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Tracing your Irish Ancestors: A Three-step Guide

Tracing your Irish Ancestors

by Brian Mitchell, Derry Genealogy. Email:


A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland

There are 2,508 parishes in Ireland. You can identify the civil parishes of Ireland, and their associated townlands, HERE by selecting county of interest on the map. To gain insight into the economic and social landscape of 19th century Ireland you can consult A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, published in 1837, by Samuel Lewis, which is available from Arranged in alphabetical order by parishes, towns and villages this book can also be viewed online HERE. An excellent starting point for surname research is the ‘Surname Search’ option at where you can explore the location, frequency and history of Irish surnames.

Research Steps

Step 1 – Search 1901 and 1911 Census Returns

Although census enumerations were carried out every decade from 1821, the earliest surviving complete return for Ireland is that of 1901. The census enumerations of 1901 and 1911, arranged by townland in rural areas and by street in urban areas, can be searched, for free, at These returns will list the names, ages and places of birth of all members in a household.

Step 2 – Search for births, marriages and deaths

Civil registration of births, deaths and Roman Catholic marriages in Ireland began on 1st January 1864 while non-Catholic marriages were subject to registration from 1st April 1845. Prior to the commencement of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in Ireland, family history researchers usually rely on baptismal, marriage and burial registers kept by churches. With civil registration of births and deaths commencing in 1864, and with the patchy survival of church records prior to 1820, gravestone inscriptions can be a vital source for family historians.

Irish Civil Records of births, marriages and deaths can now be searched and viewed at On searching index, which returns name, event type, year and name of Superintendent Registrar’s District, a pdf of the full register page in which that birth, marriage or death certificate appears can be downloaded by selecting ‘image’. At present, images are available for Births 1864-1916, Marriages 1870-1941 and Deaths 1878-1966. Further images of Marriages dating back to 1845 and Deaths dating back to 1864 will follow later.

RootsIreland, at, is a good starting point for searching church registers of baptisms, marriages and burials as this website is the largest online source of Irish church register transcripts. You can either search across all counties or search a particular county. For example, Derry Genealogy, at, has transcribed and computerised the early baptismal and marriage registers of 97 churches (38 Roman Catholic, 24 Church of Ireland and 35 Presbyterian, the earliest being the registers of St Columb’s Cathedral in Derry city which date from 1642) and gravestone inscriptions from 117 graveyards.  

As the search facility on this website is very flexible it means that you should be able to determine if any entries of interest to your family history are held on this database. For example, if you are searching for the baptism/birth of a child you can narrow the search down by year, range of years, names of parents and by parish of baptism/district of birth. Marriage searches can be filtered by year, range of years, name of spouse, names of parents and parish/district of marriage.        

It must be stated, however, that a failure to find relevant birth/marriage entries in this database doesn’t mean that the events you are looking for didn’t happen in Ireland. It simply means that they are not recorded in the database; for example, they may be recorded in a record source which doesn’t survive for the time period of interest or in a source that has not been computerised or, perhaps, exists in the database of another county.

For example you can search, for free, the church registers for Dublin city, south Cork and Counties Carlow and Kerry at

Step 3 – Search Census Substitutes

Quite often the only realistic strategy in tracing ancestors beyond church registers (which are the building blocks of family history) is to examine surviving land records and census substitutes, often compiled by civil parish, for any references to a surname or given name of interest. The problem with these sources is that they name heads of household only; hence they provide insufficient information to confirm the nature of linkages between named people in these sources. Census substitutes, however, are very useful in confirming the presence of a family name in a particular townland and/or parish, and in providing some insight into the frequency and distribution of surnames.

You can examine the mid-19th century Griffith’s Valuation at and early-19th century Tithe Books at It must be emphasised that such sources will confirm the presence of a name and/or surname of interest but they will not confirm if there is a connection between people with the same surname!

About Author Brian Mitchell

Brian Mitchell has been involved in local, family and emigration research in the wider County Derry area (Northern Ireland) since 1982. The database whose construction he supervised from 1982 to 2007, containing one million records (dating from 1628 to 1922) extracted from the major civil and church registers of County Derry, can now be accessed at

Brian is a Member of Accredited Genealogists Ireland (MAGI) and the author of a number of Irish genealogy reference books, including the classic works, A New Pocket Guide to Irish Genealogy, A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland, A Guide to Irish Parish Registers, Irish Passenger Lists 1847-1871, Genealogy at a glance: Irish Genealogy Research and Genealogy at a glance: Scots-Irish Genealogy Research. He can be contacted by email at