In this series we explored how to research Irish ancestors and trace their origins in Ireland – from gathering information in America to consulting maps of Irish farmlands, I hope this has been informative in your quest to learn about your Irish roots.
This last post in the series focuses on fleshing out your Irish ancestor’s story through local and contextual history. Once you’ve discovered the location of that coveted townland or house-plot for your ancestor, it’s tempting to celebrate—maybe even start planning a trip to Ireland—and close the book on your investigation. But while locating an ancestor’s home is often the focus of Irish-immigration research, don’t let that be the end of your research. Many townlands (especially rural ones) have centuries of history and a strong sense of community. Shared experiences—whether local traditions or nationwide traumas like the Potato Famine—can paint a vivid picture of your ancestor’s life. There may even be townland residents today who are familiar with your ancestral family.
The best way to illustrate the nuggets to be found in local Irish history is to discuss my experience working on NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, where I had the opportunity to work closely with researchers on Molly Shannon’s episode (Season 10, Episode 5). The team’s methodologies and discoveries demonstrate the power that local knowledge and historical context can bring to your ancestor’s story.
Molly Shannon’s Episode—Reading All the Lines
For a Catholic bride and groom to have a Protestant ceremony was incredibly unusual and indicative of a deeper story. But neither the marriage record nor other genealogical records (vital records, parish records, etc.) explained why this couple suddenly turned Protestant. We found the answer by looking at the local historical context: specifically, the man who married the couple, Edward Nangle. Our U.S. and Irish researchers scoured histories and newspapers for Nangle. They determined that he had set up a Protestant mission in Achill, with significant funds and resources at his disposal. When the Potato Famine struck Achill, the community was devastated. A “great silence” filled the island, with people becoming more and more desperate for food. For many, the only available sustenance came from Nangle, and his help was conditional on Protestant conversion. So, Hugh and Bridget were likely married under Protestant rites by Nangle out of necessity: it was either accept Protestantism or starve.
What a powerful, heart-wrenching story. And its discovery all stemmed from an unusual line on a marriage record. You may not have such a telling clue in your own research; records in Ireland convey facts, not personal experiences. Odds are your Irish ancestor is a man or woman of humble origins: a tenant-farmer in Cork, a housewife in Westmeath, or a dockworker in Belfast. Records will show age, occupation, residence, religion, all of which may feel standard and not very interesting. But don’t mistake standard records for a standard life. Ireland is a vibrant country teeming with deep and colorful history, so long as you go the extra mile to look for it. If my team didn’t explore the context around Nangle in Achill, Molly Shannon wouldn’t have known about the excruciating choice her 2x great-grandparents had faced.
How to Find Contextual History
So, how do you go about getting contextual history for your ancestor? Newspapers—many of which are held on findmypast.ie—can offer flavor for your ancestor’s townland, church, or employer. Petty Sessions court records (also on findmypast.ie) can paint a picture of the crimes typical in your ancestor’s neighborhood (in one place I studied, the most common crime was the destruction of property by donkeys). If your ancestor lived in a major city like Belfast or Dublin, there are plenty of online resources detailing Irish urban history; your ancestor may have been involved in union strikes, lived in a city-quarter rife with religious tensions, or worked in a factory that still runs today.
While you search to understand your ancestor’s story, keep in mind one key, permeating event in Irish history: The Potato Famine. The Famine was so thorough and devastating, every single county in Ireland was affected in one way or another. If your ancestor lived in Ireland during this nationwide disaster, basic research on your ancestor’s county at this time will give you an idea of their own Famine-experience. If you watch Molly Shannon’s episode, you will see the Famine’s dramatic effect on her ancestors’ community, livelihood, and personal choices. The Famine compelled hundreds of thousands of Irish men, women, and children to leave their homes and families, which is part of your heritage. To understand your ancestor’s circumstances and why they left Ireland is to deliver a loving tribute to their sacrifices, as is discovering their home and raising their origins out of the shadows of obscurity.
I hope this series is helpful as you search for your ancestral origins in Ireland. Irish research is difficult, but not impossible; always keep an open mind and explore every angle. Finding your ancestor’s home in Ireland is incredibly rewarding, and I wish you luck on your journey. While this series strikes the main points of Irish research, there’s still so much more that can be covered. With that in mind, I highly recommend A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Irish Ancestors by Dwight A. Radford and Kyle J. Betit. It’s an excellent book that breaks down the many ways you can trace your Irish immigrant ancestor. If you have Scotch-Irish ancestry, I recommend Irish and Scotch-Irish Ancestral Research by Margaret Dickson Falley and Researching Scots-Irish Ancestors: The Essential Genealogical Guide to Early Modern Ulster by William Roulston. Armed with this blog-series and these resources, you can roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Go n-eirí an t-ádh leat!