• Irish Family History: Extra Sources of Records

    In the previous post of the seriesNicola Morris explored the surviving Irish census returns. In this issue, she discusses the main 19th century census substitutes; what the records will tell us, where to find them online and how to best use them for research.

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


    Once the records of civil registration, parish registers, census returns and land records have been fully explored for evidence of your ancestors, there are plenty of other sources that can supplement what has been established about your Irish family history.  Some of these sources will add colour and depth to your family story and others may contain clues that will progress your research to earlier generations.

    A miscellany of records follows, that might be worth exploring for evidence of your ancestors in Ireland.

    Valuation Office Books

    In the last post we looked at land records that are used as census substitutes, the primary of these being Griffith’s Valuation.  The Valuation Office Books are the precursor to Griffith’s Valuation. Compiled in the decades prior to Griffith’s Valuation the books are specific surveys of property organised into House Books, Field Books, Tenure Books and Quarto Books. The House and Tenure Books are probably the most useful for genealogical research.

    Valuation Office House Books
    The House Books are valuations of buildings.  Although the surveyors were only required to value buildings over £5, in many instances they valued every building in a townland.  The books record the occupier of the building, its description and dimensions and each building was assigned a quality number that indicated its age, repair and the materials used in its construction.  It is sometimes possible to identify the occupier of a building a decade or more prior to Griffith’s Valuation along with a description of their property, including farm buildings, which might be identified as stables, piggeries or coach houses.  Not all House Books survive and not all House Books record every building in a townland, but they are certainly worth exploring for earlier evidence of your ancestor’s family.

    Valuation Office Tenure Books
    The Tenure Books record details of the tenure of each occupier of property and record the amount of rent paid by the tenant, the terms of their tenure; whether they hold a lease or are tenants from year to year, as well as observations on the property and the occupier.  The Tenure Books can indicate the date when the occupier entered into a lease for their property and in some cases, if the lease was for a number of lives, the names of the lives on a lease, which can often be children of the tenant. The Tenure Books do not survive for every townland or parish, but are certainly worth exploring for evidence of your ancestor’s family.

    Valuation Office Field Books
    The Field Books are the least informative because they fail to record the occupiers of land holdings.  The Field Books record the lots of land in each townland with a description of each lot, however, these can be difficult to match with the lot numbers assigned in Griffith’s Valuation and without the name of the occupier are in many cases useless, unless the researcher wants a picture of the general quality of land in a particular townland.  Some Field Books record the names of the occupiers of houses that were valued in the corresponding House Books for that townland.

    The Valuation Office Books have largely been digitised and published online.  They are free to search on the National Archives of Ireland genealogy website: http://www.genealogy.nationalarchives.ie where you will find a link to Valuation Office Books.  The search engine requires exact spelling, so it may be sensible to use wild cards or just search for books relating to a specific parish or townland and then check all of the surnames listed.  There are detailed explanations of each source in this collection, as well as an explanation of the shorthand used for describing houses in the House Books.

    The same collection is also published online at www.findmypast.ie in the Land and Estates collection, which has a better search engine.  I tend to use both sites to make sure I have picked up everything relevant.

    Occupational Records

    The range of occupational records available for research in Ireland is vast.  Many occupational records can contain vital clues for family history research.  

    Royal Irish Constabulary

    If your ancestor was described on a census return or birth, marriage or death certificate as a policeman, constable or R.I.C. or even R.I.C. Pensioner, there should be a record of their police service.  The service records for men serving in the Irish Constabulary date from 1816 to 1922.

    Irish constabulary service records record the name of the recruit, their age, and physical description, county of birth, religion, date of marriage and county of  birth of wife, occupation prior to service, date of enlistment and the name of the person who recommended them. The service record also indicates when the recruit was promoted, reprimanded and retired, died or departed the service.  Many Irish policemen emigrated and joined police forces overseas in places like Manchester, New Zealand and South Africa. If your ancestor was a policeman in one of these places, he may have also served in Ireland prior to emigration.

    Three important clues in a service record are county of birth, date and place of marriage and the name of the person who recommended the recruit.  Constables did not serve in their county of birth, which means the place where they married and lived is not usually their place of birth. Marriages usually took place in the parish of the bride, if the county of birth of the bride is identified your search for their marriage can focus on that county.   If the county of birth of the police recruit is not enough to locate their family, the name of the person who recommended them can be used to narrow your search. This person was usually a landlord, Justice of the Peace, Police Inspector or parish priest or minister. By identifying where this individual was located at the time of your ancestor’s enlistment, you can determine that your ancestor probably lived in the same area.  The location of this individual can usually be established using land records or directories or even a newspaper search.

    The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) service records have been published online at www.findmypast.ie but it might be sensible to first use the index or list of men who served in the RIC which is published online at www.ancestry.co.uk.  The index will identify the service number of the recruit.  Searching the service records at Findmypast using a service number is much more practical.  The Findmypast collection also includes pension records and directories. The Irish constabulary also turn up in the Petty Session Court records published at Findmypast, where they took cases against the local population.    A search of these court records can place your police ancestor in a specific jurisdiction at a particular time.

    Service records for the British Army and Navy can also record the enlisted’s place of birth and occupation prior to enlistment.  Bearing in mind that large number of Irish men that served in the British army in the 19th century, surviving service records document a large portion of the Irish population.



    Another example of valuable occupational records relate to education.  Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find evidence of children attending school in 19th century Ireland, but teachers are much better documented.

    1905 List
    The National Archives of Ireland hold a list of all National School teachers in the country in 1905.  The value of this list is that it records the schools where the teacher was taught. As most children attended a National School close to their home, identifying their local school can lead to locating their place of residence or birth.  This list is available in the reading room of the National Archives of Ireland.

    Department of Education Files
    The Department of Education files for 19th century Ireland are held in the National Archives of Ireland and include teacher salary books as well as registers relating to the administration of the school, which include inspectors’ comments on the quality of the teaching and the departure, transfer or appointment of teachers to a particular school.

    British Parliamentary Papers
    In an appendix to a British Parliamentary Commissioners Report on the state of Education in Ireland in 1826 is a list of teachers organised by county, barony, parish and then townland.  This list includes hedge school teachers and private school teachers and a description of the school. British Parliamentary Papers can be accessed online at most libraries and archives and the appendix can be searched for a surname or townland or parish.

    These are just two examples of the type of occupational records available for research in Ireland.  John Grenham, in his book Tracing Your Irish Ancestors and on his website: https://www.johngrenham.com/records/jobs_in.php#records presents a list of surviving records that document certain occupations.  Some of these sources are published, some online but many are only available in archives and repositories in Ireland.

    Crime and Poverty

    In recent years Findmypast have published a large collection of surviving court, prison and workhouse registers for Ireland.   The mainstay of this collection are the Petty Session Court records. The Petty Session Court was the lowest court in the country, hearing cases of petty crime.  In many instances the crimes were nothing more than being drunk and disorderly, allowing livestock to wander or driving a cart without lights on a public road after dark.  Frequently family disputes or feuds with neighbours appear in the Petty Session Court records. This means that these records can identify quite a large number of the population for the areas and time frames for which the records survive.  The defendants were usually recorded with their townland address, making it easy to identify relevant ancestors.

    More serious crimes were heard in the Quarter Sessions or Assize Courts and the best place for finding evidence of cases in these courts are newspapers.  Irish newspapers reported on the local quarter sessions, often with verbatim transcripts of the cases heard.

    Irish Newspapers
    Irish newspapers have been published online on two different websites.  The British Newspaper Library holds a copy of every Irish newspaper published from 1826, as well as an extensive collection of pre 1826 Irish papers.  This collection is being slowly digitised as part of the British Newspaper Library’s online collection and is replicated at www.findmypast.ie  A separate collection of Irish newspapers can be found online at www.irishnewsarchive.com Both sites are subscription websites and although there is some duplication, their collections are largely different.  The best means to search these vast collections for relevant reports on your family is to search using their townland address, an almost unique search term, which, when coupled with your family surname, should locate articles relevant to your family.  

    While it can be fun undertaking broad newspaper searches for any reference to your family, if you wish to undertake a more targeted search for a specific event, such as a court appearance, birth, marriage or death notice it might be sensible to start your search by identifying the newspapers most relevant to where your ancestors came from.

    The National Library of Ireland website hosts a Newspaper Database (https://www.nli.ie/en/catalogues-and-databases-printed-newspapers.aspx).  This is not a collection of digitised Irish newspapers, it is a listing of all surviving newspapers for Ireland.  It is possible to search the list by town or county of publication. Your ancestor is much more likely to appear in a newspaper published in the area in which they lived.  By identifying relevant newspapers and then determining whether the paper has been digitised and published online you can target your search to a specific publication. If the newspaper has not been published online it may be necessary to undertake a manual search at the British Library, the National Library of Ireland or at a local library or archive.

    Transportation and Prison Registers
    If your ancestors were transported to Australia they should appear in the Transportation Register, a collection created from Irish and Australian records and published on the website of the National Archives of Ireland (http://findingaids.nationalarchives.ie/index.php?category=18&subcategory=147)  The database, which can be searched by name, should indicate the date and place of the trial and date of transportation.  The trial may have been reported in local newspapers which may contain more details of the crime or the origins of the convict.  The Transportation Register will also include references to additional files found in the National Archives, such as the CRF, (Convict Reference File).  The CRF, if one exists, can contain letters from the family of the convict pleading for clemency.

    Surviving Prison Registers held in the National Archives of Ireland have been digitised and published online at www.findmypast.ie.  Although these are far from complete and do not cover the entire country, if a relevant entry is found it can be illuminating.  Prison registers often recorded the age, description, religion and birth place of the convict, which can lead to birth or baptismal records and other family information.

    Dublin Workhouse Records
    The Admission and Discharge Registers for the two Dublin City workhouses have also been published on www.findmypast.ie.  For families from Dublin city it is certainly worth exploring this collection.  The poverty that the majority of the inhabitants of the city lived in often led to brief spells in the workhouse.  Women used the workhouse for maternity service and the elderly and sick also used the workhouse for medical care. Along with the Admission and Discharge Registers are the Minutes of the Board of Guardians for both Dublin Unions, North and South.  The minute books can contain reports from inspectors on children who were boarded out (fostered). If you are trying to find ancestors who might have been orphaned or abandoned in Dublin this is an excellent source for information relating to their care.

    Estate Records

    The importance of land records as a census substitute was illustrated in the last post.  In addition to the countrywide land surveys of Griffith’s Valuation and the Tithe Applotment Books, it is sometimes possible to locate records relating to the estate on which your ancestors lived.  

    If your ancestor was a tenant of a large well administered landed estate in Ireland there may be surviving rent rolls, lease books and other records that document the tenantry.  Rent rolls and lease books can sometimes document tenants paying rent back into the late 18th century.  Leases, if found, can sometimes name the children of the leaseholder as lives on the lease. Tenant application books can contain requests from tenants for money to emigrate or to make improvements to their holding or even for intervention in a dispute between neighbours.  Employment records can detail the labourers, carpenters, masons, surveyors and many others employed on an estate, how much they were paid and the hours that they worked.

    The first step to locating estate records is to identify the owner of the estate, bearing in mind that a great deal of land in Ireland changed hands in the 1850s and 1860s.  The landlord is recorded as the immediate lessor in Griffith’s Valuation.

    Once the owner of the estate has been identified a search can be carried out for surviving estate records.   The Landed Estate Database at www.landedestates.ie can be searched for the estate owner and should list surviving records relating to the estate and the location of the records.  However, this is not a comprehensive database.

    Estate records identified as part of the cataloguing of Irish manuscripts in repositories in Ireland and around the world during the 20th century have been listed at the National Library of Ireland website: www.sources.nli.ie where you can search for a reference to the estate owner.  This site lists collections in numerous repositories including the National Library of Ireland, the National Archives of Ireland (Public Record Office) and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, as well as some British and French repositories.  The Main Catalogue of the National Library of Ireland has also integrated their own manuscript collections, so should also be checked for estate records or collection lists relating to Irish landed estates.

    John Grenham’s website www.johngrenham.com also lists estate records by parish, although this is not a comprehensive record.

    The records themselves are not going to be available online and will require a visit to the repository where they are held or commissioning a researcher to inspect these records on your behalf.

    The sources listed above are only a taste of what is available.  At www.johngrenham.com you will find many additional sources listed for each parish in Ireland.  If you identify a manuscript source that has not been published online you can use the Timeline Genealogy Clerk service to request a copy or a search of a document found in an Irish repository (http://timeline.ie/irish-genea...) or commission a professional genealogist in Dublin or Belfast to access the material on your behalf.

    Genealogical research should always be systematic, working methodically back from one generation to the previous.  Gather as much documentation for each ancestor as you can find, as each source may contain a valuable clue that will assist further research.  Always save every document you find; label it and make a note of the source. This will save you coming back years later to try and find a document that you once saw but cannot remember where.  Keep your research organised, you never know what future generations will be relying on your work when their interest in family history is suddenly piqued.


    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.

  • Irish Family History: Census Substitutes

    In the previous post of the seriesNicola Morris explored the surviving Irish census returns. In this issue, she discusses the main 19th century census substitutes; what the records will tell us, where to find them online and how to best use them for research.

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


    I may have already mentioned that almost the entire collection of 19th century census returns for Ireland were destroyed by 1922.  Genealogists have spent the last one hundred years finding so called census substitutes: sources that document the population that can be used instead of the destroyed census returns.

    There are two very important census substitutes for Irish genealogical research, namely Griffith’s Valuation and the Tithe Applotment Books.

    Griffith’s Valuation

    The most well-known Irish census substitute is Griffith’s Valuation, also known as the Primary Valuation of Ireland.  Griffith’s Valuation was a nationwide survey of property undertaken between 1847 and 1864 to value property for the purpose of taxation.  The taxation was levied on property for the support of the local Poor Law Union. Nearly every single property in Ireland was surveyed and valued, from a small cottage valued at 2s. to large houses and extensive farms, making it the most comprehensive record of households in the country for the mid-19th century.

    Griffith’s Valuation recorded the head of the household, who was the person responsible for paying the tax on the property, the name of the immediate lessor (landlord) and the type, size and value of the property.

    What this means is that Griffith’s Valuation is a record of nearly every single household in the country, although only the name of the head of the household is recorded.   Why is this important? Well, in the absence of the 1851 census, Griffith’s Valuation might be the only way to establish an address for your Irish ancestors.

    Let’s say you have found a marriage certificate for your ancestor in the 1870s or 1880s. The marriage certificate should record the name of your ancestor’s father, as well as his occupation.  If your ancestor was born in the 1830s, 1840s or early 1850s in Ireland, we would expect to find his father in Griffith’s Valuation, if he was still alive.

    A search of Griffith’s Valuation for all households headed by men of that name will identify potential family addresses.  It is important to bear in mind that you are searching for the head of the household in the 1850s. This may be your ancestor’s father, or even his grandfather.  If your ancestor’s father was deceased, the property may have been headed by his widow or one of his older sons. Don’t search for someone who would have been a child in the 1850s, they will not be the recorded head of household.

    Griffith’s Valuation will identify the lot number of the property, the townland, the civil parish and the county in which the name appears.  This will help you to establish the exact location of the family holding and the corresponding Roman Catholic parish in which your ancestor might have been baptised.

    Sir Richard John Griffith was an Irish geologist, mining engineer and chairman of the Board of Works of Ireland, who completed the first complete geological map of Ireland and authored the valuation of Ireland – known ever since as Griffith's Valuation.

    Of course families with common names can be more difficult to find and you may have to focus your search on a specific county or even a specific parish.  On John Grenham’s website www.johngrenham.com the name search uses Griffith’s Valuation to plot the appearance of surnames around the country.  This function will give you an overview of where particular surnames appear in the Valuation, which can be broken down by county and then by parish.  There is also a function to search for a second surname. This will illustrate where two surnames appear together in a particular parish. This can be helpful if you know the maiden name of your ancestor’s mother or his wife, as most people married within the population of their home parish.

    Griffith’s Valuation will also describe the type of holding that was valued.  Most holdings consist of a house, offices (farm buildings) and land. If the ancestor who was head of household at the time of Griffith’s Valuation was a farmer, you are searching for someone leasing a house and land rather than just a house in an urban area.  If your ancestor was a blacksmith, you are looking for someone who leased a forge or smithy. Some individuals leased more than one holding. They may have leased a house, offices and land as well as several plots of land. Your ancestor’s residence will be where a house is recorded.

    The only group that might be absent from Griffith’s Valuation are the inhabitants of tenement dwellings in large urban areas.  In the case of these buildings the occupiers of rooms were not recorded, only the person who paid the tax on the property. Also absent in some cases are herds who were given a house on land where they were employed.  While Griffith’s Valuation is not entirely comprehensive, it is the best record that we have of the population in the mid-19th century.  If you don’t know where in Ireland your ancestors lived in mid-19th century Ireland, Griffith’s Valuation is the best source for establishing their townland and civil parish address.

    Where to Find Griffith’s Valuation Online
    Griffith’s Valuation is available online at a number of different websites.  It is freely available for research at http://www.askaboutireland.ie/... however, the search engine is not very flexible and usually requires a specific spelling of the surname.  Griffith’s Valuation is also available at www.findmypast.iewith much broader surname variants.  On both sites you can also search Griffith’s Valuation for a particular townland and the listed occupiers of that townland at the time of the valuation.  John Grenham (Tithe Applotment Books) links each townland to Griffith’s Valuation on the www.askaboutireland.ie website, which is a quick and easy way to get to the townland you are interested in.

    Griffith’s Valuation also identifies the immediate lessor (landlord) of each property.  In some cases the immediate lessor will be a ‘middleman’ who leased the property from someone else and then sublet it to tenants.  In other cases the Valuation will identify the land owner. This can be a useful way to determine whether there are surviving estate papers, like rent rolls or leases, which might document an earlier generation of your ancestors in Ireland.  If you find your ancestor on the estate of the Earl of Powerscourt in Wicklow or the Earls of Bantry in Cork and Kerry, there may be a great deal more records for these estates in the National Library of Ireland or the Boole Library in University College Cork.  

    Valuation Office Revision Books

    It is also possible to trace the occupancy of a property found in Griffith’s Valuation forward using the Valuation Office Revision Books.  The Valuation Office Revision Books are updated versions of Griffith’s Valuation that record any changes to the occupancy, ownership, size and value of a property.  

    The Valuation Office Revision Books are manuscript note books in which the original valuation has been transcribed.  When the property was revisited and changes were notified, the changes were recorded in coloured ink, with the date recorded in the margin in the same colour ink.  When the notebook was filled, a new notebook was started. Each notebook can cover a period of anything from 5 to 20 years. Using these books it is possible to trace the occupancy of a house forward from 1850 to the 1970s, when the valuation of residential properties ceased in Ireland.  The Revision Books will demonstrate when a property passed from the original occupier to his widow or sons following his death. They will also demonstrate when a property was divided between two or three sons or if a property was transferred from the original occupier to his son-in-law. In some cases the emigration of a family is written in the margin, indicating the date by which they had left their property.

    Unfortunately, the Valuation Office Revision Books for the Republic of Ireland have not been published online and can only be accessed by visiting the Valuation Office in the Irish Life Centre in Dublin City.  Timeline Research offer a copying service for the Valuation Office Revision Books and orders can be placed here: http://timeline.ie/irish-genea....

    The Valuation Office Revision Books for Northern Ireland are freely available for research on the website of the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/in...).

    Accompanying the Valuation Office Revision Books are the Union or Revision Maps, these are maps that show the boundaries of each land holding and were created in the 1880s and 1890s.  These maps have been published on the www.askaboutireland.ie website with Griffith’s Valuation and are labelled as Griffith’s Maps.  However, it should be noted that these colour maps actually date from the 1880s and do not always correspond with the lot numbers set out in Griffith’s Valuation.  These maps should be used with the Valuation Office Revision Books from the 1880s and 1880s for an accurate record of who occupied each numbered lot of land.

    Tithe Applotment Books

    Another similar census substitute are the Tithe Applotment Books.  The Tithe Applotment Books were compiled between 1823 and 1838 for the purpose of assessing the rate of the Tithe.  The Tithe was a religious tax which was levied for the upkeep of the established Church, the Church of Ireland. Needless to say the Tithe was an unpopular tax and was abolished in 1838 after much civil unrest.

    The Tithe was only levied on certain types of agricultural land, which means that this was not a comprehensive survey, but it is the best national record of land holdings in Ireland from the early 19th century.

    If you locate your ancestor’s family in Griffith’s Valuation and have established their townland and civil parish address, you can now search for an earlier generation of the same family leasing agricultural land in the same townland in the 1820s and 1830s.  This may identify the father of the person you found in Griffith’s Valuation.

    Tithe Applotment Books Online
    The Tithe Applotment Books have been digitised and freely published online at http://titheapplotmentbooks.na... but before you go rushing off to check this collection there are some serious problems with this publication that should be taken into consideration.

    Numerous errors in the spelling of surname, first names and placenames were made when this collection was transcribed.  Searching for your ancestors under their surname may be fruitless, if their name has been incorrectly transcribed. Equally, townlands and parishes have been indexed in the wrong counties.  This makes the search function of this site unreliable. However, it is possible to use the site to browse copies of the Tithe Applotment Books. If you know the parish and townland in which your ancestors were living you can click through to the relevant, county, parish and then townland and inspect the original pages for that area and determine for yourself whether there are any relevant entries.  If you do need to use the search engine, try using wild cards. Rather than searching for Loughlin, search for L*l*n to see what turns up, you can always narrow your search, depending on the volume of results.

    The Tithe Applotment Books for most of Northern Ireland have been indexed online at www.rootsireland.ie which is a subscription website.  The index only records the name of the head of the house and the townland address and year of the book.  The details of the land holding are not included.

    The Tithe Applotment Books were compiled prior to the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland.  The Ordnance Survey of Ireland standardised the spelling of Irish placenames. Prior to the survey sources like the Tithe Applotment Books would have used variant spellings of townland names.  The books also included sub divisions of townlands, which were dispensed with by the Ordnance Survey. This means that the Tithe Applotment Books can often be the only record of a locally used placename.  If you find a placename on a civil certificate or in a parish register, that you cannot find in the Index of Townlands or in Griffith’s Valuation, it is worth checking the list of townland names for a specific parish in the Tithe Applotment Books, where you may find a reference to the local name.

    Although Griffith’s Valuation and the Tithe Applotment Books only record the names of the head of the household, they are the only surviving national census substitutes and are a very important resource for establishing a family address in the first half of the 19th century. A family address can lead to parish registers, estate records and other local census substitutes that might document your family further.


    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.

  • Irish Family History: Census Returns

    In the fourth post out of six on Researching Your Irish Family History, Nicola Morris explores the surviving Irish census returns, where to find them online and how to get the best out of the records.

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


    Have I already mentioned the destruction of the 19th century Irish census returns?  This loss appears to be the basis for the erroneous belief that Irish genealogy is impossible.

    Population censuses as we understand them today began in Ireland in 1821 and continued every decade until 1911.  Unfortunately, the census returns from 1861 to 1891 were destroyed during the First World War, possibly because of a paper shortage.  In the 1922 Public Records Office fire the returns from 1821 to 1851 were also largely destroyed.  Only fragments of these early census returns survive.  This means that the only complete surviving census returns for Ireland are for 1901 and 1911.  However, as good genealogical miners, Irish genealogists know how to squeeze every last drop of information out of what survives.

    The 1901 and 1911 census of Ireland returns have been freely published online by the National Archives of Ireland (http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/), but before you start searching the census for your ancestor try to determine what you know about them, in order to set your search criteria...

    Do you know the name of the person you are searching for?  
    Try to establish all of the different variants under which their name might be recorded. For example, Catherine Byrne could appear in the census as Kate, Katie, Kathleen or Katherine and Byrne might be recorded as Beirne, Burns or Byrnes.  

    Use wildcards
    The search engine for the Irish census returns on the National Archives site requires an exact spelling and will not show variants of names.  For this reason I will often search using wildcards.  By searching for K*t* or C*t* B*rn* I should be able to see all possible variants of that name.  Don’t underestimate the ability of your ancestors to use unusual spellings for first names.

    Try swapping the forename and surname
    The census was transcribed exactly as it appears on the original return.  In some small cases, the head of household put the family surname in the first name field and the first names in the surname field.  This means that the only way to find some families is to search for Byrne Catherine, rather than Catherine Byrne.

    Check for initials
    Inmates of workhouses, prisons and institutions as well as police constables in barracks, only appear in the census under their initials.  If Catherine Byrne was in the workhouse on the night of the census, she would appear as C. or K. B.  While you may find several entries for a C.B. in workhouse and institutional returns, other identifying information recorded on the census should help you to narrow down the field of your search.  For example, are you looking for a C.B. who was a female, unmarried, age about 27, who was born in Carlow or a 68 year old widower who was born in Dublin?  If Catherine had infant children with her in the workhouse, they may appear in the same return.  Infants stayed with their mother, so should be enumerated just under her entry. 

    You might confirm the correct return if you find C.B. with a male infant J.B. (James Byrne).

    It should be noted that policemen who were in the barracks on the night of the census and who were recorded by their initials only, listed their occupation not as constable, but the occupation they held at the time of their recruitment.  Don’t dismiss a ‘farmer’ listed by his initials in a police barracks, he was most likely a constable who was a farmer prior to his recruitment.  

    Image repeats info from previous paragraph with lego policeman

    Bear in mind that ages given on census returns were not always accurate.  As ages given in other sources may not be accurate either, it is always sensible to keep your search broad to start with.  For example, the age recorded on a death certificate, particularly for someone who has died in advanced old age, may not be correct. The age was usually given by the informant and not the deceased and may be incorrect.  The true age of the deceased individual may not have been known by their spouse or children. Ages given on the actual census return were usually given by the head of household, who may not have known his wife’s true age and thus given an incorrect age on the return.  A man with a wife who was older than him, may have reduced her age to bring in into line with or below his own.  The introduction of the old age pension between the 1901 and 1911 census encouraged older household members to advance their age to bring them closer to qualifying for the pension.  The reason behind this is that when the pension was introduced, older members of the population born prior to 1864 when civil registration was introduced, could not provide a birth certificate as proof of age.  Instead, they could request a search of the earlier census returns that would confirm their age in 1841 or 1851, thus meeting the age qualification for the pension.
    While age is an important factor in identifying the correct census returns for your ancestor, do not rely on your ancestor giving the correct age on their census return.

    Do you know your ancestor’s occupation?
    Occupations were usually recorded on birth, marriage and death certificates. If your ancestor was a cabinet maker, teacher or nurse, you can use the ‘advance search’ section to search for all Byrnes who were teachers. However, it is important to bear in mind how that occupation might have been described. A teacher may have been described as a N.S. Teacher (National School Teacher) or a policeman may have been described as a policeman, constable or RIC. In some cases a person’s occupation may have changed, even between the 1901 and 1911 census, a labourer in one instance, may have gained employment as a cooper by the time of the next census. Usually, anyone who is described as a pensioner has retired from service with the constabulary, army or navy.

    Do you know your ancestor’s religion?
    The 1901 and 1911 census of Ireland recorded the religious denomination of the population.  You might be looking for a Byrne family who were Church of Ireland rather than Roman Catholic and searching by religious denomination can help to narrow the field.  If you are unsure of the religion of your ancestors, the census can be used to determine the religion of families with the same name.  For example, searching for a particular surname in Co. Fermanagh might reveal that in nearly all instances persons with that name were Roman Catholic, when the assumption was that they were Church of Ireland.  Determining the religious denomination of your ancestors in Ireland using the census will allow you to focus your research on specific church records.

    Do you know when your ancestor was born and the age they might have been at the time of the census?
    The search engine on the National Archives of Ireland website will list all entries with an age range five years either side of the age given in the search form.  It is possible, once the results have been listed, to click on ‘Age’ and have the results listed in descending order from the youngest to the oldest, making it easier to focus on a specific age range.

    Mine the records
    I have already mentioned that Irish genealogists mine the census for every scrap of available information.  When searching the census online, do not just make a note of the name, age and religion of the individuals, which is what you will see in your initial results.  Click on the box: ‘show all information’.  This will reveal the birthplace, occupation, literacy, marital status and language of the inhabitants as well as their relationship with the head of the household.  The 1911 census also recorded the length of time a couple had been married, the number of children born to their marriage and the number of children alive in 1911.

    The 1911 census return for Catherine Byrne at Baldonnell revealed that she was born in Dublin city ca. 1866.  The presence of her brother, Peter Beatty, establishes her maiden name.  She had been married for 25 years, indicating that she married ca. 1886 and she had given birth to 4 children, all of whom were living in 1911 but only three were living at home.  It is now possible to search for the marriage of a Catherine Beatty to a Patrick Byrne, farmer, ca. 1886, most likely in a Roman Catholic parish in Dublin city, where Catherine was born.


    Below the transcribed information for each family, you will see links to ‘view census images’.  Always view the original household return to make sure that the transcribed information is correct.  In many instances it is not.  The other images associated with the census can also be mined for information, particularly the House and Building Return (Form B1).  This return will give you a description of the house your family occupied.  The return will tell you how many rooms they occupied in the house, the materials from which the house was built and how many windows were at the front of the building as well as the number of out buildings or farm buildings on the property (which are described in more detail on the Out-Offices and Farm-Steadings Return Form B2).  The House and Building Return will also give you a picture of all the households in a townland or on the same street and on occasion identify the landlord of the property.  It is not uncommon, when inspecting the House and Building Return, to notice a cluster of families with the same surname listed one after the other.  Are these families all related?  Are they brothers or cousins who built their own houses on a single family plot?  Is the widow living next door the mother of your ancestor, in her own house, on the same family plot?

    Browse the census
    If you know the address of your ancestor you can get an overview of the entire townland by browsing rather than searching the census.  However, in order to browse you will need to know the District Electoral Division (DED) in which your townland is located.  A shortcut to identifying the DED and the returns for a specific townland can be found on John Grenham’s website www.johngrenham.com.  Search the Places section for your townland.  When identified, and you open the page for the parish in which that townland is located, click on the 1901 or 1911 link.  You will be brought to the census website, to the page relating to the DED in which your townland is located.  You can then click on your townland and see the surnames of each household in the townland with a link to each household return.    This route is helpful when you have failed to find your family even when you know their address.  I have often looked at all of the occupiers of a townland and discovered that the family I was searching for were incorrectly recorded as O’Rogan, when I had been searching for Regans.

    The 1901 and 1911 census of Ireland are springboards for most family history researchers.  Finding your family in the census should tell you where and when they were born, when they married, the number of children of their marriage, their occupation, ability to read and write and religion, as well as the type of house they lived in and whether their neighbours might have been siblings or cousins.  All of this information is freely available at http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/.

    On the same site you will also have the option to search the fragments that survive from the 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 census.  Browsing this record set will demonstrate how little actually survives, but if you have family from Cavan you may find surviving 1821 returns, which can be searched by parish and townland as well as by surname.

    One other remnant of the 19th century census returns that have been published online by the National Archives of Ireland are the census search forms.  These are the forms used by applicants for the old age pension requesting a search of the 1841 and 1851 census for evidence of age.  The forms include the name and current address of the applicant and usually their parents’ names and the name of the townland they were residing in at the time of the 1841 or 1851 census.  Notes on the form can include the names and ages of other siblings of the applicant.  These forms can be searched at http://censussearchforms.nationalarchives.ie/search/cs/home.jsp.

    The most important thing to remember when searching both of these sites is that the spelling of surnames, first names and townlands is as they appear on the original return or as they have been interpreted by the transcriber.  If you cannot find what you are looking for try using wild cards or browsing the census instead.  Only a very small number of returns are actually missing from the online collection.  The best way to determine whether a return is missing is to compare the townland returns for the 1901 and 1911 census.  For example, a street in Clonmel recorded 27 houses in 1911, but the same street in 1901 does not appear.  This return is missing but the microfilm copies can still be consulted in the National Archives of Ireland and it is still possible to make a case to view the originals if you can demonstrate their absence from the microfilm and online collections.

    One last tip... try subscription sites
    Both Findmypast.ie and Ancestry.co.uk have indexed the 1901 and 1911 census of Ireland.  The most useful search tool that these sites have to offer is that you can search for more than one member of a particular household.  This is helpful if you are looking for someone with a common name, but also know the name of their parents, spouse or children.

    The 1901 and 1911 census of Ireland returns are effectively the only census returns that we have.  They are a treasure trove of information and the starting point for researching your family back into the 19th century.


    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.

    The penultimate instalment due next week, will explore the records that act as substitutes for the missing censuses.

  • 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.