This is a re-post of a blog written in 2018 with updates.
Happy Labor Day to those of you in the US. The first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City based on plans created by the Central Labor Union. In 1884, the first Monday of September was picked as the day to pay tribute to the American worker. According to the US Department of Labor site, the recommendation was made by Peter J. McGuire (born in New York of immigrant Irish parents). Lately there has been some conflicting evidence as to whether it was Peter MaGuire or Matthew Maguire (still Irish) of the Central Labor Union who was responsible.
With the reduced influence of the labor unions, today we think of Labor Day as the “unofficial” end of summer (although summer here in Florida doesn’t seem to end until December) and for most of us, we celebrate it with picnics and barbecues. But as genealogists it can also be a time to give thought to the occupations of our ancestors.
Most of my ancestors were farmers. A new book by Dr. William Roulston has just been published on Researching Your Farming Ancestors in Ireland. I’m waiting for my copy. A question I’ve always asked when visiting or meeting relatives in Ireland is “how did our ancestors survive the famine?” The answer is usually something about not being dependent on the potato…that they grew oats or had a cow. Almost all of the ancestors of both my husband and my family were 20th century immigrants. As I’ve written on multiple occasions, the Daly family was from Mayo. The effects of the Famine in the West of Ireland were horrific. The Killing Snows by Charles Egan is a historical novel about a family in Mayo in the 1840s and their desperate struggle to survive. Emigration to work on the railroads or mines in England or the US was commonplace so they could send money back to Ireland to help their parents and siblings survive. There are three books in the series by Egan which tell the story from the viewpoint of being in Ireland The Killing Snows, in England, Cold is the Dawn, and emigration to the US on the “coffin ships” The Exile Breed. Sometimes we’ll never find that document of birth, death or marriage, but understanding the life lived by our ancestors is one way of telling the story about life during the time they lived. In researching the King family from County Down, I've recently discovered that the oldest son (who disappeared before the 1901 census) had migrated to Durham in England and worked in the mines as a Coal Hewer. I googled to find out more about coal mining in England and found an article by Kimberly Powell on "How to Research UK Coal Mining Ancestors." In the article, she links to a site for the Durham Mining Museum. Remember Google is your friend when looking for information.
If your ancestor had a trade, begin by checking Directories. One of my great grandfathers was a stone mason. There are Trade Directories, as well as City/Provincial Directories covering years from the early 1820s. This sample is the Slater’s Trade Directory from 1846. It lists Gentry and Clergy, Professional Persons, Spirit Dealers and Shopkeepers and Traders. It also tells you a bit about the location.
The largest selection of Directories are in Ireland, but many have been put online. Check Ancestry, MyHeritage and Findmypast as well as doing a Google search on Directory and the location of your ancestor. In addition to general directories, there are also many specialized ones, for example, if your ancestor was a doctor, Findmypast has the Ireland Medical Directory for 1852 and 1858 online. Ancestry has some records for nurses beginning in the 1890s. John Grenham, in his book Tracing Your Irish Ancestors (page 205) lists fourteen sources for doctors, mostly books and records available at the National Library or National Archives. If there is something of interest, check WorldCat to find the closest library that might have the publication. You may be able to obtain it through InterLibrary Loan. There are also records at the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin.
Was your ancestor in the police or constabulary? Directories, service records and pension records for the Constabulary are available at Findmypast and Ancestry. Jim Herlihy has written multiple books on the Constabulary and the Metropolitan Police and this in 2018 published a book on The Irish Revenue Police, 1832-1857. In July of this year his latest book was published, The Black & Tans, 1920-1921: A complete alphabetical list, short history and genealogical guide. His book, The Royal Irish Constabulary: A Complete Alphabetical List of Officers and Men, 1816 - 1922 contains an alphabetical list of individuals with their service number. It is currently out of print, but can be found at some libraries in the US so check WorldCat (put in your zip code to find the locations closest to you). Some libraries may enter a truncated title, so use the advance search feature to select by author and keyword.
I can’t cover all of the occupations here, but just some of the categories covered by John Grenham in his book, Tracing Your Irish Ancestors are: Apothecaries, Bakers, Bricklayers, Engineers, Militia, Post Office employees, Publicans, Seamen, Railway workers, and Teachers. You can also check out Occupational Records category on his website.
Military records are a huge category. The Irish served in the British military and many of those records are at The National Archives in the UK. Findmypast has digitized many of these. The National Archives has extensive reference guides on their site about military records which you should review. You may find that your ancestor, born in Ireland was the child of a British Army member serving in Ireland.
Another large category is religious vocations. Church of Ireland clergy records can be found at the Representative Church Body Library just outside of Dublin. There are also a series of books (by Diocese) written by Canon J. B. Leslie titled Clergy & Parishes. The Presbyterian Church has the Fasti of the Irish Presbyterian Church which gives information on clergy, their education, marriage and churches where they served. As mentioned in my blog on Presbyterian records, there are different types of Presbyterians, so you may need to check multiple books. These books are available in Ireland, but some libraries in the US also have them. Check WorldCat.
Roman Catholic priests, nuns and brothers should also be researched. Even though they did not marry they are likely to have biographical information, especially if they belonged to an Order. Google the Order and determine the location of the provincial or mother house. Check to see if there is an archivist and write for additional information. I have an extensive obituary for my husband’s second half cousin from the Carmelite Order. It lists his family, where he was born and educated, and every place he served. If they were a diocesan priest, write to the archivist at the Diocese.
Even if you can’t find your ancestor’s name listed, reading some of the literature on his occupation will help get a better understanding of his life.
Happy Hunting and Stay Safe!
Are you interested in researching in Ireland? There is currently space available in May and October on my Research Trips. Information can be found here.