Finding Irish Immigrant Origins
by Laura Murphy DeGrazia, CG, FGBS
The United States is a nation of immigrants, and most people who research them hope to eventually learn from where those immigrants came. Successfully identifying an Irish immigrant’s point of origin depends on factors such as the immigrant’s religion, occupation, relative wealth, social prominence, migration path, and place of settlement; the period of immigration; and unique qualities of the given name and surname.
All the commonly used sources should be considered when tracing an Irish immigrant, but the usefulness of some of those sources may be limited:
- Many poor famine-era Irish settled in cities and did not own property, and therefore might not be found in deeds, real estate tax rolls, or probate records.
- Arrival and naturalization records from the period in which the majority of Irish immigrants came to the United States contain less detail than those for later periods.
- Most Irish immigrants were Roman Catholic. Depending on the diocese, Catholic sacramental registers may be in local custody with access restricted to parish staff. Locating and using church records, therefore, can be challenging.
- City dwellers with common names are difficult to distinguish in directories and censuses, as many of them had similar occupations.
Irish places of origin are sometimes mentioned in obituaries, carved on grave markers, or listed in sacramental registers. While many vital, census, and military records state only “Ireland” as a place of birth, occasionally something more specific is found. Some researchers may never discover a source that names the place of origin; others may encounter multiple records identifying the place.
Irish immigrants typically had close ties to their places of origin. They identified with their townlands or towns. They may have settled near and socialized with other people who came from the same area. In some cases this was a result of “chain migration,” where later immigrants chose a place of settlement based on information received from those who went earlier. Frequently, the earliest immigrant in an Irish family was a young, single woman who could find employment as a live-in domestic servant—and therefore was able to save most of her earnings to pay for passage for another member of her family.
When no source is found naming an Irish place of birth, records related to the immigrant’s network of associates should be explored. An immigrant’s siblings, cousins, or other relatives may have settled in different areas and created different types of records that provide helpful information. A family member who was well-to-do may have been able to afford a grave marker naming a point of origin. A poor relative may have been admitted to an almshouse where records document a place of birth. Even searching for known family members who remained in Ireland can help pinpoint an immigrant’s roots.
Networks of associates extend beyond family. Witnesses, sponsors, co-workers, neighbors, fellow parishioners, and friends may have ties to the immigrant’s home. Some urban neighborhoods comprised people with common origins; some rural settlements were the result of group migration. Studying the history of the immigrant’s new home may provide general information, if not specifics, about a point of origin. Immigration history can also offer clues. For example, approximately two-thirds of the Irish who came to the United States between the end of the Revolutionary War and 1814 were from Ulster province.
Most of the population of Ireland remained in one location for generation after generation, so identifying a place in which a surname occurred historically can lead to successful identification of a point of origin. Some names, such as Kelly, are found all over Ireland, but others are found in specific counties or regions. If the immigrant’s family and associates include several people with surnames that can be linked to the same general area in Ireland, strong indirect evidence exists of a connection to that area.
Whether there is direct evidence about an immigrant’s point of origin, a few hints pointing to a general area, or no clue whatsoever, eventually Irish sources should be added to the research plan. As in United States research, records that are available and relevant depend on the specific situation: time period, location, religion, social status, and relative wealth. If a specific place is known or suspected, sources unique to that place should be pursued. Grenham’s Tracing Your Irish Ancestors and Ryan’s Irish Records include county-by-county lists of sources, and Flyleaf Press (http://www.ancestornetwork.ie/flyleaf/) publishes a series of books addressing research in select Irish counties. Most Irish counties have one or more heritage centres staffed by people who are knowledgeable about resources for that area.
If little to no information is known about the immigrant’s home in Ireland, priority should be given to sources covering a large part of the population and having broad-ranging indexes, such as church records and civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths.
Civil registration of vital events began in 1864 for all of Ireland, and indexes cover the entire country. Immigrants who left Ireland after the start of civil registration, therefore, can more easily be linked to their Irish origins than those who left earlier. Uncommon names are easier to work with and the more information that is known (about both the subject and his or her family) the better the chance for success. If an immigrant couple married in Ireland after the start of civil registration, then cross-referencing the surnames of the bride and groom in the index can sometimes point to an Irish area of interest. If the immigrant left before the start of civil registration, a search for records of siblings, cousins, or other relatives who remained in Ireland may prove worthwhile. Indexes are available through FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com, Rootsireland.ie, IrishGenealogy.ie, and the General Register Office of Northern Ireland. IrishGenealogy.ie’s indexes link to images of the original records in many cases; additional images will be added in the future.
Church records cover a period prior to the start of civil registration, but finding and using the records is not always straightforward. Starting dates, coverage, and record locations vary. In rural Ireland, Roman Catholic registers begin about 1820, but most parishes have gaps in coverage. Presbyterian ministers were required to keep records beginning in 1819; registers predating that year are rare. Those from Church of Ireland parishes have earlier starting dates, but many were lost in the 1922 fire at the Public Records Office.
Indexes and abstracts of Irish church records are available online. It is sometimes possible to locate a church record of a baptism or marriage when nothing more than names and approximate dates are known. For example, Rootsireland.ie and IrishGenealogy.ie offer indexes to collections of Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist, Presbyterian, and other churches. Ancestry.com and Findmypast.com provide indexes to digitized Roman Catholic registers found in the National Library of Ireland. Given their individual strengths and weaknesses, it is wise to check all known indexes.
Censuses for 1901 and 1911 are available for all of Ireland, but only fragments of earlier censuses survive. Existing census records may be searched using an index at the website of the National Archives of Ireland.
Valuation records were compiled beginning in the nineteenth century. They were used to establish a uniform assessment of property to determine the amount of tax due. Records identify each holding’s occupier and immediate lessor. If an immigrant’s place of origin is not known, these country-wide tax valuation records can be used to identify places where the surname was found. John Grenham’s “Irish Surnames” tool allows users to search for civil parishes in which one or more related surnames appear together, offering a clue about possible origins.
Sources and strategies for researching Irish immigrants in the United States are similar to those used for researching other immigrant groups, but identifying the immigrants’ points of origin can be more complicated than for later-arriving groups. Determining an immigrant’s Irish birthplace usually requires extensive research in U.S. records, studying the immigrant’s network of associates, and using indexed Irish records to pinpoint places of potential interest. Success sometimes comes quickly, but more often it requires hard work and careful analysis.
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Published by the Irish Genealogical Research Society (https://www.irishancestors.ie/about/the-irish-genealogist/). For a name index, 1937–2001, see https://www.irishancestors.ie/resources/unique-resources/the-irish-genealogist/ .
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 With thanks to Polly FitzGerald Kimmitt, CG, and Suzanne McVetty, CG, FGBS, for their helpful suggestions. All URLs were valid as of 6 December 2016.
 Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 169–70.
 Non-Catholic marriages, however, were recorded beginning in 1845.
 Northern Ireland was formed in 1922. Beginning that year, vital records for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are separate.
 “Census of Ireland 1901/1911 and Census fragments and substitutes, 1821–51,” National Archives of Ireland(http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/).
 John Grenham, “Irish Surnames,” Irish Ancestors(https://www.johngrenham.com/surnames/).
The words Certified Genealogist are a registered certification mark, and the designations CG, CGL, and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by board certificants after periodic evaluation.