Sources - Where?

For anyone wanting to research ancestors in Ireland, there are a number of myths that can be an obstacle. The one most uncomfortably close to the truth is that all the records were destroyed in 1922. What actually happened was bad enough. The strong-room of the Public Record Office of Ireland, repository of the vast majority of administrative records of the island of Ireland from the 14th century on, was used as an ammunition store by the anti-Treaty side in the civil war. Hit by a shell fired by the pro-Treaty forces, the munitions exploded and destroyed all of the records. Only those few records in the PRO Reading Room at the start of the conflict survived.

From a genealogical point of view, the most significant losses were:
    •    the surviving 19th century census returns,
    •    about two-thirds of pre-1870 Church of Ireland parish registers
    •    all of the surviving wills probated in Ireland.

While the loss of the census returns in particular still casts a long shadow over Irish research, any records not in the PRO in 1922 have survived. These include non-Church of Ireland parish records, civil records of births, marriages and deaths, property records and later censuses. And for much of the material that was lost, there are abstracts, transcripts and fragments of the originals. Indeed, with a little straining to see the bright side, the disaster of 1922 can be said to have simplified research on Irish records, though in much the same way that Cromwell’s visit in 1649 simplified Ireland.

Some detective work may be needed. For North America, naturalisation records, obituaries, burial and cemetery records and military record may provide vital clues. British census returns from 1841 to 1891 sometimes supply a specific place of birth but more often simply give “Ireland”. One way around this is to examine other Irish households in the same district: migrants from the same areas in Ireland were very clannish and tended to stay together. There is a good chance that a county of origin recorded for some of the neighbours may be the relevant one. The fact that so many of these 19th century returns are now online makes it much simpler to cast a net very wide.

But when it comes to Irish location information, the standard starting advice for any genealogical research applies doubly: talk to your granny. Family tradition, though it might need some decoding, can save you much pointless pain later on.

Unless your ancestor had an outlandish surname, the minimum you’ll need to know is the county of origin, and if the surname is common even a county or a parish may not be specific enough. The vast majority of Irish records before the 1860s are location-specific, and the reliance on fragments or local census substitutes which is one of the results of the 1922 disaster means that even neighbouring parishes may have quite different record profiles. Both of the standard guides to Irish research, my own Tracing Your Irish Ancestors (Gill & Macmillan, 3rd edition, 2006) and James Ryan’s Irish Records (Flyleaf Press, 2nd edition, 1998) include detailed listings by county showing what records survive.

When you get to the point of research in Irish records you will almost certainly be using one of the four main categories that are relevant to almost everyone. These are:
    •    Civil records
    •    Census records
    •    Church records
    •    Property records

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