If you’re tracing (or trying to trace) Irish ancestors, you may have heard that “all the records burned in the fire”—the 1922 Four Courts Fire at the Public Record Office in Dublin, an unfortunate event of the Irish Civil War.
But this is a myth that online Irish family history databases are doing their level best to shatter, and rightly so. While it’s true that an important part of Ireland’s genealogical heritage did go up in smoke that day—including many wills, legal court records, Church of Ireland parish records and national censuses from 1821 to 1851—many important collections survived. Modern-day Celtic creative thinking is helping to bridge some of the record gaps with an ever-increasing selection of online historical documents that hold clues to the lives of our Irish ancestors.
Undoubtedly, Irish genealogy will remain challenging for many researchers, especially for those whose immigrant ancestors didn’t leave behind readily discovered information about their origins in Ireland. But as these 11 top websites demonstrate, the opportunity to discover more about your Irish heritage has never been greater.
1. Ancestry.com ($)
Beyond its US-focused databases, which may reveal details of your Irish immigrant ancestor’s journey, naturalization (if indeed he became a citizen) and life in North America, subscription site Ancestry.com has an Ireland-specific collection of about 40 million records (requires a World membership). Although this is considerably smaller than the collection on Findmypast (see website No. 4), it includes several essential beginner record sets—censuses, civil registrations and Griffith’s Valuation—and a few less widely available resources such as Royal Irish Constabulary records (1816-1921) and the browsable Famine Relief Commission papers (1844-1847).
The jewel in this site’s crown, an indexed collection of more than 700,000 names in Roman Catholic parish registers, made an unheralded debut only last year, much to the delight of Irish researchers. It consists of baptism, marriage, burial and very unusually, confirmations from 73 parishes in the counties of Armagh, Carlow, Donegal, Dublin, Galway, Kildare, Laois, Limerick, Londonderry, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Sligo, Tipperary, Westmeath and Wicklow. The earliest records date from 1763. Many entries include a high-quality scanned image of the original register, while others return a transcription. Depending on the layout of some of the registers, you may need to click to the next page to see the names of sponsors (godparents).
2. AncestryIreland.com ($)
Not to be confused with the aforementioned Ancestry.com, based in Utah, AncestryIreland is the online home of the Ulster Historical Foundation (ULF), an educational charity from Belfast, as well as its membership arm, the Ulster Genealogical and Historical Guild.
As part of the Irish Family History Foundation’s network of island-wide genealogy centers, the ULF uploads its church and civil record transcriptions for counties Antrim and Down to the subscription-based RootsIreland database (see website No. 11), but these records are also accessible on AncestryIreland. The difference is that while RootsIreland offers these and other records as part of a monthly subscription package, AncestryIreland offers them on a pay-per-view basis. Your most cost-effective option will depend on the geographical focus of your research and how much time you can dedicate to your ancestral hunt over a month. Also depending on your particular research needs, you might consider membership in the guild. This opens up some 200 small- to medium-sized databases covering more of Ulster, many of them exclusive and dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
Tip: Naturalization papers and records generated when a person died—obituaries, tombstones, burial records, funeral home records—can be especially helpful in determining an Irish ancestor’s place of origin.
FamilySearch, the genealogical arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has an agreement with the National Archives of Ireland (NAI) that allows duplication of nearly all the NAI’s records except the 1901 and 1911 censuses. Indexes to Landed Estate Court Records 1850-1885 and Irish Prison Registers 1790-1924 are free to search on FamilySearch.org, but you can view the record images only from a branch FamilySearch Center (or with a World subscription to Findmypast.com). You can also find copies of valuable Irish civil registration records here as well.
Other potentially useful collections are Ireland Births and Baptisms, 1620–1881 and Ireland Marriages, 1619–1898 which, together, hold just under 6 million records. The coverage of these collections is a bit inconsistent, though. For example, the Roman Catholic records come from only a few parishes in counties Cork, Galway, Kerry, Roscommon and Sligo, and although Protestant coverage is excellent in some areas (such as County Monaghan), it’s nonexistent in others. To better understand these limitations, navigate to the search page for each collection and click the Learn More link.
4. Findmypast.com ($)
Findmypast has the largest collection of Irish family history records (about 140 million) online. In addition, a World subscription to Findmypast.com site, or an Ireland subscription via Findmypast.ie, includes a growing number of Irish newspaper titles (more than 70 at last count) dating back to the 1700s.
Among the gems to look for are Landed Estate Court Rentals, a collection much more interesting than its name might suggest: It often holds surprising details about land tenants. The Irish Petty Sessions, a collection of records 22 million strong (Republic of Ireland counties only), hold the stories of our ancestors’ sporadic misdemeanors and squabbles with neighbors. And then there are the esoteric dog licenses registers, which record 6 million names of people and an occasional furry friend. Beyond adding color to your knowledge of an ancestor’s life, these records can provide great clues to the ever-changing story of a family.
Not to be missed by anyone with roots in Ireland’s West Coast counties are the Poverty Relief Loans, 1821–1874. These record small loans by local committees, which may have funded the purchase of a sheep or a ticket across the Atlantic.
Findmypast also has a unique search mechanism for the 1901 census, which lets you search for more than one household member, by birth year and by variants on the spelling of first and last names. If you’ve had trouble finding ancestors in this census on the National Archives of Ireland website (No. 8 in this listing), check out the Findmypast version. Watch for its frequent promotional offers and free access weekends.
5. General Register Office of Northern Ireland
In 2014, GRONI launched an online database of civil registration records for counties Antrim, Armagh, Down, Londonderry, Fermanagh and Tyrone. Its birth records date from 1864 to 100 years ago, marriages from 1864 (or 1845 if Protestant or civil ceremonies) to 75 years ago, and deaths from 1864 to 50 years ago.
You must register before you start to explore the records. Although registration is free, watch out for the first quirk of the system: You must have at least one credit in your account in order to see search results (even free search results). One credit costs .4 pounds or about 60 cents.
Basic, free searches may satisfy your research needs. You only start paying if you select Enhanced View, which provides additional information transcribed from the original birth, marriage or death certificate, or if you choose Full Certificate View, which presents both a transcription and a digital image of the original certificate.
This is where the second quirk appears. Your search results remain in your account for only 72 hours. As there isn’t a download-to-computer option, be sure to take a screenshot of your records before you finish your research session.
Finally, if you have Northern Ireland ancestors, don’t miss the useful and often overlooked searchable townland map.
6. Irish Ancestors
Irish Ancestors is Ireland’s longest-running established genealogy website, founded and managed by the renowned Irish genealogist John Grenham. Unlike the other sites here, Irish Ancestors doesn’t hold any record collections. Instead, it provides masses of information and clear direction to those starting their Irish ancestry hunt.
The site is split into two sections, one free and one pay-per-view or subscription-based. The free segment is huge and worth the time spent exploring. Behind the Browse button lies an online version of Grenham’s Tracing Your Irish Ancestors (Genealogical Publishing Co.; widely considered the Bible of Irish genealogy), a vast list of Irish genealogy links, detailed civil and Roman Catholic parish maps, step-by-step how-to advice, and an extensive collection of articles on Irish heritage and genealogy.
A recently added free feature is the excellent Research Wizard. This tool analyses the details of what you already know about an ancestor and produces specific recommendations for further research. Researchers also should search the Surnames database for free counts of households by county, a surname dictionary, surname histories and more.
The paying sections of the site provide more searchable tools and finding aids, including the Double Surname Search. This lets you search Griffiths Valuation for parishes with both surnames you search for—particularly useful if you know the surnames of an immigrant couple but not their place of origin in Ireland.
This free database IrishGenealogy.ie holds nearly 3 million transcriptions of pre-20th century church records of baptisms, marriages and burials for selected Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic parishes in counties Kerry, Cork and Carlow and the city of Dublin, plus one Presbyterian register for Lucan in County Dublin. More than half a million of the records date from the 17th and 18th centuries, with nearly all of the rest from the early 1800s and later. In some cases, you also can view images of the register page.
You’ll find a list of parishes this collection includes on the Church Records search page. For those with ancestors in this relatively small geographical area, IrishGenealogy.ie is invaluable: These indexed records aren’t online elsewhere.
The site also holds the only official version of Ireland’s civil registration indexes of births, marriages and deaths.
“Non-approved” versions, from FamilySearch microfilm taken during the 1960s, are available at FamilySearch, Findmypast and Ancestry.com. These records extend to 1921 for Northern Ireland and to 1958 for the Republic of Ireland.
IrishGenealogy.ie’s civil registrations follow the 100-75-50-year privacy rule GRONI uses. At first glance, this appears to offer less than the microfilm version. But this official collection is actually known as the “enhanced” version, because the General Register Office (GRO) staff who use it are slowly—very slowly—adding details transcribed from the original vital certificates. These details include mothers’ maiden names for births registered from 1900 to 1914 and some earlier ones. GRO staff also are “coupling” brides and grooms, so the spouse is shown in most marriage entries from 1903 to 1939. If you’re researching in the 20th century, these are great improvements.
8. The National Archives: Genealogy
The website of the National Archives of Ireland has been much-loved since the day in late 2007 when it launched the first lot of indexed 1911 census returns. Irish genealogy research turned a corner and has never looked back.
Seven years later, this site offers access to the complete 1901 and 1911 censuses; every single surviving scrap from earlier censuses; tithe applotment books dating from the 1820s and 1830s; Calendars of Wills and Administration (1858-1922); and a small, sad collection of wills written, often hurriedly, by soldiers departing to fight for the British Army in the Great War or in the Second Anglo-Boer War in South Africa.
Pre-1858 testamentary records will join the lineup this year, as will the Griffith’s Valuation Field, House and Quarto Books collection. The latter notebooks were created by valuers between 1848 and 1860; they often contain names of property occupants. All records here are free and link to images of the original material. They’re also available with a World subscription to Findmypast.com, an Ireland subscription via Findmypast.ie, and on FamilySearch.org.
9. National Library of Ireland Roman Catholic Parish Registers
The National Library of Ireland (NLI) launched a free online home for its collection of Ireland’s Roman Catholic parish registers Dating from the 1740s to the 1880s, these registers cover 1,091 parishes and consist primarily of baptismal and marriage records.
The microfilms on which the registers were recorded have been converted into nearly 400,000 digital images, which are browsable by parish location only. You won’t be able to search for a name, so the site won’t be of immediate help to those who don’t know where in Ireland their immigrant ancestors came from. But it’s likely that genealogy data sites will rush to begin indexing the images as soon as the new site is live.
For those who already can pinpoint a parish of origin, this website heralds a new era for Irish genealogy by making old church records for its majority religious group readily accessible. Information in the registers varies from parish to parish, but typically includes the dates of the events and the names of key people, including godparents or witnesses.
In the absence of an index to these records, researchers will find it helpful to use the new site in conjunction with RootsIreland.ie (see No. 11) and IrishGenealogy.ie.
10. Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
While it doesn’t offer online access to census, vital or church records, the website of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) is a top-drawer destination for family historians with connections to the six counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone.
Judge not the site’s plain appearance. Exploration here is well rewarded with heaps of background information, an extensive range of downloadable family history guides and several useful databases served up free of charge.
These databases, most of which link to images of the original material, are accessible from the home page (under Online Records on the right side). They include Will Calendars (1858–1965), Street Directories (1819–1900), the Ulster Covenant (1912), Freeholders Records (pre-1840), and the Londonderry Corporation Records (minutes, 1673–1901). The most popular database, online since 2014, is Valuation Revision Books (1864–1933), which record Griffith’s Valuation changes in size, quality and value to all properties, both rural and urban, as well as the names of their occupiers and owners. Changes were recorded in different colors of ink, one color for each year, and can help to establish significant dates in a family’s history, such as dates of death, land sale or migration. Note that these revision books are often referred to as “cancelled books,” especially in the Republic of Ireland.
The PRONI site also offers a rather unassuming Name Search database. Be sure to dip in. It allows you to search a number of indexes to pre-1858 wills, surviving fragments of the 1740 and 1766 religious censuses, 1775 dissenters’ petitions and coroners’ inquest papers from 1872 to 1920.
11. RootsIreland.ie ($)
If ever a website demanded a researcher to draw breath and make its acquaintance before attempting to tease out its treasures, RootsIreland is it. The nonprofit Irish Family History Foundation (IFHF) manages this site and its database of 20 million transcriptions of records (not linked to images) held by the IFHF network of county and regional genealogy centers. The site, which has switched from a pay-to-view system to a subscription model, is best known for its church records of mixed denominations, but it also has transcribed birth, marriage and death certificates for some counties.
Before going anywhere near the search page, you’re best off reading the FAQs or at least looking for your ancestral counties on the list of available records. Collections in the database date between 1700 and 1920 and some of the parish registers have significant gaps, so you really do need to check that records for the year, religion and parish or district you’re interested in are available.
Although transcriptions are still being added and are generally of a high standard, the bulk of the parish register transcriptions are of variable quality. Think creatively, especially with regard to the spelling of surnames, if you can’t find a record you believe should be available.
A version of this article originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Family Tree Magazine.