tl;dr? quick links to top sites are summarised at the end of this page
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.
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:
- Guide to Irish Christian Names: Judith Eccles Wight which lists the formal name and its variations to include nicknames, the Latin and the original Irish name from which they all derived.
- RootsIreland Help with First Names lists some of the most popular given names along with their Latin and Anglicised aliases
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 Placename Database Search the records and create your own (which you can build over time by edit or comment).
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:
- IFH Checklist of Irish Genealogical Records Online (free)
- JohnGrenham.com (free for light users)
New Releases: In terms of what additional Irish records can be expected to be released online, and when, the following rules apply: 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 as follows:
1. IRISH VITAL RECORDS
Free General Register: Civil Births, Marriages and Deaths
Birth, Marriage and Death (BMD) Records as far as compulsory registration was concerned, began much later in Ireland than it did in England. Civil BMD Records for all residents on the island of Ireland began in 1864*. The records held by the General Registry Office (GRO) are:
Births, Marriages and Deaths registered in the island of Ireland between 1st January 1864 and 31 December 1921 inclusive, and in Ireland (excluding the six north-eastern counties of Derry, Antrim, Down, Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone known as Northern Ireland) from 1922 onwards.
*Non-Roman Catholic Marriages registered in the island of Ireland between 1st April 1845 and 31st December 1863 inclusive.
Civil Births: 1864 to 1918 | Civil Marriages: 1845* to 1943 [*non-Roman Catholic] 1864 to 1943 [Roman Catholic Marriages] | Civil Deaths: 1864 to 1968
GRONI online (pay per view) facilitates FREE name searches for Northern Ireland from January 1, 1922. Note: some pre-1922 Northern Irish registration offices fall south of the border.
Handy Navigation Tools
FamilySearch.org for a primary search of the Civil Records Index
JohnGrenham.com/places for Registration District (aka Superintendent Registrar's District) identification
IrelandXO Top Tips: District Registered: Deaths that occurred in a hospital or the district workhouse were recorded in the Registration District of the institution and not the expected GRO district of residence of the deceased. However, the individual's home townland address was always recorded (if known). For best results, be sure to take full advantage of the Advanced Search Options on IrishGenalogy.ie. Mother’s maiden names are included in this index from approx 1900 onwards. Search by Year: Use the early 20th-Century Irish Census Records as a cross-reference for narrowing down a BMD year, or a placename. The Irish Census of 1911 is indispensable for identifying the year of marriage (as it records the number of years a couple had been married and, how many children were born/ survived). [See also: Guide to Irish Civil Records Online].
Free Church Registers: Baptism, Marriage and Burial
A large part of our search for Irish Ancestors depends on church records as BMD substitutes. Most registers survived in Ireland albeit with omissions. However, the dates vary greatly (from the 1740s to the 1880s) and only begin in the 1840s for the poorer western counties. See the RootsIreland: Help with Church Records and the PRONI Guide to Church Records. This type of research is tricky to navigate so be sure to take full advantage of:
- IrelandXO Message Board for help and guidance along the way.
Not all records are online and the following listing only covers online resources that are FREE:
Catholic Parish Registers (pre-1881)
Roman Catholic registers are generally later than Protestant registers, mostly dating from the 1820s (when Penal Laws restricting record-keeping and the erection of chapels were lifted). Searching under several parishes is necessary to find all the records of an RC parish because (a) RC parishes are often made up of parts of more than one civil parish, (b) an RC parish can be known by several names, (c) most RC parishes contained more than one church, and (d) some parishes kept only one register for the entire parish, and in others, each church had its own registers.
These key FREE websites can work very well together when used in tandem.
- FamilySearch.org to search by name and to narrow down possible parish registers and baptism dates you wish to inspect
- Registers.NLI.ie to view a digital image of the microfilmed parish register (searchable parish location, event and year but not surname)
- IrishGenealogy.ie holds a database of indexed RC parish register entries for Cork, Kerry & Dublin.
Protestant Parish Registers
The Church of Ireland registers suffered heavy losses in the Public Records Office fire of 1922 however, a third (held locally) did survive and much of that has since been microfilmed.
- PRONI eCatalogue indexes can be searched FREE online
- Anglican Church Registers Index (of records that survived) is a search tool that links easily to online parish register sources. In addition, the Anglican Record Project holds come coverage online.
- IrishGenealogy.ie holds some coverage of Church of Ireland (COI) and Presbyterian parish register entries in a limited number of counties.
- Presbyterian Records while tricky to track down, are Indexed here.
- The British Newspaper Archive database can (pay to view) be searched for FREE and is a goldmine for 19th-century BMD announcements.
IrelandXO Top Tips: The registers consist primarily of baptismal and marriage records. Where a burial record exists, the cemetery of internment can point to the ancestral family burial ground and parish of origin. RootsIreland.ie (subscription) has additional transcriptions to include parish registers that have never been microfilmed.
Headstones & Obituaries
Want to tramp around a cemetery inspecting headstones, at the click of a mouse? Or fine-tune a newspaper search for deaths and obituaries?
- The IGP Headstones Project search for leads by surname or browse through an entire cemetery.
- The Historic Graves website is an invaluable resource for anyone researching family headstones.
- The British Newspaper Archive (pay to view) database can be searched for free and is a treasure trove of obituaries and untimely death reports of individuals who would not have been able to afford a headstone let alone an obit (e.g. a small farmer killed by a bull).
Both the 1901 and 1911 Census of Ireland are available to search FREE online. The Public Records Office fire of 1922 was a catastrophic event in terms of 19th-century Irish genealogy research. While not all records went up in flames, most of the Irish Census returns for 1821, 1831, 1841, and 1851 were lost (save for a few fragments and the Census Search Forms 1841-51) held at the National Archives of Ireland. No census was taken in 1921 (because of the War of Independence). The Census of 1926 is not due for official release until 2027 (to join the campaign for early release, see the petition here).
IrelandXO Top Tips: The Irish Census will help narrow down the BMD dates you need to research in the civil records. Children often lived with aunts, uncles and extended family members. Consider neighbouring households of similar surname (or maiden name) to see if any nephews or nieces were present. Can't wait for the 1926 Census to be released? Check out the Duchas Folklore Collection for interviews with the elderly collected by local schoolchildren in the 1930s.
3. IRISH CENSUS SUBSTITUTES
For want of a census, tax surveys serve as the next best alternative in Ireland, bearing in mind that only the head of household will be recorded. This may be enough to give you the name of a parent to go on so that you can get stuck into parish registers and move back further on your timeline. Land records also have a way of connecting the dots between the famine and the 1901 Census and many of these free sites can give you the basis upon which you can discover, at the Valuation Office, to whom the family plot of land passed on to, year of death/emigration and more.
- Griffiths Valuation (1847-64) can narrow down occurrences of a surname by civil parish – which serves as a lead as to which parishes to search first.
Census Search Forms 1841-51 can identify a missing census attached as proof-of-age to a 1908 Pensions Act application.
Valuation Office Books 1824-56 contain notes and more information about households and landholding leading up to Griffith's Valuation.
Tithe Applotment Books 1821-51 can narrow down occurrences of a surname by civil parish before and during the Great Famine.
PRONI Pre-1840 Freeholders Record Search records those entitled to vote
The Fáilte Romhat Flaxgrower's Database lists some 60,000 flax growers across the island in 1796
The Down Survey of Ireland search for 17th-century landowners before and after Cromwell's confiscation
FREE ACCESS FREEBIES & DISCOUNTS
Who doesn't love a freebie? From time-to-time, paid online resources offer a free-access period as part of a special offer or promotion. For Irish records, the discounts and deals are especially plentiful during the month of March (in and around St. Patrick's Day). To keep up to date:
- Claire Santry's Irish-Genealogy News covers all news of discount offers, freebie weekends, and new record releases and publications as they happen.
- JOIN your Civil Parish(es) on Ireland Reaching Out HERE
- Can't find your ancestor on any records? Post your query to our Message Board
- Confident about navigating records for a specific county or parish archive? Please SHARE your wisdom by posting to our LOCAL GUIDE.
IRELAND'S TOP 10 GENEALOGY RECORD ARCHIVES IN IRELAND:
TOP 10 FREE IRISH GENEALOGY RESOURCES QUICK-LINK:
BOOKMARK this insight for future reference.
To SHARE this unique guide, just click on the icons on the green side-bar to the left.
READ MORE INSIGHTS