Finding Irish Ancestors: Part 2 – The Old Country

May you have blessings in abundance with your Irish research.

In Part 1, we had a brief excursion through the possible records in the new land, to learn where you might learn more about your ancestors’ Irish origins. With a bit of luck you’ve gained some clues on their home place from these resources so now you can turn your sights on the old country’s records.

Hopefully you’ve got more than just the county name or you will have a close-to-insoluble problem.  Remember that just because “Name eg Gunning” is the only instance you can find in the records, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right one! It may mean not all the records survived, or that they haven’t been digitised or indexed.

So where to look in Ireland?

Let’s assume you’ve got the parish, village or townland because without them you’re in serious research trouble.

Parish Registers

Image reproduced with permission of Furman University Special Collections and Archives, email 28 Sept 12. 

If you have the parish name, the first place I’d look is at the Family Search Catalogue and search by place (try parish and/or town).  You won’t always find that the LDS church holds a microfilmed copy of the registers, but you may get lucky as I did. If so you can order the microfilm and have it delivered to a local family history centre or your local genealogical society (assuming they are authorised lenders). You can check available locations here.

Be aware that church registers for Catholic parishes rarely go back to the very early 19th century due to storage conditions and restrictions on the practice of the religion.  You may find the early years of the registers very difficult to read but it’s worth persevering.

Online indexes to registers provide an alternative search option:

Roots Ireland

Irish Genealogy

The former is a pay-to-view site and can be very helpful, if you’re lucky. It currently covers most of the counties except Clare, Carlow, Kerry, Dublin city and Cork (RC).

Irish Genealogy is a free-to-use site and covers the counties omitted from Roots Ireland, with the exception of Clare which as yet is covered by neither, frustrating given that Clare is one of the biggest exporters of migrants. However you can always refer to the Clare Roots Society to see what they recommend (check under the Activites tab).

For some time this gravestone in the Tuamgraney churchyard seemed a good fit for my O’Briens, but this lot came from Caherhurley. Erected by Matthew O’Brien from Perth, WA.

I’ve had good fortune with both these sites, especially with the Dublin records. Conversely there are births covered in Co Wexford and Wicklow, for example, which aren’t turning up in Roots Ireland as they should. As always, be aware that a negative result doesn’t necessarily mean what you’re looking for isn’t in the registers. This may be due to an indexing error, the church registers which have been indexed, or commencement dates of the register.  You can always search each site to ascertain which parishes have been indexed.

Where possible it’s always best to check yourself by borrowing the microfilm.

Family Search

You can specify your search within the United Kingdom and Ireland then select one of the Irish options. This can be very helpful for research once you move into the period of civil registration.

If you find one that you’re confident belongs to your family, you can then order the certificate, or a copy, from the General Register Office.

Griffith’s Primary Valuation

My 2x great aunt lived in this house near Lough Doon after her marriage in the C19th.

There isn’t space to go into this in detail here (keep an eye out for it in a future Beyond the Internet topic in a few weeks).

Suffice to say that this land valuation for the purposes of taxation, is the major resource for Irish research and is a substitute for the censuses which were destroyed either officially or in the Troubles.

It’s important to also look at the accompanying maps as well. In some cases there are accompanying house books, field books and name books. Not all survive but you should check out what the status is for your family.

Do you think you understand the GV and what it was all about? There are so many nuances and this article is invaluable in broadening our understanding. The book is even better but if you can’t buy the book or borrow it on inter-library loan, then the article is an excellent synopsis.

I’m restricted in what images I can show you due to copyright and reproduction rights, but please, don’t just settle for searching the indexes. Seeing the original documents give you a much better feel for life “on the ground”, and lets you learn more about your ancestors’ neighbours..

The revision lists which document the changes in land ownership from the time of the original valuation to the present day are at least as important.

Tithe Applotments

These date to the 1820s-1840s and were payable towards the expenses of the Church of Ireland clergy, irrespective of the person’s religion. This is a more restrictive source than the Griffith Valuations but can be useful.

A more indirect way to locate the prevalence of your family is to search for the stats on the name across the counties.

Census records

In the majority of cases, the census records prior to 1901 have been destroyed officially or through the Troubles. However there are a few remnants for some lucky areas. There are also some extracts held for people who claimed the pension and had to use census extracts to prove their age. Why oh why are my relatives never on these lists?

Complex statistics are available for all the years however and these can be invaluable to get a sense of the place where your ancestors lived and the changes over the decades especially regarding the impact of the Famine.

The 1901 and 1911 census returns are the first surviving records for the Republic.  Fortunately many people seemed to have great longevity so you may be lucky and find links to the members of your family who remained in Ireland.

It’s important not to just look at your specific ancestor in their townland. Do have a look at their neighbours as well -this is the context within which your family lived, and these are the people who formed their daily networks. Indexes are all well and good, but they do tempt you to only focus on your own family when much more can be learned by widening the lens.

Talk to the locals

Would a passer-by realise this was the remaining wall of my ancestor’s house, without the help of the inheritor.

Yes this is most applicable when you are visiting Ireland and when you know the place your ancestor came from.  On my first trip to Broadford, Co Clare, on enquiring about O’Briens I was invited to visit an elderly couple who had no memory of my own family’s migration to Australia. Quite genuinely they told me no one from the village went to Australia but in retrospect and knowing how pivotal the parish priest of Broadford was in encouraging Australian migration, this is quite ironic.  They were delightful and happy to help but sadly couldn’t. In those early days too I fear I may not have been as strategic in my approach, and possibly too focused on what I wanted to know.

A second trip was a different story when the acting parish priest, a former missionary with whom we bonded after Mass, promptly drove us to the home of someone with a completely different name from O’Brien and announced the presence of their relations from Australia. It’s hard to know how was more astonished as we compared what we knew about Mary and Bridget O’Brien’s lives in Australia.  Paddy was enormously helpful to me and showed me the original land and where the house was. I am so indebted to him for this. (You can see the O’Brien land on the header images -it’s the view with the red-roofed shed).

A sign on the Famine graveyard at Tuamgraney, Co Clare.

It was only later that I learned about the Valuation revision books and now the name of the final owner made sense!

Workhouse Registers

If you know you families were extremely poor especially around the Famine times, it might be worth your while to check the workhouse registers, some of which are now available online. The gateway to these is through this site. The most important thing to remember is to check which Poor Law Union your parish belonged to eg Kilseily parish in County Clare is actually in the Limerick Poor Law Union.

Memorial Inscriptions

The gravestone of Thomas & Anne Gunning in Kilbane Cemetery, Co Clare. Erected by their son Fr JJ Gunning of Australia.

The more distant the person’s death, the less likely you’ll find a gravestone & MI, in my opinion. This isn’t always the case so it’s worth a look but don’t get your hopes up unless your family had money or a position of influence.

Estate Records

As many of our Irish ancestors were tenants on estates, one pivotal place to look is for the records of the estates. Where they exist they can tell you all sorts of information ranging from how they paid their rents, which adult children remained at home, how overdue their rentals were, and so on. Some remain in private hands, others are found in the National Library. There’s no one-size-fits-all.

Encumbered Estates Records

These have been indexed by Findmypast Ireland and you may have some joy in finding your tenant farmers mentioned among these records.

Summary

This is a quick synopsis of some of the key resources that might help you find your Irish ancestral families. You might get lucky and find hits in all of them or alternatively, none of them. You may have to explore other records, some of which can only be searched in Ireland.

The critical fact is knowing at least which parish your family belonged to. Without that you are stumbling in the dark, and even with it, you may hit obstacle after obstacle and be left scratching your head.

It’s clear that Irish research can be challenging but it’s by no means as impossible as is often perceived.  Like a lot of family history it’s a case of persistence and patience….try, try again!

And don’t be lulled into thinking I’ve solved all my own Irish family mysteries… I haven’t  or I’d know the origins of James Sherry (northern Ireland?); Martin Furlong (Wexford not Tullamore?); what happened to Denis Gavin’s mother in Kildare or his wife, Ellen Murphy’s mother in Wicklow. It’s always a work in progress with at least as many questions as answers.

I’d be more than happy if my readers pitched in with their experiences in Irish research: successes and “failures”. Over to you.

Week 29 Beyond the Internet: hallowed halls and reference libraries

Beyond the Internet

This is Week 29 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens and the topic is University and Reference Library Special Collections.

While not technically archives, university libraries and other reference libraries hold a wealth of collections of primary documents which can be of great use to family historians. Many will visit their local state or national reference library or perhaps one in the location of their interest. However university libraries also hold fascinating collections beyond their usual book stacks. In some cases they will be among the oldest organisations for the region and being the venue for the hallowed halls of academia and academic research, they have accumulated all sorts of wonders. Perhaps it’s a bit intimidating to approach such august places as a lay person but in my experience you will usually be allowed to access the collections. Sometimes you surrender your driver’s licence or equivalent temporarily while there but that’s hardly a problem.

What will you find there?

Well, to some extent that’s up to you and also to just what’s held in the collection. While the collections are increasingly catalogued online, it’s still worth checking any card indexes which may be held on site as sometimes earlier documents will not yet be listed online.

When searching you may need to be lateral in your approach. Sure, you can put a specific name into the catalogue search but it’s relatively unlikely you’ll get lucky unless your ancestor is the author or a book, document, or diary. However do try searching by ship’s name, the property where your ancestor worked, and the region or topic of interest. For example I might search by “Germans Darling Downs” or “Irish migration”.

Fryer Library of The University of Queensland was a source for the statistical accounts of Scotland in the days long before they were digitised. Other primary documents await me on my “to do” list for a future visit. Fryer also has many old Queensland newspapers on microfilm, not always the same ones available through SLQ: it’s definitely worth checking what’s available there in case they have different papers from those available at SLQ or on Trove.

The Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales is also a treasure trove of documents and resources. What you find will depend on your specific interests. For example you may find a diary of your ancestor’s migration voyage.

Theses

It can be a bit daunting to think about reading a thesis written for someone’s PhD or Masters. However there’s so much information contained in a thesis where the topic is relevant to your research that it’s well worth the effort. History theses in particular are usually well written and digestible by determined family historians. But don’t assume that it will only be a history thesis that’s of interest as economics or geography theses may hold nuggets of information you will find useful.

One of the most useful theses I’ve read was that by Richard Reid on Irish immigration to Australia 1848-1870.  Luckily much of this has been incorporated in his recent book Farewell my Children but if you have Irish ancestry and find yourself in Canberra it might still be worth a visit to the ANU library.

Theses will also give you clues to further research opportunities as they will have a focus on primary documents and significant academic references.

Text Queensland

This comparatively recent collaboration between The University of Queensland and the State Library of Queensland is a wonder. It includes a diverse array of information digitised for ready access including old theses (including some I’ve wanting to read for some time), directories, gazettes, books, journals and Hansard. If you have any Qld ancestry it’s definitely a resource to keep in mind.

International libraries

International university libraries or city libraries may hold similarly valuable documents. During our 2010 visit to Glasgow I visited the University of Glasgow Archives which held the records of a shipping company I was interested in. While it didn’t turn up the specific information I’d been hoping for it was definitely worth checking it off my list. Sadly there were other repositories like the Mitchell Library in Glasgow that I’d hoped to visit but time disappears when you’re travelling and frustratingly I didn’t get there on that trip –maybe “next time”.

At the University of Limerick I was able to read the MA thesis by Pat O’Brien on Crime in Broadford, County Clare in the 19th century. Thanks to the generous approval of the author I was also able to obtain a copy so I could digest the contents in a more leisurely read.

Limerick City Archives is another wonderful resource though when I visited to read the Board of Guardian minutes, on-site access was restricted. This is when online digitisation programs come to the fore. My parish of Kilseily in County Clare is part of the Limerick Union so the workhouse records are held in Limerick. These are now available online through the Limerick City Archives along with other great resources. Do you have Limerick or south-east Clare ancestry? If so definitely make a virtual visit and see what’s available.

My other top-ranking recommendation is the Clare County Library which has so many fantastic resources in the local history area but also available online. They have truly been leaders in the field of Irish research. It’s just a shame that more libraries haven’t followed their lead.

The other day I wrote about how the National Library of Ireland’s holdings of rent rolls told me more about my O’Brien relations’ lives in Bodyke.

There are so many treasures just waiting to be discovered in these libraries. I hope that this topic will encourage you to broaden your research if you haven’t already visited the relevant university or local reference library. All you need is time, time and more time; persistence and more persistence.

Please do share your experiences using any of these resources, either in the comments or on your blog.