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Finding Your Ancestors in Ireland

by Brian Mitchell
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Locating Where Your Family Lived in Ireland
How to use the resources in your ancestors' country of origin to find out where they settled in Ireland. This how-to article covers Australia, New Zealand, United States, Canada, and Great Britain.

To use church, civil, and other types of Irish records, you need to know where in Ireland your ancestors lived. Knowing the county is a start, but knowing the name of the townland or parish will make your searches much more productive. In the following excerpt from one of the introductory chapters in Brian Mitchell's Pocket Guide to Irish Genealogy, the author explains what resources in your ancestors' country of immigration, such as the United States or Australia, can help you find the information you need.

The Pocket Guide to Irish Genealogy is a 63-page book containing information about Irish history and use of major Irish research sources including civil records, parish registers, gravestone inscriptions, wills, the 1901 and 1911 censuses, and the Griffiths Valuation and Tithe Applotment Books. It also contains the names and addresses of major Irish record offices and heritage centers. You can order the Pocket Guide to Irish Genealogy from Genealogical Publishing Company.

Getting Started Overseas

This chapter is intended for those people of Irish descent whose immediate ancestors have lived in those countries with large Irish communities, namely the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain. Many people in these countries make the mistake of believing that tracing their Irish roots begins in Ireland. It does not, it begins in their home country. It is only by building up a picture of your ancestors there that you will find the necessary clues to make a worthwhile search in Ireland.

Knowing that your ancestor came from Ireland is just not enough. Ideally you want to find out where in Ireland he came from, preferably a townland or parish address, the year he emigrated, the port he arrived at, his age on emigration, if he was married when he came out, and if so, the Christian name and maiden name of his wife and the names and ages of any children. In some cases family tradition may be able to provide answers to these questions, but in most cases various records will have to be searched for this information. It is, therefore, the intention of this section to give heart to those who think this is a daunting task by giving examples drawn from a variety of record sources in the various countries. It will show how clues can be built up on the origins of an Irish ancestor. Always remember when examining any record source that your purpose is essentially to extract information against three key words: NAME, LOCATION and DATE.

Hopefully, all these examples show that much can be done in the home country to identify as precisely as possible the names of ancestor who emigrated from Ireland; their age, so that an approximate date of birth can be estimated; where they lived in Ireland and their religious denomination. Armed with this information, you can then begin to plan your trip to Ireland.


Australia has, without a doubt, a superb collection of records for the genealogically minded. The three prime sources of convict records, assisted immigration lists, and birth, marriage and death certificates provide a wealth of relevant detail for those tracking down their Irish ancestor.

Convict indents, in which the convicts were listed by ship on their arrival in Sydney, date from 1788, i.e. from the earliest beginnings of the colony. The early indents give the name, dates and place of conviction for every convict, while those from the 1820s also provide their native place and age. This detail on individual convicts can also be followed up in Ireland. For example, the report of the trial of Wilson Cornwall, who was sentenced to 15 years transportation at the Crown Court in Londonderry on Saturday, 23 March 1839, was recorded in the Londonderry Sentinel of 30 March 1839. Seemingly, Wilson Cornwall and an accomplice, Moses Hutchinson, robbed Alexander Mitchell, a linen merchant, of four bank notes together with all his silver coins, his great coat and umbrella, after they all had shared a few beers and a half glass of whiskey at Mr. Mann's public house in Castledawson, County Londonderry. In the transportation registers Wilson Cornwall's crime was classed as highway robbery. Prior to transportation, Wilson was held in the County Jail on Bishop Street in the city of Londonderry.

To entice the Irish emigrant to Australia, assisted passage was introduced. Lists of these immigrants date from 1828 and the information in them is very comprehensive. For example, in 1864 Thomas Connolly arrived at Sydney on board the ship Serocco. Thomas, aged 29, was a Roman Catholic and a policeman from Ballygar in County Galway. He could read and write, and his parents were Michael and Ellen Connolly, also of Ballygar. Thus, with this one entry you have all the information you need to trace the Connollys in Ireland.

Birth, marriage and death certificates, likewise provide an abundance of information. For example, from the New South Wales death certificate of Sarah Heathwood, who died on 3rd April 1936, aged 94 years, we can deduce the following information: Sarah was born in Ardarragh townland in Newry Parish, County Down around 1842: in 1867, aged 25 years, she married William Heathwood in County Roscommon. Her children, John born c. 1868, Robert, 1869, Annie 1871, Richard 1874, and William 1876, were all born in Ireland. In 1877, the family emigrated to Queensland where another son, Joseph was born in 1879. Sarah was buried on 4th April 1936 in the Presbyterian Cemetery at Casino, New South Wales. A full family history can, therefore, be gleaned from this one certificate.

Gravestone inscriptions should also be searched. In the Catholic cemetery at Hartley, New South Wales, a tombstone erected by the police of Western District records that Thomas Madden, a constable born in County Mayo, was accidentally shot dead at Pilpit Hill on 30 April 1867, aged 30.

New Zealand

Passenger lists in New Zealand, as in Australia, were kept at the port of arrival. The earliest are those for the New Zealand Company vessels, arriving at the ports of Wellington, Nelson, New Plymouth and Otago. These lists date from 1840 and provide the emigrant's name, age, occupation, wife's age and children's age and sex. New Zealand became a British colony only in 1840, when she was annexed to New South Wales. Passenger lists, therefore, go back to the earliest beginnings of the colony.

Before 1840, New Zealand had a very small European population. According to the Derry Journal of 18 February 1840, "With but few exceptions, the white population was composed of outcasts of Great Britain — runaway convicts, swindlers and thieves from New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land."

From 1853, New Zealand was administered by provincial governments at Canterbury, Wellington, Nelson, Auckland and Otago. Each province compiled passenger lists of varying quality.

Unfortunately, in both New Zealand and Australia census records were destroyed once the relevant statistical information had been extracted from them.

Civil registration of births and deaths commenced in 1848, but marriages were not recorded until 1855. In terms of identifying the Irish origins of an ancestor, death certificates are an extremely valuable source, especially after 1876. From that year the place of birth, the parents' names and the date and place of marriage of the deceased were recorded. Marriage certificates from 1880 are equally useful as they give the birthplace and parents' names of both bride and groom.

Parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, held locally by the clergymen, should be consulted for details on births, marriages and deaths before the commencement of civil registration.

United States of America

A New York genealogist, B-Ann Moorhouse, made use of federal and state censuses, marriage and death records, naturalization records, directories, passenger lists, probate records, cemetery inscriptions and death notices in newspapers to research 400 Irish-born and their descendants who resided in Brooklyn, New York during the 19th century. Regarding clues to place of origin in Ireland, she found death notices in the local Brooklyn newspapers of the time to be of most value, as they consistently gave the exact place of origin of the Irish-born. In another case, the will of William Ferguson, dated 1873, in mentioning a farm his sister had left to him in Ballygarvey in Rathaspick Parish, County Westmeath, identified the Irish origins of this Brooklyn merchant.

The U.S.A. has comprehensive passenger lists for ships arriving from 1820, but, unfortunately they provide only two clues relating to the origin of the emigrant — the port of departure of the ships and the nationality of the passenger. This is of limited value when it is realized that the vast majority of Irish emigrants in the 19th century sailed from Liverpool. The lists, however, give the name, occupation and age of the emigrant. It was not until 1893 and the Immigration Act that the former address in Ireland of an emigrant was recorded.

No official registers of passengers leaving Irish ports in the 19th century were kept except for a brief period, 1803-06. Among the business records of two Londonderry firms, J & J Cooke for the year 1847 to 1867, and William McCorkell & Co., 1863 to 1871, passenger lists recording the residence of 27,495 emigrants in Ireland have survived. The major destinations of the passengers carried by these firms were New York and Philadelphia in the U.S., and Quebec and St. John, New Brunswick in Canada. The Ordinance Survey compilers recorded the names, ages, religion and townland addresses of emigrants for many parishes in Counties Antrim and Londonderry for a few years during the period 1833 to 1839. Again, Canada and the U.S. were the major destinations of these emigrants. These two sources have now been indexed and published by the Genealogical Publishing Company of Baltimore.

In Colonial America the Land Patent Books of Virginia, the registers of indentured servants in Pennsylvania, and petitions for land grants in Maryland and South Carolina identify many recently arrived immigrants.

A census has been taken every ten years in the U.S. since 1790, and from 1850 the returns provide the country of birth and age of all members of the household, not just the head of household.

Tombstone inscriptions should be sought out. In St. Mary's Cemetery in Lee, Massachusetts, the following inscription can be found: "John Dooley, a native of the town of Leabeg, parish of Ferbane, King's County, died August 14 1863 aged 53 years." King's County is new renamed Offaly.

Naturalization records are another useful source. On April 1839, for example, John Austin aged 26, giving his place of birth as County Leitrim, declared his intention before Franklin County Court at St. Albans, Vermont to become a U.S. citizen.


As passenger lists for Canada are rare, this makes the business records of Cooke and McCorkell and the emigrant lists in the Ordnance Survey memoirs (both described previously) very valuable indeed. Lists of arrivals at Halifax and Quebec were kept from 1865.

In 1895, after it was noted that 40% of all passengers arriving in Canada were actually bound for the U.S., a system of joint inspection of immigrants coming overland from Canada was established. From 1847, the two ports of Portland and Falmouth, Maine were becoming increasingly popular as ports of entry for Irish immigrants coming down from Quebec and the Maritime Provinces to the U.S. In these cases, therefore, Irish immigrants leaving Canada for the U.S.A. will be noted.

In the absence of passenger lists the best hope of linking an ancestor to his place of origin in Ireland may lie in the identification of a marriage entry of a newly-arrived immigrant in a church register. Frequently, the marriage registers give the county of birth in Ireland, and occasionally, the exact place of origin of bride and groom. In the years 1801 to 1845, for example, the wedding of 3,000 Irish immigrants, giving their parents' names and native parishes, were recorded in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Land grants can be extremely useful in identifying recent immigrants. To obtain land from the Colonial government and, after 1867 from the Provincial authorities, a settler had to make a formal application, known as a petition, in which details on place of origin, date of arrival in Canada, name of wife and children and their ages are often given. There exists a computerized Land Records Index for the years 1780 to 1914 with two alphabetical listings, one by applicant's name and one by township.

As in other provinces, gravestone inscriptions can prove very enlightening. For example, in Barkerville cemetery in Barkerville, British Columbia, one of the tombstones reads, "In memory of Patrick McKenna, native of Duleek, County Meath, Ireland, Died June 2, 1914, aged 59."

Death notices in newspapers should also be sought out. The Herald, the local newspaper of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, on 3 July 1867 carried the following death notice, "On Monday June 3rd at his residence, Monaghan Settlement Lot 36, James Trainor, aged 80 years. The deceased was a native of the parish of Donah, townland of Strawmore, County Monaghan, Ireland and emigrated to this island in the year 1835, May he rest in peace."

Great Britain

Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in England and Wales in 1837 and in Scotland in 1855. Despite providing much genealogical information of great value, they give no clue to the former residence of those who were born in Ireland. The marriage entries in church records, however, will provide the Irish origins of bride and groom. For example, the register of St. Vincent de Paul in Liverpool on 4 June 1862, records the marriage of Joseph Edward Huges of Sligo to Sarah Quin of 13 Moore Place, London Road.

From 1841, census returns in both England and Scotland list all members of the household, together with their ages and occupations. Furthermore, they will identify those people who were born in Ireland. In Scotland, from 1851, the specific town or parish of birth is given.

Gravestone inscriptions and death notices in newspapers will probably provide the best means of identifying a more precise Irish address of an ancestor. In Clifton parish churchyard, Bristol, there can be found the following gravestone inscriptions: "Mary Clutterbuck of Derryhusker, County Tipperary, Ireland, died 17 December 1847, aged 99 years." And in the Bristol Journal of Saturday, 21 January 1837, the following death notice was reported "January 14 at Royal York Crescent, Clifton, Robert Eyre Purdon Coote Esqr., of Ballyclough, County Cork."

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