Finding Irish Ancestors: Part 2 – The Old Country

May you have blessings in abundance with your Irish research.

In Part 1, we had a brief excursion through the possible records in the new land, to learn where you might learn more about your ancestors’ Irish origins. With a bit of luck you’ve gained some clues on their home place from these resources so now you can turn your sights on the old country’s records.

Hopefully you’ve got more than just the county name or you will have a close-to-insoluble problem.  Remember that just because “Name eg Gunning” is the only instance you can find in the records, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right one! It may mean not all the records survived, or that they haven’t been digitised or indexed.

So where to look in Ireland?

Let’s assume you’ve got the parish, village or townland because without them you’re in serious research trouble.

Parish Registers

Image reproduced with permission of Furman University Special Collections and Archives, email 28 Sept 12. 

If you have the parish name, the first place I’d look is at the Family Search Catalogue and search by place (try parish and/or town).  You won’t always find that the LDS church holds a microfilmed copy of the registers, but you may get lucky as I did. If so you can order the microfilm and have it delivered to a local family history centre or your local genealogical society (assuming they are authorised lenders). You can check available locations here.

Be aware that church registers for Catholic parishes rarely go back to the very early 19th century due to storage conditions and restrictions on the practice of the religion.  You may find the early years of the registers very difficult to read but it’s worth persevering.

Online indexes to registers provide an alternative search option:

Roots Ireland

Irish Genealogy

The former is a pay-to-view site and can be very helpful, if you’re lucky. It currently covers most of the counties except Clare, Carlow, Kerry, Dublin city and Cork (RC).

Irish Genealogy is a free-to-use site and covers the counties omitted from Roots Ireland, with the exception of Clare which as yet is covered by neither, frustrating given that Clare is one of the biggest exporters of migrants. However you can always refer to the Clare Roots Society to see what they recommend (check under the Activites tab).

For some time this gravestone in the Tuamgraney churchyard seemed a good fit for my O’Briens, but this lot came from Caherhurley. Erected by Matthew O’Brien from Perth, WA.

I’ve had good fortune with both these sites, especially with the Dublin records. Conversely there are births covered in Co Wexford and Wicklow, for example, which aren’t turning up in Roots Ireland as they should. As always, be aware that a negative result doesn’t necessarily mean what you’re looking for isn’t in the registers. This may be due to an indexing error, the church registers which have been indexed, or commencement dates of the register.  You can always search each site to ascertain which parishes have been indexed.

Where possible it’s always best to check yourself by borrowing the microfilm.

Family Search

You can specify your search within the United Kingdom and Ireland then select one of the Irish options. This can be very helpful for research once you move into the period of civil registration.

If you find one that you’re confident belongs to your family, you can then order the certificate, or a copy, from the General Register Office.

Griffith’s Primary Valuation

My 2x great aunt lived in this house near Lough Doon after her marriage in the C19th.

There isn’t space to go into this in detail here (keep an eye out for it in a future Beyond the Internet topic in a few weeks).

Suffice to say that this land valuation for the purposes of taxation, is the major resource for Irish research and is a substitute for the censuses which were destroyed either officially or in the Troubles.

It’s important to also look at the accompanying maps as well. In some cases there are accompanying house books, field books and name books. Not all survive but you should check out what the status is for your family.

Do you think you understand the GV and what it was all about? There are so many nuances and this article is invaluable in broadening our understanding. The book is even better but if you can’t buy the book or borrow it on inter-library loan, then the article is an excellent synopsis.

I’m restricted in what images I can show you due to copyright and reproduction rights, but please, don’t just settle for searching the indexes. Seeing the original documents give you a much better feel for life “on the ground”, and lets you learn more about your ancestors’ neighbours..

The revision lists which document the changes in land ownership from the time of the original valuation to the present day are at least as important.

Tithe Applotments

These date to the 1820s-1840s and were payable towards the expenses of the Church of Ireland clergy, irrespective of the person’s religion. This is a more restrictive source than the Griffith Valuations but can be useful.

A more indirect way to locate the prevalence of your family is to search for the stats on the name across the counties.

Census records

In the majority of cases, the census records prior to 1901 have been destroyed officially or through the Troubles. However there are a few remnants for some lucky areas. There are also some extracts held for people who claimed the pension and had to use census extracts to prove their age. Why oh why are my relatives never on these lists?

Complex statistics are available for all the years however and these can be invaluable to get a sense of the place where your ancestors lived and the changes over the decades especially regarding the impact of the Famine.

The 1901 and 1911 census returns are the first surviving records for the Republic.  Fortunately many people seemed to have great longevity so you may be lucky and find links to the members of your family who remained in Ireland.

It’s important not to just look at your specific ancestor in their townland. Do have a look at their neighbours as well -this is the context within which your family lived, and these are the people who formed their daily networks. Indexes are all well and good, but they do tempt you to only focus on your own family when much more can be learned by widening the lens.

Talk to the locals

Would a passer-by realise this was the remaining wall of my ancestor’s house, without the help of the inheritor.

Yes this is most applicable when you are visiting Ireland and when you know the place your ancestor came from.  On my first trip to Broadford, Co Clare, on enquiring about O’Briens I was invited to visit an elderly couple who had no memory of my own family’s migration to Australia. Quite genuinely they told me no one from the village went to Australia but in retrospect and knowing how pivotal the parish priest of Broadford was in encouraging Australian migration, this is quite ironic.  They were delightful and happy to help but sadly couldn’t. In those early days too I fear I may not have been as strategic in my approach, and possibly too focused on what I wanted to know.

A second trip was a different story when the acting parish priest, a former missionary with whom we bonded after Mass, promptly drove us to the home of someone with a completely different name from O’Brien and announced the presence of their relations from Australia. It’s hard to know how was more astonished as we compared what we knew about Mary and Bridget O’Brien’s lives in Australia.  Paddy was enormously helpful to me and showed me the original land and where the house was. I am so indebted to him for this. (You can see the O’Brien land on the header images -it’s the view with the red-roofed shed).

A sign on the Famine graveyard at Tuamgraney, Co Clare.

It was only later that I learned about the Valuation revision books and now the name of the final owner made sense!

Workhouse Registers

If you know you families were extremely poor especially around the Famine times, it might be worth your while to check the workhouse registers, some of which are now available online. The gateway to these is through this site. The most important thing to remember is to check which Poor Law Union your parish belonged to eg Kilseily parish in County Clare is actually in the Limerick Poor Law Union.

Memorial Inscriptions

The gravestone of Thomas & Anne Gunning in Kilbane Cemetery, Co Clare. Erected by their son Fr JJ Gunning of Australia.

The more distant the person’s death, the less likely you’ll find a gravestone & MI, in my opinion. This isn’t always the case so it’s worth a look but don’t get your hopes up unless your family had money or a position of influence.

Estate Records

As many of our Irish ancestors were tenants on estates, one pivotal place to look is for the records of the estates. Where they exist they can tell you all sorts of information ranging from how they paid their rents, which adult children remained at home, how overdue their rentals were, and so on. Some remain in private hands, others are found in the National Library. There’s no one-size-fits-all.

Encumbered Estates Records

These have been indexed by Findmypast Ireland and you may have some joy in finding your tenant farmers mentioned among these records.


This is a quick synopsis of some of the key resources that might help you find your Irish ancestral families. You might get lucky and find hits in all of them or alternatively, none of them. You may have to explore other records, some of which can only be searched in Ireland.

The critical fact is knowing at least which parish your family belonged to. Without that you are stumbling in the dark, and even with it, you may hit obstacle after obstacle and be left scratching your head.

It’s clear that Irish research can be challenging but it’s by no means as impossible as is often perceived.  Like a lot of family history it’s a case of persistence and patience….try, try again!

And don’t be lulled into thinking I’ve solved all my own Irish family mysteries… I haven’t  or I’d know the origins of James Sherry (northern Ireland?); Martin Furlong (Wexford not Tullamore?); what happened to Denis Gavin’s mother in Kildare or his wife, Ellen Murphy’s mother in Wicklow. It’s always a work in progress with at least as many questions as answers.

I’d be more than happy if my readers pitched in with their experiences in Irish research: successes and “failures”. Over to you.

Griffith Valuation (GV) online

Thanks to Noel from the Toowoomba & Darling Downs Family History message boards (  for posting about the new online Griffith Valuation search engine at:

Not only does this let you search the GV across Ireland, it gives you a great deal of original information to build up the story of your family. A search by name, preferably combined with county, returns all the entries for that name. From the list provided you can choose one or all the options.

Clicking on the magnifying glass (details) gives you a typed summary: year of GV, lot number, map reference, townland, occupier and landlord.

Click on the “page” tab and you will see the typed list of names per townland, together with lot number, acreage, type of holding (house, land, outbuildings etc) and the value of buildings and land. You can see your ancestor’s neighbours, perhaps seeing how marriages were made across the townland, and you can ascertain the quality of the land to some extent (large plots with small values tend to suggest poorer land). You might also want to compare the residents of the townland at the time of the GV compared to those still resident at the 1901 census.

Now it gets interesting: click on map and you will see a pop-up window of the general region. This is the only weakness in the system….it will help if you have some idea where the townland is that you’re looking for, so doing a preliminary Google Maps search might help you with that. Because I was familiar with the area where my ancestors lived from prior research I had no difficulty finding what I was looking for. Other entries with which I was less familiar posed more of a challenge. Firstly click on the rectangles outlined in red…this will take you closer to the area you need. The little “house” icons are churches though I found that some weren’t showing on the map. It helps if you can pick out the general area you need before magnifiying the map more. From there you should be able to find the townland you’re looking for.

The maps you’re seeing here are the ones that were previously only available through the Lands Registry at Chancery St n Dublin at rather a lot of money -both for searching and reprints.

The next exciting step is to click on the “views” tab and repeat much of the process above. Why do this? Well this gives you the opportunity to see some truly great techo advantages and place your ancestral place into a modern environment.

Once you’ve located the right townland, identify the allotment number you need from the original info found at “Details” or “Page”.  If you’re quick when you enlarge the page to see the area you’re interested in you’ll get a brief glimpse of a Google maps image for the area before “reverting” to the GV map.  (Down in the bottom right corner you’ll see a small map icon with a standard Google maps image).

Go to the top right of the page to the bar which says “Map, Satellite, Hybrid”. If you click on either Satellite or Hybrid and then slide the bar beneath them along to the left, you will start to see the GV map underlaid with a current satellite image of the area, or the street map. Pretty cool I reckon! Not everywhere will give you fantastic detail if the satellite imagery isn’t fantastic own to a low altitude but for my Clare ones I can see how the hedge lines fit exactly over the allotment layout on the GV map!!  Further enlarging the map will show you natural and historic features such as ring forts and dolmens.  You will also see railway lines, canals and woods and on the modern satellite map, where current houses are situated.

I think this is an absolutely fabulous tool for family historians and I’m super excited by it!!

If you go back to the original search page you can choose to search by “place name search” rather than “family name search”. This lets you find out who is residing in neighbouring townlands to your ancestor’s, just in case there are more rellies hiding there.

For those with Clare ancestry there are a range of maps available for each parish at different historical times. Go to click the genealogy tab, look at the bottom right for the parish index and click on the one you’re interested in. You will find which maps are available to bring up online. God Bless the Clare library.

Okay you’ve got the GV information and the maps, now you need to decipher what all those codes mean. The following article is available to help you expand your  knowledge of the valuations. It really does make understandable and I strongly recommend it. Equally a book by the same author is absolutely fantastic for a more comprehensive understanding.

James Reilly’s book “Richard Griffith and his Valuations of Ireland : with, An inventory of the books of the General valuation of rateable property in Ireland, conducted under 9 & 10 Vict. c. 110 of 1846 and 15 & 16 Vict. C. 63 of 1852” is available to borrow on inter-library loan through the National Library of Australia but is also now able to be read on Google books online. Check it out -you’ll find it’s worth the effort.

In a day or two I’ll post about how you can use LDS microfilms to follow your family between the GV and the 1901 census.

Happy hunting.