If you are a descendant of Irish emigrants, there is some crucial information that you should gather before you start searching for your Irish ancestors online.
Family Address in Ireland
For ancestors born in Ireland prior to 1864, it is vital that you try to determine their county of origin or a more specifc family address in Ireland. If you cannot find an address for your direct ancestor, try to identify siblings or other family members who also emigrated and settled in the same place. They may have recorded their family address in Ireland. Prior to the famine many emigrants left Ireland in family or community groups. Try to determine the origins of the other Irish families who settled in the same area, this may indicate where your family originated.
You may have established that your ancestor, James Kenny, was born in Cork in about 1854. However, there may be several children called James Kenny who were born in Cork at about the same time and who appear in the surviving parish records. You need to know your ancestor’s parents names in order to identify the correct James Kenny.
Identifying the names of your ancestor’s parents prior to your research in Ireland will help to locate and confirm your ancestor out of the many others who shared the same name. If the parents names cannot be determined, try referring to the standard Irish naming pattern. The eldest male child should be named after its paternal grandfather, female child after the paternal grandmother and the second male and female children after the maternal grandparents. Although not an exact science, this method can sometimes help to identify the correct family in Ireland.
Useful Sources for Irish Emigrants
In the UK the 1891 census can often provide a more specific place of birth in Ireland.
US and Canadian Census returns often only record the place of birth as Ireland. However, many later US census returns record the place of birth of the parents of the individual in the return. If you don’t know which generation of your family originated in Ireland, you can use the US census returns to identify them. You can consult US and some Canadian census returns for free at FamilySearch and by subscription at Ancestry.
Even if your ancestor left Ireland prior to the 1901 and 1911 census it may still be possible to locate their parents or siblings who remained in Ireland.
If you can establish parents names and a family address in Ireland you can search the census for evidence of descendants of your family line.
If you locate your ancestor’s parents in the census, you will be able to establish their approximate dates and counties of birth and from the 1911 census their approximate date of marriage.
Many Irish emigrants departed for the New World from Liverpool. It might be worth checking UK census returns for evidence of them at a UK port prior to emigration. English census returns are available at Findmypast and Ancestry
Gravestone Inscriptions and Newspaper Death Notices
Gravestone inscriptions, particularly in the US and Canada, can often state a specific place of birth for Irish born emigrants. Similarly, newspaper death notices in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand can also name the county of birth of the deceased individual. This may be because the death notice might be copied to an Irish newspaper and may be the only way of informing family members in Ireland about the death. Both of these sources are worth investigating for references to a place of birth in Ireland.
Descendants of emigrants to the US should also think about checking the ‘Missing Friends’ entries in the Boston Pilot. Between 1831 and 1821 the Boston Pilot published advertisements in the ‘Missing Friends’ section, from people who were trying to find friends and relatives who emigrated from Ireland to the United States. These advertisements can include details such as county and parish of birth, occupation, date of departure and port of arrival in the US, as well as other personal information. These advertisements have now been digitised and are available online at Ancestry and there is a free partial database on the Boston College website. Irish newspapers, many of which are now available online, also reported on the departure of emigrants or news that was sent home and may be worth checking for a reference that will tell you where your ancestor originated. Irish newspapers that have been digitised can be found at the Irish News Archive and Findmypast.
Birth Death and Marriage Certificates for Irish Emigrants
Civil birth, death and marriage certificates in the UK, particularly Scotland, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand can also be valuable for tracing your ancestors back to Ireland.
Civil death certificates in the United States, Scotland and Australia usually recorded the names of the parents of the deceased. Knowing the parents names of your Irish born ancestor can sometimes be vital for your research in Ireland.
Civil marriage certificates can also record the parents names of the bride and groom.
Make a note of the names of witnesses recorded at a marriage, witnesses were often siblings of the bride and groom who also emigrated.
The informant of a death may also be another family member. Although the information given on a death certificate can be vital for tracing your ancestry back to Ireland, remember, the information is only as good as the person who provided it. The son or daughter of an immigrant may not know the exact date of birth of their parent or, indeed, the correct names of their grandparents.
Gather as many civil certificates as you can for your ancestors in the country in which they settled before you start your research in Ireland. Every document that you find has the potential to contain a clue that will help you identify your origins in Ireland.
Army Service Records
British Army Service records tend to record the parish and county of birth in Ireland.
For emigrants to the United States, passenger lists like those found at Castle Garden and Ellis Island can often provide the last address in Ireland. Records for Ellis Island date from 1892. Earlier emigration records can be found at Castle Garden. There are also extensive passenger lists published online at Ancestry and Findmypast. Passenger records from the early 20th century in the US can often state the townland of birth or last residence in Ireland, the name of their next of kin who remained in Ireland as well as the name of the person that the passenger was going to stay with. This can often be a sibling or aunt or uncle and their address in the US should be recorded. This information often appears on the second page of the passenger record, so always check for a second page, where you might find additional vital information.
A recent collection from the Watson House Mission identifies women who arrived, unaccompanied, in New York. The mission helped the women to locate family and friends in the US and between 1883 and 1908 it is estimated that they saw 100,000 Irish women. The mission ledgers recorded the name of the emigrant woman, her age and county of birth and the ship on which she arrived, to whom the emigrant was sent and their destination address. It is possible to identify sisters who travelled together or emigrant girls who were reunited with family already settled in America. The records are available on the Watson House website.
There are few collections in Ireland that record the departure of emigrants. Most records were deposited at the port of arrival.
I would recommend consulting the excellent guide to passenger lists for Irish emigrants written by Brian Mitchell where you will also find a link to a small collection of indexed passenger lists for people leaving Irish and British Ports.
If you don’t find this information for a direct ancestor, try searching for other members of their family who also emigrated. Their records may contain a reference to a place of birth in Ireland or identify parents names.