Kiss me, I’m Irish! Five free websites to track your elusive Irish ancestors

With St. Patrick’s day now drawing to a close, this seems like a perfect time to pause and share a list of free online resources that can be used to trace those oh-so-elusive Irish ancestors.  While many service providers require a subscription in order to search their online record collections, the good news is that you don’t actually have to spend any money to begin researching your Irish ancestors.  The following is a list of five very good (free) websites that will help to get you on your way, and will be of interest to both the beginner and seasoned family researcher alike.  You may just want to bookmark this blog post so that you can refer to it again in future!

#5 Ireland Reaching Out Ireland xo

The mission of Ireland Reaching Out is to engage with all 70 million people of Irish origin worldwide.  For those who are part of the Irish diaspora, Ireland Reaching Out is a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with others and connect with their parish of origin.  After creating an account, users can search for a particular parish and post questions to the message board for that parish.

The volunteers of this non-profit organization are responsive and knowledgeable and I have certainly benefited from their insights and suggestions in my own research.  When posting to the parish message boards, be sure to be clear about the questions you are asking to get the most out of this service.

#4 Ask About Ireland  Ask About Ireland

One of the things that makes Irish research so challenging is the lack of census records prior to 1901.  While some fragments survive, if your family left Ireland before 1901 you will need to familiarize yourself with Irish land and tax records.  The most well known example of these is called Griffith’s Valuation which was published between 1847-1864.  Ask about Ireland has included family name searching tips which includes a very helpful short video on how to search Griffith’s Valuation by family name.

The reason that Griffith’s is such a valuable genealogical resource it that it can help you to determine the specific townland and parish where your Irish ancestors originated from.  Search results provide details such as the names of the tenant, landlord and location.  The great thing about Griffith’s is that it allows you to map out exactly where your ancestor lived, the size of their land holdings and who their neighbours were.  Families with the same surname that lived in close proximity to each other were often related.  If you ever encounter two men of the same name, where one is recorded as Sr. and the other Jr., it may just be that the two were father and son.

#3 The National Archives of Ireland The National Archives of Ireland

If your ancestors were still living in Ireland between 1901 and 1911 then you will certainly want to search the National Archives of Ireland’s online census records.  These records can provide a wealth of information about your Irish ancestors including their occupation, religious affiliation and the townland or street where they lived.  The search features on this site are quite good, and the help menu provides some great pointers in case you get stuck.  I usually start by searching broadly and then gradually narrow it down unless I know exactly what I’m looking for.

When I’m researching a particular family or individual, I often start by looking at their 1901 census return and then seeing if I can spot anything different in the 1911 return.  Sometimes a family member that is present in the 1901 census does not appear in the 1911 return.  While there can be many reasons for this, it could mean that that person died during that ten year period, or in the case of a female ancestor, it could be that they married and were recorded in the 1911 census under their new married surname.   Whatever the reason, ten years is a fairly manageable space of time when it comes to cross referencing various types of records.  I usually start with birth, marriage and death records and gradually broaden my search to include things military, immigration and criminal records.

While I won’t go into detail here, be sure to check out the Tithe Applotment Books if you have Irish ancestors that had agricultural holdings of over an acre between the years of 1823-1837.

#2 Public Record Office of Northern Ireland PRONI

Many of my ancestors come from Ulster, which is why I am so appreciative of the wonderful resources that can be found on PRONI’s website.  I was able to find the 1929 will of my Great Grandfather in PRONI’s Will Calendars, and had it mailed to me as part of a paid service.  PRONI’s staff were responsive to my request, and I was thrilled when a copy of the will arrived in my mail box.

I have frequently used PRONI’s online resources over the last few years, and have compiled a list of links to their online record collections which I have found to be quite helpful:

  • Will Calendar Database District Probate Registries of Armagh, Belfast and Londonderry, 1858-1965; and copy wills c.1858-1909.  Some of these can be viewed for free online however most need to be ordered to see the actual records.
  • Ulster Covenant Includes signatures and addresses for those who signed the Ulster Covenant on 28 September 1912.  Many women signed the corresponding Ulster Declaration which can also be searched on PRONI’s website.
  • Street Directories  PRONI has digitized street directories for the years 1819-1900.  These can be a great way to place an ancestor prior to the 1901 census, and typically includes the person’s address and occupation.
  • Valuation Revision Books  These are a favorite of mine and build on Griffith’s Valuation mentioned in point #4 above.  The revision books show how properties in Ireland changed hands over time.  HINT: the years of each revision are often colour coded and identified in the opening pages of the book.

#1 Irish

Irish is a website operated by Ireland’s Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.  The main reason I have listed Irish as my top pick for free websites to research your Irish ancestors is their recent addition of the birth, marriage and death records of the General Register Office.  This is quite significant as users can view digital images of the actual record, instead of a transcription or index.  Users can search for birth records over 100 years old, marriages greater than 75 years old and deaths greater than 50 years old.

I was recently able to break through a brick wall in my own research by viewing the birth records of my Great, Great Grandmother’s children.  I noticed that the same woman was present for the births of nearly all of her children.  As I dug deeper, I learned that this woman was actually my Great, Great, Great Grandmother!  I would never have been able to make that connection without being able to view those records.

Closing thoughts

Thankfully, the internet has made tracing Irish ancestors a much more manageable task than it ever was in the past.  The best part is that you don’t actually have to spend any money to get started.  Make sure that you are leveraging these five websites as you research your Irish ancestors and the luck of the Irish may just be on your side!

What is your favorite free or low cost online resource to research your Irish ancestors?  Do you have any tips or tricks that you use to cross reference online resources and break down brick walls?

Have a great week, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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