Finding Irish ancestors: Part 1 – In the new land

Oh for a leprechaun to tell you where your Irish ancestors originated.

Now anyone who’s researched Irish ancestors will know just how unpredictable this process can be. So much depends on serendipity in the form of timelines –when your family was born or died, where they lived, how much money they had (or more likely didn’t have), when they emigrated, etc. You then need to mix serendipity with a large dollop of lateral thinking to see how many side paths you can travel to tease out the information.

So this is my (incomplete) guide to starting on your Irish family. I’m more than happy for other Irish researchers to add their “two bob’s worth” as each path provides different challenges opportunities.

Locating their place

Most importantly, you can’t just go find your Irish rellies without having a clue where they lived in Ireland, and unfortunately the name of the county is unlikely to serve either, unless you’ve got an exceptionally rare name. What you ideally need is the parish, village or townland. You also need to be able to translate what you see on paper to an Irish accent, as so many of our ancestors from the mid-19th century were illiterate and relied on an independent person to spell what they were telling them. For much the same reason you can’t assume that the spelling will always be consistent. It does tend to get a bit “chicken-and-egg” but you need that place.

So where to start?

IN THE NEW LAND

Certificates

Extract of death certificate for Ellen Gavin, my 2xgreat grandmother. Colony of Qld certificate 90520 purchased 14 November 1986.

One of the pluses, if your ancestors made the long voyage to Australia, is that you’ll likely be blessed with far more information than if they’d married or died anywhere else. How much is recorded depends on the knowledge of their immediate family but you may find: their place of birth, parents’ names, how long they’ve been in the colony/state, where they died, where they were buried, and a full list of children (useful to check out naming patterns).

So you’re looking for marriage certificates (for parent’s names and the person’s place of birth) and death certificates (ditto). If all they provide is “County XXXX” then you may have to search more widely:  try their children’s birth certificates as they too should tell you the parents’ place of marriage and age at marriage, and place of birth.

Of course all these strategies may not pay off if your ancestor constantly states only the county, but you’ll have a much better sense of whether they’re a reliable “witness” as you’ll be able to test for consistency of their other data. Many of mine were extremely consistent, but another of my Irish ancestors was all over the place when it came to ages but more informative about places.

Still stymied? If you know they had siblings who also emigrated, you may want to purchase the sibling’s certificate(s) as these may give you more information. This was the case with my Mary O’Brien Kunkel –it was her sister’s death certificate from New South Wales (over 1200kms away) that gave me their place of origin as Broadford, Co Clare.

Church registers

In my experience church records such as baptisms or marriages may give you an entirely different set of information from the official records (or at least more detail). This may be the very clue you’re looking for. Certainly in the case of my George Kunkel, it was the only place he mentioned his home town rather than just “Bavaria”. Why the Irish priest didn’t complete anything at all for George’s wife, Mary O’Brien, is anybody’s guess.

Johannah Wall from Rortlaw, Co Waterford, buried Roma, Qld

Don’t forget that if you are writing to the relevant church or archive, to send a donation along with your request.

Gravestones

If all else fails, or do it anyway, it is worth your while to look at your ancestor’s gravestones. I’ve seen occasions where the memorial inscriptions are the only place that a specific place of birth is mentioned. You can see some examples here.

Immigration records

Depending on where you live and when your ancestors migrated, you may find that your ancestor specifically mentioned their home parish, townland or village when interviewed on arrival. Alternatively they may say whether their parents are alive and where they are living. Any of these clues will help in your quest.  Once again you need to remember that the spelling may be the recorder’s interpretation of what was said. You might need to practice your Irish accents <grin>.

Oral History

Don’t discount the enormous potential value of oral history. With luck you may learn your ancestor’s home place but you may also learn the names of siblings in the new land and the old. My ancestors’ granddaughter was invaluable in terms of providing details of siblings’ married names (invaluable when you’re looking for O’Briens!). She also remembered that the place Mary O’Brien came from was Longford or something like that. Mary’s sister’s death certificate gave me their actual place –Broadford: hence the significance of checking out sibling’s certificates and oral history.

This wide variety of information will help you triangulate your ancestral details in the old country. Even having a batch of siblings’ names, will be of help to you in confirming the ancestral family once you’re back in Ireland.

Hospital and Benevolent Asylum registers

Sadly none of my ancestors’ cards name their place of birth so I thought I’d share this family one.

This may seem like a strange source, but if you think your ancestor had been in hospital or was in care at the end of their lives, this provides yet another possibility for learning their place of origin.

Memoriam Cards

Firstly thanks to Chris whose comment on the Clare facebook page reminded me of these.  Do you remember seeing those little black-edged cards with a holy picture and prayer on them? If so check them carefully as you never know what clues they offer including that those named may be relatives.

Other researchers should weigh in with their thoughts of what I’ve missed and/or what’s been successful for them. All comments are much appreciated.

Part 2 coming soon: Finding your Irish family in Ireland

Beyond the Internet: Week 9 – Baptisms, Banns and Burials

This is Week 9 in my Beyond the Internet series of topics in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. I’d love it if you wanted to join in with your own posts on this week’s topic which is Church Registers.

Please join in with your blog posts on this topic, and if possible provide the link on this page.

Last week’s topic was certificates and how they can help ensure you are tracing the right line, and potentially tell you a great deal more about your family. But of course certificates are only available from around the middle of the 19th century. Before that you need to turn to the church registers of your ancestor’s local parish for their baptisms, banns, marriages and burials (and don’t forget they may not all belong to the official church). If you’re lucky the clergyman may have also shown dates for births and deaths, but by no means always.

If I’m researching a parish where my ancestor lived, my first port of call is the familysearch catalogue to search under place names. Lots of people (me too) used to like to search the old IGI but what are/were you getting? You might assume you’re being given every bit of information regarding that parish. Unfortunately that’s not the case, and ignoring for the moment that you’ve so far only got dates and names, what else are you missing out on?

When I want to know what’s indexed for the United Kingdom (also Canada/USA), I’ve been in the habit of using Hugh Wallis’s wonderful site because this tells me what’s been incorporated into the IGI. To illustrate what you might miss out on with the IGI (and perhaps to a lesser extent with familysearch unless you use advanced search carefully), I’ll look at the parish of Sandon in Hertfordshire. This is what Hugh Wallis says is available on the IGI:

Sandon Hertfordshire (IGI)
C072892   1697-1812 M072892   1678-1812
C072891   1813-1879 M072891   1813-1837
C053871   1813-1850 M072893   1837-1885
M072894   1886-1976

To summarise: baptisms (christenings) from 1697-1879 and marriages from 1678 to 1976. Sounds great doesn’t it? Now search the family search catalogue under the place name of Sandon, Hertfordshire and these are the options that come up for church registers (there are yet more other entries).

England, Hertford, Sandon – Church records 

author:

Church of England. Parish Church of Sandon (Hertfordshire)

author:

Church of England. Parish Church of Sandon (Hertfordshire)

author:

Church of England. Parish Church of Sandon (Hertfordshire)

You can also see that the author of #3 is the Church of England, parish church of Sandon. When you look at the films you’ll find that you’re actually viewing an exact image of the pages from the parish register. By clicking on #3, it will show that it’s possible to see all the following by ordering the film numbers bracketed behind each:

Baptisms, marriages and burials 1678-1812, and banns 1750-1766 (991394, items 6-9).

Baptisms and burials 1813-1879 and marriages 1813-1837 (991394, items 1-4)

Marriages 1837-1976 (film 993735, item 4)

Banns 1767-1874 and baptisms 1880-1960 (1537909, items 5-6)

Burials 1879-1902 (1951789, item 16)

You’ve gained the opportunity to learn a good deal more about your ancestors because you can now go back in time for 20 years of baptisms, as well as banns and burials (not sure what happened to the 1628 shown).  Burials are not included in the IGI, so searching the films will let you correlate the information you’ve obtained on your family and make sure you’re not pinning your tree on someone who was buried well before adulthood. For example, at first glance my direct ancestor, Hannah Kent, is the child baptised in Sandon on 27 April 1832 and that was what I initially thought. Had I never ordered the microfilm I’d never have known differently because that Hannah was buried a week later on 2 Mary 1832. My ancestor was presumably the next girl born to parents Richard and Mary and also called Hannah – though there’s no clue why she wasn’t baptised in the Church of England (nor is she shown in the non-conformist indexes). Burial information can let you identify which person of the same name is being buried and if a child, the name of the father, and sometimes address information and other stray details. Other entries in the register may tell you about occupational changes, confirm family connections, provide witnesses’ names and so on.

It’s also a good idea to have a look at the Bishop’s Transcripts (BTs) where they exist and for Sandon it looks as if they provide another 74 years. Unfortunately the reality is that the film is so poor that it looks like the register was kept in a barn with a leaky roof for a very long time. Much of those early years are illegible but occasionally snippets can be figured out. The other qualifier with any of the BTs is that they are what they say, transcripts, so subject to errors in transcription. On the other hand, they will sometimes give slightly different details from the original register. For a small sum of money, a wait for the microfilm, and the time taken to read it, you can have the confidence to know you’ve squeezed as much as possible from the available registers.

If you have ancestry in Durham and Northumberland from c1797-1812, you will find parish registers might offer you a great deal more even than “normal” registers. The then Bishop of Durham, Shute Barrington, decreed that parish registers be kept which included such detail as place of origin, parents’ names, maiden names, ages etc. Inevitably not every entry has all the required detail but most do, and it is a potential goldmine. Bishop Barrington deserves his own Genealogy Award!

Happy hunting in the microfilms…may you find many “lost” ancestors, unravel some mysteries and find some clues.