Ireland History (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 ($).

Early to Mid-16th Century

The Celts who colonized Ireland developed a strong Gaelic culture where families were closely linked to territories. Norse and Danish coastal invaders of the 8th - 9th centuries were defeated in 1014 and absorbed into the native population. In the 11th century the Normans largely conquered Ireland and gradually became integrated, but this was the start of the English domination of the island. However at first English law only prevailed within east and southeast Ireland including Dublin and parts of Kildare, Meath, Wicklow and Louth and in the earliest times Kilkenny, Wexford, Waterford and Tipperary. The area was known as the pale (meaning the bounds of civilization) and continued to shrink until the re-conquest by the English King Henry VIII in the mid-16th century.

The Tudor policy was to guarantee the Gaelic chieftains lordship of their territories but pursue a vigorous destruction of Gaelic culture including language and dress. The latter was bitterly opposed and English rule was precarious in some areas. The defeat of the O’Neills and O’Donnells in 1603 in Ulster lead to their retreat and the plantation (colonization) by English, Welsh and Scots Protestant upper classes, although much of the native Catholic population remained as tenants and labourers.

The 1600s to 1850

A rebellion by Catholics in 1641 based in Kilkenny was finally quashed by Oliver Cromwell in 1649 resulting in confiscation of lands by the English and expulsion of Catholics to the western province of Connaught and to the West Indies. Protestant settlement in Ireland was encouraged by an Act of 1662 and particularly assisted French Huguenots to immigrate to Ireland bringing with them important trades such as weaving and goldsmithing.

The Irish Catholics had the sympathy of James II of England, but he was deposed in 1688 and lost the Battle of the Boyne to the new Protestant king William of Orange in 1690. This had disastrous consequences for the native Irish; about half a million Catholic soldiers fled to Europe and the Treaty of Limerick was not honoured by the English causing resentment which continues to this day. Instead a series of severe Penal Laws were enacted which restricted the Irish from owning or inheriting land, entering certain trades or public office and the right to vote as well as the limiting the activities of the Catholic church. From a family history point of view this meant that the Irish suffered further impoverishment and far fewer records were kept of them during the 18th century.

The Penal Laws also affected to a certain extent the Presbyterians who comprised mainly the Scots who had moved into Ulster from 1609. This was a major cause of the migration of these Scots-Irish to North America in the 18th century. The major period of emigration from Ireland commenced about 1780 and peaked during the Great Potato Famine of 1845-1849. Ryan examines the various causes of this famine. Most of the famine emigrants were poor Irish Catholics, and they went to North America, Australia and Britain.

Early 1900s and Destruction of Records

Rights to land, the franchise etc. were very gradually introduced to the remaining Irish population but a movement for self-government began in the late 19th century. This culminated in the 1916 rebellion and the establishment of an independent Irish State in 1921. Internecine fighting continued for several years during which the Four Courts Building in Dublin was shelled and set ablaze, destroying valuable archives. There are several sources for further details of this complex period.

The family historian researching prior to 1921 will be dealing with records that are largely the same as English ones and the instructor's more detailed courses on English records will therefore be useful. However, most of the land, tax, probate, voting and occupational records in Ireland will deal only with the Protestants because of the Penal Laws prohibiting the Irish Catholics from participating. The Catholics will be found in civil registration, what remains of the census, church registers and the Poor Law records.


The family historian will be able to put their family in context by exploring Ireland’s past at their local library or online. A few classic titles which can be found at secondhand bookshops:

  • H.V. Morton’s In Search of Ireland.
  • Hanna’s The Face of Ulster and companion Batsford books.
  • Shearman’s Ulster in the County Books series.
  • O’Connor’s Leinster, Munster and Connaught in the same series.
  • Lyons’ Ireland Since the Famine.
  • The Shell Guide to Ireland by Killanin and Duignan.
  • Encyclopaedia of Ireland edited by Meally.
  • Dublin from Old Photographs by Gorham and the many similar titles.

Useful websites for finding in-depth material:


For immigrant ancestors the importance of first doing one’s homework in the new land (North America, Australia, etc.) cannot be overstressed. There are many types of resource which point to where someone was from, but virtually none in Ireland which tell you where they were going to. The family historian should do a thorough job of investigating their ancestors and close kin, as well as friends and those amongst whom they lived in the new country. Remember that most emigrants either went with a group or travelled to join a group. These may have been family groups or those associated with religion or trades. If you have difficulty finding where your ancestor came from try investigating his contemporary neighbours. These sources include tombstones, obituaries in newspapers and trade or religious magazines, local histories, naturalization records, and passenger and immigration lists.

The useful section on Emigration and Immigration in the Family History Library’s Research Outline: Ireland available on the FamilySearch Wiki gives the four main categories of Irish migrants:

  • Free emigrants from 17th century usually fleeing from persecution of some kind.
  • Assisted emigrants, generally the poor in the 19th century.
  • Transported prisoners; from 1611-1870, over 50,000 criminals and political prisoners were transported overseas. Many were sent to North America until 1775, and from 1788 to 1869 to Australia.
  • Military personnel were encouraged to settle in the British colony where they were stationed when they were discharged. A large proportion of the British Army were Irish and they can be found in Australia from 1791, Canada from 1815 and New Zealand from 1844.

Some Statistics

  • Two-thirds of the Irish emigrants to North America in the 18th century were Presbyterians.
  • Of the 5 million Irish in the first half of the 19th century about 1 million died in the famine 1845-6 and 2 million emigrated, but the majority of these emigrants went before the famine and most of them were Church of Ireland.
  • From 1841 to 1901 the population of Ireland fell from 8,175,124 to 4,458,775.
  • From 1851 to 1901 3,846,393 people emigrated from Ireland.
  • From 1856 to 1914 about 4 million people emigrated from Ireland, mostly Catholic and most to the USA.
  • 90% of emigrants leaving between 1891 and 1900 settled in the United States.

There are many indexes for passenger and immigration lists now available, for example:

  • Filby and Meyer published over 20 annual volumes of their Passenger and Immigration Lists Index from 1981 covering 17th-20th century immigrants to North America
  • The volunteer Immigrant Ships’ Transcribers Guild (ISTG)
  • Library and Archives Canada immigration and home children databases
  • Ellis Island (New York) immigrant database 1892-1924
  • Castle Garden, New York the forerunner of Ellis Island, immigrant database 1830-1892
  • has numerous immigrant lists, for example Famine Irish Entry Project 1846-51 from US National Archives Records Administration.
  • The Famine Emigrants: Lists of Irish Emigrants arriving at the port of New York 1846-1851 in 7 volumes by Glazier.
  • FamilySearch Catalog –[COUNTRY] Emigration and Immigration sections.
  • Eneclann’s Returning Home: Transatlantic Migration from North America to Britain and Ireland 1858-1870 by James P. Maher on CD. FHL CD #2675. This shows over 42,000 who returned to the UK, either for a visit or permanently, between 1858 and 1870.
  • Local poor law records found in FamilySearch Catalog – PLACE SEARCH - IRELAND – [COUNTY] – [PARISH] – POORHOUSES, POOR LAW ETC. may contain minutes and other records of those who left the parish. If they are not on film then contact the Heritage Centre for the area.
  • Harris and Jacobs’ The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements in the Boston Pilot contains the adverts placed in newspapers by those who had lost touch with family and friends from Ireland.
  • Arrivals in Halifax, Quebec and Montreal 1900-1921] are being indexed by Nanaimo FHS and 522 ships with nearly a ¼ million people.


Newspapers at the port of arrival have list of arrivals and these sometimes give places of origin and intended place of settlement. It is important to remember that part of your family may have immigrated to Australia and their immigration and census records are much better than North American ones in respect to the origin of families. Their civil registration (vital statistics) records have much more information about parentage and origins as well. Australians are about one third Irish and New Zealanders about 10-15%.


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.