books that may be helpful for the Irish genealogist:

Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, by John Grenham. I found this to be the single most useful book on Irish genealogy, giving a detailed overview of what records are available and where they might be found.

Irish Families: Their Names, Arms and Origins, by Edward MacLysaght. This is the classic reference work on the histories of individual Irish clans, covering the origin of family names, their geographical origins, and some account of the people who bore that name.

More Irish Families, by Edward MacLysaght. Covers names not discussed in Irish Families.

The Surnames of Ireland, by Edward MacLysaght. Mostly summarizes information in MacLysaght's other books. Less detailed, but cheaper and a little more user-friendly.

Irish Pedigrees, or The Origin and Stem of the Irish Nation, by John O'Hart. A monumental work that provides a pedigree for hundreds of Irish surnames. I gather that it is not considered as reliable as MacLysaght, but for anyone interested in Irish genealogy it makes for fascinating reading. Very expensive, but it's also available on CD-ROM at a much more reasonable price from Andrew J. Morris Genealogy.

Irish Names, by Donnchadh O Corrain and Fidelma Maguire. A guide to traditional Irish personal names, many of which were turned into surnames. Useful for genealogists as a guide to how Irish names were anglicized.

Irish First Names, by Ronan Coghlan. A shorter guide to personal names, with more emphasis on modern names. Also useful as a guide to anglicization.

Cattle Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland, by Nerys Patterson. This book describes the social system that produced the Irish clans, showing how kinship relations permeated every aspect of life.