How To Find Your Irish Ancestors For St. Patrick’s Day

Mar 13

With Patrick’s Day coming later this month and inspiring Irish pride around the world, many people become curious about their Irish roots. Whether you’ve found an O’Shaughnessy somewhere in your family tree or simply have family lore about Celtic royal ties or family that escaped the Great Famine, learning more about your Irish ancestors is a great way to celebrate this time of year. But researching ancestors in Ireland and abroad can present some special challenges. Here are five strategies and resources that can help streamline your search.

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Remember the concept of chain migration: Chain migration refers to the phenomena that often, a family or group of individuals would immigrate to the United States together. As they got established with places to live and jobs, members of their extended family, friends, and people from their community would often follow. There were strong trends – at least initially – for new immigrants to live with people that they knew or settle nearby. If you’re struggling to find details on a specific ancestor but know that they traveled with a sibling, parent, or friend, researching the people they knew may give you valuable insights into how and where they lived, worked, and traveled.

Review documentation you may have on hand: One of the best places to start with your search for more detail about Irish ancestors is by looking through existing family papers. A family Bible may include names and dates of births and marriages. Letters, postcards, and other forms of correspondence with relatives back in Ireland may offer important clues on names and geographic information. Pinpointing the town or village, or even simply the parish that an ancestor emigrated from will help you focus your search and make it easier to find important records.

Work to find birth names: For many immigrants traveling to the United States with names that were considered difficult to pronounce, spellings were changed upon arrival. Therefore, what started as O’Conaill may have changed to O’Connell, Connell, O’Connall, Conill, Cannell, or Connull (note: these were just a few versions that turned up for this particular surname during a recent search). You may find references in documents where spellings vary slightly. Different variations of one name may be used for the same person. Depending on your ancestor’s literacy level, it may be difficult to find a definitive confirmation of spelling; they themselves may have used different spellings at different times. The best way to work around this is to explore different spellings as part of your records searches, and provide notations in your research on any alternate spellings used for your ancestor or other members of his or her family.

Focus on immigration records: Irish immigration peaked at the time of the Great Famine, with good reason. However, ship’s records and passenger lists may have been skimpy with details. This is doubly true if your ancestors traveled steerage (i.e. the cheapest way to make the Atlantic crossing). If you’re having trouble locating your ancestor on an Irish to America vessel, remember that many people crossed to Canada and then traveled south into the United States as it was often cheaper. It may also be helpful to cross-check immigration records via the US Census. Often, if a place of birth was listed as somewhere other than the United States, the census will note the year of immigration. This can help narrow down your records search.

Use Irish specialty collections: There are a number of collections that are available which focus exclusively on Irish genealogy that can supplement your search. Some of these are free, and others paid. While not a comprehensive list, these resources can help you get started or break through a particularly challenging research problem.

The National Archives of Ireland offers an extensive collection of historical and genealogical resources available for search. is a specialized service for tracing British and Irish ancestors. The subscription services offers a Wills Index and the best online version available of Griffiths Valuation.

Roots Ireland is an initiative of the Irish Family History Foundation, an Irish non-for-profit dedicated to genealogy, offering a searchable records index and digitized versions of original source materials.

Finding your Irish ancestors can be a rewarding project to undertake in connection with St. Patrick’s Day. If you’re struggling to make progress or want assistance from an Irish genealogical specialist, contact Price & Associates today to set up a personalized consultation.