Researching Irish Ancestors

an introduction

Copyright 2003 Ulster Historical Foundation
TELEPHONE 0044 (0)28 90 332288 FAX 0044 (0) 289023 9885
email enquiry@uhf.org.uk

Contents of this Document

  1. Printed Sources in USA
  2. Printed Sources in Ireland (some available on websites and CD Rom)
  3. Original Records in Ireland

  1. Research Sources in America
    For anyone seeking to identify Irish born ancestors in records in Ireland it is essential to know the specific place of origin in Ireland. Sources which may give vital clues are:
    1. Memories of elderly relatives in the extended Irish family; women more likely to be helpful than men.
    2. Copies of birth, death and marriage certificates which may be found in a family ëbox of valuablesí; the ëcacheí may include some treasured memento from Ireland, a family bible with names and addresses, a testimonial from a clergyman, a certificate from an Orange Lodge or a Pioneer Association.
    3. Directories and local histories of the area of first settlement. These were often published by subscription and can give full information about subscriberís families, including place of origin.
    4. Gravestone inscriptions, cemetery records, records kept by funeral undertakers (in some States including Mass. local health regulations required, full biographical details about individuals).
    5. Wills and probate records.
    6. Civil registers of births, deaths and marriages.
    7. Church registers of baptism, marriages and burial. For Catholic marriages applications for dispensations (usually to avoid prior announcement of the marriage), are held by the diocesan archive. An index to names for Brooklyn diocese is being prepared and one volume has been published.
    8. Local newspapers: our founder member B-ann Moorhouse writing in Guild Newsletter No. 8 in 1982 noted that two of the local newspapers in Brooklyn published obituary notices giving quite detailed family information about individuals of Irish birth.
    9. Federal and State Census records 1850- .
    10. US emigration records c.1820-
      These exist in the form of passenger lists with indexes, (except for the port of New York from c.1852) in the National Archives, Washington. The lists and indexes have been microfilmed and the films are available in many state and public libraries in the USA. The New York passenger lists for the period of the Great Famine c.1845- have been indexed for Irish emigrants and seven volumes of indexes have been published. Place of origin is seldom specified. The massive Ellis Island website (recently released) is a vital starting point. Web: www.ellisisland.org
    11. Naturalisation papers
      These might be available in a county courthouse near the place of settlement of ancestors. A check in the papers at Burlington in the State of Vermont showed that in about 5% of cases the papers gave precise information concerning place of origin in Ireland. Most naturalisation papers are held in some 15 Federal Record Centres in USA including one at Springfield, Mass.
    12. Passport records
      Passports were required by those who travelled outside USA and these have been recently released in the National Archives, Washington DC. Contact: Research and Liasion Branch, Passport Dept., Department of State, Washington DC, 20520. (See article in our Directory of 1998 by John Canning, a volunteer at the National Archives).
    13. Social security applications (salvaged by the Mormons) may list names of both parents of emigrant and also give birth date.

  2. Printed sources in Ireland, possibly available on microfiche in North America.
    If you know precisely where your ancestors lived in Ireland a hundred or more years ago and you are not familiar with searching through unindexed original records there is a good deal to be said for starting a search with printed sources which are available on the open shelves in the National Archives, Dublin and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and sometimes also on microfiche in North America.
    1. Property Valuations of Ireland 1847-64
      This valuation of all buildings and properties in the country was begun in Co Dublin in 1847 in the middle of the Great Famine and ended with the Ulster counties 1856-64. The basic information in the valuation, including the full names of occupiers was published in over 200 vols for each Poor Law Union in Ireland (groups of parishes). A rough surname index of these printed volumes and of the tithe survey 1823-38 for each parish was compiled by the staff of the National Library of Ireland in the 1960s and a typed version of this Householders Index is available in duplicated form for each county. (It is important to realise that this index does not give specific page references or Christian names). These typescript volumes along with all the printed valuations for each Poor Law Union have been published in microfiche and recently also in CD Rom form (for details contact the UHF). A personal names index giving millions of personal names is available on CD Rom. (contact the UHF for details).
    2. Irish Will Calendars 1858-
      If any of your ancestorís relatives stayed on in Ireland and made wills which were probated in the local District Probate registries from 1858 onwards copies of these wills should be available in the Record Offices in Dublin and Belfast with easy access through printed calendars with will abstracts available on open shelves at the National Archives, Dublin and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. An index to calendars 1878-1900 is available on the UHF website.
    3. Street Directories
      For cities like Belfast and Dublin printed street directories provide a useful source for the 19th century but it is important to realise that the surnames listed in the alphabetical section of the Directory frequently omit names listed under the specific street addresses.
    4. Gravestone Inscriptions
      The Ulster Historical Foundation has published 31 volumes recording pre-1900 gravestone inscriptions in Co Antrim, Down and Belfast (the first 13 volumes for Co Down only include inscriptions to 1864).

      These volumes now include summary guides to a wide range of documentary sources available for the relevant parish in PRONI. The new edition Vol 7, Co Down (Downpatrick) Vol 21 (Newry) and Vol 3, Co Antrim (Carrickfergus) include these guides.

      The Association of the Memorials of the Dead published annual reports 1888-1937 (13 Vols) including selected inscriptions arranged on a county basis for all Ireland. Gravestone inscriptions have also been published in the journals of local history societies especially for Cos Cavan, Cork, Louth and Monaghan.

      Brian Cantwellís transcripts of pre-1880 inscriptions for Cos Wexford and Wicklow and Dr Michael Eganís transcripts for Dublin city graveyards are available on the open shelves in the National Archives, Dublin and the National Library of Ireland.
    5. 'Census' of 1659; a poll tax return for all counties except Cavan, Galway, Mayo, Tyrone and Wicklow. A new edition with an important introduction by Professor William Smith of University College, Cork has recently been published by Irish Manuscript Commissions
    6. Flaxgrowers Bounty List 1796
      Over 56,000 names for all counties in Ireland except Donegal and Wicklow. Concentration is heaviest in Ulster, especially Cos Donegal, Tyrone, Londonderry, Monaghan and Armagh. An index of all names is available on the UHF website and also on CD Rom (contact the UHF for details).

  3. Original Records
    1. Civil registers of births, deaths and marriages (Protestant marriages 1845-) mostly available on microfilm through Mormon family history centres.
    2. Church Registers
      Church of Ireland (Episcopalian): for over 1,000 of the 1600 CI parishes in Ireland the pre-1870 baptismal and burial registers and pre-1845 marriage registers were destroyed in the PROI Dublin in 1922. For over 400 parishes mainly in the province of Leinster the surviving original registers are now available in the Library of the Representative Church Body, Braemor Park, Rathmines, Dublin 14. That library has also microfilm copies of registers for most parishes in Cos Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan. Microfilm copies of most of the surviving pre-1900 registers for c.400 parishes in Ulster and Cos Louth and Leitrim are available in PRONI. For parishes east of a line drawn from Sligo to Waterford microfilm copies of pre-1870 baptisms and burials and pre-1845 marriages are held in the National Archives, Dublin. It is important to stress that CI burial registers, especially in Ulster, often include details of Presbyterians and Catholics.
    3. Roman Catholic Registers
      Microfilm copies of pre-1880 registers of all Catholic parishes (areas quite distinct from those of civil parishes which are roughly the equivalent of Church of Ireland parishes) are held in the National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin. Similar copies for Ulster and Cos Louth and Leitrim are available for inspection in PRONI. Catholic registers are frequently in Latin and difficult to read on microfilm.
    4. Presbyterian Registers
      Many of the earliest Irish emigrants to America in the 18th century were Presbyterians from Ulster but documentation is completely wanting for most of these individuals especially Covenanters. Only about 12 churches have registers before 1800. Microfilm copies of the pre-1900 registers for some 400 Presbyterian churches in Ireland are available for inspection in PRONI.
    5. Census Records
      Almost all of the pre-1900 Irish census returns were destroyed in PROI, Dublin in 1922 or pulped, but the 1901 and 1911 census returns for all Ireland survived and are available for inspection in the National Archives, Dublin. Indexes to the 1901 census for Cos Fermanagh and Tyrone are available on CD Rom (contact UHF for details). The 1901 and 1911 census returns have been filmed by the Mormons. The 1911 Census is especially important because it gives the number of years a couple were married, (hence the year of marriage), and the number of children alive and dead. The returns are arranged by District Electoral Division within counties. For Cos Antrim, Cavan, Meath and Offaly portions of the 1821 and 1851 census survive and for Co Líderry there are extracts from the 1831 census giving the names of heads of households. For the 1851 census for Dublin city a surname index is available in the National Archives, Dublin. This is due for publication soon in CD Rom form.

  4. Census Substitutes
    1. Muster Rolls 1618, 1630-31: names of Protestant males only and these are arranged by barony (groups of 6 or more parishes). These lists provide broad guidance as to when a Scottish or English planter name first appeared in an area but it is very doubtful if an individual family could be identified. Copies of these muster rolls for 8 of the 9 counties of Ulster are available in PRONI.
    2. Hearthmoney Rolls 1660s: these transcripts provide the earliest equivalent of a census of householders. Copies (parts only for Cos Donegal and Fermanagh) for 8 counties in Ulster (wanting Co. Down for which only a subsidy roll is available) are available on the open shelves in PRONI (with indexes). There are copies also for Cos Dublin, Kilkenny, Louth, Sligo, Tipperary, Westmeath and Wicklow.
    3. Religious Census Returns 1740-75: coverage best for Cos Londonderry, Antrim and Tyrone in that order with returns for no more than one-third of the parishes in Cos Armagh, Down and Fermanagh; very few returns for Cos Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan. Transcripts of 1766 religious census mainly also for Cos Cork, Limerick, Louth and Tipperary (National Archives, Dublin).
    4. Votersí lists, poll books, printed registers of freeholders: coverage best for Cos Armagh and Down; a few lists are available for other counties in Ulster and Cos Clare, Dublin, Kilkenny, Limerick, Louth, Meath, Queenís (Leix), Roscommon, Tipperary, Waterford, Westmeath and Wicklow. Indexes to some pre 1800 freeholders registers and poll books for Ulster counties are being published in our annual Guild Directory. These include Co Donegal (1997), Co Fermanagh 1747-1768 (1998) Co Antrim general election 1776 (1999) Co Cavan general election 1761 (2000), city of Londonderry, Noblemen, Freemen, freeholders and inhabitants in favour of the Act of Union 1799 (2001).
    5. Flaxgrowersí Bounty List 1796 (see above).
    6. Tithe Survey 1823-38: the nearest equivalent of a farm census for Ireland. Index for parishes in Northern Ireland on CD Rom (contact UHF for details).
    7. Manuscript field books of townland valuation 1830s; only details of individuals occupying houses valued at more than £3 later raised to £5; especially important for towns and cities.
    8. Tenement valuation 1847-64 (see printed sources).
    9. Pupils Registers for National Schools in N. Ireland.
By 1870 there were some 2,000 National Schools providing elementary education in Northern Ireland and for over 1,600 of these schools registers of pupils, many of them dating back to c.1870 are deposited in PRONI. With the almost total absence of census records before 1901 the school registers have become an important source since they give the pupilís full name, address and religion and also the name and usually the occupation of the father or guardian. Details are usually given of schools previously attended and this can be a vital clue for family historians whose ancestors moved to the rapidly growing industrial city of Belfast where the population rose from some 20,000 in 1800 to 350,000 in 1901. Access to these registers is facilitated by the alphabetical index of surnames at the front of each register. Pupils registers for some 400 schools in the Republic of Ireland are held in the National Archives, Dublin and same also in county libraries.


The townland is the smallest unit of land used in Ireland. The area varies in size from less than ten acres to several thousand acres. Despite their name these units do not contain towns, indeed some have no occupants at all. There are around 64,000 townlands in Ireland, and they are the most specific address usually available to rural dwellers. They are generally organised into civil parishes.

Civil Parish

These are important units for record purposes. They generally contain around twenty-five to thirty townlands as well as towns and villages There are around 2,500 civil parishes in the country. Parishes are generally listed within each county although they may also be divided by barony. In many cases civil parishes straddle county and barony boundaries.


A barony is a portion of a county or a group of parishes. Historically it was introduced by the Anglo-Normans and is usually based on a tribal territory or ìtuathaî. Barony boundaries do not always conform to those of the civil parishes within them. There are 273 baronies in Ireland.


The county is a major and consistent division of land. The counties were gradually established by the English since the arrival of the Normans. The first counties ñ Dublin, Kildare and Louth ñ were established in the early 13th Century, whereas the last counties, those of Ulster, were not established until after 1600. There are thirty-two counties and these are formed into four Provinces.


The four Provinces of Ireland are Connaught, Leinster, Munster and Ulster. Each comprises a number of counties.

Cities, Towns & Borough

These are separate administration areas of varying size. Many towns have several civil parishes, whereas some civil parishes have several townships. Other types of classifications of urban areas include the borough, which is a town with a corporation or, alternatively, a town which sent a representative (MP) to the Westminster Parliament. A ward is an administrative unit within a city or large town.

Poor Law Unions

Under the Irish Poor Law Act of 1838 commissioners were empowered to ìunite so many townlands as they think fit to be a union for the relief of the destitute poorî. A Union was a group of parishes usually centred on a market town, where a workhouse might be built, with parishes and townlands as subdivisions. Rates, land based taxes, were collected within these areas for maintenance to the poor. They were named after a large town. The same districts later became used as General Register Districts.

General Registrar

Districts These districts are the areas within which births, deaths and marriages were Districts collected. The areas do not always conform to county boundaries.

National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin 2
tel 003531 603-02-00   fax 003531 676-66-90
E-mail: info@nli.ie
Web: www.nli.ie

Registry of Deeds, Kingís Inn, Henrietta Street, Dublin 2
tel 003531-760-7500   fax 003531 804-8406

General Register Office, Joyce House, 8-11 Lombard Street East, Dublin
tel 003531 635 4000   fax 003531 635 4440
Web: http://www.goireland.ie

General Register Office, Oxford House, 49-55 Chichester St, Belfast
tel 028 9025-2000   fax 028 9025-2044
Web: http://www.nisra.gov.uk/gro

Representative Body of the Church of Ireland, The Library, 14 Braemor Park, Rathgar, Dublin 6
tel 003531-492-3979   fax 003531-492-4770 email
E-mail: library@ireland.anglican.org

Presbyterian Historical Society, Church House, Fisherwick Place, Belfast
tel 028 9032-2284   fax 028 9024-8377 (information office Church House)

Linenhall Library, 17 Donegal Square North, Belfast, BT1 5GD
tel 028 9032-1707   fax 028-9043-858
Web: http://www.linenhall.com

American Family Immigration History Center, The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation Inc.,
Attention History Center, 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017-3898
E-mail: historycenter@ellisisland.org
Web: www.ellisisland.org

Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, 61 Balmoral Avenue, Belfast, BT9.
Phone 028 90 251318   Fax 028 90 255999
E-mail: proni@dcalni.gov.uk
Web: www.proni.nics.gov.uk

National Archives, Bishop Street, Dublin
Phone 0635314 7883 711   Fax 0635314 783 650
E-mail: mail@nationalarchives.ie
Web: www.nationalarchives.ie

Ulster Historical Foundation
Balmoral Buildings, 12 College Square East, Belfast, Northern Ireland, BT1 6DD
E-Mail: enquiry@uhf.org.uk
Web: http://www.ancestryireland.co.uk/

2003 Family History Conference

"Searching for that Elusive Irish Ancestor: History from Headstones"

29 September - 04 October, Belfast

Post Conference Scottish Research Tour

04 October - 09 October, Edinburgh and Glasgow


by SS