This is part 3 of a six-part series on how to trace your Irish ancestor back to Ireland. In parts 1 and 2, we looked at the important questions to ask about your ancestor and how to find answers in American records. In this post, we’ll look at another strategy to find your ancestor’s Irish origins: analyzing family, community, and DNA.
Let’s say you checked all the resources listed in part 2 of this series, but you’re still no closer to finding your ancestor’s birthplace in Ireland. You’re not alone in that respect; many Irish immigrants left little imprint on historical records, giving only a vague birth-year or their birthplace as “Ireland.” But what’s true for one immigrant may not be true for another, which is why applying the same searches to your Irish ancestor’s family is so important. Some Irishmen came to America alone and single to seek a better life, but oftentimes Irish immigrants traveled as families or joined family already living in America. Your ancestor likely lived in the same household or town as siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles. And while records may be scarce for your ancestor, it may not be so for his or her relative. Let’s say, for example, your ancestor died in 1880: too early for death records to be very informative. But his younger sister lived until 1905, and her death record gives parent-names and the birthplace County Donegal. Instantly, you know the parents and origins of your own ancestor. The same can be applied to cousins or other blood-relatives: knowing their birthplace gives a very likely place of origin for your own ancestor.
What if your ancestor didn’t have any family in America? If you think that’s the case, look again. While censuses and vital records may suggest your ancestor had no Irish relatives in the U.S., other resources may tell a different tale. City directories, for example, give an excellent overview of who lived at an address in the years between censuses. Irish immigrant Daniel O’Driscoll was thought to have lived alone at 22 Church in Charleston, South Carolina, but the city directory showed this was not the case:
Suddenly, there are multiple O’Driscolls to investigate, any of which could have records revealing more family members and clues to the O’Driscoll’s Irish origins.
A similar tactic can be applied to gravesites. You may know where your ancestor was buried, but who were they buried with? It was tradition for Irish families to be buried in the same plot, even across generations. Cemetery staff typically keep records of who had purchased a burial plot and the names of all who had been buried there. Finding out who was buried in the same plot as your ancestor could provide relatives who had been previously unknown. Whether you use directories, burial plots, censuses, obituaries, or other resources to find family members, just remember that a new Irish relative equals a new avenue for finding your ancestor’s origins.
As well as travelling in family groups, Irish immigrants sometimes came to America with their whole community. Which is why it’s worthwhile to examine your Irish ancestor’s community in the U.S., especially if they stayed in the same small town for many years. This tactic is less effective for sprawling urban areas (New York City, Chicago, etc.), where immigrants from all over lived packed together. However, this tactic is particularly helpful for Scotch-Irish research; the Scotch-Irish typically came to the Colonies in large groups under their pastor. Determining the origins of Scotch-Irish neighbors, or knowing the pastor’s name and origins, can help with tracing your Scotch-Irish ancestor back to Ireland.
There are multiple ways to tell if your ancestor had settled in America with his/her Irish community: in censuses, was your ancestor consistently surrounded by Irish neighbors? Does the history of your ancestor’s town mention an influx of immigrants from an Irish locale? Do vital records or obituaries of town-residents consistently name a particular place in Ireland? While researching an Irish immigrant in a small Rhode Island town, I noticed that many tombstones in the local cemetery referenced the same parish in Ireland as the birthplace of the deceased. Sure enough, many residents of that town were part of the same community from Ireland, of which the Irish immigrant I’d been studying was also part.
The strategy of examining communities can also be applied to examining your ancestor’s friends and close acquaintances in America. If an Irish immigrant consistently lived with (or next to) your ancestor in censuses/directories, or was mentioned as a friend in their obituary, that immigrant may have known your ancestor back in Ireland. Even a family member whose relationship to your ancestor can’t be clearly discerned (for example, see Miss Mary Giles’s entry in the 1870 census below) is worth exploring. If your ancestor’s relatives, community, or group of friends can be traced to the same location in Ireland, odds are your ancestor was also affiliated with that place.
A more recent and exciting resource for tracing your Irish ancestor’s origins is DNA. Corporations such as Ancestry, MyHeritage, and Living DNA can evaluate your DNA and tell you what ethnicities you inherited. The process has become so refined that they can sometimes give you specific communities, or “sub-regions,” in Ireland that you have ties with. This can be invaluable for finding your ancestor’s origins, especially if records prove unhelpful.
Keep in mind that Irish communities/sub-regions in the field of DNA are typically the size of provinces or counties, rather than individual towns (though sometimes they can be as specific as a handful of parishes). DNA also doesn’t identify which of your ancestors belonged to which community/sub-region, so you’ll need to do additional research if you have multiple family lines that go back to Ireland. Still, this is an exciting and growing field in the genealogy world.
Take a look at the top DNA companies and see which would be most beneficial for tracing your Irish lines; Ancestry has the largest database, and Living DNA has has many test takers from the UK. 23andMe has a large database and breaks down their Ancestry report by counties within Ireland.
Since genealogy companies are continually refining DNA research, check your DNA results at least semi-annually in case they have been updated. Check out these DNA success stories from Elizabeth Anderson and JTaylor to get an idea of how helpful DNA can be for finding your Irish origins.
Now that we’ve explored the important tools for researching Irish immigrants in America, take some time and see if they open new inroads for understanding your ancestor’s family and origins. Next week, we’ll jump across the Atlantic and look at Irish records. Armed with information about your ancestor in America, we’ll discuss how this translates to finding their roots in Ireland.