Before the arrival of Irish newspapers online, searching for evidence of ancestors in the press was often a tedious task. Unless the approximate date of an event was known, it could take hours or even days of trawling through every page of a newspaper to locate a report or announcement of the event you are searching for. Not that this type of research did not have its benefits. While meandering through pages and pages of reports you start to get a feel for the period you were looking at. The European wars, local conflicts and political wrangling of the time forms the backdrop of your ancestor’s life. You may stumble on 19th century jam recipes, homemade cold remedies or gardening tips as well as eloquent letters, poems and short stories from another time. It was easy to get distracted and wile away the afternoon indulging in the details of a gruesome murder or an explorers reports from far flung foreign places.
However, you can now find many digitised Irish newspapers online. For a researcher today it is often a matter of putting a name into the search engine and the work is done. Not that you cannot browse a digitised newspaper, but the ease with which you can sometimes find what you’re looking for means that the rest of the paper is discarded as you move on to your next task.
As is the case with many Irish records, Irish newspapers online are not all available on one website. You may need to shop around to determine which website has the publications that are most useful for the purposes of your search.
Where to Find Irish Newspapers Online
The first collection to go online was the Irish Times, which commences in 1859. This is a stand alone site for this one newspaper. The search engine for this paper is unwieldy and frustrating and frequently produces negative results for terms that one would have expected to appear in the paper, suggesting that it is not entirely reliable. When you click on an entry and are brought to the article where your search term should appear the term is often not highlighted, which means that you sometimes have to read the entire page to find the entry you are looking for, only to find that it is not relevant to your search. The Irish Times reported on news that was relevant to its readership, which means that you are unlikely to find an obituary for a small farmer in Mayo and more likely to come across a lengthy account of a state banquet at Dublin Castle. Before you subscribe, bear in mind the likelihood that the subject of your search will appear in this publication.
One of the most useful collections online is the Irish News Archive. This site has digitised and are continuing to digitise a multitude of Irish newspapers including the Belfast Newsletter from 1738 and the Freeman’s Journal from 1763 and a wealth of provincial newspapers like the Nenagh Guardian from 1838 and the Tuam Herald from 1837. Their search engine is now much more user friendly with plenty of options to filter your search by date, publication and keywords. When you arrive at your list of results you can view a brief extract where your search term appears before you have to load the full page, making it easy to dismiss irrelevant articles. When you go to the page itself, the search terms are highlighted, making it easy to get straight to the article you were looking for. However, not all of their collections online are complete, so do check the publication list to make sure that they have published the newspaper for the period you are interested in or your search might be futile.
The third source for Irish newspapers online is Findmypast, who, in association with the British Library Newspaper Archive are publishing an increasing number of Irish newspapers, some of which are also available on the Irish News Archive. While the search engine works fairly well, I have noted discrepancies between Findmypast and the Irish News Archive, finding results on one that do not appear on the other, despite the fact that they have both digitised the same paper. When you click on the result to see the article the column in which the article appears is highlighted, but not the keyword, so there is a bit more legwork on this site.
Get the Best from the Search Engine
I always urge caution when using the search engines on websites of digitised newspapers. The success of your search will depend on the terms that you use. If you are searching for a reference to a Patrick Murphy, bear in mind that he may be referred to as Mr. P. Murphy or Pat Murphy or, in the case of a death notice, Murphy, Patrick. If the term that you are looking for does not fit on one line in the publication and is hyphenated when it goes to the next line, it won’t show up in your search. For example, Mr. P. Mur-phy, will not appear if you search for Mr. P. Murphy. On findmypast you will find that searching for a name like Patrick Murphy, will turn up results that include, Murphy, Patrick.
The character recognition software that identifies the words you are searching for, won’t find them if the ink in the print is smudged or the page is creased or torn, so a negative search result does not necessarily mean that the event or announcement was not recorded. If your search is unsuccessful, try using a different search term, such as an address.
In fact I have often had to use a number of different search terms before I have successfully located the article I was searching for in Irish newspapers online. Recently, searching for a report on a child who fell from the window of their home, my search for their surname and street address was unsuccessful, however, the term ‘window’ located the article I was looking for. The child’s address was recorded in the article, but was hyphenated across two lines and the surname was spelled incorrectly by the reporter, which explains why they did not appear in my initial search. Much like the old days, I still had to trawl through a month’s worth of articles that contained the word ‘window’ but I was ultimately successful.
There is also no accounting for happy accidents that arise when your search of Irish newspapers online turn up references to your ancestor that you never expected to find. While researching a man who served as a First Mate with the Merchant Navy, a quick newspaper search of the names of the ships on which he served discovered a court case in which the First Mate, who had taken charge of the ship after the death of the Captain, was charged by the crew for non payment of wages. The details of the case included the circumstances of the death of the Captain and the promotion of the First Mate and his own charge against the owners for his own pay.
Notices and news items in Irish papers were often copied to English papers. If you can access the British Library Newspaper Archive, it is also worth checking those publications for Irish items and references to your ancestors.
The collections at Findmypast and the Irish News Archive are continuously being updated with new publications. If you had checked these collections a year ago or more, it would be worth a return visit to see if anything additional has come to light. However, you should also bear in mind that the newspapers for the area that you are interested in may not have been digitised, so always check the National Library of Ireland Newspaper Database to identify relevant papers and their location first. Then you can search for digitised versions online.