Discovering you have Irish ancestors can be very exciting. Where in Ireland did they come from? Is there a tombstone or an ancestral farm you can visit on your next vacation? Before you start googling, know that accurately tracing an ancestor from America to Ireland isn’t easy; in fact, it’s one of the hardest fields in genealogy. Irish immigrants were often illiterate, and many key records in both America and Ireland have been lost. But rather than feel overwhelmed, take comfort in knowing the journey is not impossible. This is the first of a six-part series that will help you gather important clues and potentially locate your ancestral roots in Ireland.
In this article, you’ll learn which questions are critical to answer before attempting to trace your ancestor across the Atlantic. Hold these questions in your mind as this series shows you how to look for the answers.
When did your Irish ancestor immigrate?
While getting an ancestor’s exact immigration date isn’t always possible, it’s crucial to know the time-period in which your ancestor left Ireland. Knowing the time your ancestor immigrated will help establish their motivation for migration, your method of research, and the feasibility of finding them in Ireland. While research-methodologies will be discussed in a later post, check out these highlights of Irish immigration and determine where your ancestor fits:
Scotch-Irish Migration: One of earliest prominent groups to leave Ireland for America were the Scotch-Irish. The Scotch-Irish (or Ulster Scots) were Scotsmen who had settled in the Ulster province of Ireland in 1600s, but then clashed with their Irish Catholic neighbors. This prompted a move to the American colonies. If your Irish ancestor lived in Pennsylvania, Virginia, or the Carolinas in the 1700s, they were likely Scotch-Irish.
The Potato Famine: From 1845-1852, the Potato Famine caused a million deaths in Ireland. This triggered the largest wave of Irish immigration to America, spanning the second half of the 19th century. Over a million men, women, and children left their homes across Ireland to escape starvation and poverty. Many who left in the 1840s went to Canada, since it had few immigration restrictions. By 1847 the British government tightened restrictions, compelling more Irish to immigrate to America. The largest wave of Famine immigrants came in the 1850s and 60s.
Later Migrations: Most Irish men and women who immigrated in the 1880s-1900s did so because Ireland’s economy was rapidly changing while America’s economic enjoyed stability. An Immigration Act in 1921 severely limited the number of immigrants who could enter the U.S., effectively ending mass-migration from Ireland to America.
Catholic or Protestant?
When was your Irish ancestor born?
Ideally, you would want to determine your Irish ancestor’s exact date of birth, but that isn’t always easy. Many Irish immigrants were illiterate and did not know their birth date. Some could only give a vague approximation of their age. Still, getting as close or as possible to a birth date in records will be helpful for tracing your ancestor. Just getting their birth month, or even a consistent birth year, will contribute to finding the right records for them in Ireland.
Who were your Irish ancestor’s family and friends?
Finding the right Mary or John in Ireland can be a needle in a haystack. That’s why it’s important to narrow the field by learning as much about your ancestor’s Irish-born relatives as possible. Finding names of parents, for example, could help you locate your ancestor’s baptism record in Ireland. Important clues could be hiding in the records of your ancestor’s siblings or cousins. Also, Irish immigrants often settled in communities that came from the same Irish locale; learning more about your ancestor’s neighbors in America could illuminate a possible path back to Ireland.
Which county did your ancestor come from in Ireland?
These are the key questions to keep in mind while researching your Irish ancestor. Some questions you may already know the answer to, others you may not. There may be questions that simply can’t be answered, depending on the time period your ancestor lived in and the availability of records. The important thing is to answer as many of these questions as possible; the more answers you have, the more likely you will find your ancestor in Ireland. Now that you’re armed with the right questions, we’ll next take a look at how you can find the answers as we discuss essential Irish resources in America.