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Research me, I'm Irish: Five Tips for Tracing Irish Ancestry

Millions of Americans are Irish, but tracing that ancestry can be tricky. Follow these five tips, including "Don't go to Ireland", to find out how you can bring out the ancestral green in your family tree.


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No wonder St. Patty's day is so popular: over 35 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, according to the U. S. Census Bureau's 2006 American Community Survey.

With the long history of the Irish in the United States and the sheer number of Irish-Americans, you may think it'll be a cinch to research your Grandma O'Connor's ancestry. But sometimes a lot of countrymen can be a hindrance -- how you know which O'Connors are yours and which are someone else's?

Here are five tips from the Irish Genealogical Society International (IGSI), based in Minnesota, and the government of Ireland on how to best research your ancestors from the Emerald Isle.

1. Don't go to Ireland

At least not yet. "Before deciding to rush off and book a flight to the land of your ancestors, it is important for you to study the history of your family," advises Failte Ireland, the National Tourism Development Authority in Ireland.

The IGSI agrees. "Start in your home country," they advise on their website, "and go back from place to place retracing your family's footsteps as to locations where you should seek out records."

Failte Ireland recommends gathering the following information on your first ancestor who left Ireland for the United States:

- Name of ancestor

- Approximate date of birth

- Parish or county of origin in Ireland

- Religious Denomination

- Names of ancestor's parents

- Name of ancestor's spouse

- Date and place of marriage

IGSI reminds researchers that it's possible your Irish ancestors spent years in another country, such as Canada, during their journey from Ireland to the United States. Make sure to follow their entire path, including any detours!

2. Know which names you're looking for

A Milligan by any other name may still be a Milligan. Various family members at different times might have instead called themselves Milligcan or Millikan. IGSI lists several spelling variations Irish-Americans may come across in their genealogical research, including:

- Adding or dropping the following prefixes: O', Mc, Mac or Fitz

- Switching between a and e, switching c, k or g, and switching p and w

- Surname variations: McGuiness, MacInnis, McGinnis, Maginnis

- First name variations: Ann, Nan, Nancy/Alice, Ellen/Owen, Eugene

3. Know where you're looking

If the records you find just say "Ireland" for ancestral origin, that's no good. Ireland is divided into 32 counties, six of them in Northern Ireland. Most counties are further divided into parishes, and parishes are divided into townlands. Once you have the correct townland of your ancestor, "you are in Irish genealogical heaven," writes IGSI.

Identifying county, parish and townland may be done through family interviews and research of U. S. records. If you're really stuck, the Irish Department of Sports, Arts and Tourism maintains the Central Signposting Index (CSI), an online, searchable database of over 3 million genealogical records from 11 counties, including Derry, Limerick, Tyrone and Wexford. The CSI, located at, may be able to point you towards a county-based genealogical center that can help you further.

4. Know at what historical periods you are looking

Irish immigration to the United States took place over centuries, from Scottish settlers leaving Ulster in 1717, to the infamous Great Irish Potato Famine in the 19th century, to the 500,000 Irish who left the country every year for ten years in the 20th century prior to WWI.

Because different groups came over at different times and for different reasons, IGSI recommends locating your ancestors' emigration period as a way to determine their ethnic/religious group, beyond just "Irish." It will also help determine ages of your ancestors and help you identify which resources are available to you.

Failte Ireland cautions that the further back your ancestors' time in the U. S. began, especially if they came before the Famine, the more difficult it will be to locate records. "For example, the majority of Ulster Presbyterians who went to the American colonies in the eighteenth century sailed to ports such as Philadelphia and then dispersed throughout what became the southern states," they write. "There will be no record of their passage and finding wills or deeds may prove difficult."

5. Okay, now you can go to Ireland

So you have as much information as you can gather from the U. S. on your ancestors. You've also searched the online Irish resources, such as Griffith's Valuation, the 19th century property survey, managed by the Library Council at, and the Irish Family History Foundation, which offers fee-based online access at

Now you may want to go peruse the records in the old country for yourself, or just walk on the same land your ancestors walked centuries ago. Failte Ireland advises that Dublin and Belfast hold the national record repositories, so depending on your particular search, one of those cities would be the place to start, and from there move on to the county library you need.

"Your first port of call should be the National Archives in Dublin's Bishop Street as its Genealogy Service provides free advice on how to conduct family history research in any Irish repository," advises Failte Ireland. "This service is operated by members of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (APGI)."

From there, it's a matter of discovering the land your ancestors left behind. "[T]he most wonderful aspect of ancestral research is the visit to the county or the parish or even the very house where your ancestor was born," writes Failte Ireland, "seeing the church where they worshipped or walking in their footsteps through the village or town that was once their world."

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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