Finding Your Irish Roots: How to Begin
It can seem a daunting task to begin researching your roots, but in fact the early stages are the easiest and you will start to gather a surprising amount of information very quickly. Follow the five steps here, in order preferably, and you will be well on your way to becoming the history expert in your family!
Please read this whole page – follow the links provided when something isn’t clear – it is a sort of roadmap for starting to research your roots in Ireland.
1. Get Started
The place to start your research is at home, with living members of your family.
It is surprising how much collective knowledge there can be in a family. Ask all of them to tell you what they already know or what they have that might help your search.
These are the sort of things you are looking for:
- names of grandparents/great-grandparents, as far back as anyone can remember
- any places in Ireland they know are associated with your family or can recall older family members speaking about
- documents, photographs, books, letters, cards etc that were owned by or that refer to older family members (make copies of everything)
Look for even seemingly trivial details – casual mentions of place names for example can prove very valuable, they may mean nothing to you now but be of great importance at a later stage.
If there are elderly family members who have memories of people who actually lived in Ireland or of their immediate descendants, they probably know much more than even they realise.
Record your conversations as audio as well as writing down what you learn. Not only will these recordings be a priceless gift to your descendants, they will be a resource to which you can refer as your research progresses.
2. Get Organised
You will not have gone far before you realise that you are gong to be dealing with a lot of information and that much of it will, initially at least, be hard to categorise. You can just continue to accumulate pieces of paper with names, notes and diagrams on them, but this will rapidly become unmanageable.
There is a very useful set of family history record sheets available to download free of charge from the BBC, which will greatly assist you in recording information in a methodical manner. These, combined with a good filing system, may be all you initially need.
You may decide you need some software to help you to manage all of this; luckily there is lots to chose from. We have listed the pick of the crop of Genealogy or Family Tree software, some are free and most are quite inexpensive.
On the same page, we have listed some websites where it is possible to set up a family website to allow other members of your family to easily contribute any information they have.
3. Get to know the territory
Getting to know what records exist, what information they are likely to contain and how you can access them is a central part of researching your roots.
Our Guide to Genealogy Records in Ireland is quite extensive – you won’t need to consult all of these, but it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the various records that exist – and that, unfortunately, have been lost.
No matter what records you consult, the three pieces of information you need about any individual in order to use the records well are:
Irish names can be very confusing, both surnames and given names. We have a lot of general information about family names and given names in Ireland, which is good background reading, and also an article about what you need to know about Irish names when consulting records.
One of the central pieces of information when research any Irish person in your family’s past is knowledge of where they came from.
Irish land divisions and administrative divisions are a bit of a nightmare until you understand them, once you do they are a sure path to the correct records.
Pinning down exact dates can be difficult, but the closer you get to them the better. Many of the most useful records available cover only defined date ranges, so even narrowing it down to a 5-10 years can save you a great deal of hassle.
We have a short guide to important dates in Irish genealogy which will familiarise you with why and how they impact on your research.
4. Get Online
There is a huge amount of useful information online already – either in records and databases accessible via the internet or as a result of information compiled by people who have been working on their family history and have posted their findings for others to see.
Throughout this guide we link to numerous very useful online resources which will get you started. However simply searching Gootle for something like “yourname family history” or “yourname genealogy” is likely to turn up far more information than you expect.
5. Get Help
There is no shortage of people offering professional assistance with genealogical research. Some of them are excellent and some are, well, not so great – the most useful ones are listed at that link. They range from individuals and commercial companies to a growing network of local history centres, libraries and museums with extensive local records.
Around the web…
- Using the web to hunt down your family tree (timesonline.typepad.com)