This is the first in a series of posts to help you discover your Irish roots. This first installment you will probably be familiar with, but we hope our tips might still be useful.
This should really be your first port of call for your research into your Irish roots. Unfortunately, during the Civil War which followed the War of Independence most censuses were destroyed. Only the 1901 and 19011 remain, although there is a list at the National Archives from people who applied for a copy of their entry in the 1841 or 1851 Census to prove that they were old enough to claim a pension when this was introduced.
The 1901/1911 censuses contain:
Both can be searched free online. The surname requires exact spelling so you might try a number of variations, and I have seen cases of misspelling which makes it very hard to find someone. You should also note that ages can be wrong; these were often estimated, or people lied about their age to be older (for a job or pension entitlements) or younger. Unless you are lucky enough to have a very uncommon surname, you will need a townland as well. Alternatively, you might consider searching for a townland and review all occupants. It is possible to refine the search with additional data, but unless you are very sure about your information, it is best to start wide and narrow it down until you get a reasonable number of records. These you review record by record. Make sure to tick the “Show All Information” box. The database contains both a transcription and images of the original census form. The latter also contains a description of the buildings occupied by the household (Form B1).
As you will have noted, it is important to know the townland where your ancestors lived to search the census. The townland is the smallest unit of administration and often only contains a small number of families. Above the townland sits the civil Parish (not to be confused with the ecclesiastical parishes, which were entirely separate). Next up were Baronies and finally Counties. Confusingly in the Census you will also find the DED (District Electoral Division) which was for the administration of the vote. If you don’t know the townland, you might consider asking us for help.
As we approach the Christmas season, we urge you to try and make time to share memories with your family, look at old photos to see if you can uncover any new gems. We take this opportunity to look back to Christmas in Ireland over 100 years ago. Christmas was simpler, but like today, it was also a family affair. We found this gem in a family memoir box, written by Kathleen Hassett in the early 1980s. Her childhood was spent on a small rural farm Knockanean, near Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland. The pictures show her as a girl and later in life.
Christmas in the 1900s, Kathleen Hassett (1897 to 1985)
I was born in the last few years of the reign of Queen Victoria, so I can say something of Christmas before the First, or Great War. It was a holy day rather than a holiday, but that did not mean we all wore long faces. Schools closed for almost a fortnight, as it does today; that in itself was a holiday; through as always had little tasks to perform – washing up, wiping up, dusting, shopping etc.
Each Christmas season the local grocer gave us a “Christmas Box” of a quarter stone of sugar, 1lb.tea, 1lb. each of currants, raisins and sultanas, and perhaps even half lb. of candied peel. Though the actual goods and the amounts varied from one business to another, the custom of giving Christmas boxes to customers was general, but it came to an end due to rationing during the 1914-18 war and was never renewed.
By Christmas Eve, we were excited – Father Christmas or Santa Claus would come during the night, but we had to be asleep. We hung up a stocking borrowed from an adult or used a pillowcase. We slept soundly and awoke bright and early to see what the great man had brought us. The toe of the stocking was usually filled with sweets, and an apple and an orange took up more room.
Each little girl got a doll usually beautifully dressed; my younger sister, born in 1908, was the first in the family to have a Teddy Bear from Father Christmas. Little boys usually got a game or a ball. Father Christmas was a wise man – if we had a doll, we did not usually get another. Dolly perhaps got a dolls house, or a tea-set, or some doll’s furniture. As we grew older, our gifts also grew older – we got a sewing-set or a book, which we found exciting.
Soon it was time to get washed and dressed and go to Church. The highlight of Christmas morning was to see the Crib where the Holy Child lay sleeping.
Dinner time brought fresh excitement, especially when the Christmas pudding appeared. We had all had to stir it, and we knew that silver 3d pieces and 6s pieces were there, and if one found a silver coin in your portion, you would have a year of good luck. Afterwards, we played games, or read until tea-time after which we were advised to get to bed early to sleep off the excitement of the great day.
At Genealogy.ie, we wish we could give each of you a big hug and hope this article will act as a virtual hug. We would like to wish all of our customers and friends a very Happy Christmas and a Peaceful New Year.
PS: If you are really stuck for a Christmas present, you might consider giving a Genealogy.ie. voucher. Contact us for more information.
The Kilmacud Stillorgan Historical Society has been publishing its annual journal, Obelisk, for 13 years. Since 2016 – for 4 years now – Genealogy.ie’s Michael van Turnhout has been contributing an article to it.
These articles are about local history, rather than family history. However, we believe local history is important to get a better understanding of the society your ancestors lived in. In this case, it gives you a picture of what kind of school your mid-nineteenth Irish ancestor would have gone to.
St. Mary’s National School, Sandyford, Dublin, Ireland
On our page dedicated to the growing list of articles that we have contributed to magazines and journals – including the respected Irish Family History Journal of the Irish Family History Society and North American Magazine Your Genealogy Today you will be able to download our article and follow a link to the Society’s website, if you are interested in purchasing a copy of the journal.
You can visit this page by following this link:
“The floor of the repository is piled 10 to 20 feet high with twisted ironwork and debris and entry is impossible . . . In the vaults were deed boxes on iron racks. The racks were evidently softened by the great heat, and the weight of the boxes has bent them and drawn them forward; the lids of the boxes have fallen in, and the contents have been reduced in every case to a little white ash.”
This was a contemporary description of what as left of the Four Courts records after the shelling in 1922 by the Free State troops to end the occupation by the anti-treaty forces.
The Four Courts were the main repository of all public records in those days. The fire caused by the fighting meant a lot of records were lost forever:
However, there is also plenty that survived:
It does mean however that it is just that little more difficult to find your Irish ancestors. But not impossible. You will have to know however where to look and there are also alternative resources. Ever thought about checking the dog licence register?
You should start by looking through the resources that still survive. You can find advice on how to go about this on our website:
Advice on Genealogical Resources
And if you do hit the famous brick wall, please feel free to Contact Us
There are 32 counties in Ireland, 26 in the Republic, and 6 in the North. We also often hear about the four provinces (Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connaught), especially in sports like Rugby.
Irish administrative divisions for the genealogist are unfortunately a lot more complicated than that. This page tries to help you make some sense of it!
Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland
The island of Ireland is split into two parts: the independent “Republic of Ireland” and “Northern Ireland”, which is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The island measures 84,421 km², of which the Republic has 70,273 km². The latter has a population of 4,803,748; the North has 1,685,267 (2018 figures).
The four provinces
The names of the four provinces of Ireland are derived from pre-Norman kingdoms. There were however a lot more than four kingdoms when the Normans invaded Ireland in 1171 under the leadership of Strongbow. This was really a private enterprise. The (Norman) kings of England followed quickly, to prevent Strongbow becoming a threat. They established four military districts, to aid the occupation. It was these that took the names of former kingdoms. The reason why we nowadays only hear about them in sports is because the provinces have no longer any official status.
The former royal houses of these four kingdoms were: Connacht in the West (O’Connor); Leinster in the East (MacMurrough); Munster in the South (O’Brien); and Ulster in the North (O’Neill).
The counties of the province of Connacht are: Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, and Sligo. Its flag shows an eagle and a sword.
The counties of the province of Leinster are: Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Westmeath, Wexford and Wicklow. Its flag is a harp set on a green background.
The counties of the province of Munster are: Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford. Its flag shows three gold crowns on a blue background.
The counties of the province of Ulster are Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Derry/Londonderry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Monaghan, and Tyrone. Its flag highlights a red hand on a shield set on a background of gold/orange with a red cross.
Antrim, Armagh, Derry (also called Londonderry), Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone are part of Northern Ireland, the other three are part of the Republic of Ireland.
The 32 counties
As mentioned, there are 32 counties. In present-day Ireland, it is these counties that most people identify themselves with. The counties were also a Norman invention. The first county to be established was Dublin, always the center of the occupier’s power. This was in the 12th Century, immediately following the invasion. The last county, Wicklow, was not established until 1606.
When doing your research, you should note that some counties have changed name over time. For obvious reasons Kings County (Offaly) and Queens County (Laois) no longer have the names given to them by the English.
Baronies have been obsolete since 1898. Up to then, however, land and property valuations were organised according the barony, so it is worth being able to identify the barony in which an ancestor’s townland (see below) was located.
There are ecclesiastical (church; and to make things more complicated, there are Catholic and Church of Ireland ones, both covering Ireland but of course with completely different boundaries) and civil parishes and they have nothing to do with each other. The civil parish is the one we deal with here. Each county is made up of a number of civil parishes. County Leitrim has only 17. However, many others have over 100 civil parishes. In total there are ca. 2,500 civil parishes in Ireland. In the past, they were responsible for the maintenance of Irish land and property taxes and records.
The townland is the smallest and most fundamental of all Irish land divisions. Townlands vary greatly in size and population, but they are all fairly small If you are able to find the townland from which your ancestors hail, you will get a pretty good idea of what life looked like for them. Townlands were the basis of census returns from 1821. You should note that some of them no longer exist, and others in name only.
If you are confused, you are not the only one! Hopefully, this short explanation helps. And as always, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Between 1808 and 1811 a fort was built to help protect New York against invasion. This was not an idle threat, as in 1812 a war broke out between England and the USA, with the former trying to regain possession of its former colonies.
The fort did not however see any action during this war, or at any time after.
The original name of the fort was “West Battery”. In 1815 however, it was decided to rename it “Castle Clinton”, after a popular New York mayor (and not the last politician of that name to rise to high office).
In 1821 the United States Army decided it no longer needed it. The city of New York leased the property and used it as a place of public entertainment, under the new name of Castle Garden. Officially however, the name is still Castle Clinton.
An ever increasing number of immigrants started to arrive in New York, mostly landing at the docks on the East side of the tip of Manhattan, around South Street.
To cope with this influx, the castle was converted in 1855 to an “Emigrant Landing Depot”. It would fulfill this function until in 1890 the federal government took over and moved the center to the larger and more isolated Ellis Island.
The latter because immigrants were known to carry diseases, which led to epidemics of cholera and smallpox.
When it closed, more than 8 million people had arrived in the United States from via Castle Garden.
Castle Garden, the previous facility, was in New York itself. The number of immigrants was rising, which meant a bigger facility was required. But there was also a wish to better contain the immigrants, who often arrived sick and unhealthy.
In 1890, Congress approved a budget of $75,000 to build America’s first federal immigration station on Ellis Island.
The size of the Island was doubled to six acres, using fill material from incoming ships’ ballast and from the construction of New York City’s subway tunnels.
The first building was a three-story wooden structure. It opened on 1st January 1892 and already on that first day, three large ships with 700 immigrants passed through. That year, it processed almost 450,000 immigrants .
A few years later, on the 15th June 1897, a fire of unknown origin, completely destroyed the building.
Thankfully there was no loss of life reported. On the negative side, it meant that all immigration records going back to 1855 were destroyed.
Between opening and the fire, the station had processed 1.5 million people.
A new station was build, this time from stone. It opened on 17th December 1900. Almost immediately however, it turned out to be too small to handle the enormous numbers of immigrants. It was therefore quickly expanded.
When it closed on 12th November 1954 it has processed 12 million immigrants. Despite the fire, many records are still available and new collections have recently come on line. However, you should be aware that most records only contain basic information.
Early immigrants from Ireland were fishermen from Cork, Wexford and Waterford to the island of Newfoundland. This happened in 1536! The numbers were however very small.
Real Irish immigration to Canada only started late in the eighteenth century, After the independence of the United States, the government of “British North America” wanted to ensure their survival vis-a-vis its much bigger southern neighbor. It lifted any restrictions on Catholic immigration and even started offering free land to immigrants (with promises of 200 acres per family). This was helped by shipping companies looking for “cargo” for their journeys back from Europe, where they had delivered the foodstuffs that were the main export at that stage. Settlers fitted the bill nicely.
This turned out to be a big success, even before the Great Famine. The Famine did however, as in the United States, swell the numbers enormously.
Between 1825 and 1845, 60% of all immigrants to Canada were Irish, a total of approx. 600,000 people.
Most of them settled in Upper Canada (Ontario), Lower Canada (Quebec) and the maritime colonies of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Not all remained however, with many using Canada as a staging post on their way to the United States.
A large number of Irish Catholics arrived in Grosse Isle, an island in Quebec in the St. Lawrence River, which housed the immigration reception station. It would become a source of a tragedy. In 1847 over 80,000 people (of all nationalities) arrived here, more than double the number of the year before. 70% of these people were Irish. Many were sick after a long voyage on board of a so called “coffin ship”. These got this name, because it is thought that almost 1 out of every 6 passengers died during or immediately after the trip, mostly of typhus.
Before 1847, these sick were housed for a quarantine period in sheds. However, because of the huge influx of that year, the facility was overwhelmed and soon thousands of people carrying the disease started to arrive in Montreal, spreading it to the local population (including – it is said – the mayor of the city).
For this reason, so-called fever sheds were set up at Windmill Point. To care for, but especially isolate the sick. In 1847 and 1848 it is estimated that up to 6,000 Irish died here from “ship fever”. Their remains were discovered in 1859 by workers building the Victoria Bridge., who erected the Black Rock memorial in their honor. Its inscription reads:
Over 40 million Americans can claim Irish ancestry. Some know their family roots into detail, but many others only have some vague family stories or perhaps even only their name to remind them.
Emigration from Ireland started in earnest in the second half of the seventeenth century. It is thought that of the early colonial settlers around half came from the Irish province of Ulster while the other half came from the other three provinces of Ireland. Most of these were from families who had only a few generations before emigrated from Scotland and England to the new “plantations”. According to some sources, only 20,000 of the 250,000 people who emigrated from Ireland to the colonies (i.e. before independence) were Catholics.
These plantations were initiated by the English government as a scheme to tighten their grip on Ireland. Although first conquered centuries before, English power in Ireland was often threatened by a hostile population and its leaders. The plantation schemes simply were about replacing the population by more loyal subjects from England and later Scotland.
The first such schemes date from the middle of the sixteenth century but were not a success. The Ulster scheme, from the start of the seventeenth, attracted more “settlers”. Still, living among a hostile population did not turn out to be what the newcomers had dreamed about.
And then the new colonies of North America beckoned. Particular popular among these early Irish was New England, but groups also settled in the the Appalachian Mountain region.
Despite often appalling living conditions, Irish of old Irish ancestry did at this stage not emigrate in large numbers. Emigrating to another continent was not what it is now. It was a complete break from family, culture and language. And the possibility of death on the way. Not something that anyone would undertake without good reason.
Apart from this, emigration of Catholics to the colonies was actually outlawed by the English government. This only changed after independence when the colonies became the United States of America. In 1790, only a few years later, the USA’s Irish immigrant population numbered 447,000 and two-thirds originated from Ulster.
Catholic emigration only started to pick up after 1820. Part of the reason was the buoyant labour market in the USA, with plenty of work in in canal building, lumbering, and civil construction works in the Northeast.
However, as is well known, the pace really picked up as a result of the Great Famine. This famine was not caused by a food shortage. As a matter of fact, Ireland exported food, esp. grain, throughout the famine. The problem was that this grain was produced on large estates, owned by the English landlords, for export to England. Most Irish lived in abject poverty and survived almost completely on a very nutritious staple food: potatoes.
In the 1840’s there was however a recurring and increasingly severe failure of crops due to a potato decease, called blight. This disease caused the potato to rot before it could be harvested.
Massive numbers of Irish started to starve. At first there was no response from the English government, as they believed that they should not interfere with market forces. Only after a huge and worldwide outcry, and many private initiatives to give aid, did the English government belatedly start to help. But even then, it was based on a system where the Irish people were obliged to work for any assistance. This was the time that many desperate Irish emigrated, and also the time of the infamous coffin ships: by some estimated 1 out of every 6 passengers died during or shortly after the voyage.
Most of these immigrants arrived and stayed – at least initially – in the big cities of the Eastern United States.
The population of Ireland is thought to have numbered around 8 million before the Great Famine. This was almost halved by 1900. About a million people died between 1845 and 1849 as a direct result of the famine. The rest emigrated.
What is not always understood is that these people did not always emigrate during the famine. Many did, with the UK and the USA being the most popular destinations. As a result, Irish communities were formed in these countries. And once these were formed, it became much easier for next generations to follow, which they continued and continue to do.
It is estimated that eight million people emigrated between 1801 and 1921. That is equal to the entire population before the famine! The majority of these – then and now – were between 18 and 30 years old.
|Irish immigration to the United States (1820–2004)|
|Total : 4,787,580|
As mentioned, the big Eastern cities were the main destinations for the Irish. However, not all remained in these cities. Countless others were part of the westward expansion. of the United States. They were enticed by tales of gold, and by the increasing opportunities for work and land. Kansas City for example is one city that was built by Irish immigrants and a large number of its population today is of Irish descent.
The Irish were having a huge impact on America as a whole. In 1910, there were more people in New York City of Irish ancestry than Dublin’s whole population, and even today, many cities still retain a substantial Irish American community.
During the mid-1900s Irish immigration to the United States began to decrease. However, to this day, the United States is a popular destination for Irish people seeking a better life somewhere else.
Want us to help find out about your Irish ancestry? Contact us!
Below you will find the 10 most popular Irish surnames, their crest and their meaning. If one of these is your family name, you are actually out of luck when it comes to family history research: there are so many Murphy’s, Kelly’s, O’Sullivan’s, etc. that is often very difficult to ascertain if a particular person in a genealogical record is your ancestor or just someone else with the same name! Your research will needs extra checks, additional proof, access to more sources, etc. Genealogy.ie is happy to assist.
Irish surname meaning "foreigner"; brought to to Ireland after Norman invasion. Most common in counties Mayo and Kilkenny.
Anglicized version of Irish personal name name Murchadh, which meant "sea-warrior" or "sea-battler"
Gaelic clan based in what is today County Cork and County Kerry. Before Anglo-Norman inviasion in County Tipperary.
Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Briain 'descendant of Brian', a personal name probably meaning 'eminence' or 'exalted one'.
Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Ceallaigh 'descendant of Ceallach' meaning 'bright-headed'
Anglicised from Irish 'Ó'Broin', meaning descendants of Bran, ("raven"). From Kildare, descendants of King of Leinster.
Anglicized form of Gaelic Mac Gobhann (Scottish) and Mac Gabhann (Irish) meaning 'son of the smith'.
Anglicised from Irish surname Ó Riain meaning "descendant of Rían", meaning "little king"
Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Conchobhair 'descendant of Conchobhar', meaning 'lover of hounds'.
Anglicization of Gaelic Ua Néill, meaning descendant of Niall. Niall couild mean "cloud", "passionate" or "champion".