In the last few years a significant contribution to Irish genealogical research has been made by the availability online of both the 1901 and the 1911 census. These census records are a hugely important resource particularly in view of the fact that nearly all earlier census records from 1821, i.e. the date when comprehensive countrywide census records began in Ireland, until 1851, were largely destroyed by fire at the Public Record Office (PRO) in Dublin in 1922. 


Further compounding this loss of historical documentation, all census records from 1861-1891 were destroyed, probably through clerical error. Therefore, the surviving returns from 1901 and 1911 are of immense value not only to social, economic and cultural historians, but also because they are the only two complete census records that survive as a window to pre-independence Ireland. 


The census records can be searched in several ways, however the most common search criteria is by name or by location.  If searching by name, it is particularly important to be aware of all possible spelling variants and when no result is forthcoming to use a variety of alternatives (names were entered into the database as they were spelt on the original forms, even if spelt incorrectly). 


If searching the census by location, it is important also to be aware of the administrative division used in its compilation.  Locations were based on townland/street name, District Electoral Division (DED) and county. Therefore, unless you know, or have a good idea of the townland or the street name where your ancestors lived, you need to be able to narrow down the search by being able to identify in what location they lived within their county of origin. For example, if you know that your Maguire ancestors came from Co. Sligo, but you are not sure exactly where, there is very little chance of being able to locate them as 1,799 people called 'Maguire' are recorded in the 1901 census for Co. Sligo.  However, if your ancestors were for example, Bodkin’s also from Co. Sligo, there is a good chance of locating them as only 5 people of this name were recorded in the 1901 census for Sligo. 


Notwithstanding the seemingly complex and overwhelming administrative divisions in Ireland, the National Archives census ‘search engines’ are relatively user friendly. All our reports endeavour to trace your ancestors in the 1901/1911 census, why not have go here www.census.nationalarchives.ie


Prior to the introduction of civil registration in the mid 19th century (1845 for non RC marriages and 1864 for RC births, marriages and deaths and for non RC births and deaths), the only place where such information would have been recorded on a countryside scale were in church parish registers.


Church parish registers are divided between RC parish registers and non RC parish registers. If your ancestors were RC, their baptism and marriage records will hopefully have been registered in the parish where the event took place.  It is useful to be aware that a RC parish is different to a civil parish, and that it can have a different name and that it usually covers a more extensive area, incorporating one or more civil parishes.  If you are doing your own research it is important to be aware of the difference between church and civil parishes.


However, the big problem with RC parish registers is the piecemeal nature of their survival, and even if the register that you are interested in has survived, there is no guarantee that the entry relating to your ancestor will be legible!  Furthermore, standardisation of RC parish registers did not take place until the latter decades of the 19th century, or even into the early decades of the 20th century,  and up to this time, details recorded in different registers varied widely.   Whilst parish registers can be an extremely useful source of genealogical information, they can, for the reasons outlined above, present a frustratingly variable source varying widely from one parish to the next.


Many entries in RC parish registers are written in Latin (sometimes in English but never Irish), so a basic understanding of the most common Latin terms used in the register is useful. This is especially true where your ancestors had a surname common throughout the parish.  For example, in a marriage register you might think a column headed ‘Sponsus’ refers to the ‘Sponsors’ or ‘witnesses’ to the marriage, when in fact it means ‘groom’. Further confusion can arise by the fact that in 19th century Ireland, the range of male and female forenames was  limited; a significant proportion of the male population were called John/Ioannes or Joannes, while an even larger proportion of the female population were called Mary/Maria. Therefore, a bride and a sponsor, or a groom and a sponsor often shared the same forename or surname, or even both!


The date of RC parish registers differ from one parish to the next; most date at the earliest to the early/middle decades of the 19th century with a cut off date around 1900 (for online records). Although a few registers survive from the latter half of the 18th century, regrettably, few survive earlier than this date. 


Notwithstanding these difficulties, RC church parish registers remain one of the most useful sources of pre 1864 genealogical information in Ireland.  The RC registers remain the property of the parish church and are generally not available to the public.  However, many registers are now online and are fully searchable, on payment of a small fee. 


In the case of the Church of Ireland (Anglican) parish records, most of these are now held centrally in the Representative Church Body Library, in Dublin. Although many of these registers are earlier in date than RC parish registers, less of them survive as many were destroyed in the fire at the Public Record Office in 1922.


Civil or state registration of non Roman Catholic (RC) marriages began in 1845, while registration for RC births, marriages and deaths, and for non RC births and deaths, began in 1864.  The term 'non RC' refers to members of the Church of Ireland (Anglicans), Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Huguenots, Lutherans and a variety of other belief systems with followers in Ireland, from the 17th century onwards.


When civil registration began, the authorities decided to collect this new information based on existing administrative divisions. Consequently all births, marriages and deaths were registered according to an administrative division known as a ‘Poor Law Union’ (PLU) or ‘Superintendent Registrar’s District' (SRD).


To search for a birth, marriage or death record for your ancestor, you need to know the ‘PLU’ or ‘SRD’ in which the event would have been registered.  There are approx. 163 PLU’s in Ireland, many of which cross county boundaries.


Once a birth, marriage or death occurred, it was a legal obligation for the event to be registered with the civil authorities, and full details supplied within three months for births (but less so for marriages and deaths). The onus for registration (for births and deaths) fell to the public (parents for births and the officiating clergyman for deaths, while registration of marriages was generally also the responsibility of the officiating clergyman). 


Non-registration of a birth, marriage or death within the permitted time resulted in a fine.  Consequently, to avoid payment of the fine, the birth, marriage or death date might in some cases be ‘moved’ to suit the date of registration!  For this reason, where complete accuracy is required, it is always wise to check the relevant church records as the church did not impose such fines, and as such they are generally considered to be a more reliable indicator of the true date on which the event took place. 


Despite the imposition of a fine, this did not deter a certain percentage of the population failing to register a birth, marriage or a death. Genealogists have estimated that about 10-15% of marriages and births simply do not appear in the registers[1].


[1] Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, John Grenham 2012, 7.


Directories/Almanacs can provide information about a vast array of different aspects of society, and as such they can be a most useful source of genealogical information (standard inclusions are street listings with occupier's names, tradesmen, army officers, solicitors, bankers, magistrates, etc).


Most Directories/Almanacs are 19th or 20th century in date, with a smaller number from the late 18th century, the period in which they first appeared. Directories were published for Dublin, some provincial towns and a few covered the entire country.


Most Directories were published annually, therefore it is possible to track family names and locations and make assessments as to how people were managing economically. A word of caution however, all Directories/Almanacs were already out of date by the time they were published as a time lag of a least 6 months (and sometimes longer) existed between record collecting and publication date; all research should factor in this time-lag.


Passenger Lists

The advent of the internet has had a major impact on the number of ‘passenger lists’ now available to the public. In many instances, it is possible to track your ancestor as they made their way from Ireland (or the UK) across the Atlantic to North America, Canada, South America or to other locations such as South Africa, Asia, Australia or New Zealand.  Emigrants also travelled to mainland Europe or the outlying islands of the Americas, and it is now possible to locate them in online records, some of which are in English. 


Unfortunately, no centralised location exists to search for emigration/immigration records. Furthermore, as a general rule in regard to passenger lists, prior to c. 1890, a far better chance of identifying passengers exists at the port of arrival, as opposed to the port of departure. Information recorded at the point of immigration can sometimes give clues to ‘where the person originated within Ireland’, ‘who they were travelling with’, and ‘where ultimately they were going. Notwithstanding the shortcomings surrounding these records, there are now a range of websites (some free but most are pay-per-view or subscription) where information can be located.


Border crossings and passports, naturalisation and citizenship and a range of less well known records are also available for some locations. 

Occupational records cover a vast array of material and locating which records are relevant will depend on the occupation of your ancestor and the period in which they lived.


Records are available for most occupations; however, due to the vagaries of Irish record keeping and the complex relationship between church and state within Ireland, the rate of survival of most records vary hugely.


In most cases, good records survive for military (army/police), educational, medical, clerical and legal professions and many of these are available to search in national institutions such as the National Archives or the National Library of Ireland. These institutions also retain records pertaining to other professions, and trades, but in many cases the vast array of material is stored with societies or other private archives with a direct association with these occupations (see Directories).


Two sources provide significant information regarding land and property, and its valuation, in 19th century Ireland.


Griffith’s Primary Valuation

Griffith’s Primary Valuation originally entitled ‘General Valuation of Rateable Property in Ireland’ was the last of three valuations attempting to establish an equitable system of land and building taxation throughout the country. Undertaken by Richard Griffith, it took over fifteen years to complete (published 1848-1864) and was used as a basis for levying a local system of taxation under the Irish Poor Law Act, 1838. It was carried out under the auspices of ‘The Tenement Valuation Act of 1852’ and remained in effect in the Republic of Ireland for 130 years.


Carried out in the aftermath of the famine, the valuation replaced two earlier taxes, the ‘cess tax’ and the ‘tithe tax’ (see below). In order to assess the value of the property every farm/occupied premises in the country was visited. A value was allocated to the property, including the land held within the holding (the value of the land was based upon its quality, purpose, and average annual yield).


Each year following the initial valuation, a ‘revised’ valuation was made. This was carried out by surveyors from the Valuation Office. The revisions were noted and kept in books known as ‘Revision Books’ or ‘Cancelled Books’. These books are currently stored in the Valuation Office in Dublin and on payment of a ‘search fee’, it is possible to trace occupancy of premises and land listed in Griffith’s Valuation forward in time up until the abolition of domestic rates in the late 1970s. It is therefore possible to use the original valuation, in tandem with the ‘revision books/cancelled books’, to track families and deduce relationships. Due to the lack of 19th century census records in Ireland as a result of their destruction in 1922 during the civil war, Griffith’s Valuation has become one of the most useful sources of genealogical information.


It should be noted however, that the valuation did not record ‘every’ head of the family in the country. The survey overlooked any person or persons dwelling in a property recorded as occupied by their employer. Thus, in rural areas especially, many ‘landless labourers’ and ‘estate workers’ do not feature in the survey.


Tithe Applotment Books (TAB's)

A ‘tithe’ was a tax (established by the Composition Act of 1823) equivalent to ten percent in kind of agricultural produce of a rural piece of land collected for the upkeep the Church of Ireland clergy. It was to be paid by every person (landlord or tenant) regardless of religion. In order to establish who should pay and how much they should pay, a countrywide survey was compiled (by civil parish) from c. 1823-1838. The resultant survey records are referred to as the ‘Tithe Applotment Books’ (TAB's) and they form a valuable source of genealogical information from this period.


Whilst the basis of the tax was on the size and quality of the land held, some exemptions were made, a situation which further compounding its already exploitative foundation. In some counties, the tax was payable on potato patches but not on grassland, with the result that the poorest had to pay most[1].


Unsurprisingly, imposition of such a tax caused widespread unrest, particularly amongst the poorest tenant farmers most of whom were Roman Catholic (RC). The unrest developed into what is colloquially knows as the ‘tithe wars’, with the result that in 1838 the tax was abolished.


In consequence of the widespread opposition to payment of this tax, a list of names was compiled of those who actively refused to pay. These people were known as ‘Tithe Defaulter’s’ and the list remains another useful source of information for this period of 19th century family history.

[1] Tracing your Irish Ancestors, John Grenham 2012, 57.