My three rules for researching ancestors in Ireland


If you are an American of Irish Catholic descent like me, you have probably hit a wall once you reach Ireland because it’s so easy to find people with the same name as your ancestor. Or, perhaps you’ve found it too easy for the same reason, and haven’t look as closely as you should.

When I try to connect my Irish-American ancestors to their family in Ireland, I try to do three things:

  1. Remind myself that every name will have multiple individuals.
  2. Narrow it down to one townland.
  3. Find at least one fact with both Irish and U.S. records.

First off, the names. Let’s take my great-grandfather, Patrick Valentine O’Neill. Family oral history puts his hometown as Coalisland in Northern Ireland. In 1996 we visited this teensy little town with police stations that reminded me of the Israeli police stations I saw in occupied Palestine. There was a museum to accommodate the Irish diaspora visiting the old country, and the docent cheerfully asked us our names. When she heard we were O’Neills, she rolled her eyes and said “Ach, I was O’Neill before I got married.” Her point seemed to be that half the town were O’Neills.

Back to Patrick. He was born in 1877 to Patrick O’Neill Sr. and Mary O’Neill. That’s right, Mary’s maiden name was O’Neill. That has to be pretty unique, right, even in a town where everyone was an O’Neill? I found a civil marriage certificate for Patrick O’Neill and Mary O’Neill from Porteglenone, 30 miles north. Woot! And then I found birth or baptism records for five children the couple had together, most in Coalisland, but one in Portglenone in 1871.

Then I found a problem. My great-great Aunt Mary Ann was born in June of 1871, while her “brother” Charles was born just five months later in November of 1871. This was biologically ludicrous. The only answer is that there were two different Patrick O’Neills who married two Mary O’Neills at about the same time, and that both couples lived just thirty miles from each other.

This brings up the second point: finding the townland, which is the smallest geographic entity recorded in civil records. A townland is roughly equivalent to a U.S. neighborhood or subdivision. Most of the time. If you can find the townland, you can find the ecclesiastical parish, and from there, you can find baptisms and marriages—assuming the parish register still exists.

Patrick and his siblings were all born in Annagher townland and baptized in Clonoe Parish. Charles was born in Lisnahunshin, and Hugh in Newmarket.

Let’s take another example of why the townland matters: Michael Shiel and Bridget Kennedy. I know their names from the Irish civil marriage license and Philadelphia death certificate of my 2nd-great-grandmother, Mary B. Gallagher nee Shiel. I also have a whole bunch of facts that point to Swinford, County Mayo.

So when I found a 1903 civil death certificate for a Michael Shiel near Swinford, I said “woot!” The person reporting his death was even “Bridget Shiel, widow.” I’d found my guy!

Except… I hadn’t. I looked up Michael Shiel in Griffith’s Valuation, and found one in Carrowreagh townland, which is where Mary’s civil marriage license noted her father lived in 1871, and a second about 20 miles away in a townland adjacent to the one listed in the 1903 civil death certificate.

I had two men named Michael Shiel of about the same age, both married to Bridgets, and living within twenty miles of each other. If I hadn’t checked the townlands at two different points in time, I would’ve thought they were just one man.

Let’s get to the third point: a second supporting fact. Ideally you want to match a birth date from a U.S. death certificate with a baptismal or birth record from Ireland. But you could also have a marriage year from some U.S. source, so a marriage cert from Ireland could work. Or you could find a brother or sister who immigrated with your ancestor but has better records in Ireland than your ancestor.

Take Mary McGirr nee Powers. Her 1902 death certificate notes she was 75 when she died, so she was born around 1826 or 1827. The 1900 US Census says she was born in May 1826. A 1907 book, Past and Present of DeKalb County, noted that Mary was born in County Waterford about 1825. Family oral history tells us her parents were John Powers and Catherine Quinlan, and that they came from Dungarvon in County Waterford. I can’t prove the parents or city, though. Finally, my grandfather identified several Powers in his hometown as cousins, and I’ve traced them back to Mary’s purported siblings.

I’ve got a County, I’ve got a month and a couple of years, and I’ve got names of parents for Mary and her siblings. Now I’m ready to search in Ireland, and low and behold, I found several baptismal records for Mary’s younger siblings from Stradbally Parish, which is just south east of Dungarvon. They all name the parents as John Powers & Catherine Quinlan. Victory!

I did find a 20 May 1826 baptismal record for a Mary Power, born to John Power and Catherine Power, from Tramore parish close to Waterford. That’s pretty good, though I have some nagging doubts. The parish is fifteen miles from Stradbally, Powers is a pretty common surname in the area; and John, Catherine and Mary are very common Irish forenames, so it’s possible that this was for a different family. Still, I’ve proved who Mary’s parents were, and where they came from by connecting information from U.S. documents with Irish documents.

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