This is part 2 in a six-part series on tracing your Irish ancestor back to Ireland. In the last post, we discussed the critical questions to ask before conducting research (when your ancestor immigrated, what was their religion, their birth date, and names of Irish-born relatives, which county they came from in Ireland). Now, we’ll discuss which resources will help you find the answers to these questions. The resources discussed here are U.S. based; given the scarcity of Irish records (which will be discussed in a later post), it’s essential to find as many of your answers as possible in U.S. records before attempting to trace your ancestor in Ireland. It should also be noted that the records discussed here apply mainly to Irish immigrants who left Ireland during the Potato Famine (1840s) onwards. Surviving records for Scotch-Irish immigrants are far scarcer; while some of the resources here may be applicable, the next part of this series (part 3) will be more helpful in finding answers.
Censuses are a staple in genealogical research, but it’s especially helpful in this case because it can provide an Irish ancestor’s birth year, year of immigration, and year of naturalization. It may also give names of other Irish-born relatives living with the ancestor. Information on the U.S. Federal Census varies from decade to decade (ex: the 1900 and 1910 censuses have immigration information while the 1800-1880 censuses do not), so it’s important to locate every census your ancestor would have participated in. Occasionally a census may carry more information than expected; censuses typically did not require a more specific birthplace than “Ireland,” but sometimes an enumerator would record specifics if an Irish immigrant provided them. For example, the 1870 census entry below shows that immigrant Mary Mitchell was born in Limerick.
It’s also good to check if the state your ancestor lived in created censuses as well. State censuses can provide their own unique information, like the 1925 Iowa State Census which listed parent-names for every resident. Locating every census for your ancestor will clue you in on where they lived, who they lived with, and possible insight into their family and origins.
Newspapers can provide important details for your Irish ancestor. If an obituary had been published for your ancestor, it can provide a county of origin in Ireland as well as names of surviving relatives. Keep in mind that your ancestor would less likely have a detailed obituary if they lived in a large urban area (like New York City or Chicago) than a smaller town. Many obituaries are kept on sites like Newspapers.com and GenealogyBank, or you can access them through the library local to your ancestor’s residence.
A newspaper of great value to Irish immigrants was the Boston Pilot. Immigrants who lost touch with loved ones in America would place advertisements in the paper to find their whereabouts. These advertisements go back as far the 1830s and can be accessed through Ancestry.com. The Boston Pilot cites specific townlands and parishes of origin in Ireland, so this can be an incredible resource if your ancestor was mentioned in this paper.
Anyone familiar with immigration research knows that passenger lists and naturalization records can vary widely depending on the decade in which they were recorded. Passenger lists and naturalizations in the 1850s-1880s are typically uninformative, while such records from the 1890s onwards can carry a wealth of information for your immigrant ancestor. Passenger lists in the 1900s name an immigrant’s birthplace and the name of their closest relative. Naturalization records can provide a birth date, birthplace, and relatives’ names. Most Irish immigrants escaping the Potato Famine arrived in Canada, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Passenger lists for these places are available on Ancestry.com. Access to naturalization records can vary, depending on the county in which your ancestor naturalized (they can be on Ancestry, Familysearch, or at the county court). Regardless when your ancestor immigrated, it is always worthwhile to locate their passenger list in case they traveled with other Irish-born relatives.
Church Records (Catholic)
Because they are not so readily available, church records are not as often sought after in genealogy research. But in the case of Irish immigrants—particularly Catholic ones—church records can be a valuable resource. Catholic baptism, marriage, and burial records can cite an individual’s family members and place of origin. Most Catholic records are in Latin, but they should still be straightforward in gleaning information for your ancestor. The 1881 Catholic marriage record below, for instance, describes the couple as having come from Cork, Ireland, and names their parents:
Catholic church records are typically held by individual churches or by the greater diocese. If your Irish ancestor married in America, consult their civil marriage record for the name of the priest officiating; this should help you determine which church they married in. Obtaining church records for Protestant ancestors in America is trickier, since there are a variety of Protestant churches with inconsistent record-keeping. Still, if your ancestor can be traced to a particular church, it is worthwhile to see if it has records of past members.
While not all these resources may be available for your Irish ancestor—or contain the information you seek—it’s still important to pursue each of these record sets. If just one of them provides your ancestor’s parent-names or a place of origin, the search will have been well worth it. The next part of this series will discuss utilizing Irish-immigrant communities and DNA research; the combination of tactics from this post and the next will provide a professional and effective method for determining the Irish origins of your ancestor.