Some researchers are blessed with the knowledge of exactly where
in Ireland their ancestors came from. Maybe their family kept in
close contact with family left behind or maybe their family discussed
the old country in detail. Then there are those researchers whose
family never discussed Ireland or lost contact with those left behind.
All they know is that their ancestors came from Ireland. Ireland is
composed of 16 counties, north and south. Much like the United States,
you must know at least a county of origin to proceed. What to do?
There is no foolproof method for locating an ancestor's county of origin
in Ireland, but there are many resources to consult that will
either tell us or help to narrow it down.
In order to describe the different records available that may give us
answers we seek, I have broken down the records themselves into two
Country of Arrival Records (records in the new country, ie: United States)
Country of Origin Records (records in the old country, ie: Ireland)
Country of Arrival Records
It is widely known that there will be more records available
pertaining to immigrants here in the United States then in their country
of origin. Most immigrants naturalized, voted, purchased land, etc.
In fact, most immigrants spent their adult lives in their new country - so
logically more records will exist for them.
Please make sure you speak to older family members. They may
have heard a specific location in the Ireland mentioned a few
times. There may also be old letters, diaries or photographs
with a place mentioned. Or they may know where at least one
relative lived in Ireland.
Archives & Libraries
Most state and local archives and libraries have extensive local
holdings, including but not limited to: biographies; directories;
church, cemetery, immigration and court records; newspapers and
other records that are just for that area. These holdings are
usually cataloged or indexed for easier searching.
Tombstone inscriptions and cemetery records can be the best
sources for determing a location in Ireland. You are more
likely to find this information depending on which church the
cemetery is attached to. Irish immigrants buried in Roman Catholic
cemeteries often have a location in Ireland engraved on the tombstone.
Even if the tombstone itself does not give a location, it may
give clues to other relatives (who's origin can be traced).
NOTE: Tombstone inscriptions are only as accurate as the person
who gave the information. Also, if the family was poor, they were
probably buried without a tombstone, as a tombstone (especially one
with an extensive inscription), was and is quite costly.
The same is to be said for sexton's records. While the sexton's
records may direct you to relatives buried nearby (or even list
a place of origin), they may not be accurate.
The United States federal census provides immigration
information for the 1900 through 1920 censuses: country of
birth, date of arrival and citizenship status. The 1925 New
York state census gives alittle more information. It specifically
asks for the date and place of naturalization.
NOTE: Please remember, whichever census you view, federal or
state, birthplace usually means state or country, not a specific
Certain denominations kept better records than others. Roman
Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed are the most noted examples of
excellent record keeping. You are most likely to encounter the
place of origin in marriage or death records from these churches.
In the Roman Catholic faith, a member is required to complete
all sacraments prior to marriage. When an immigrant went to
marry in their new church in their new country, they may have
had to supply the Roman Catholic Church with dates and
locations in Ireland. Or at the very least, the name
and/or location of their previous parish in Ireland.
(I can attest to this from personal experience.) Whether or not
the priest recorded this information is a different matter. The
Quakers (Society of Friends) sometimes recorded foreign origins
of newcomers in their Monthly Meeting Records.
When contacting the church or religious institution, it never
hurts to specifically ask for any information they may have
pertaining to your ancestor's country of origin. You never
know what the church has recorded! I have also found from
personal experience that if you don't specifically ask for it,
they will not send it to you.
Court records can be helpful because they can list family
members and even property holdings in Ireland. This is
especially true if your ancestor was the plaintiff, defendent or
witness. While most court records post-1900 are not indexed
well, it is still worth a look. Court records from colonial
times are more often indexed well. If your ancestor was a
laborer or farmer, chances are high you will not find them in
any court records. You are more likely to encounter an ancestor
who was professionally employed.
If you should locate an ancestor in court records, make sure
you review all the documents. The case file, known as the
packet, contains the testimonies, depositions, affidavits, etc.
It is in the depositions and affadavits that you will most
likely encounter a place of origin.
Passenger lists vary in the content of information. Early
lists usually do not give a town in Ireland, while late 19th
century/early 20th century lists do. If you do not know the
exact date your ancestor arrived, you can start by searching
the vessel arrivals for the time period you seek. You can
match up the ship name with the port of departure. From there,
you can view that ship's passenger list.
If your ancestor came to the United States prior to 1820 (when
the federal government required passenger lists be kept), you
may want to view the following from the
Filby, William P. Passenger and Immigration Lists
Detroit: Gale Research, 1988
FHL book # 973 W33p 1988
Filby, William P. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index
Detroit: Gale Research, 1981
FHL book # 973 W32p
Also keep an eye open for passports. It's very possible that
your ancestor went back to Ireland to visit family. If so, a
passport would have been required. (They were more widely
issued in the 20th century, however there are some from as
early as 1795.) For further information on researching
passports, please see Immigration.
Land & Property Records
Many Irish immigrants jumped at the chance to purchase relatively
inexpensive land. These records may contain many clues! If
land was purchased directly from the government (ie: homesteads),
there is more of a chance of discovering information about their
place of origin. Deeds show the place of residence for both
the buyer and seller. If your ancestor purchased land shortly
after arriving in the US, the deed should show place of
residence in Ireland.
Many areas required an immigrant to naturalize, or at least
file a declaration of intent, before purchasing land. In this
case, there may be copies of the naturalization papers kept
with the land records.
It is estimated that thousands of Irish immigrants served in
the US army in the 19th century. Some military records may
provide you with clues to a place of origin. The most
These records usually give name, rank, military unit, and date
and place of birth, among other information.
These records are a documentation of the soldier's stay in the
military. Rolls or enlistmentpapers may give place of birth.
The above records can be obtained through
NARA. You may also want to
look into veterans' organizations, unit histories and national
These records vary in content by area and date. You are most
likely to find name, age and country of birth, rather than a
town or village. Naturalization records for the 20th century
are more informative. Keep in mind that not all immigrants
naturalized. When searching for naturalization papers, make
sure you get all the documents: delcaration of intent and the
Local and ethnic newspaper can provide an abundant source of
information. They list obituaries, new arrivals to the area,
notices for missing relatives, marriage announcements, and much
more. Most of these newspapers are now on microfilm and will
circulate on interlibrary loan. Check with your local library
to see what's available.
Everyone who has an obituary, in effect, has a small biography.
Not only do obits list names of survivors, but sometimes
religious and political affiliations and the hometown in Ireland.
Even if the obit doesn't list the county of origin, it may list
survivors who may hold the key if you trace their origins. You
are more likely to find an obit for your ancestor in the
community newspaper. Keep in mind however, that not everyone
chose to post an obituary. To locate an obit, you will need
to have a date of death - or a good estimate. Make sure you
search for the full week after the date of death. If the
newspaper was printed weekly, search for two weeks after the
date of death.
In order for a person to retire, they would have to have showed
proof of birth at sometime in their employment. (Remember, the
laws were different then than they are now. How many of us had
to lug our birth ceritifcate to work to enroll in the pension
plan?) If the pension was going to the surviving spouse or
heir, they may have had to supply proof of birth. So pension
files should contain some relevant information. Pensions from
private or public companies hold the most information, but
usually only since the early 20th century.
Probate records from the colonial period are more likely to
state a place of origin than their modern counterparts. Colonial
probate records are often indexed and can be found at state
archives and the LDS. Immigrants who were well off usually kept
property in Ireland. This is likely to be mentioned in probate
records. The same if the immigrant left family members behind.
Twentieth century vital records are more detailed in the
information they required than those from the 19th century,
especially marriage and death records. These records may
simply give a country of birth, but may provide clues to the
church they attended or the informant on the certificate. Keep
in mind that death certificates can be notoriously inaccurate.
They are only as accurate as the person giving the information.
Voting records for some areas, such as Kings County, give a lot
of information: date and place of birth, number of years
residency in the city and state, date of naturalization, etc.
Other areas may not have required such detailed information.
However, in order to vote, an immigrant had to naturalize. By
searching voting records, you will know when the immigrant
first registered to vote, which should help greatly in
narrowing down the date of naturalization. Voting records can
be found at the county courthouse.