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Realistic Expectations: Tracing Irish Ancestry

Millions of Americans trace their lines back to Irish Potato Famine immigrants. Descendants that want to know more about their Irish heritage need to have realistic expectations about what they can hope to find in the Emerald Isle.


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Millions of Americans trace their lines back to Irish Potato Famine immigrants. Descendants that want to know more about their Irish heritage need to have realistic expectations about what they can hope to find in the Emerald Isle.

The first hurdle to jump is tracing the immigrant back to his or her place of origin. There are few emigration records in Ireland that document out-migrants, necessitating research in records of the United States of America. Passenger lists, family bibles, gravestones, sexton's accounts, funeral home records, military records, census records, probate records, religious records (especially Catholic records), obituaries, death certificates, marriage certificates, and naturalization records are among the key sources to check to yield this information. Each of these sources may contain useful data that can help determine specific Irish parishes of origin. Paying attention to details, such as whether or not an Irishman immigrated solo, with family, or friends, may prove decisive in locating ancestral hometowns.

If the objective of crossing the ocean is achieved, the second hurdle is the Irish records themselves. The top three sources of genealogical value in the British Isles in the 19th century are: church records, census records, and civil registration. Sadly, Ireland lagged behind England, Wales, and Scotland in creating each of these record types.

1. Church Records

The Irish did not begin keeping religious registers as early as the other nations in the British Isles. While parish registers in England, Wales, and Scotland may date back as early as the 1500s or 1600s, in Ireland, few predate the year 1800. In addition, only about 1/3 of the Catholic registers from the first-half of the 19th century have survived. This is horrible considering that almost all of the people in the portion of Ireland that split off to become the Republic of Eire were Catholic. The reason for this occurrence is outlined in Tracing Your Irish Roots:

Unfortunately, due to neglect, accidental destruction or government repression, many of these records only commence in the nineteenth century. The Penal Laws, for example, which were in force between 1692 and 1793, restricted the ability of non-conformist denominations (including Catholics and Presbyterians) to practise their religion openly.

Christening records for Irish ancestors who emigrated during the Great Famine may or may not exist.

2. Census Records

Ireland is also missing another key 19th-century British source: national censuses. Throughout the remainder of the British Isles, population censuses have survived from the year 1841 forward. In Ireland, on the other hand, the first complete census to survive is for the year 1901. This is a long time after the majority of the emigrants left, but with a little luck and some good leads, genealogists can locate relatives who stayed behind in this census. Watch for inconsistencies, however, as the 1851 Census for the City of Dublin, Ireland has survived and been published on CD-Rom, see

3. Civil Registration

In England and Wales, civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths commenced in the year 1837. In Scotland, it began in 1855. Unfortunately, in Ireland, records of all births, marriages, and deaths did not begin until the year 1864. This misses individuals who left during the Great Famine, but has the potential to contain references to family members who stayed behind.

The third hurdle, if by chance you are able to (1) cross the ocean, and (2) find the parish or origin and locate family members in the above mentioned sources that stayed behind to wade through the Famine, is to figure out which Patrick Murphy is your Patrick Murphy. The Irish used a select few given names and many surnames, like Murphy, were very common in the 19th century.

Richard W. Price, AGĀ®, and President of the genealogical firm "Price & Associates" headquartered in downtown Salt Lake City, summed up expectations for tracing Irish roots. He said that it is highly unlikely that professional researchers will be able to extend pedigrees for families of lower class status (farmers) back to ancestors born before the year 1780. In a lecture at the Society of Genealogist's Family History Show in London, Michael Gandy, Editor of the Genealogists Magazine, presented the same results about individuals even higher up the social ladder.

Despite our best efforts to extend pedigrees, many of us will get lost in the genealogical black hole known as Ireland. In the 19th century, alternative record types do exist, such as Griffith's Valuation and Tithe Applotment Books; however, they do not yield the same results the top three sources could have. Attempting to trace Irish immigrants who came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries approaches even closer to the word "impossible." The author himself, who descends from Jesse Murphy, a patriot from Virginia in the Revolutionary War, may never know where in Ireland his ancestors originated. In the future, when DNA tests have become more widespread, additional pieces of the puzzle may fall into place.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

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

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