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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Getting to the roots of your Irish family tree: Part 1

Want to get to the bottom of your roots in Ireland? First, you need to get your foot in the door and learn your ancestors' counties of origin.

Here are a few ideas of where to start outside of Ireland in order to trace your family back to Éireann herself.

Note: No room for tunnel-vision here. It's important to not only focus on your direct ancestor, such as a great-great-grandfather, but his wife, siblings and other relatives who might have even immigrated to other places. Even his children may have records indicating their father's birthplace or homeland. Don't forget close friends! I'm planning on doing a little research on the groomsmen in my great-great-grandfather's wedding and the witnesses listed on his naturalization papers to see if their place of origin in Ireland might be of help in finding his.

For all family members and others that might be of help, check the following sources for possible information about where the family originated:
  • Letters, journals and other written family documents - If you are lucky enough to have access to these, scour them for clues as to the possible place of origin for your family. You'll probably find other gems along the way.

  • Naturalization records - The official papers for the new citizen may have information about his county of origin in the old country. This is how I learned that my great-great-grandfather Patrick Tierney hailed from County Tipperary. Check the court where naturalization would have occurred. In my case, I found naturalization records at the National Archives.

  • Obituaries & newspaper articles - Read the obituary columns and search for other articles on all family members for information about where they began or spent their lives.

  • Death certificates - These sometimes offer the town or county which was the birthplace of the deceased.

  • Tombstones; cemetery & burial records - These don't always list birthplaces, but if yours does you will be glad you checked.

  • Immigration records and passenger lists - Another item to check for at the National Archives. According to John Grenham's Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, 3rd Edition records from 1820 (Customs Passenger Lists) only list county of origin. Records 1883 and later (Immigration Passenger Lists) also include details about previous place of residence that might be helpful to your search.

  • Military and pension records - These can offer a wealth of information about your ancestor and his family. Another good one to look for at the National Archives.

  • Church records - Marriage records in particular can be of help in finding place of origin. Check the church or diocesean archives for these, particularly when the couple had just immigrated from Ireland.

  • History books - Historical works describing migrations from different parts of Ireland to particular places, and similar titles focusing on the place of immigration may be helpful in gaining clues to your ancestors' origins. If you have Irish relatives that immigrated to Boston, you may find The Irish in New England by Thomas O'Connor and Marie Daly to be a helpful reference. Their research allowed them to break down particular Boston neighborhoods into various origins in Irish counties, since many friends and neighbors settled together in the new country.

  • Books about Irish surnames - If you are researching an uncommon surname, such as the Cowhey family's, you may find help from Edward MacLysaght's classic work Irish Families: Their Names, Arms, and Origins and the "index" for it and his accompanying books: The Surnames of Ireland The Irish Families book helped me to learn the Gaelic version of Cowhey name - Ó Cobhthaigh - and to know to focus on the southern province of Munster for locating my family's origins.

  • The DNA project for your family's surname - While relatively new on the scene, DNA research is providing valuable information for those interested in tracing their roots. If your surname is relatively rare, you may find some clues to the more recent history of your family along with information about deeper ancestry. Read my post about the Coffey/Cowhey DNA project, the Tierney DNA project, or the Carnival of Genealogy on genetic genealogy for more information.
If like me, you have been successful at finding the county of origin in Ireland and but don't know where to turn next, check out Getting to the roots of your Irish family tree: Part 2 for some ideas to get you started.

It may be a long way to Tipperary (or wherever your family originated), but hopefully these tips will make the trip home to your Irish roots a little easier.

Many of the above suggestions primarily apply to research in the United States. See John Grenham's Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, 3rd Edition for sections on searching in Canada and Australia for your Irish roots. You may also find Dwight Radford & Kyle Betit's Discovering Your Irish Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage to be a helpful resource.

Tombstone image above courtesy of the William Kennedy family tree website.

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