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?



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.


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 8 – Certificates (or a huff and a puff might blow your tree down)

This is Week 8 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 Certificates. Please join in with your blog posts on this topic, and if possible provide the link on this page.

You don’t need to know what you’re looking for, right? Would you build a house without knowing what foundations you require, what best serves the type of house you’re planning, or how big  a footprint you need?

To my mind, doing family history without certificates is akin to doing exactly this…how do you KNOW you’re tracing the correct family? Unless you’re very lucky, sooner or later your house (sorry, family tree) is likely to end up like the little pigs with the houses of straw and sticks on a bed of sand –  it just won’t withstand a critical wind.

Traditional family history teaches us that we work backwards through what we know to what we don’t know. Certificates are the building blocks that we use to do this. Sure, birth, death, and marriage indexes/indices will provide signposts so you have a good idea which is the likeliest certificate to order. Yes, I know everyone’s budget is tight these days but really most activities one pursues passionately involve expense.  How much do you spend on your subscription sites, for example? I started my family history when my children were young and we had a lot of expenses, so I solved the finance problem by nominating a particular certificate or two as my birthday/Mother’s Day/ Christmas present.  The kids may have rolled their eyes but it worked for me.

Civil registration mostly commences around the early to mid 19th century. Before that we are reliant on church records of different sorts. For privacy reasons the various registrars generally limit how far forward we can search. Similarly we are often limited to which certificates we can order for both privacy/confidentiality and security reason (partly to prevent identify theft).  There are offline strategies for bringing your research closer to the current day, and I’ll be talking about some of these in coming weeks.

In each case might I suggest that you order directly from the Registry Office as that is generally cheaper than the options provided through the subscription sites. You might also be able to save a little money by using a transcription agent where they are permitted to do this (eg NSW). However I would caution against asking someone to transcribe what might be a tricky ethnic certificate. I don’t in any way want to infer the agents are inadequate or careless, rather that you are likelier to know the places and names better than they do, and so make a better judgement on what’s been written.

It’s important to remember that the indexes that are available online may cover a narrower timeframe than what may be available on CD-ROM or microfiche from your local family history society or reference library. Cora Num provides a wonderful guide  for Australia on her site here.

Do have a look as you might be missing out on some additional clues offline.  You also need to know where the registrations take place eg in Australia they are done by state, whereas in the UK they’re done by country. You can download an international death certificate comparison by clicking on this hot link.

Different locations have completely different information on their certificates. Every time I order an English certificate I am so frustrated by the absence of information. Thank heavens for the Scots whose certificates are almost as rich in detail as the Aussie ones.  But how I wish they mentioned where someone was buried.   Australian certificates generally provide a wealth of family detail. Of course just because there is a box for including certain information does not mean it’s always included, nor does it mean it’s always accurate, but a variety of certificates will help to rationalise the process.  In all these cases we are dependent on the knowledge, and to some extent the literacy, of the person providing the information and the clerk writing it down.

Some indexes provide the opportunity for wildcard searching which can be invaluable especially with foreign names. When I did a lot of my searching in NSW BDMs for Dorfprozelten people it allowed for wildcards while now they don’t , whereas the situation has been reversed in Queensland. This is another reason to consider using those CD-ROMs as it will let you search with wildcards to bring up names that may have been written down vaguely phonetically…it’s less of a guessing game.

I urge you to consider purchasing certificates so you can be sure you are building a stable and secure house family tree rather than one that will blow down in the first huff and puff of analysis and critique.