Ireland History

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Efficient family history research requires an understanding of the historical events that affected your ancestors and the records about them. Learning about wars, laws, migrations, settlement patterns, local events, and economic or religious trends may help you understand family movements. These events may also direct you to records, such as settlement certificates or military records, that mention your family. Learning about the conditions in which your ancestors lived and the events that influenced their lives will also help you understand your ancestors as human beings.

Online Resources

Timeline of Historical Events

Events in Irish history that may have influenced your ancestors and the records about them include the following:

Ireland Regional Kingdoms

1002-14 Irish Kingdom. Brian Boru united Irish regional kings.

1169-1171 Norman invasion of Ireland (in several stages)

1200-50 British colonizing. English colonists were sent to colonize Ireland.

1494 The English crown officially claimed Ireland as part of England. Meetings and legislative drafts of the Irish parliament were subject to the control of the English king and council. But in 1496 Kildare, the lord deputy who had ruled Ireland before 1494, was reinstated.

1536-1541 First English conquest of Ireland under Henry VIII.

1549-1640 Plantations. Many English and Scottish families were sent to Ireland to receive estates as rewards from the king. Lands were mainly granted in the counties of Leix, Offaly, Tipperary, Wexford, Leitrim, and Longford and in the major plantations in Ulster province. Some civil servants received lands in Munster province. Many Irish families were displaced.

1603 Scots began settling Ulster province.

1641-52 Irish Rebellion. Ulster natives overthrew English colonial rule, and Irish rebels established a Catholic government called the Confederation of Kilkenny.

1649 Second English conquest. Oliver Cromwell crushed the rebellion in Ireland and awarded lands to Protestants. Catholics who could prove they had not been involved in the rebellion were given estates in West Clare. Some prisoners were sent to New England.

1690 The Irish Parliament was established in Dublin.

1720 British Parliament began to legislate for Ireland, and the British House of Lords had the powers of a supreme court in Irish law cases.

1739-41 The "Great Frost" destroyed stored food in the winter and led to poor harvests in the fall. The result was a great famine in 1740 in which a quarter of a million people died.

1782-93 Legislative acts gave power back to the Irish Parliament and more rights to Irish Roman Catholics.

1800 Ireland united with England and Scotland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

1821 The first genealogically useful census was taken.

1838 New Poor Law Act and the formation of Poor Law Unions

1845 Civil registration of non-Catholic marriages began.

1845-52 Potato Famine (The 'Great' Famine or an Gorta Mór). Blight destroyed the potato crop for several consecutive years resulting in starvation and disease. Millions died and millions emigrated.

1850-1914 Many Irish emigrated, which helped to stabilize the economy.

1850 The Reform Act was passed, basing the right to vote on occupation rather than on property ownership.

1858 The Principle Probate Registry began proving Irish probates.

1864 Civil registration of births and deaths began. Marriage registration began to include Catholics.

1869 The Church of Ireland ceased to be recognized as the state church.

1919-21 War of Independence resulted in 1,468 deaths. A treaty, signed on 7 January 1922, split Ireland into the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland and the predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland.

1922-23 Irish Civil War. Irregulars of the Irish Republican Army opposed to the 1922 treaty were in conflict with the Free State forces. During part of this conflict the anti-treaty forces occupied the Four Courts building where many Irish records were housed. After a stand-off and siege lasting several months the Anti-Treaty forces were defeated, but the building was burned and many records destroyed.

For key dates relating to church records, see Ireland Church History. For dates and records of other wars involving the Irish, see England. To find out when the various British rulers reigned, see:

  • Cheney, C. R., ed. Handbook of Dates. 1945. Reprint. London, England: Offices of the Royal Historical Society, 1955. (Family History Library book Ref 942 C4rg No. 4.)

Irish History Reference Sources

A few comprehensive Irish histories include:

  • Foster, R. F. The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. (Family History Library book 941.5 H2hf.) This book provides a history of Ireland written in modern times.
  • Griffin, William D., ed. and comp. Ireland: A Chronology and Fact Book. Dobbs Ferry, New York, New York: Oceana Publications, 1973. (Family History Library book 941.5 H2ir.) This book contains a lengthy time line of Irish history supplemented with transcripts of historical documents.
  • O'Donovan, John, ed.Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland: From the Earliest Times to the Year 1616. 1856. Reprint. 3d ed. 7 vols. Blackrock, Ireland: Edmund Burke Publisher, 1990. (Family History Library book 941.5 H2af.) This series provides a comprehensive history of early Ireland in Gaelic and English. It contains many dates of specific events, including the deaths of some individuals.
  • Punch, Terrence M. "Irish Repealers at Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1843." On 23 May 1843, "The Register," the Catholic newspaper in Halifax, printed a complete list of the Repeal Membership in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Beside each name is given place of origin in Ireland. The Act of Union in 1801 was a watershed  in modern Irish political history.Many considered it a mistake, hence the list of Irish Repealers. Article in The Irish Ancestor, pages 6-13, Family History Library Ref. 941.5 B2i v10-11.
  • Phair, P. Beryl. "'Declaration' Against Repeal of the Union, 1830."  A list of gentry and working class signatures of this delaration. Two thousand signed and the list contains name, residences and occupation. More in a later issue of The Irish Ancestor. vol XIII no. 1. 1981 pages 18-36, FHL Ref. 941.5 B2i vol. 13, Also vol. XIII, no2, 1981, pages 104-112, FHL Ref. 941.5 B2i vol. 13. 

Local Histories

Local histories are particularly helpful in understanding the time, places, and conditions in which your ancestor lived. Local histories describe the economy; the prominent families; and the founding of churches, hospitals, schools, and businesses in an area. Even if a local history does not mention your ancestor, it may direct you to records that do.

For many localities, more than one written history exists. Local histories can be found in major research libraries, including the Family History Library. The Family History Library has many histories about Irish parishes.

The Family History Library has many national, county, and parish histories for Ireland as well as histories for specific time periods, groups, occupations, and localities in Ireland. Major research libraries may have similar histories.

Historical sources available at the Family History Library are listed in the Place Search of the catalog under the following headings:





Bibliographies of Irish history available at the Family History Library are listed in the Place Search of the catalog under:


Early to Mid-16th Century

The Celts who colonized Ireland developed a strong Gaelic culture where families were closely linked to territories. Norse and Danish coastal invaders of the 8th - 9th centuries were defeated in 1014 and absorbed into the native population. In the 11th century the Normans largely conquered Ireland and gradually became integrated, but this was the start of the English domination of the island. However at first English law only prevailed within east and southeast Ireland including Dublin and parts of Kildare, Meath, Wicklow and Louth and in the earliest times Kilkenny, Wexford, Waterford and Tipperary. The area was known as the pale (meaning the bounds of civilization) and continued to shrink until the re-conquest by the English King Henry VIII in the mid-16th century.

The Tudor policy was to guarantee the Gaelic chieftains lordship of their territories but pursue a vigorous destruction of Gaelic culture including language and dress. The latter was bitterly opposed and English rule was precarious in some areas. The defeat of the O’Neills and O’Donnells in 1603 in Ulster lead to their retreat and the plantation (colonization) by English, Welsh and Scots Protestant upper classes, although much of the native Catholic population remained as tenants and labourers.

The 1600s to 1850

A rebellion by Catholics in 1641 based in Kilkenny was finally quashed by Oliver Cromwell in 1649 resulting in confiscation of lands by the English and expulsion of Catholics to the western province of Connaught and to the West Indies. Protestant settlement in Ireland was encouraged by an Act of 1662 and particularly assisted French Huguenots to immigrate to Ireland bringing with them important trades such as weaving and goldsmithing.

The Irish Catholics had the sympathy of James II of England, but he was deposed in 1688 and lost the Battle of the Boyne to the new Protestant king William of Orange in 1690. This had disastrous consequences for the native Irish; about half a million Catholic soldiers fled to Europe and the Treaty of Limerick was not honoured by the English causing resentment which continues to this day. Instead a series of severe Penal Laws were enacted which restricted the Irish from owning or inheriting land, entering certain trades or public office and the right to vote as well as the limiting the activities of the Catholic church. From a family history point of view this meant that the Irish suffered further impoverishment and far fewer records were kept of them during the 18th century.

The Penal Laws also affected to a certain extent the Presbyterians who comprised mainly the Scots who had moved into Ulster from 1609. This was a major cause of the migration of these Scots-Irish to North America in the 18th century. The major period of emigration from Ireland commenced about 1780 and peaked during the Great Potato Famine of 1845-1849. Ryan examines the various causes of this famine. Most of the famine emigrants were poor Irish Catholics, and they went to North America, Australia and Britain.

Early 1900s and Destruction of Records

Rights to land, the franchise etc. were very gradually introduced to the remaining Irish population but a movement for self-government began in the late 19th century. This culminated in the 1916 rebellion and the establishment of an independent Irish State in 1921. Internecine fighting continued for several years during which the Four Courts Building in Dublin was shelled and set ablaze, destroying valuable archives. There are several sources for further details of this complex period.

The family historian researching prior to 1921 will be dealing with records that are largely the same as English ones and the instructor's more detailed courses on English records will therefore be useful. However, most of the land, tax, probate, voting and occupational records in Ireland will deal only with the Protestants because of the Penal Laws prohibiting the Irish Catholics from participating. The Catholics will be found in civil registration, what remains of the census, church registers and the Poor Law records.[1]


  1. Christensen, Penelope. "Ireland History (National Institute)," The National Institute for Genealogical Studies (2012),