An ancestors headstone holds the promise of uncovering clues that might take us back further. Inscriptions on headstones can help us fill in gaps in our family histories – a date, a maiden name, it's all genealogy gold.
- Civil Registration of Deaths only began in 1864 in Ireland, so graveyard research can be a very important source for getting back further in your family tree.
With so many headstones and records being digitized and shared online, it is now easier than ever to discover burial records and/or headstone transcripts to those connected to your ancestors. There's no need to wait until we can travel again to begin your research.
Remember, long before you get around to polishing up those wellies for tramping around an Irish graveyard, our local volunteers are here to help. GO TO Message Board
FACT#1 Ancestral burial grounds are the holy grail
For the Irish family historian, the ability to identify the ancestral burial ground (with or without grave markers) is a huge achievement.
- For the Catholic Irish in particular, the rituals of death were far more important than lasting monuments (the wake, the graveside oration) and above all else – to be buried among one's kin.
Even when people migrated to a new parish, it was traditional to return "home" for burial.
- A burial record in a parish register, for example, may send you beyond the parish boundaries scouting for a graveyard.
- Newspaper obituaries (for extended family members) are a helpful resource for the discovery of an ancestral burial ground.
The best way to find an ancestral burial place is to trace down the family line of who remained in the parish. Especially in rural areas, it is very likely they are still using this grave.
FACT#2 Local knowledge is key
Most people who died in Ireland up until the 18th century lie in unmarked graves.
- Marked with simple stones – local people knew (by oral tradition) where everyone was.
- Especially in rural areas, there is a good chance that someone local knows or knows someone who knows where a family were known to bury their kin.
The best way to start searching is to look at those graveyards in the parishes that your ancestors came from. Some graveyards may have fallen into disuse and only appear on old 19th-century Ordnance Survey Maps.
- Sometimes there is nothing to be seen today of an old burial ground. Sometimes there is a memorial. Visiting the site can be important to the family historian nonetheless.
- Browse and compare Old and New Maps HERE [See: Make Your Map > Data Catalogue > Base Information & Mapping > Historic Maps]
Navigating maps and parish records can be tricky. So again, our volunteers are here to help with local knowledge and experience. For Local Volunteer help, GO TO Message Board.
FACT#3 Headstones were rare in Ireland until the mid-19th century
While some headstones dating back to the 17th century can be found in Ireland today, upright headstones were rare before the 19th century.
- The oldest marker you would most likely find would be a gravestone – a full-length slab laid flush to the ground (to prevent the dead from rising again).
- Headstones for early 19th-century ancestors that appear in excellent condition are likely to be modern replacements erected by a later generation.
- A legacy from overseas often resulted in headstones being erected long after the fact, and this can result in errors such as date mismatch.
FACT#4 Gravestones can get you back to the 18th Century
Before you write off the possibility of ever finding an ancestral grave marker, remember that a generation or two before the Great Famine could have known prosperity.
- During the Napoleonic wars, Ireland enjoyed an economic boom and it was not uncommon for blacksmiths, strong farmers etc to have afforded a gravestone at this time.
Also bear in mind that a change in fortunes could happen to any family.
- Your small-farmer ancestor could have been the son of a strong farmer (who had the means to erect a headstone for his parents). The Catholic practice of subdividing the land among all of one's children before the Great Famine, reduced the viability of a smaller holding once the Potato Blight hit.
- The untimely death of a husband was a great misfortune for a widow with a young family – even for members of the gentry.
- A wealthy merchant or lawyer could have gone bankrupt. An emigrating relative could have made it big and sent money home for the erection of a headstone.
- A progenitor may have contributed to a local community in some memorable way (e.g. music, poetry, heroism) that warranted them being honoured with a memorial. Don't forget to look inside churches for plaques and dedications on stained glass windows.
FACT#5 In rural Ireland it'll be a graveyard you seek (not a cemetery)
Most burial grounds in rural Ireland were mapped as "graveyard" or "churchyard" or "burial ground" and that is how we refer to them even when the original church is no longer extant.
Traditionally, Irish graveyards were managed by a parish church (including towns and cities).
- As populations grew and declined, the graveyards long outlived the building that they were attached to.
- In the case of city parishes, where land was at a premium, graves and headstones may have been moved after a parish fell into decline. For example, Dublin's St Brides Churchyard had its memorials removed to Mount Jerome Cemetery.
The term cemetery in Ireland is used to refer to a burial ground that is independent of a parish church. Catholic Emancipation and expanding populations in Ireland's cities saw the introduction of garden cemeteries from 1828 onwards. Cemeteries were mapped in Irish municipalities in the First Ordnance Survey.
- Goldenbridge Cemetery DUBLIN (est. 1828 by Daniel O'Connell) was independent of a parish church and the first of its kind in Ireland.
Was your ancestor among the military personnel stationed in Ireland? If so, their final resting place could be the local barracks or the Grangegorman Military Cemetery in Dublin.
FACT#6 Irish cemeteries were non-denominational
When it came to burials, especially in the early 19th century, religious denomination did not separate the Irish. (Save for the Quakers who had burial grounds exclusive to the Society of Friends).
- Irish Catholics, Anglicans and other denominations were often interred together in ancient parish burial grounds that were managed by the Church of Ireland.
When Ireland's cities introduced cemeteries independent of the church, some were perceived to be Catholic or Protestant for a time (influenced by the faith of the neighbourhood residents at that time).
- Glasnevin Cemetery DUBLIN (est. 1832) is the largest non-denominational cemetery in Ireland and has digitised more than 1 million burial records. Founded by Daniel O'Connell, it became the cemetery of choice for Dublin Catholics but was open to all.
- Mount Jerome Cemetery DUBLIN (est. 1836) became the Protestant Cemetery for Dublin but of the 250,000 burials recorded there, almost half are Catholic.
BROWSE Graveyards & Cemeteries
FACT#7 Catholic Headstones can be found in Protestant Churchyards
Church of Ireland graveyards were often the ancestral burial grounds for Catholic families in the parish.
- During the Reformation in Ireland, control of Roman Catholic Church property (to include parish burial grounds) transferred to King Henry VIII's newly established Church of Ireland.
- That one's ancestral burial grounds were "under new management" did not exclude Catholic Irish (or any other denomination) from continuing to bury their dead among their kin.
- As Catholic Emancipation took hold in the early 19th century, the desire for Catholic burial grounds (free from the control of the Anglican minister) grew rapidly.
- However, not all Catholic parish churches had a graveyard, so the use of the "Established Church" burial grounds continued.
FACT#8 Place of burial was not recorded on Death Certificates
The mandatory registration of deaths began in 1864. The place of burial is not recorded on death certificates but they are useful starting points to determine the date of death and address.
Deaths and burials can be found in church records.
The Church of Ireland was the "established" or State church up until 1869 and most of the burial registers pertaining to a parish were kept by the local minister (to include Catholics buried on church grounds)
With the easing of Penal Laws, most Catholic parishes only began keeping records starting in the early to mid-1800s. The poorer the parish the later records began, so cities and important diocesan towns will have earlier records than most.
Prior to 1880, few Catholic registers contain death or burial records at all, especially in rural Ireland.
Catholic registers were often recorded in Latin (the official language of the Roman Catholic church up until the 1960s) and sometimes English.
Newspaper obituaries, particular in the late 1800s/early 1900s were particularly descriptive as to where the funeral cortege proceeded to (and often named the mourners and their relationship to the deceased).
FACT#9 Volunteers are sharing headstone images and transcriptions online
All around Ireland, local volunteers are out tramping around old graveyards and cemeteries taking photos of old headstones to share online.
- For example, the IGP Headstone Project (which you can peruse by county) now has over 159,000 headstone images uploaded. What's more, they have been transcribed to facilitate your search!
- Dr Jane Lyons pioneered the photographing and recording of Irish grave memorials on from-ireland.net – one of the most valuable resources online.
As these collections are constantly being added to, it's always worth checking back in from time to time:
- IGP Headstone Project
- from-Ireland.net Gravestone Records
- Find-a-Grave Ireland
- internment.net Cemetery Records
- FamilySearch Find a Grave
- HistoricGraves Cork, Limerick, Tipperary and more
- IrishGraveyards Mayo, Galway, Donegal
- DiscoverEverAfter Armagh, Derry, Tyrone
- Belfast Burials
- Clare Transcriptions
- Cork Burials
- Dublin Graveyards Directory
- Kerry Burials
- Limerick City Burials
- Meath Burials
- NI Cemeteries
FACT#10 Our Volunteer Meet & Greet service can include graveyards
Don't forget, when it comes time to visit, ask about our Local Volunteer MEET & GREET service.
Want to time your reconnection visit to coincide with the annual "Blessing of the Graves"? With any luck, you may run into the local historian!
- Cemetery Sunday aka the Blessing of the Graves is often an occasion for homecoming and family reunion. This veneration generally happens during the summer (dates vary from parish to parish) across rural Ireland.
- Ancestors graves are generally tidied up and decorated with flowers in preparation for this event. In some parts, mass is celebrated in the graveyard itself, while in others the community gathers at the graveyard after mass.
- To find out when your local Blessing of the Graves takes place, sign up for the RC parish newsletter or ask our Local Volunteer MESSAGE BOARD.
To request a MEET & GREET create a new message our County Message Board and be sure to tick the box relating to visiting Ireland.
Over to you...
Whether your ancestor was born in Ireland or abroad, we invite you to #Bring TheirMemoryHome by adding their name (and headstone or photo if you have one) HERE...
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