There are 34.5 million Americans who are primarily or partially Irish—seven times more people than the current population of Ireland. Irish is the second-most common ancestry among Americans, falling just behind German.
That means there is a lot of interest in Irish genealogy. But there are difficulties.
David Ouimette manages the acquisition and online publication of genealogical records worldwide for FamilySearch and frequently lectures a genealogical conferences. He describes the reasons that Irish family history research can be frustrating.
The Roman Catholic faith flourished in Ireland for over fifteen hundred years, notwithstanding opposition. The British government instituted the Penal Laws to weaken the influence and power of the Catholic Church politically and economically. By 1744, the Penal Laws were strictly enforced and made the next few decades especially difficult for Catholics. Priests were forbidden to celebrate mass. Those who did were to be exiled, with the threat of execution if they returned to Ireland.
Priests were instructed to maintain baptismal and matrimonial records as early as 1614. Some early records still survive, but the majority of existing parish registers begin in the 1820s or later. Catholic priests kept records of baptisms and marriages but only rarely kept burial registers.
Some records have been digitized and are available online. Many records are still found in a family’s ancestor’s parish records. The key to much of Irish family history research is knowing the down land or civil parish where your ancestors lived. There are excellent sources to help you identify the Catholic parish of your ancestor. Brian Mitchell’s A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland has Catholic parish maps and civil parish maps for each county in Ireland. John Grenham’s Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, also has Catholic parish maps for each county. Grenham’s book has extensive tables of all Catholic parishes in each county. These tables list the date ranges of surviving baptism, marriage, and burial registers for each parish, including which libraries and archives have copies of each of these records (see irishtimes.com/ancestor/browse/counties/rcmaps). Remember that a Catholic parish might have been created from an older, neighboring parish with registers that cover the ancestral population within the boundaries of both parishes.
The following principles and guidelines help many family historians successfully break through brick walls and discover their Irish Catholic heritage:
- Records: conduct a “reasonably exhaustive search” of all available records
- Families: build entire family groups from the parish registers
- Names: become familiar with local name variants for given names (e.g., Abigail = Gobinet,
- Thadeus = Timothy) and for surnames (e.g., Duvane = Kidney, Bogue = Sullivan)
- Ages: make allowances for large errors in reported ages; for example, when given an age at time of death, calculate the birth year and search at least five years before and five years after that date when examining the baptismal registers
- Religion: also check Church of Ireland registers for baptisms, marriages, and burials of Catholic ancestors, just in case
FamilySearch has several collections of Irish records that may well help researchers break through some of the walls they face as they search for their early Irish ancestors. These collections can be found at the following links:
- Ireland Births and Baptisms, 1620-1881
- Ireland Census, 1821
- Ireland Marriages, 1619-1898
- Ireland Prison Registers, 1790-1924
- Ireland Tithe Applotment Books, 1814-1855
Although the terrible persecution of Irish Catholics made tracing those families back before 1820 difficult, there are many resources available. Plus, the Irish people have a great love of family history and offer welcome and help to all researchers.