If you’re like many people I talk to every day at the Family History Library, you know your ancestor was from Ireland, but you don’t know where. According to the late Irish researcher Jim Hennessey, you’re looking for the straw of hay in the stack of needles. So, what does it take to be successful in finding the Irish origins of your immigrant? Generally, you need to know the following:
- Name of immigrant
- Place of birth or marriage in Ireland—at least a county, but if you know a town or parish that’s even better
- Names of immigrant’s family in Ireland—e.g., parents, siblings, spouse, and/or children (if they married or had children before they emigrated)
Why must you know these things? Because of the commonness of names in Ireland (and most countries, for that matter), you must know enough about the immigrant from country-of-arrival sources to be able to tell him or her apart from others with the same name. There might have been over 100 Mary Murphys born in any given year in Ireland. But there is probably only one or two Mary Murphys born in a given year in County Donegal with parents Cornelius Murphy and Catherine Quinn. The more information you know before you head over the ocean, the more likely you are to find the right person in Ireland. Sometimes, finding the information listed above is as simple as locating the immigrant’s death or marriage certificate, which often give names of parents and sometimes a county of origin.
If the children of an immigrant couple were born in Ireland, that can especially helpful. Often, we tend to focus on the end of the line, not realizing that coming forward a generation can solve our problems. For example, the baptisms of a couple born in 1810 in Ireland might not be in Roman Catholic parish registers, because often these registers started after 1810. However, if they had a child born in 1840, there’s a significantly higher chance that the parish registers in the area had started by then, and you might be able to find that child’s baptism. Plus, because you can use the names of the parents as a matching point, you can make sure you found the right baptism. Once you find the baptism, you have a place in Ireland to start searching for the rest of the family.
There might be more hope than you think for finding the origins of your Irish immigrants. FamilySearch offers a series of three free classes that will help you learn what to try next. Just click here and then choose "Ireland Beginning Research Series.” There is a class handout that is downloadable once you start viewing a class. There are many other helpful classes about research in a variety of countries posted on the site, with more to come in the future.
Best of luck in finding those elusive ancestors!