• Irish Family History: Parish Registers

    In the third instalment on Researching Your Irish Family History, Nicola Morris explains how to research your Irish ancestors through the useful resource of parish registers.

    NB: Ancestry and Find My Past are free to search, but require subscriptions to view records.


    Much like records for Irish civil registration, Irish parish registers can be found in a number of different locations online.  Before signing up to a website to search for your ancestor in Irish parish registers it is important to make sure you are looking in the right place.

    How do I use Irish Parish Registers to research my Ancestors?

    In the first instance it is necessary to establish the religious denomination of the family you are searching for.  The majority of the Irish population were Roman Catholic, but there were also Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Moravian and Jewish congregations in Ireland.  It should also be noted that with intermarriage some families changed religion during the course of the 19th or early 20th century.

    The 1901 and 1911 census of Ireland recorded the religion of the population.  Even if your ancestor was not residing in Ireland at the time of the census, a look at the returns for families with the same surname in the same county may help to determine whether they were generally Roman Catholic or of another faith.

    The denomination of the church in which your ancestor married should also be recorded on their civil marriage certificate and it is worth checking this source for a clue to their religious denomination.  However, some Irish emigrants may have arrived in England as Roman Catholic but married in the Church of England and brought their children up in their spouse’s faith.

    Using Roman Catholic Parish Registers

    Roman Catholic parish registers are the property of the church and were kept by the individual parishes.  This means that there was no wholesale destruction of these records. The survival of parish registers varies from parish to parish.  The majority of Catholic parishes in Ireland have records that survive from the 1830s.  In some cases there are registers that date from the mid-18th century and other parishes, particularly those on the north western seaboard, only have records that date from the 1850s, 1860s or later.

    Large Roman Catholic parishes were often made up of several chapels.  The records for the various chapels were combined to create the register for the parish.  However, some early surviving records are only the registers for one chapel and do not represent the entire parish.

    It is always helpful to try and identify the parish where your ancestors were born to determine the extent of the records that survive.  If the records no longer survive for the period when your ancestor was born, it may not be worth paying for access to a database of records to search for your ancestor’s baptism.

    Using the National Library of Ireland Collection

    Every Roman Catholic parish maintained its own registers.  In order to preserve a resource that documented the Roman Catholic population of Ireland from the mid-18th century, Dr. Edward MacLysaght, Chief Herald of Ireland, approached the Bishop of Limerick offering the National Library of Ireland’s services to help preserve these records.  The Catholic hierarchy agreed to his proposal and from the early 1950s almost the entire surviving collection of Roman Catholic parish registers were microfilmed by the National Library of Ireland.  The agreed cut off for microfilming was 1880, 16 years after the start of civil registration in Ireland, as it was felt that the entire population would be recorded in civil records by this time, even though this was not the case. 

    These microfilms have been digitised by the National Library of Ireland and are freely available on their website (https://registers.nli.ie/).  You can view this collection and manually search the images for baptismal, marriage and in some cases, burial entries.  The National Library have not indexed the registers, so you cannot search for specific entries by name, but it is very easy to navigate a register to a specific event (baptism or marriage) and date and check the register yourself.

    This collection of microfilms has been indexed by Ancestry.co.uk and Findmypast.ie.  On Ancestry this collection is “Ireland, Catholic Parish Registers, 1655-1915”.  On Findmypast you just need to select “Parish Baptisms” under the “Life Events” category.  Ancestry and Findmypast collaborated to index these parish registers once they were published by the National Library.  Both databases have the same errors and omissions and their publication has been criticised for large numbers of inaccuracies, particularly the incorrect transcription of names, so do be cautious when searching these records.  The absence of your ancestor from these records does not necessarily mean that there is no baptismal or marriage record for them and you may have to resort to a manual search of the images of the original registers.

    The records on both of these sites are generally limited to the 1880 cut off point set by the Catholic hierarchy when the registers were released for microfilming.  There are a small number of parishes whose records were microfilmed much later, who released registers that go up to 1900 or 1915, but this is not true for the majority of records.

    Using County Heritage Centres

    In the 1980s a heritage centre was established in each county in Ireland to transcribe and index parish registers.  The transcription was often undertaken locally using the original registers (not the microfilm copies from the National Library).  In some cases additional registers had been found that were not microfilmed in the 1950s and 1960s.  These were indexed by the county heritage centres, which means that their collection of records differ slightly to those in the National Library collection.  For example, the registers for the Roman Catholic parish of Blessington in Co. Wicklow date from 1852 in the National Library of Ireland collection.  However, an additional earlier register was found in the 1990s in either a book shop or a skip in Dublin and returned to the parish.  This additional register, dating from 1821, was indexed by the Wicklow Heritage Centre.  If your ancestor was baptised in this parish in 1827, they will not appear in the National Library collection or at Ancestry or Findmypast, but will appear on www.rootsireland.ie.

    Nearly all of the county heritage centre databases have been published online at www.rootsireland.ie.  This is a subscription or pay-per-view website that also includes records of civil registration, Griffith’s Valuation, census returns and some burial records and gravestone inscriptions.  The collections vary from county to county, so it is best to investigate their “Online Sources” for the county you are interested in before making a large investment in this site.  Counties Clare, Wexford and parts of Tipperary, among some others, are very poorly represented on this site, while other counties such as Mayo, Galway and Derry have very extensive collections.

    What makes www.rootsireland.ie such a good resource is the flexibility of the search engine.  If you choose to search the records for a specific county, it is possible to search for all births and baptisms for a child with the surname Murphy with a mother named Anne Ryan or even all children, irrespective of surname, born to a mother named Anne Ryan.  You can also search for all children born to a mother named Anne Ryan at a specific townland address.  It is even possible to search for all baptisms in a particular parish where the first godparent is named Murphy.  Godparents were often siblings or cousins of the parents, so identifying Godparents on baptismal records can help to build a wider family profile.  

    There are plenty of errors on this site as well.  I frequently find baptismal records for a number of children in one family, but on inspection of the original registers find additional children that are missing from the online database.  

    The quality of the transcription varies from county to county, so always be cautious and don’t assume that all records have been correctly transcribed.  You can manually search the original register at the National Library of Ireland website to make sure nothing has been missed.

    There is another set of Roman Catholic parish registers available online at www.irishgenealogy.ie the free Irish government website for genealogy.  This collection comes largely from the county heritage centres and are records that are not found on www.rootsireland.ie.  They include the registers for Dublin City, Kerry and parts of Cork and are free to search.  This site has a very straight forward search engine and will list all instances of a particular name, whether the person was recorded in the register as a child, parent or Godparent.  Some, but not all, of the entries are linked to the original registers.

    What information can I find in Roman Catholic Parish Registers?

    Unlike records for civil registration, parish registers did not always follow the same format, particularly in the earlier 19th century.  This means that you need to be prepared for unusual spellings and an unclear layout.

    Most registers will record the date, the name of the child, the names of the parents and the sponsors (Godparents).  The register is written in Latin and first names were Latinised.  At www.rootsireland.ie the Latin first names have been anglicised.  On Ancestry and Findmypast they have remained in the original form. This means that Mary will appear as Maria and William as Guilliumus or James as Jacobus.  Surnames remain unchanged in the Latin registers, but it is not uncommon to find the first names of parents incorrectly recorded by the parish priest, particularly the name of the mother.  I have found ten children born to John Reilly and Anne Murphy, with a further two born to John Reilly and Rose Murphy in the same parish.  The address recorded with the baptism confirms it is the same family, despite the fact that the mother’s first name was incorrectly entered by the priest.  If I had used a search engine to find the children born to John and Anne, I would have missed two of the baptismal entries.

    When searching the records on RootsIreland I try to keep the search broad and then narrow it down.  The search engine will identify a wide variant spelling of surnames, which is helpful but requires the exact spelling of the first name.  This can be difficult if you are searching for a child named Ann, as you will need to search for Ann, Anne, Annie, etc.  However, you can search for all entries beginning with ‘An’ or just ‘A’, which should reveal all variants.

    When using the address as part of your search, the wild card is ‘%’ and I use plenty of wild cards as the spelling of townland addresses in parish registers was not standardised.  So Philipton, may appear as Phillipson, Philipstown, Phillipton.  It should also be noted that local place names may have been used instead of the standard townland name assigned by the Ordnance Survey of Ireland in the 1830s.

    In Roman Catholic parish registers the mother’s maiden name was usually recorded.  However, different parishes used different formats.  Some registers might give the family name with the child and the mother’s maiden name with the parents.  You might find the baptism of James Burke to William and Mary Connors.  This means that James was the son of William Burke and Mary Connors.  Alternatively, you may find an entry that reads James to William and Mary Burke, with the mother’s maiden name missing from the register.  It can be difficult to determine the format used by the parish priest when searching online indexes.  If you locate a baptismal or marriage entry, use the National Library of Ireland collection of parish registers to identify the original entry to confirm the accuracy of the record you have found.  Most entries on the various sites, Ancestry, Findmypast and RootsIreland will link to an image of the original register.  

    Viewing the original register is also important to make sure that there is no additional information missing from the online index.  The parish priest occasionally recorded notes in the margin of the register that relate to the individual.  If the parishioner married, details of their marriage might be written over or beside their baptismal entry. This can include overseas marriages.  I have found baptismal records for a set of children that recorded marriages for four of the family in Boston written over their baptismal entry.

    Finding your Roman Catholic Ancestors prior to parish registration

    When searching for Roman Catholic ancestors born or married in Ireland prior to civil registration there are a number of websites where you can search, each with its own errors and omissions.  Before you start your search you can get a feel for what survives and where it is published online at John Grenham’s website www.johngrenham.com.  There is a small subscription, which is very much worth the investment because of his detailed guides to parish registers and other genealogical sources.  

    Roman Catholic parishes have different boundaries to civil parishes.  If you can establish an address for your ancestor and identify the civil parish in which they were living, you will need to translate this into a Roman Catholic parish.  This is easily done on John Grenham’s site. You may find that there were three Roman Catholic parishes that served the civil parish of your ancestors.  John will link to where these records have been indexed online and the extent of the records on each site.  You will also find a listing of the records for other denominations that correspond with your civil parish of choice.

    Using Parish Registers for Church of Ireland and Other Denominations

    The majority of Church of Ireland parish registers were destroyed by fire in 1922.  The Representative Church Body Library in Churchtown, Dublin is the repository for all surviving Church of Ireland records for the Republic of Ireland and they have produced a listing detailing all registers, those that were lost, what survives and where it can be found (https://www.ireland.anglican.o...).  Microfilm copies for some of these parishes can also be found in the National Archives of Ireland and this is recorded on the list.

    Church of Ireland parishes in what is today Northern Ireland and from some of the counties on the border with Northern Ireland, can be found in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), who have also published an excellent guide to their parish record collection (https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/si...)  John Grenham should indicate which of these records have been published online by the county heritage centres.  Very little of the surviving Church of Ireland collection has been published online by Findmypast or Ancestry.  In some cases it will be necessary to visit PRONI or the Representative Church Body Library in person to search their records if they have not been indexed online.  

    The same is also true of the records for Presbyterian congregations.  Largely found in Northern Ireland the majority of records are available through PRONI or the Presbyterian Historical Society (http://www.presbyterianhistory...) in Belfast.  The Presbyterian Historical Society also holds Presbyterian records for some parishes in the Republic of Ireland.  There are also listings for other denominations, such as Methodist and Baptist, found in Steven Smyrl’s Dictionary of Dublin Dissent, a useful tool for figuring out where records for an obscure congregation might be found.

    Some Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist registers have been indexed on the various county heritage centre sites at www.rootsireland.ie but this is certainly not a comprehensive collection for these denominations.

    Before signing up and paying for an online collection it is worth using the guides at www.johngrenham.com, PRONI and the Representative Church Body Library to plan your search and determine the most likely place where the records you require have been indexed.  There is no point paying for a Findmypast subscription if your ancestors were Presbyterians from Ulster, your money would be better spent on a researcher in PRONI.  Don’t sign up to Rootsireland if your family were Roman Catholic and came from Kerry, these records are freely available online at www.irishgenealogy.ie.

    Parish registers, if they survive, are the source that will document your family prior to the start of civil registration in 1864.  They can be challenging to navigate, but ultimately rewarding to see your ancestor’s name, in the poor hand of the parish priest, written 180 years ago.


    Nicola Morris M.A.G.I is a professional genealogist and member of Accredited Genealogists Ireland. She is the director of Timeline Research Ltd, one of Ireland’s leading genealogical research companies. Nicola has undertaken the Irish research for WDYTYA? in the UK and US and has appeared in numerous episodes. She was also the presenter of the first series of the Genealogy Roadshow broadcast in Ireland in 2011.

    Nicola's next post in a few weeks time examines the surviving Irish census returns, where to find them online and tips for how to get the best out of the records.
  • Irish Family History: Civil Registration

    Welcome to the second instalment on Researching Your Irish Family History. Here, Nicola Morris explains how you can access civil registration records online to help trace your Irish ancestors.

    NB: Ancestry and Find My Past are free to search, but require subscriptions to view records.


    From 1845 non-Catholic marriages in Ireland were registered with the civil authorities but it wasn’t until 1864 that registration of all births, deaths and marriages became compulsory.  Even though civil registration was compulsory from 1864 it is estimated that up to 15% of births and marriages went unregistered in the early years of civil registration and as many as 30% of deaths were not registered with the civil authorities.

    Births were usually registered by a family member, neighbour or midwife who had been in attendance.  It was compulsory to register a birth within the first three months or a late registration fine was incurred.  It is not uncommon to find a family who registered a child’s birth six months or more after the event but who changed the date of birth of the child to fall within the previous three months.  This means that you may find evidence of a child who was baptised in March but whose birth registration gives a date of birth in September of the same year.  The baptismal record is a more accurate reflection of the true date of birth of the child.  

    Using Irish birth registers

    Some families did not register the births of their children either on time or late.  This may have been because the fee for registration was beyond their means at the time.  Births were registered locally in the registrar’s district.  

    These registers were then sent to Dublin to be copied.  Some births were accidentally excluded from the Dublin copies during this process and are now missing from the national civil birth register.  They can be found by inspecting the original registers, but most of these registers have now been archived and stored beyond access.

    Birth registrations or certificates record the date and place of birth, the name and sex of the child, the name, address and occupation of the father and name and maiden name of the mother as well as the name and address of the informant.  In some cases the relationship of the informant to the child is stated and you can sometimes find maternal grandmothers or aunts who were present and who registered the birth.

    Using Irish marriage registers

    The registration of marriages was the responsibility of the parish priest or celebrant of the marriage and it is not uncommon to find marriages in church registers that are missing from civil registers, an omission by the parish priest, who failed to inform the civil authorities of the marriage.

    Marriage registrations or certificates are the most informative.  They record the name and denomination of the church in which the marriage took place, the name, age, marital status, occupation and address of the bride and groom as well as the names and occupations of their fathers, the witnesses and the name of the minister who carried out the ceremony.  Most 19th and early 20th century marriage certificates record the ages of the bride and groom as full, meaning that they are over 21 years of age.  Those under 21 are referred to as minors or their age is given.  

    Witnesses to a marriage were often siblings, cousins or peers of the bride and groom, and much less frequently parents.  Witnesses to the marriage of a minor may have been parents of the bride and groom.

    Using Irish death registers

    Deaths were usually registered by a family member or neighbour who was present or by the administrator of a hospital or the institution where the death took place.  Death registrations can be the least informative of the three registrations.   A death certificate will record the date and place of death, the name, address, age, marital status and occupation of the deceased, cause of death and the name of the informant.  The informant was not always a family member.  Unlike Scottish, American and some Australian death registrations, no other family members are cited on an Irish civil death registration.  The death registration of a person with a common name who died in a hospital or other institution, may not contain enough information to establish who they were or to identify their spouse or parents.

    The records of civil registration for Ireland are held by the General Register Office.  There is a public research room at Werburgh Street in Dublin city where researchers can search the index books for relevant entries.  The index books commence in 1845 for non-Catholic marriages.  From 1864 there are indexes for all births, deaths and marriages.  Between 1864 and 1878 all entries for each year are listed alphabetically by surname, with some late registrations and overseas events written into the back of the book.  From 1878 each book is divided into four quarters, so when doing a manual search you must make sure you check the book four times, and a fifth time for late and other entries at the back of the book.

    There is a small fee for searching the index books in person at the General Register Office (€2 for 5 consecutive years) and a fee of €4 for each copy.  However, if you cannot make it to Dublin you can access the majority of these records online.

    Where can I find Irish birth, death and marriage registers?

    The first set of records from the Irish General Register Office to be indexed formed part of the IGI (International Genealogical Index) where abstracts from birth registrations from 1864 up to about 1880 were transcribed.  These records can be found on www.familysearch.org and at Ancestry UK.  However, only the name of the child, date of birth and names of the parents appear in this collection and the townland address of the family and father’s occupation are not recorded, so the full birth registration should be sought for this additional information.

    The Church of the Latter Day Saints, who hold microfilm copies of the civil birth, marriage and death index books have transcribed the index books from 1845 (non-Catholic marriages) up to 1958.  These indexes were transcribed by volunteers and there are some errors and omissions.  The late registration entries and overseas and army births, deaths and marriages are also excluded from this collection.  They have been published online at www.familysearch.org and record the name of the party, the year and registration district, volume, page and quarter.  The index reference is necessary to obtain a copy of the original registration. These can be ordered from https://www.welfare.ie/en/Pages/Apply-for-Certificates.aspx, but Timeline Genealogy Clerk offers a service whereby genealogical researchers who have found records in the index can order in a more straightforward way: https://timeline.ie/irish-genealogy-clerk/irish-bmd-records/.

    The Irish Government website www.irishgenealogy.ie have published the indexes for civil registration as follows:

    Index of Births: 1864 -1916
    Index of Marriages: 1845-1941
    Index of Deaths: 1864 – 1966

    The original registers have also been published online for the following dates:

    Births: 1864-1916
    Marriages: 1870-1941
    Deaths: 1878-1966

    This means that if you find an index entry for a marriage in 1875 you can click through to the image of the original registration.  This is a free website and there are no fees for searching, viewing or downloading the records.

    The website www.rootsireland.ie represents the collections of church and civil records for each county heritage centre in Ireland.  The records for each centre vary from county to county.  Some counties have indexed the original birth, marriage and death registers using the local registration books.  This means that an event that was recorded in the original local register but was not copied to the copy registers in Dublin might be found in this collection.  This is a pay site and not every county is fully represented.  It is worth investigating the extent of the collections for the county you are interested in before searching this site.  However, if you do find this site holds relevant records for your research, you will find that the search function is very user friendly.  It is possible to search the civil marriage records for all children who married with a father named Edward Murphy or all O’Connor deaths that took place in the townland of Cloncurry.  This site is predominantly a collection of church records and we will tackle the many search options available in a later post on parish records.

    The above are the main websites where researchers can access the records for civil registration for Ireland.  After 1922 the records for Northern Ireland were kept separately and can be accessed online at GRONI: (General Register Office of Northern Ireland) https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/search-gronis-online-records  where you will find all records relating to registration districts that became Northern Ireland from 1864 into the 20th century, with images of births over 100 years old, marriages over 75 years old and deaths over 50 years old.

    If you are starting to investigate your Irish family history and your ancestor was born or married or died in Ireland after 1864, you will need to investigate the records of civil registration.  The best place to start is with the two free websites www.familysearch.org and www.irishgenealogy.ie

    Where can I research my Irish family for free?

    The search engine at www.familysearch.org takes into account a far broader variant spelling of surnames and a search of the “Ireland civil registration indexes 1845-1958” should give you quite a comprehensive list of index entries (bearing in mind that late registrations and overseas and army registrations will be missing from this collection).  You can then compare this finding with the civil records listed for the same search at www.irishgenealogy.ie.   The reason for this is that www.irishgenealogy.ie will only list results for a very specific spelling of a surname, with few variants.   See how the two lists compare to make sure you are not missing birth, marriage or death entries on either site.

    For example, the surname McDonagh comes in numerous variants; MacDonagh, McDonough, McDonogh, MacDonugh, etc.  At www.irishgenealogy.ie you may find that only those index entries for McDonagh and McDonogh appear, while at www.familysearch.org you may find other variants such as MacDonough are also included.  Surnames with the prefix Mc and O’ can also be a problem at www.irishgenealogy.ie.  In some cases you may need to put a space between the prefix and the name, so Mc Donagh will turn up a different set of results to McDonagh.  In some cases on both sites the names have been recorded as M’Donagh, making them harder to find.

    By using the two indexes both of which are free to search online, you will get most comprehensive record of entries from the original index, including name variants.  Always cast your net as wide as possible; it is easy to exclude people from your search as it progresses.

    The only benefit to the indexes at Find My Past IE and Ancestry UK are their marriage finders.  Both websites identify brides and grooms that were registered on the same page.  This can make it easier to find a relevant marriage.  However, the marriages published online at www.irishgenealogy.ie from 1870 to 1941 record the bride and groom in the index entry, bypassing the need for the Ancestry and Find My Past marriage finder for marriages during this particular period.

    Where can I find Irish Civil Registration Information?

    The records for civil registration are organised by Registration District.  A registration district is the same as a Poor Law Union.  This is because the dispensary doctors of the poor law union were usually the local registrars.   If you are searching for ancestors in Ireland it is always helpful to know their registration district, making it much easier to identify relevant civil birth, marriage and death records.  Just because your ancestor married in Co. Kilkenny, does not mean that their marriage will be registered in the registration district called Kilkenny.  Co. Kilkenny contains several other registration districts.  

    Each county is made up of a number of registration districts and Clare Santry has published a list of the districts for each county on her website: https://www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com/Ireland-civil-registration.html.

    Each registration district is divided into registrar’s districts, but the registrar’s district is not used in the General Register office indexes. However, it is used on the website www.rootsireland.ie so it may be helpful to identify the registrars’ districts within each registration district.

    If you have a townland address for your family or if you have identified them in the 1901 or 1911 census in Ireland, you can find the Union or Registration District in which they were living by checking the index of townlands or take a look at the enumerators return on the census, which will record the townland, civil parish, registration district and county. You can also use the place name search on John Grenham’s website; www.johngrenham.com  where you will find lists of all townlands in each poor law union (registration district) or you can search by townland to identify the registration district in which it is located.  This site will also list the registrar’s districts within each registration district or union.

    Bear in mind that marriages usually took place in the parish of the bride, so will most likely be registered in her home registration district.  Deaths were registered in the district where the death took place.  For example, I found a death registration for a man who died on the side of the road while travelling back from the market in Dundalk, Co. Louth, to his home in Monaghan.  His death was registered in Dundalk, where he died, making him very difficult to find when his death did not appear in his local registration district.

    Although a townland address may have officially been located in one registration district, the address may have been more convenient to a neighbouring district.  If you don’t find your ancestor in the district in which they should have been registering events, it may be worth trying the neighbouring districts, even if they cross a county border.

    It is always worth obtaining a copy of the original registration.  Many published family trees on websites like Ancestry simply contain a reference to the index entry, confirming that a birth or marriage was registered with the civil authorities.  The actual registration or certificate will contain a great deal more information and sometimes surprising clues, such as the name of an informant or an address or occupation, which may prove beneficial to your research.  The fact that the majority of these records are freely available online means that there is no excuse for not tracking down the original registration, if, of course, the event was actually registered.


    Nicola Morris M.A.G.I is a professional genealogist and member of Accredited Genealogists Ireland. She is the director of Timeline Research Ltd, one of Ireland’s leading genealogical research companies. Nicola has undertaken the Irish research for WDYTYA? in the UK and US and has appeared in numerous episodes. She was also the presenter of the first series of the Genealogy Roadshow broadcast in Ireland in 2011.

    Look out for next week's post, where Nicola will explore Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland parish registers, where to find them online and tips for getting the best out of the records.
  • Irish Family History: Getting Started

    In the first of six guest posts on Researching your Irish Family History,  Nicola Morris describes how to go about tracing your Irish ancestry.


    The fallacy that I frequently hear about Irish family history research is that it is impossible because all of the records were destroyed. This is far from true. Yes, some vital records were destroyed, and these losses can make Irish family history research challenging and frequently frustrating, but there are plenty of sources that do survive, you just need to know where to find them.

    Let’s start with what was actually destroyed and what survives. The most significant loss of records for Irish genealogy are the 19th century census returns. A census was undertaken in Ireland every decade from 1821. The returns for 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 were destroyed by Government order during the First World War, possibly because of a paper shortage. The remaining 19th century returns from 1821 to 1851 were largely destroyed in the 1922 Public Records Office fire. While this is a tremendous loss, it is not insurmountable. Irish genealogists have spent the last century identifying potential census substitutes that document the population during the same period. The 1901 and 1911 census survives intact and efforts are underway to have the 1926 census released by 2022.

    The two other great losses from the 1922 Public Records Office fire are the large portion of Church of Ireland parish registers that were destroyed and testamentary records. However, as the majority of the Irish population was Roman Catholic and few owned enough property to leave bequests, these records only apply to a small portion of the Irish population.

    The records for civil registration in Ireland, which commenced in 1864 when it became compulsory to register all births, deaths and marriages, survive in full. Roman Catholic parishes retained their own records and although the extent of surviving records varies from parish to parish, nearly every parish in Ireland is documented from at least the mid-19th century and in many cases from the 1830s and earlier. Many of these records are now available online on a number of different websites and in the articles to follow we will take a much closer look at how to find and search these sources for evidence of your Irish ancestors. 

    Things you need to start researching your family in Ireland

    Before starting a search for your family in Ireland it is always sensible to try and gather as much information about them as possible from the records for the country in which they settled. Research in Ireland is most productive if you can focus on a specific area. Families with common surnames can be distinguished one from the other using their address. Establishing a county, parish or town and address for your ancestors before you start research in Ireland will make your research that little bit easier.

    It is a good idea to try and establish where and when your Irish ancestor was born and the names of their parents and siblings and even extended family before you start. This help to locate the correct family in Ireland and avoids the danger of adopting the wrong Irish ancestors. I have met too many people who have plucked a person out of a database of Irish records because they have the correct name and were born at about the right time, but after years of research, turn out to belong to a different family.

    Try to locate your Irish born ancestor in every UK census return. Returns for some years may state a county or even town of birth in Ireland. While it may only state Ireland as a place of birth in 1881, the 1891 return or 1911 return may give a more specific address.

    Obtain a marriage certificate for your Irish born ancestor if they married in the UK, this should state their father’s name and occupation and possibly whether the father was alive at the time of marriage. Check the civil marriage certificate to see if the couple married in a Roman Catholic Church. Some Roman Catholic parish marriage registers, particularly in the later 19th century, recorded the names of both parents of the bride and groom.

    More recent death certificates in the UK record a date and place of birth and the maiden name of a married woman. While the given dates of birth are not always accurate, they can be a good guide for when your Irish ancestor was born.

    Roman Catholic baptismal records for the children of your Irish born ancestor should record the names of sponsors or Godparents to a baptisms. Sponsors with the same surname may have been siblings of your ancestor who also emigrated. Census returns and marriage and death certificates for siblings of your ancestor may contain more clues about the family’s origins in Ireland. It is also worth looking for the parents of your Irish born ancestor in UK census returns. While the parents may not have emigrated with their children, it is not uncommon to find the widowed mother settling with one of her married children in the UK later in her life, or following the death of her husband in Ireland. Cousins and aunts and uncles can also show up in census returns providing more potential clues to your Irish born ancestor’s origins. 

    Civil registration in Ireland only commenced in 1864 and is a complete record of all births, marriages and deaths from that date, although not all events were registered with the civil authorities. If you can find a member of your Irish born ancestor’s family who might have been born or married in Ireland after 1864, this is the person to pursue first. For example, should you find a niece of nephew of your ancestor who was born in Ireland in 1872 and is living in the house of your ancestor in the UK by 1891, they should be pursued. If their Irish birth certificate can be located, it will provide an address for their family, which is very likely in the vicinity of your own ancestor’s family. This will allow you to focus your Irish research on records for a specific area. 

    For example, a man named James Kelly, was born in Ireland in about 1858 and settled in England. In the 1901 census his niece, Mary Gallagher, was residing in his household with her husband and children. Her children were born in England. A birth certificate for one of Mary’s children established her maiden name was Cooney. No record was found for her marriage in England, but a search of the Irish civil marriage index found her marriage in Ireland. The marriage certificate established her address and father’s name. A record of her birth was found, which confirmed her mother’s maiden name as Kelly. The marriage of Mary’s parents in Ireland identified the father of James Kelly and James’ sister’s family address. Although this was a round-about way of locating the family, we did not know enough about James Kelly from UK records to be able to locate his birth in Ireland. It was the details relating to his niece that identified the correct family.

    Outside of large urban areas like Manchester and Liverpool, it is also worth looking at the other Irish emigrants who settled in the same place. They may have come from the same area in Ireland. 

    Researching the wider community and their origins may lead to a specific location in Ireland. Family or community groups may have emigrated to work in a specific industry. They may have been employed in the same industry in Ireland. It is possible that they were tenants of the same landowner, who held property in both Ireland and England.

    Some occupational records can state a place of birth. British Army service records, for example, should state the soldier’s county and parish of birth in Ireland.

    Once you have scoured UK records and built a detailed profile of your Irish born ancestor you are ready to start searching for evidence of them in Ireland.


    Nicola Morris M.A.G.I is a professional genealogist and member of Accredited Genealogists Ireland. She is the director of Timeline Research Ltd, one of Ireland’s leading genealogical research companies. Nicola has undertaken the Irish research for WDYTYA? in the UK and US and has appeared in numerous episodes. She was also the presenter of the first series of the Genealogy Roadshow broadcast in Ireland in 2011.

    Next week, Nicola explores Irish records of Civil Registration in more detail, including where to find them online and tips for how to get the best out of the information available.
  • Guest post: Neish - A One Name Study

    A one name study looks at the origins of a surname rather than a
    person or a family. Here, Alisdair Neish explains how getting
    involved with the study led to him discovering people from all over
    the world with the same surname.

    Alisdair welcomes information on any Neish-related names to add to the database, and is especially seeking help with Northern Irish branches: McNeice, McNiece, and McNeece.


    I learned early that it is not uncommon to grow up not knowing anyone else who shares your surname. My only Uncle and my Dad's last remaining Uncle died when I was around 12. It was 10 years later, the year my Dad died, before I met another Neish. My early research uncovered almost nothing other than the McNab Folklore. [1]

    I realised we were out there as the Neish / McNeish name had a habit of popping up in news items or documentaries, especially after the birth of the internet. I soon contacted lots of individuals who, like me, did not know much beyond their immediate family.

    Then I was emailed by John Sudell Neish who is creating a One Name database of every Neish who ever lived. I was able to tell John enough to link into his data and John was able to tell me that we were 6th cousins and was kind enough to provide me with details of my entire family group since our common ancestor  of 1715. My research continued though.

    Image: Loch Earn, home of the Neish clan (©  Patrick MacRitchie)

    Even with a rare name you have to be careful with research. I have seen family trees online where a man is recorded as marrying his mother and a “super” Neish fathering a child when in his nineties. Of course both were wrong. I have proven four “Alexander Neish” babies all born in one tiny farm village in the same year. Care is always needed. So many people became upset at John when he pointed out the sometimes glaring errors in their own research that he has stopped all direct online interaction to concentrate on the Neish list.

    I and a few others now do our best, using his data and practice, to fill that online gap. We also collate whatever new information we can learn and pass that back to John for corroboration and inclusion in the master database.

    I am happy to help anyone who is looking for Neish information if I can. Of course we are always happy to receive new information too, to add to the list which now stands at 25,000 individuals from all around the world. From farm hands to astronauts!

    By the beginning of Scottish parish records there were already five distinct family groups in Scotland. This suggested there was more history to uncover from before the days of parish records.

    The name (and its 40+ spellings) is rare enough that no-one had really worked on it since the 19th century. My own research is mainly into the many hundreds of randomly recorded individuals going back to 1200 AD (possibly even older but no firm proof as yet) which suggested a single source and most of my current work lies in trying to prove / disprove our early history. Nothing fitted the highland Clan system. That's a story for another day.

    Most Scots clan names refer to an allegiance to a particular group or a strong leader who protected the local population in times of trouble. For example Son of Gregor has given us McGregor. Today many groups claim to be part of Large clans and are considered to be septs of the clan. Some Neish joined up with the McGregors and are accepted by clan societies today as a sept. This does not tell us where they came from. Were the Neish the sons of one man or a group of folks living under the protectorate of that leader?

    Recently, following a request, I looked into the Northern Ireland family where the spelling generally altered to McNeice, McNiece, and McNeece. Unfortunately, due to the combination of changing government and a fire in the records office we have big gaps in the history of the family before the 1920’s. Establishing who belongs to which family on a countrywide scale is proving difficult and we would love to hear from anyone who has already looked at, or is currently looking into the Irish family to see if we can help each other.

    If you would like to get in touch with Alisdair, you can email him at alisdairneish@gmail.com, and/or join the Neish Facebook group.


    [1] A McNab chief headed "the violent feud with the Clan Neish, or MacNeish, who held the lands in the upper part of Strathearn and lived on the lower part of Loch Earn, which they called Neish Island." From http://clan-macnab.com/macnab-history

    As Alisdair noted above (and anyone researching Irish ancestry) can attest, Irish genealogy has it's own particular set of challenges for the researcher. In a few weeks, Pat Reynolds (FreeUKGEN's executive director) will be writing about records pertaining to Northern Ireland on our websites, and in the new year we will present a series of guest posts from a specialist in the field of Irish genealogy, to help you overcome those barriers.