“Finding Your Roots” Traces Irish Ancestry

By Allison Dolan

Last night’s “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.” was all about Irish roots and the family trees of journalist Soledad O’Brien, “The O’Reilly Factor” host Bill O’Reilly and comedian/television host Bill Maher.

Gates noted that finding family origins in Ireland is difficult because the main resources for the 19th century are parish and county records—and to find those, you need a specific place of origin. (Which, I’ll whine add, also can be hard to find—my Norris third-great-grandparents may or may not have come from somewhere in County Cork.)

Psst! Our upcoming Trace Your Irish Immigrant Ancestors webinar can help! See the end of this post for info.

Yet for each guest, the show’s researchers were able to find Irish records for ancestors in at least one family line:

  • O’Brien’s father’s family migrated to Australia in the 1800s, where her great-grandparents started a flour mill. Their Toowoomba, Queensland, marriage record gave their Irish birthplaces and parents’ names. In County Clare, researchers found O’Brien’s great-great-grandfather, a tenant farmer, in Griffith’s Primary Valuation of Ireland (a property tax survey carried out between 1848 and 1864—here’s how to search it.) They hit a dead end with the other line in County Cork.
  • O’Reilly had heard that his Irish great-grandparents were from County Cavan. Gates said that this clue led to a document revealing the ancestral hometown. Although I know it’s impossible for TV shows to share every detail, I was disappointed we didn’t get to see more on how researchers got from the county to a specific place. (See the above lament about my third-great-grandparents.)
  • Maher had no idea where in Ireland his ancestors came from. Researchers didn’t get anywhere with the Maher line. But for his father’s mother’s family, which landed in America before 1850 (his ancestors appeared in the 1850 US census in New York), an 1855 New York Emigrant Savings Bank record pointed to a place of origin in “Kilory” parish, County Kerry.

There’s no Kilory parish in Kerry. But a town called Killury yielded a baptismal record for Maher’s great-great-grandfather. “Often,” Gates says, “this is the only sign that a human being passed through: the fact that they were baptized and got married and died.”

Do you, like me, want more of the nitty-gritty details on how to discover records about your Irish ancestors? We have some guides and classes for you:

Updated: You can watch the full “The Irish Factor” episode on the “Finding Your Roots” website. Watch live on Tuesdays at 8 Eastern on PBS.