Tracing Your Irish Ancestry

Tracing Your Irish Ancestry

From 1800 to 1922 the UK was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  So, for a great deal of the period of interest to genealogists, the two islands were part of the same country.

The consequence of this is that there are no official records of migration, because the Irish in Britain during that time were not technically immigrants.  As a result, the British archives contain much more material of Irish interest.

There are a lot of similarities between the record systems of Britain and Ireland, particularly:

  • The formats of the various civil registration records
  • Census-taking practice
  • Probate for wills
  • Before census and civil registration, parish records are the only direct sources of family information for the majority of the population.

There are four categories of Irish records that are relevant to almost everyone researching their Irish ancestors: civil records, census records, church records and property records.

There are also fascinating tales of family history, passed down orally through the generations, which can be found in most families.  Irish Family History is full of myths and legends.  These stories may be curious, but always interesting and sometimes historically valuable, perhaps grounded in fact and providing a peek into the past that might not be available through other means.

Tracing your Irish ancestry has become easier with the 1901 Census Online, a great new resource –  But where do you start?

Starting Point
If you don’t have a specific place of origin for your ancestor in Ireland, you aren’t through doing research in your own country.  Always begin with yourself and try to find out everything you can (oral history and factual information) from family members.  There may be people in your immediate or extended family who have already gathered information such as certificates, obituary notices, etc.  Don’t forget bibles, diaries, and tombstones which can be another good place to start for names, dates and places, which will help your discussions with relatives.  Organise the information you collect and record it on a family tree or through the great resources and features available on My Heritage.

Civil / Church Districts
Once you’ve gathered all you can from local sources, your next step is determining what part of Ireland your ancestors originated from.  Ireland has historically been divided into four provinces – Ulster, Connaught, Munster and Leinster.  However, the Irish word for this territorial division is cúige, meaning “fifth part” indicates that there were once five – Meath (now incorporated into Leinster and Ulster) being the fifth. 

Under the provinces are:

Counties (32)
Poor Law Unions (163)
Baronies (331)
Civil Parishes ( 2, 508)
Townlands (60, 462)
Dioceses (4- with 22 parishes in each)

Both the Protestant and Catholic churches kept to the same boundaries, but maintained separate records.  Protestant marriages weren’t required to be registered until 1845, Catholics until 1864.  For marriages prior to these dates you will need to locate the actual church records.

Information Needed
To progress from here you will need to know:

  • What time they lived in
  • What religion they were (and possibly denomination)
  • When they emigrated and where from
  • If you have any relatives still in Ireland

Place of Origin
One of the most important items of information for Irish family history research is a precise place of origin, and the most important tool in identifying Irish placenames is the 1851 General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, parishes and Baronies of Ireland.

From here you can search the entire Index, together with street listings from Dublin, Cork and Belfast cities, more than 65,000 entries in all.

The Townland is a unique feature of Ireland and is one of the most ancient divisions in the country.  It is in the Townland that you will find the location of the church where your ancestor’s births, deaths and marriages were recorded. 

To locate the Townland you will need to find the County, then the Civil Parish, which will then lead you to the Townland.  You can then branch out and look at Poor Law Records and Probate Districts.  This will help you find the parish and from there you could join an Irish mailing list.

Another useful reference point to help you in your search is to trace the Townland your ancestors came from.


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  • Lyn Lumsden

    August 12, 2010

    Thank you, this is the best explanation of searching Ireland I have ever seen. I’ve looked at townlands before, but never understood it. I’ll go off looking again.

  • Greg Gilligan

    August 16, 2010

    The Irish 1901/1911 census can be found at

  • Ian Charlton

    August 17, 2010

    Just getting back to genealogy after a long rest and 2 visits to Ireland. My family came from County Tyrone, Townland Knockeraven, near a village called Dromore (one of more than one in Ireland). We have been greatly helped by letters sent to my grandfather, who came to Australia in 1856,by his brother who featured in 2 Canadian censuses (1901 and 1911). I found another brother who died in Tyrone in 1901. Glad to hear from anyone who may know more.

  • Chris Doherty

    August 30, 2010

    Ireland had penal laws (anti Roman Cathloic) upto 1820. They were not allowed to have clergy, therefore no churches, Church records for birth deaths and marriages rarely exist prior to 1820.
    Census, only one census exists pre 1900, that is the 1841 census but it is only in part and that is for the Killishandra parish in county Cavan. Some were distroyed on orders by the British Government, others during the Irish Wars in the 1920’s.
    Many mistakes have been made on census returns, the most common being age, My Great Grand father appears on the 1841, 1901 and 1911 census at each stage his age does not agree with his known age at death 105. the 1841 filled in by his mother would have his age as 100 or 101, depending on when nis birthday was, the others would have him in his earky 80’s and 90’s. I have been told that many lied about their aghie to qualify for a pension, and as many names were common ID theft was well in place in the 1800’s
    My relation was a Peter Morris and his father was Peter Morris, but he was not the only Peter Morris whos father was Peter Morris in the area he lived in. Also a son could claim to be his father when the share the same name, so he could use fathers details to claim a state pension.

  • Sean Coghlan

    August 30, 2011

    A list of townlands by county can be found at . The townland name is required to search the 1901 and 1911 census outside of the urban areas. Births marriages and deaths are registered by poor law union area, Poor law union areas by county can be found in a publication called “A New Genealogical Atlas of Irelans” by Brian Mitchell.