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
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.
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.
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.
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>.
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.
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.
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