Discovering Your Irish Ancestors: A Guide to Tracing Your Family Roots

Are you curious to discover more about your Irish ancestry? In this post, learn how to identify which of your ancestors were Irish as well as learn more about their lives in Ireland – plus much more!

Since 1800, approximately 10 million people have left Ireland; including both its country of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s portion of the United Kingdom. Their descendants number at least 80 million worldwide.

You and I belong to this vast and widespread group known as the Irish disapora – people of Irish heritage living outside Ireland. Most left due to extreme economic hardship; others left due to political or religious persecution.

Many of those of Irish ancestry outside Ireland reside in North and South America as well as Australia. Much of the information found here will apply to all people with Irish roots; however, those located within the US will find it most pertinent.

Irish Ancestry Can be Difficult to Trace
Tracing Irish ancestry may be challenging due to a lack of the usual genealogy records we use as well as shifting political and administrative boundaries; some researchers may even come across language barriers which may come as a surprise!

Genealogists depend heavily on census documents and vital records in their family tree research; unfortunately, we find that many 1800s census records were destroyed by fire in 1922.

Vital records were not required by government until the 1860s, which means we rely heavily on religious records for events before 1840. Unfortunately, we may not always know which faith our ancestors belonged to which further complicates matters.

Compounding matters further, we find that Ireland is actually divided into two separate countries: Ireland and Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom. Many historic administrative districts had different borders centuries ago while place names have changed significantly over time.

Language barriers such as Gaelic being used in people and place names further complicate research of Irish ancestry. Not all Americans realize that although most Irish speak English, Gaelic (known locally as Irish) remains its first official language.

Without doubt, it is worthwhile to gain as much information about Ireland and your ancestry’s immigrant experience as possible. With enough focus and determination, you can uncover everything there is to know about your Irish roots.

How Can I Trace an Irish Relative? Below are tips for tracking down an Irish relative. They begin with providing instruction about who your immigrant ancestors were and their immigration records; then outlines strategies for learning more about them.

Locate Your Irish Immigrant Ancestors
In order to trace your Irish ancestry, the first step should be identifying your Irish immigrant ancestor(s). They would have come directly from Ireland to your current location, such as an Irish immigrant coming directly into America from Ireland.

If you know that there may be Irish ancestry in your family tree but are uncertain where it lies or who it was, start researching with your parents. Tracing an Irish ancestor will take more than just two generations back.

Make a family tree on Ancestry (it’s easy and free!) with all of your known generations of ancestors; including parents, grandparents, great-grandparents (if applicable) and great-great grandparents if possible.

At the great-great grandparent level, you should identify 30 ancestors – including great-grandparents, grandparents and parents – as ancestors and determine where all were born.

If none of your thirty ancestors were born in Ireland, the next step should be locating sixteen great-great grandparents on United States Federal Census records that began being taken every ten years beginning in 1790. You may be able to determine whether any parents of your great-great grandparents were from Ireland.

However, most census records prior to 1950 (except 1890 which was destroyed ) can be seen for free on Family Search by creating a free account and the 1950 US Federal Census can be seen free at its Official 1950 Census Website by visiting that link.

Most Irish immigration to the US took place between 1820-1930, so chances are good you will find your Irish immigrant ancestor listed on census records. If not, your Irish ancestry may go further back and you should learn about family tree researching strategies in order to extend your tree back far enough so as to find your Irish ancestor.

Find Irish Ancestry Records
Once you know the name of an ancestor who was born in Ireland or Northern Ireland (UK), it’s time to try to trace their journey across to either America, Canada, or Australia. In order to do this effectively and quickly online genealogy records may provide invaluable assistance here.

There are plenty of free sources online where you can locate genealogy documents, but sometimes it can save time to subscribe to a site with many international records, like Ancestry. I would advise keeping an active subscription when conducting your main research efforts.

Search passenger and religious records to identify any individuals who traveled with your Irish ancestor from Ireland, and this could provide clues as to where he or she was born.

When all else fails, religious records from your ancestor’s church or parish in the US might provide additional details that cannot be found through vital records (i.e. birth certificates and indexes). Baptismal records in particular often list godparents – typically relatives or close friends of the person being baptized – as part of baptismal registers.

Keep track of any information gained during this process in your family tree that was initially created when searching for Irish ancestry.

Take a DNA Test
Ancestry offers one of the best DNA tests to help you better understand all lines of your family tree, including Irish ones. With it you will receive an ethnicity estimate which can help determine how far back in time to search, as well as a DNA match list that includes possible matches with Irish ancestry.

If your Irish heritage is relatively recent, Ancestry DNA or 23andMe may provide data showing matches to specific regions within Ireland. Both services report such matches.

Search Your Irish DNA Matchlist
A DNA match list comprises living relatives who have also taken advantage of testing their DNA with the same company, potentially including distant cousins who still reside in Ireland as well as any additional distant relations who can assist us in unraveling our shared Irish ancestry.

AncestryDNA is the go-to company for matching DNA to family trees, but other companies provide important resources when researching Irish ancestry as well. MyHeritage DNA allows users to filter matches based solely on living relatives in Ireland.

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