Thursday 14 December 2017

Finding the pathways to your past

Kathy Donaghy guides budding genealogists through the many Irish resources at their fingertips

Officer in charge of military archives Commandant Padraic Kennedy studies files in the reading room at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin.
Officer in charge of military archives Commandant Padraic Kennedy studies files in the reading room at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin.

Over 70 million people around the world claim Irish ancestry and, for many, the desire to forge deeper connections with their ancestors is strong. At home, the centenary of 1916 may have prompted many Irish people to delve into the rich past of their forefathers. But just how do you go about tracing your ancestors and finding what can seem like the proverbial needle in a haystack?

A good place to start is to chat to older family members and relatives about what they remember - there's always someone in the extended family who sees themselves as the custodian of family lore. And it's often worth exploring with family members what they know, or remember, or remember hearing. Of course it's always a source of regret when people have not asked relatives pertinent questions before they pass away.

There are, however, many surviving pathways into the past and in many cases it's a case of knowing where to look. While the destruction of so much of our records in the Four Courts Fire in 1922 severely reduced the range of sources useful for family history, it also means that it's easy to get an overview of the main records. Apart from the surviving censuses, there are only three main areas to look at: Church records, civil records (the State registrations of births, marriages and deaths) and property records (Griffith's Valuation and the Tithe Books).


State registration of non-Catholic marriages began in Ireland in 1845. From 1864, all births, deaths and marriages were to be registered. While compliance was spotty in the early years, from around 1880 registration became very thorough.

Civil registration in the Republic is now part of the Department of Social Protection. The General Register Office (GRO), under the auspices of the department, maintains a family research facility at Werburgh Street in Dublin City. At this office members of the public can, for a prescribed fee, search the indexes to the registers and purchase photocopies of records identified in the indexes. A digitisation programme in progress for more than 15 years has covered all registers of births since 1864, deaths since 1891 and marriages since 1882. But for the moment only the GRO staff have access.

In Belfast, the General Register Office for Northern Ireland, maintains the North's records. For a cost of £7 you can conduct your own research at its research rooms and stay as long as you like. Other costs apply - if you want a certificate, for example.

Operated by the Deparment of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the website is a great first port-of-call for anyone to begin the search for their Irish ancestry. The website is home to the online indexes of the civil registers of births, marriages, civil partnerships and deaths.

The birth records indexes date from 1864 to 1914, the marriage records indexes date from 1845 (1864 for Roman Catholic marriages) to 1939 and the death records indexes date from 1864 to 1964.


* The General Register Office, Werburgh Street, Dulin 2.

Tel: (01) 6354000

* The General Register Office for Northern Ireland, Oxford House, 55 Chichester Street, Belfast BT1 4HL

Tel: 00 44 300 200 7890

See also:


Because nearly all 19th-century census returns are gone, before the start of civil registration in 1864 practically the only direct sources of Irish family information are local parish registers.

Roman Catholic registers' starting dates vary from around the 1780s to the 1850s, with the earliest registers in the more prosperous eastern region and the latest in the west.

Last July, the National Library of Ireland launched an online archive of its holding of Catholic parish registers dating from the 1740s to the 1880s. The library's holding of parish records are considered to be the single most important source of information on Irish family history prior to the 1901 census. Up to July 2015, they had only been accessible on microfilm and, as such, those interested in accessing the records had to visit the National Library. This web resource provides unlimited access to all members of the public to records covering 1,086 parishes from throughout the island of Ireland. This access to the parish records has been transformative for genealogy services, in particular as they allow those based overseas to consult the records without any barriers.

In the last number of years many church records have become available for free at In addition to these records, digital images of the originals of these church records are also available to view on this website.

Anglican or Church of Ireland records are more problematic as many were in the Public Record Office destroyed by fire in 1922. However, records are available with the largest single collection at The Representative Church Body Library in Dublin. A detailed list of the information held by the library is available online and much of this information is also available at

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) has an excellent collection of records of all denominations in the nine counties of Ulster. You can search its catalogues online or call into the PRONI offices in Belfast where you can search records free of charge.

While Presbyterian records can be hard to track down, the best collection is at PRONI with material also held by the Presbyterian Historical Society.


* National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin 2

Tel: (01) 6030200

* Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, 2 Titanic Boulevard, Titanic Quarter, Belfast, BT3 9HQ

Tel: 048 9053 4800

* Representative Church Body Library, Braemor Park, Churchtown, Dublin 14

Tel: (01) 923979

* Presbyterian Historical Society, 26 College Green, Belfast

Tel: 048 9072 7330


Because of the loss of the 19th-century censuses, two property surveys have become vitally important for family history research; the Tithe Applotment Books and Griffith's Valuation.

The Primary Valuation was the first full-scale valuation of property in Ireland. It was overseen by Richard Griffith and published between 1847 and 1864. It is one of the most important surviving 19th-century genealogical sources.

It listed every single property on the island down to the smallest mud-walled cabin and recorded who was in occupation at the time of publication. The aim was to lay the basis for a property tax so any family information you can glean is indirect but the valuation is incredibly thorough. It remained the basis for local taxation in the Republic until 1977 and all revisions from publication to that year are available at the Valuation Office. The original valuation, together with corresponding Ordnance Survey maps, is available for free at the website

Likewise the Title Applotment Books are a vital source for genealogical research for the pre-Famine period. The books are the result of a multitude of local surveys carried out by Church of Ireland clergymen between 1823 and 1838 to identify who owed them tithes and how much. Since the Church of Ireland was the State church, tithes were payable by everyone, not just by members of their own congregation.

While far from comprehensive, they are for many areas the only surviving record of who lived where during this period. The books have been digitally imaged and a database giving surname, forename, county, parish and townland has been created at the National Archives. All of these fields can be searched and there is a browse facility which allows users to survey entire parishes and townlands.

The population of Ireland was recorded in 1841 as 8.2 million. It would have been somewhat less than this during the 1820s and 1830s, when the Tithe Applotment Books were compiled.

The books for Northern Ireland are held in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, but there are microfilm copies in the National Archives which can be consulted in its Reading Room.


* National Archives of Ireland, Bishop Street, Dublin 8

Tel: (01) 4072300

* The Valuation Office, Irish Life Centre, Abbey Street Lower, Dublin 1

Tel: (01) 8171000


Vital clues to your ancestry are not just contained in the formal surveys and census information but can also be found in photographs, wills, bills, memorials and even stamps. In the case of photographs, they can often be dated with the names of the people in the photograph written on the back. In other cases the picture may show something recognisable like a landmark.

Another good starting point is to look at the surname. Often surnames are synonymous with a particular area. For example the surname Doherty is predominantly found in the north of Donegal where the original O'Doherty clan came from. It's not an exact science but often it can be a good place to start. This won't reap as many benefits if the surname is Murphy, for example.


Irish death records are usually very uninformative but graveyards themselves can often contain excellent information. Gravestones can record multiple members of a family, along with addresses and ages. For many areas, the inscriptions have been transcribed and published. The cemetery's own burial records can be even more helpful. These generally only exist for the larger graveyards but they can give lists of individuals not recorded on the gravestone as well as names and addresses of next of kin.

The records of Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin are by far the most extensive, dating from 1928 and are online at Those from Mount Jerome, from 1836, remain at the cemetery with a microfilm copy at Dublin City Library and Archive.


* Dublin City Library and Archive, 138-144 Pearse Street, Dublin 2

Tel: (01) 6744999


If your ancestor was an RIC man or a Church of Ireland clergyman or a soldier in the British army, there are good records available. The RIC original records are in the English National Archives in Kew with a microfilm copy of the service registers in the National Archives of Ireland.

Sources for Anglican clergy are all in the Representative Church Body Library in Dublin and British army records are also held at Kew.

Many other occupations kept useful records - coastguards, lighthouse keepers, teachers, railwaymen, prison warders and postmen.


The country's military archives, which are held at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines in Dublin, became available online for the first time in 2012. Available at, the site was launched in conjuction with the National Archives of Ireland.

The military pension records of those involved in the historic events of the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War were released online for the first time in 2014.

The collection, which is also housed at Cathal Brugha Barracks, contains almost 300,000 files relating to some 80,000 individuals. In the main the files relate to applications by individuals and/or their dependents for the award of pensions and gratuities.


In many cases, trawling the internet with the help of Google can turn up ­interesting information. Local ­libraries are a rich searching ground along with websites like www.­ and

The National Archives have a free Genealogical Advisory Service staffed by professional genealogists available in its reading room between 10am and 1.30pm from Monday to Friday.

In addition, the National Library of Ireland's (NLI) Genealogy Advisory Service offers free advice on resources for tracing your family history.

The NLI also holds published family histories and local history society publications, and provides free onsite access to a number of useful subscription websites. The NLI also regularly offers talks and workshops of interest to anyone carrying out family history research, as part of their ongoing events programme.

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