Irish genealogical research can be a little different than elsewhere as we don’t have the spine of regular census records from the 19th century from which to hang our family history. This means that other sources are more prominent in Ireland than elsewhere. Here I highlight many of these alternatives that are readily available online.
Civil Registration started in Ireland in 1864 (with non-Catholic marriages being registered from 1845). Images of the full registers for births (up to 100 years ago), marriages (up to 75 years ago) and deaths (up to 50 years ago) are available for free on www.irishgenealogy.ie. This allows quick and easy inspection of potential matches and elimination of false trails without any expenditure. This has been very advantageous in my own research, particularly on families with common surnames. The records are indexed by name, date and/or registration district. (FindMyPast announced in 2018 that they had transcribed and indexed all fields in these records but there has since been a delay in publishing these online.) The image series aren’t quite complete at the moment (pre-1864 marriages and pre-1878 deaths are missing) but these are promised soon. Post-1921 records for the six Northern Ireland counties are available at geni.nidirect.gov.uk but there are viewing fees.
The lack of census records from the 19th century has always been a major problem for Irish genealogy. The 1901 and 1911 returns are fully indexed and freely available on the national archives website (www.census.nationalarchives.ie). (However, the hope that the 1926 census would be released early seems to have faded.) There are surviving fragments of earlier censuses going back to 1821 available at the same site. In addition, elsewhere there survive some unofficial local examples made by parish priests and landlords. These usually only name heads of households. A list of sources and maps of the parishes covered are available at www.genealogicaldata.org. However, coverage is so geographically and chronologically fragmentary that other sources need to be used in a longitudinal study.
Land records act as the main census substitutes. Griffith’s Primary Valuation, taken mainly in the 1850s, is available for free on several websites (www.askaboutireland.ie, FindMyPast, Ancestry, etc.) and lists the primary occupier of all parcels of land and buildings. Studies comparing a sample parish house-by-house with surviving contemporary census data indicate that this represents 60-70% of rural households but only 30% in urban areas (due mainly to multiple-occupancy buildings). FindMyPast also has published the contemporary annotated large-scale Ordnance Survey maps that show the locations of the buildings and land parcel boundaries indexed in Griffith’s Valuation. However, some of these maps are hard to read. They can however be compared easily to the same base maps on the Ordnance Survey website (map.geohive.ie). AskAboutIreland also has annotated maps which are much clearer than those on FindMyPast. However, these date from later in the century and so often do not match Griffith’s Valuation exactly.
Griffith’s Valuation as published was the culmination of several years of survey by the Valuation Office. Many of the hand-written notebooks in various formats completed by the surveyors over the years 1830-1850 survive in the National Archives and have been imaged and indexed by name and place on FindMyPast. The coverage is incomplete and not all formats name householders but usually it is possible to get some information for a location pre-famine. Even earlier, the Tithe Applotment records (free to view at titheapplotmentbooks.nationalarchives.ie) date from 1823-1837 and name rural tenants with over one acre of land.
Coming forward in time Griffith’s Valuation was the beginning of comprehensive records that name occupiers of property up to about 1970 – the so-called ‘Cancelled or Revision Valuation Books’. These books can be consulted in the Valuation Office in Dublin. Amendments are colour-coded by year making it possible to trace and date the change of occupancy of a property due to purchase, death, and emigration etc. over 120 years. The Valuation Office currently has a programme to digitise these records and it is intended that they will be available online in the future. The equivalent records for Northern Ireland indexed by location are already available online at www.nidirect.gov.uk/services/searching-valuation-revision-books.
Irish Parish Registers
The National Library of Ireland has made available online images of microfilms of the Roman Catholic parish registers (registers.nli.ie). For some urban parishes they survive from the 1740s but for remote parts in the west they may start as late as 1860. The coverage ends in 1880. Indexes are available through both FindMyPast and Ancestry. Wider and alternative coverage is available through the Irish Family History Foundation (www.rootsireland.ie) which includes register transcripts from all denominations with varying completeness on a county-by-county basis (as well as other genealogical sources). Their transcripts are compiled locally so can be more accurate regarding the spelling of personal and place names. Dublin City, Kerry and parts of Cork and Carlow are available on www.irishgenealogy.ie. Many Church of Ireland parish registers have been lost; those that survive with locations are listed at www.ireland.anglican.org/news/6518/a-colourcoded-resource-of-what. Few of these are online. This is also the case for the 12% of the population from other religions.
The lack of 19th century census records has meant that considerable effort has gone into finding and digitising alternative sources. In case studies I have carried out, I have found a rich source of information in workhouse, court and prison records (all on FindMyPast). Digitised newspapers also form a continually growing source (see www.irishnewsarchive.com and the Irish titles in www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). For Dublin, comprehensive annual street and trade directories are available also from the 1850s. The digitised records for Glasnevin and other Dublin cemeteries representing 1.5 million burials from 1828 are at www.glasnevinmuseum.ie/genealogy/. These show the names of people sharing the same burial plot – often the only evidence confirming several generations of the same family.
Another source I have found very useful for pushing genealogies earlier than the 1820s is the volunteer-driven Registry of Deeds Index project (irishdeedsindex.net) which is in the process of indexing personal and place-names in the deeds going back to the 17th century, linking them to the images of the original deeds available on FamilySearch. There are currently over 300,000 entries in their index.
So, there are many Irish sources readily available online to substitute for the missing census years. Even so, due to their nature, it may be difficult to demonstrate linkage of records to full genealogical proof standards in some cases. However, their diversity can sometimes result in more well-rounded family history narratives being developed than those based solely on BMD and census records.
About the Author.
Adam Winstanley is professor in the Computer Science department at Maynooth University in Ireland specialising in spatial and historical data analysis. He is also a qualified genealogist with an MSc from Strathclyde University.