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Key Points To Remember When Locating The Origins Of An Ancestor - By Maggie Loughran
Posted by IRISH ROOTS on Wednesday 3 February 2016

Over the last few issues of Irish Roots Magazine I have given an overview of the most common records used in Irish research. However unless you know where in Ireland your ancestors came from it’s almost impossible to locate your ancestor in any Irish records.

Key points to remember when locating the origins of an ancestor

Until 1922 Ireland was part of the British Isles with total freedom of movement between the two islands.  Thus from the earliest of times people travelled backwards and forwards in search of work.

Most earlier emigration to North America was economic and protestant.  Later mass emigration was the poorer catholic population escaping the potato famine, general poverty and lack of opportunity. Australia began as a penal colony in 1788. Migration to New Zealand began in the 1840’s.  Free migration to both places was generally by people wanting to improve their lives.  

Many modern Irish surnames are versions of old Irish family names, which were haphazardly anglicised piecemeal following the general superimposition of English culture on Ireland in the seventeenth century.  Consequently Ireland does not have the type of diversity of surnames that might be found in other countries.  

It was not totally unusual for an official in the new home country to record a name as he ‘thought’ he heard it spoken by someone with an unfamiliar accent.  Most importantly it is only in more recent times that consistency in the spelling of your name has become a necessity.

Help is at hand however from the genealogy section of the Irish Times website They host a tool to help to determine the numbers and locations of households of specific surnames found in Ireland in the nineteenth century.  Suggestions for variant spellings and associated names are included. None of my grandfathers brothers or sisters were registered for example under the ‘correct’ surname of Harrigan but as Horrigan (which is how you pronounce it in Limerick Ireland) Loughran is often ‘misspelt’ to Laughran or Lockran

Do not loose sight of the fact that any information is only as good as the person who gave it. The information given by my own ancestors when appearing before local officials seems to have fallen into the following categories.

  • I think I know

  • I really don’t know – but this is my best guess

  • I know it’s not true but this is the information that I am giving

Perhaps something that one can easily forget especially when the information is contained within an official record.

People did not necessarily go directly to their ‘final’ place of residence.  So for example in one generation the Loughran family went from Ireland to Scotland; back to Ireland and then to England before finally making their way to America.

This makes it very important to determine as many details as possible about not only your direct ancestor but also the extended family (where known). Whilst you may not be able to locate the information you are looking for your direct ancestor you may find it for a sibling or a collateral line.  Research on my great grandfathers brothers in Albany, New York took me back another 2 generations in Ireland. The more you know about the extended family the easier it will be to locate the correct person / family group in Ireland.  Its much easier to research/ track a family group than a single individual and ensure that you have the right people.

Any information containing the place of birth will be found within British records (or other country of settlement) and not amongst Irish records. You therefore have to make sure that you have extensively searched and exhausted the records of the new country. 

  • Search all of census records that your family appear in (where ever that maybe).   If none of your extended family gives their actual place of birth within the census etc then also look at people living in the same community as quite often people settled where they already knew people – who would help them get started in their new life.

  • Purchase any appropriate birth, marriage or death certificates (vital records).  US and Australia certificates can for example give you an amazing amount of information – not easily found anywhere else.

  • Search for burial records / memorial inscriptions.  Look to see which other family members are buried in a grave.

  • Check any church records where your ancestors may have worshipped (in the UK or elsewhere). If your immigrant ancestor was Roman Catholic consult the Catholic registers specifically for any marriages (for those born in Ireland but marrying in the UK or elsewhere) as the parish priest will have contacted the home parish in Ireland for proof of baptism and this along with other ‘observations’ maybe noted in the margins of the parish register against the records of the events in your ancestors lives.

  • Ireland’s history and the British administration of Ireland has resulted in the majority of government generated pre 1922 documents being deposited at the National Archives (Kew, London) rather than in Dublin.  Apart from records of the day-to-day workings of national government more importantly for family historians the records of the major institutions army, navy, constabulary etc are also held in London.  It is thought up to 40% of privates in the British Army were Irish.  However the legal systems were distinct with anything to do with the courts or legal affairs to be found in Irish repositories.  The National Archives hosts a large selection of online research guides to help you with your research.  For more information visit

  • Research the historic background to Ireland around the time of emigration.  Know the general process of emigration/immigration patterns from Ireland to the new country. In the 1850’s for example it took around six weeks to cross the Atlantic to the USA, by 1914 it took only a week. The reduction in travelling time allowed for temporary migration as well as permanent, during this time period many people went backwards and forwards.  By 1900, a third of those who had left had returned. 

  • Research the historical background of the area where your ancestor settled in the new country.  The Loughran’s moved from Nelson, Lancashire, England to New Bedford Massachusetts USA - both were cotton-weaving towns, and the Loughran’s being cotton weavers would therefore have had the necessary skill sets to find work.  Did your ancestor arrive as part of an organised emigration scheme for example?

  • Look to see if you can discover anyone else who has researched or is researching  ‘your’ family.  The survival of family documents and family stories can vary a lot within different branches of the same family. Within my branch of the family very little has survived, very few documents and little oral history.  Thankfully previously unknown ‘cousins’ descendants of my grandfather’s oldest brother (who went out to Sydney Australia in the 1880’s) knew far more about the family than my branch (which stayed in their native Limerick).  They had birth, death and marriage certificates; letters; photographs and a very strong oral history and were able to provide me with a considerable amount of information to help me with my research.  

Hopefully I have been able to help you focus and give you some ideas / information to help you discover the possible origins of your ancestors in Ireland.  Good Hunting!

This article appeared in issue 96 (winter issue 2015) of Irish Roots magazine.

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