Many of my consultations or questions asked during a lecture are, "but I don't know where in Ireland my ancestor came from!" In order to be effective researching in Ireland, you need to know both the place where your ancestor was born and the timeframe. All records are dependent on those two pieces of information. And, by the way, it’s the same no matter where your ancestors were from…in order to jump the pond you need the locality information. If that information exists, it is most likely in a record in the US or other country where your ancestor settled. This is usually the biggest stumbling block because our ancestors didn’t talk about Ireland. They frequently came from terrible conditions and the goal for them and their children was to be American. Whenever asked, the only answer that seemed to be required was “Ireland.” So where might you find the information?
Begin with any family sources or documents. My family didn’t save anything, so this was a dead end for me. Talk to older relatives who might remember some family lore (don’t delay on this one...I put this off too long; I had an aunt who died before I had a chance to ask her questions).
For me, death records, cemetery records and obituaries helped put some of the information together. I visited the cemeteries where grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles were buried and took the dates from the headstones. If you're lucky, some headstones from the early to mid 19th century will give the location in Ireland. If you’re not local, try FindAGrave or Billion Graves. After collecting the cemetery information I went to the local library and looked up obituaries for each of the individuals. This was before the days of online newspapers. Now you can try GenealogyBank, Newspapers.com or the Library of Congress' Chronicling America. Also try the local library in the town where your ancestor died. If you can't get to the library, but know the date, use "Ask a Librarian" from their website. They might be able to find the obituary and email you an image. In one case, the obituary of a great half-uncle of my husband stated that he was from Mayo. At that time, all I knew about my husband’s grandfather was he was from Irishtown (no county) but by putting together this information I discovered that he was from the Irishtown in County Mayo. Another obituary provided the married name of a sister of a different grandfather still living (at the time of the obituary) in Westmeath. Sometimes there are bits in different documents that will help narrow down your search. Don’t only research your direct ancestors...the information you’re looking for may have been left by someone else in the family. If you don’t know the siblings of your ancestors, check baptismal or marriage records of your ancestor and their children for the names of sponsors or witnesses. Baptismal sponsors tend to be family or close friends (perhaps from the old country).
You may think I’m fixated on death records, but they really can provide the critical information you’re seeking. My strategy when starting research on an individual is to begin with the death records. That would include vital and religious, cemetery, probate and obituaries. Although my family didn’t save much, my mother-in-law had a huge collection of funeral cards. She had them for both friends and family and if a person died and she couldn’t get to the funeral, someone would send a card, including relatives in Ireland. The Irish funeral cards usually contain a picture of the deceased, as well as all of their vital information including location. Initially, I couldn’t make a connection on some of the cards, but additional research over the years has allowed me to identify some of the people.
When requesting church records (especially Roman Catholic records which are considered private) explain what you’re looking for and request that any information in the register be provided. The Catholic church usually sends a transcript of a baptism or marriage on a pre-printed form and if additional information was in the register with no place for it on the form, you might not get it. Some priests required proof of baptism prior to a marriage and may have made notes in the margins of the register. In one case when requesting information from a church in New York City, I received a copy of a letter from the parish priest in Ireland giving names of the parents, the place of baptism and names of the sponsors. This was tucked into the register page with the marriage record. Roman Catholic records have always been difficult since they are considered private. Now we have the Archdiocese of Boston working with the New England Historic Genealogical Society (AmericanAncestors) and the New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore Archdiocese working with FindMyPast to make their registers available. That is very good news! In early February, FindMyPast added 420,000 new records for New York (this is the Archdiocese, not the entire state).
If your ancestors immigrated before 1891 you will not learn much about them from the manifests, however after 1891 you will get additional information, including the name of the person (relative?) they are joining in the US. If they arrived after 1906, you’ll learn the place of their birth, and after 1907, the name of their closest relative in Ireland. Let me encourage you again, to check all family members. The Irish practiced chain migration…sending money back to bring the next relative over…so even if your ancestor immigrated early, you may get the information you’re looking for from a relative who arrived later. Watch census records for nieces, nephews or cousins who appear in the household. Their later immigration and naturalization, may provide the information you’re looking for.
You might also find that your ancestor returned to Ireland at some point. My great grandmother visited Ireland in 1924 and on her return to the US as a citizen (having been naturalized through her husband) her passport number was listed. Don’t neglect to get this important record! Passports were not required until 1952 (except in war time), however, immigrants who had been naturalized frequently obtained one when traveling abroad. Passport records are available at Ancestry.com.
Like immigration records, naturalizations that occurred after 1906 have a wealth of information. Remember to look for the Declaration of Intent (First papers) as well as the Petition for Naturalization (Second or Final papers). The Certificate of Naturalization was given to the new citizen, so if it is not in your family papers, you will not find a copy of it. Naturalizations before 1906 could be in any court, so look for court records (dockets) to see if they mention additional information.
These are just some of the sources I’ve used to determine a place of origin. Other sources include, court and probate records, newspaper articles, county histories and biographies, military records, voter records and land records. I can’t overstate the importance of searching ALL family members. I once found the information on the place of origin in Ireland on a collateral line of a client, four generations removed from the immigrant.
My Quick Reference Guide, Preparing for Success in Irish Research gives you additional ideas for finding that all important locality.
From March 4th - 10, Family Tree University is running a Workshop on Irish Research. The Workshop is self paced and I have recorded a couple of new lectures. If you have questions, I'll be monitoring the discussion boards during the length of the course. You can sign up here.
On March 9th, I'll be speaking at the North Florida Genealogy Conference.
Four Irish Lectures