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It's not all online!

Graphic from the California Genealogical Society

I can't tell you how many times I hear from people who tell me they have searched everywhere and there is no record of a place in Ireland for their ancestor. Frequently this means that they have typed their ancestor's name into a variety of databases and haven't found the specific information.

Although there are billions of records online (it's a great time to be doing genealogy) that is still only a small percentage of the records we might need to use. I've seen references to 7 - 10% of records are online. I started doing research in 1992 when there were very few records online and research meant trekking to various libraries and repositories. I traveled a lot on business and after work I would rush to the closest library that was open in the evenings. I had to be in California for quarterly meetings and on Friday (my travel day) I would jump on a 6 am flight from San Jose to Salt Lake City and work for two days at the Family History Library. Those were the days when the Library opened at 7:30 am and closed at 10:00 pm.

Don't get me wrong, I love online records and thank the LDS for everything they do. I pay a good amount of money each year for subscriptions to many genealogical services and societies. But sometimes you just have to go the old fashioned route and write or visit a locality. For those researching Roman Catholic Irish ancestors, that frequently means writing to the parish your ancestors attended. I had planned this week to write another case study on finding the locality in Ireland using US church records, but realized that I had already written a blog on this back in 2018. Please go here to read it.

What about other records that aren't online? How many times when searching have you found an index entry, with no image of the actual record? Did you follow up to obtain the original? That requires reading "About the Records" in the database to understand the locality of the original and then ordering the document. There is typically additional information in the original document than would not be in the index. For example the Index to Civil Registration provides only basic information and a reference to the original document. The benefit of using this index is obtaining information subsequent to the dates of the data protection restrictions in Irish databases. Births, after 1919, marriages after 1944 and deaths after 1969 are restricted. The FamilySearch index, however, goes to 1958. If you find something of interest, you need to order the original from the General Register Office in Dublin, or for the six counties of Northern Ireland, from the General Register Office of Northern Ireland. Below is the FamilySearch Index for the birth of Celia T Daly in Q4 of 1935. By obtaining the actual entry from the GRO we learn the exact birth day, 5 Nov 1935; the townland, Bouleboy [sic]; the full name, Celia Teresa; her father, Denis Daly, a farmer; and her mother's maiden name Sarah McGuinness.

There are, of course, records that don't even have an index online. If possible you need to visit the repository to discover what records are available. A historical society, a library, or court house near where your ancestor lived might hold the key to your research question. Years ago, when I was still living in Connecticut, I did client research on the Sherwood Family. The Westport Historical Society and Museum had an extensive archive on the family. Today, a click on their online finding aids button took me to the Connecticut Archives Online where a search on Sherwood returned 240 hits. Many of the returns were titled with other family names, however there are references to the Sherwood family within those families. Maybe that female ancestor you can't identify was the daughter in one of these families. There are also references to collections in other Connecticut repositories, including Yale and the Connecticut State Library.

A few years ago I wrote a blog on visiting Fayette County, Pennsylvania, the only locality where I had ancestors prior to 1900. I had phoned ahead to the Library and the Research Librarian had pulled vertical files for me prior to my arrival. One folder contained a photocopy of an article on the Shaw Family, including a reference card to a Naturalization docket in the Court House. Although the clerk insisted there was no additional information in the docket, I finally persuaded her to make a copy for me. It was multiple pages and buried in it was the statement that Robert Shaw was born in County Antrim.

This also extends to a research trip to Ireland. Your research there is primarily researching in Archives and delving into large collections of records...sometimes very large. At the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, The Introduction to the Downshire Papers (the large estate holdings of the Marquis of Downshire) is 28 pages. That is just an overview. The e-catalog lists over 5800 separate entries and I would guess that there are even more in the complete on-site catalog.

I have used these records multiple times over the past few years, but this year I hit the jackpot. Working with one of the Belfast attendees whose ancestors were also Moags, we found an 1805 lease for John Moak (Moag) in Ballymurphy which named three lives. John's life (he was 58 years old, born about 1847) and one life was his son, Samuel, who was 2 years old (born about 1803). There was also a notation that the lease passed to Stewart Moag. Based on this age, this John was was most likely the same John whose son Stewart was baptized in 1783. The theory is that Mary Petticrew, his first wife died and he married second Ann Furey. Although an online database gives the date of their marriage as 15 Apr 1904, the original shows the date the marriage as 1803. Another reason to always obtain the original record.

This week you got a bonus blog! If you read the blog on using church records to find a place in Ireland you've read the third case study. And this page picks the same thread of the importance of using sources that are not online. It's been suggested that I put too much information into my blogs, and if you're overwhelmed, I apologize. I do try to keep them to under a 5 minute read. If you're just starting your Irish research go back to the beginning of 2019. You will find a series of blogs that begin with the basics of good research and then focus on beginning Irish research. Another resource is my Quick Reference Guides which can be ordered either as a hard copy or as a .pdf.

Happy Hunting!

If you're intrigued by the Estate Records mentioned here, know where your ancestor was born in Ulster and would like to research at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) there is still space on the Belfast Research Trip in October 2020.

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David, thanks for your comment. There are multiple genealogical software packages that can help keep your data and provide reports and charts. I'm a big believer in using the online databases but keeping your Tree on your own computer with whatever software you are comfortable with.


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I think the detail is extremely helpful. You are helping me learn an approach to Irish research and I am always amazed at what you have found. Please keep up the detail! I'm still working on where my Irish ancestors were from so I can go on one of your research trips.


Glad to hear the blogs are helpful. Everyone is at a different place in their research, so hopefully going back to some of the earlier ones will be helpful to newbies.


I disagreed that you put too much information in your blogs. All your blogs are extremely well written and very helpful. I refer anyone starting to research their Irish ancestors to read your blogs. Keeping doing what you are doing.

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