IrelandXO Insight - First steps to finding your Irish ancestors

Friday, 28 February, 2020
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Looking for your Irish place of origin can be like searching for treasure.  The elusive 'X' could be a homestead or a headstone. It might even be a distant cousin that you never dreamed of discovering. Along the way there are also misleading clues, decoys that can give false hope, or have you thinking that your heart lies in Cork, when it really belongs to Kerry. Our First Steps Insight will help you to create an 'archive passport' for your ancestor, ensuring you have a clear understanding of the names and placenames that you will be looking for and enabling you to consider options that otherwise might be overlooked.

IrelandXO Insight - First steps to finding your Irish ancestors

A good start is half the work

You will be searching centuries-old archives, most of which were recorded in a time before the spelling of names and places were standardised. The small elephant in the room, of course, is the Irish language and how each record-keeper saw fit to Anglicise (or Latinise) it.  This means that your ancestor will be turning up under multiple IDs and addresses (even if they stayed put in one place in Ireland). 

Some online archives are built to integrate variations or similar names in the search results, but many of the FREE ones do not. So it really helps to prepare an "archive passport" of sorts for any name we intend to research in Irish genealogy. That way, we can feel confident that our search is thorough and save time in the long run. One way of keeping this information handy is to create a free Ancestor Profile on IrelandXO (which you can edit or add comments to as you discover more). 

What's in a name?

Even if an ancestor left nothing else to go on but their name, there is homework to do on that very name and its possible aliases. Irish surnames had a number of variations and the same individual could appear on record under any of them in one lifetime. For example, John Sands may also appear as Sandys, Sandes, Sandy, Sand, Sundy and more. The first task is to get to grips with the myriad ways that wonderfully complex Irish name may appear. Few FREE archives do this work for us, but many facilitate a wildcard search. As you build a surname variation checklist for your ancestor, note the wildcards that apply as well.  For example,  a search for "Mary Dowd" may not yield a result whereas a wildcard search for "Do*d" or "Do?d" could reveal her on record as "Mariam Doud". For preparatory research on a surname, we recommend: 

  • Sloinne.ie a comprehensive free database of surname spelling variations and district of origin

  • John Grenham's Wizard as a starting point, from which the main potential aliases can be gleaned. 

READ MORE Irish Surnames 101

Gaelic Irish first names were "translated" in more ways than one may expect: Diarmuid (Dermot) can turn up as Darby or Jeremiah; Brian (Bryan) as Bernard or Barnabus; Síle (Sheila) as Cecilia ... and all that before one get started on nicknames! For researching Irish first names we recommend:

Know your place!

When it comes to placenames, whether our ancestor left clues or not, each record you uncover will demand some mapping and orientation. A place may be identified by barony, parish, or some other related boundary in the records. As they are so easy to forget, building an "address book" checklist of location identifiers into your "archive passport" is also recommended. In your FREE mapping toolkit you will need:

  • logainm.ie - for its excellent archive of old alternative spellings and placename aliases. 

  • townlands.ie - for identifying boundaries, adjoining townlands and parishes. (So that you don't miss your ancestor's cousins who lived in the next townland that happens to be in a totally different parish).

  • The Griffith's Places Search option on askaboutireland.ie for mapping Griffith's Valuation applotments to their modern-day position on Google Maps.   

  • The Ordnance Survey (OSi) Geohive MapViewer for even deeper scrutiny and comparison of historic maps (that reveal whether an old homestead survived and/or how a farmyard developed over time). Northern Ireland also has the additional benefits of the PRONI Map Viewer.

  • Google Street View is helpful as a follow-up to see what is still extant today (and to take a virtual tour). 

  • IrelandXO Buildings Chronicles Search our member-created Buildings and placenames, and create your own (which you can build over time by edit or comment).

READ MORE How to Locate your Parish of Origin

Access all areas ...

Now that you have your ancestor's "archive passport" ready, the next main checkpoint is the date range of surviving records for your district of research. To avoid disappointment and get a full picture of what's currently available see: 

New Releases:  Records are general released after the passing of a certain amount of time,  usually: Births: over 100 years old | Marriages: over 75 years old | Deaths: over 50 years old | Census: over 100 years old (due next is the 1926 Census ROI).

Of all the free sources for Irish family history research available online today, we have collated the most relevant in following article.

READ MORE Top Free Irish Genealogy Resources


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