Tracing Irish Immigrants—Are You Stuck?

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!

Comments (7)

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  1. Good blogging

    Victoria 14 January 2012
    7:49 pm
  2. My great, great grandfather Andrew \Arthur Madden was born on Feb. 2, 1782, Drumneath, County Down. Where do I find more information for that far back? His parents were Edward Madden and Rose Brannigan, but that is all the information I have about them. It is possible that the family was Roman Catholic. He arrived in Nova Scotia, Canada, from Greenock, Scotland, in May 1817. Through numerous searches, I have been unable to find information, in Ireland, on any of these family members. Thanks. Leslie, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

    Leslie 18 January 2011
    2:54 pm
  3. And what does one do when the names of parents and siblings are unknown? My great-grandfather, John James SLOWEY, was born in about 1841 in Ireland (per U. S. Census records). The name is uncommon and is found mostly in Fermanagh and Monaghan. He married Elizabeth Bridget DAVIDSON in about 1863. Their first two children, John James, Jr. and Elizabeth, were born in Scotland (per U. S. census records). They emigrated to the U. S. in 1868-69 and settled in Allegheny County, PA, where they had three more daughters, the youngest being my grandmother, Mary Josephine SLOWEY. The family moved to Jefferson County, Arkansas in about 1877 and are shown on the U. S. Census of 1880 for Bogy Township in that county. Elizabeth Davidson Slowey is listed alone in the City Directory for Little Rock, Arkansas in 1892 and in subsequent editions is shown as a widow, so John must have died between the taking of the census in June 1880 and the end of 1891. We have looked in Griffiths, in Scotlands People, and every other type of record we can find to no avail. Does anyone know of some relatively recent archive which has turned up?

    Carol Marlo 12 January 2011
    12:57 pm
  4. How do I find from where in Ireland my ancestors came? U.S. Censuses simply say Ireland and I cant find death certs in the U.S. county or town records. Do the death certs state the specific county and town in Eire in which they were born? Are there websites where I can find this death info? Several sites want you to pay them but you dont know if they have the actual death cert copy. Family Search does give me some death info but not where the ancestor was born. Help Thanks for listening...MTW

    MIKE WALSH 23 December 2010
    4:34 pm
  5. I am trying to track down my grandfather where he was born William Henry Robinson on his marriage certificate it says he came from Dublin he was born about 1892 as he was 22 when he married my grandmother in 1914 at St Pauls C/E Harrispark NSW Australia and he died at Parramatta Hospital NSW in 1918 my grandmother was pregnant with my mother, on his death certificate the informant at the hospital said he had come from Belfast he had been in Australia for 5years. His parents was John Robinson (a gardener) and Helen Douglas she was deceased at time of his marriage in 1914 I have sent away to both Dublin and Belfast BDM for a search to no avail so if any one can put some light on this I would really appreciate their help.

    Val Jolly nee McGregor 22 December 2010
    3:26 am
  6. Start with the marriage - looks like only one Samuel Stevenson and Eliza Agnew marriage in 1863 in Antrim. You need to order a copy of the Registration Entry. You ned the Year Volume and page Number - 1863 Vol 1 page 103. _ Go to http// No online facility exists so you need to write This should give you an address and names of the fathers of both.

    DS 04 December 2010
    1:45 am
  7. hello im looking for info on samuel stevenson born 1840 donegore antrim ireland married 27 may 1863 donegore antrim to eliza agnew born1838 co antrim ireland emigrated to a australia , on board the ship (light of the age) arrived in morton bay 27/1/1864. would you have any thing that can tell me about there parents.? samuel and eliza had 10 children (1) aboard ship and the other chldren born queensland (1) in gin gin the others in bundaberg, where they lived and died . both are buried in the bundaberg cemetery. so i do hope you can help me. thanks glynnis.

    glynnis kleidon 25 November 2010
    4:54 pm

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