The luck of the Irish apparently didn’t carry over to genealogy: Those tracing roots in Ireland have to contend with the catastrophic loss of records in 1922 and challenges in accessing surviving documents. But a growing service could make your work much easier. The Irish Family History Foundation’s (IFHF) online databases give you easy access to nearly 15 million church, vital and census records—most of which were previously unindexed and never before online.
Although most censuses from 1821 to 1851 and Church of Ireland parish records were lost in that 1922 fire at Dublin’s Public Record Office, some did survive. Catholic records—which remain in the custody of local churches—escaped the fire but are often difficult to access.
The IFHF Web site is the foundation’s effort to make these records more accessible. County genealogical research centers throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland are transcribing church registers, vital records, census returns and gravestone inscriptions. Most transcribed church records date from the early 1800s to 1900; some Catholic records go back as far as 1634 (and up to 1978). Church of Ireland records range from 1679 to 1990. (As the state church, the Church of Ireland’s records sometimes listed nonmembers. That’s important because most rural Catholic parishes didn’t start keeping records until the 1820s or later.) You’ll find some Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregational, Methodist and Quaker records, as well.
County centers are also transcribing civil registrations—government records of births, marriages and deaths. So far, most transcriptions date from 1864 to 1900, but some go up to 1948. Irish civil marriage records are especially useful because, unlike in America, they name the parents of the bride and groom.
Surviving census returns from 1821, 1834, 1841, 1884 and 1895 are also going online. (I found my relatives in the 1821 census of County Cavan—it lists everyone with their name, age and relationship to the head of household.) Same goes for the fully intact 1901 and 1911 censuses.
Start your search with the Standard Surname Index, which automatically finds spelling variations. If you get too many matches, you can narrow your search by selecting Exact Match. A wildcard search finds all matches that begin with what you enter, so a search for Clark retrieves both Clark and Clarke. On the individual county center Web sites, you can narrow your search further by Parish/District or District Electoral Division.
All searches are free, so you can play around with the databases to see if they have anything promising before spending your money. A transcribed record costs 5 euros (about $6.50). Digitized images of the original records aren’t online, but the transcriptions appear quite complete. You can order certified copies of civil registration records from the Republic of Ireland’s General Register Office and from the General Register Office of Northern Ireland. The National Library of Ireland has microfilm copies of most Catholic Church records in Ireland up to 1880 and, in some cases, later years. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of many Irish church records and most surviving Irish census records up to 1911. (Search for the films you need in the library’s online catalog, then order them for viewing at a local Family History Center.)
If you don’t find your ancestors in the Irish Family History Foundation’s online databases, check back later. Almost 40 million records have been transcribed already and they’re going online over the course of several months. Join the mailing list at the bottom of the home page to be advised of updates. Irish genealogy is still challenging, but this Web site could prove to be your lucky charm.