Introduction to Irish Research (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: Irish Ancestor  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Most family historians want to do the work on their own families for themselves. Those who are able to visit Ireland can usually only go for a limited time and this is better spent seeing people and places rather than basic research.

It is impractical to suggest that a short trip to Ireland working in unfamiliar conditions can substitute for conscientious, step-by-step continuing research from home base even if it were financially and logistically possible. Fortunately, your local FamilySearch Center (FSC) offers the means of pursuing your roots close to home and at your own pace. You just have to learn how, read on!

Original sources are the first recordings of events and are the most reliable records upon which to base a pedigree. After exhausting family sources, the five main original sources for genealogy are:

  • civil registration (called vital statistics in North America) of birth, marriage and death
  • census records
  • church registers of christening, marriage and burial
  • probate (wills, administrations, guardianship, etc.)
  • land records

There are hundreds of other original sources for specific groups of people, such as soldiers, tax payers, immigrants and criminals, in particular time periods and in different jurisdictions.

Derivative sources are those made from the originals and include transcripts, translations, abstracts, extracts and indexes. Compiled records such as local and family histories, genealogies and websites are also derivative sources. Derivative sources are extremely useful aids to research but are less acceptable as proof as they are prone to error, however they do offer invaluable assistance in finding the original sources.

Hundreds of original and derivative sources for all countries are available through FSCs hence they are the most convenient resource facility for the majority of genealogists in the world. Exceptions would be those folks with unlimited budgets and unrestricted time schedules who could actually travel to each archive that they need in the course of their research!

Public, university, specialist and genealogical society libraries also house useful materials, each being restricted in its scope; serious researchers should be acquainted with those relevant to their areas of interest. The FSCs affiliated with the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City hold a pre-eminent position for the genealogist because of the breadth and strength of their holdings worldwide.

How Difficult Is Irish Research?[edit | edit source]

You have probably heard the myth that all Irish records were lost during the troubles (Civil War) in 1922 when the Four Courts Building in Dublin was blown up. There were significant losses but not everything in that building perished and there were plenty of records housed elsewhere that escaped destruction. Intelligent and creative use of the many extant records will enable the researcher to construct a pedigree and find information about how their families lived.

The new county-based Heritage Centres are doing a commendable job computerizing the records. Alas these aids, as well as the original records that they hold, will not be available for public use, only searchable by the staff for a fee. The latter takes all the joy of self-discovery out of the process and thus dehumanizes that most human of yearnings - the search for one's roots. Families cannot be just spat out of a computer. How does one get to know one's ancestors if one does not have personal access to the tangible records that they left?

In addition the Heritage Centres are unable to provide photocopies of the original documents (i.e. primary information) because they signed No photocopying agreements in order to be able to microfilm them. This was terribly short sighted and oblivious to modern standards of proof!

Limiting access only perpetuates the myth that Irish research is impossible to do! Improving access to microfilms of the originals, as well as production and dissemination of finding aids would enable more to find their Irish roots as well as encourage them to visit their ancestral homeland.

Most books and articles on Irish research ignore the significant holdings of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and their accessibility worldwide. They only refer the researcher to the archives in Ireland where the originals, transcripts or microfilms are kept.

Major Texts[edit | edit source]

There are three important works to which the researcher should have access; your local Family History Society and public library will purchase such major reference works if they are told about them:

  • James Ryan’s 1997 (revised edition) Irish Records is the major hardback work of 668 pages and contains three large clear maps of the whole country from Mitchell’s Atlas showing counties, Church of Ireland (Anglican) dioceses, and probate jurisdictions respectively. He also gives maps of individual counties showing baronies and civil parishes (generally coterminous with Anglican parishes) but no maps of Catholic dioceses or parishes. The introduction describes history and sources with good examples. The bulk of the volume explores each county alphabetically giving a brief history and information on census and census substitutes, church records, commercial and social directories, a bibliography of family histories, published MIs (gravestone inscriptions), newspapers, probate, miscellaneous sources and local research sources and societies. There is a detailed appendix on Belfast and a most comprehensive index.
  • John Grenham’s 2006 (3rd edition) Tracing Your Irish Ancestors is available in paperback. There are no general maps of Ireland so the beginner would need to use Mitchell’s Atlas in conjunction with it. In contrast to Ryan, Grenham gives county maps of Catholic parishes much improved from the 2nd edition, but not of Church of Ireland/civil ones. About one third of the book is devoted to general description of the resources and includes a good chapter on emigration and the Irish abroad with many references. The largest section of the book is the list of county sources, and the last 30% is a very detailed listing of Catholic parishes, with their alternate names and dates of extant registers. A major failing, even in this 3rd edition, is the lack of an index even though one is grandly referred to in the promotional blurb on the back cover!
  • Brian Mitchell’s 2002 (2nd edition) A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland is the standard geographical guide. Every Irish family historian should have access to it as he provides a complete set of maps of the mid-19th century administrative divisions in which all the major Irish record sources are organized. There are 156 maps including three general ones of Ireland (counties, Church of Ireland dioceses, and probate districts). There are four maps for each county in the Republic of Ireland and five for each of the nine counties in the old province of Ulster. These are:
  • Civil / Church of Ireland parishes.
  • Baronies and Church of Ireland dioceses.
  • Poor Law Unions (and hence also the Registration Districts) and Probate districts.
  • Roman Catholic parishes grouped into their Catholic dioceses.
  • Presbyterian Congregations (Ulster only).

Additional Information[edit | edit source]

For additional information see:  Searching for your ancestor in Ireland

See: Ireland Emigration and Immigration

See: Ireland Names Personal

See: Ireland Land and Property

See: Ireland Newspapers


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: Irish Ancestor offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.