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Trace Your Ancestors Online
Posted by IRISH ROOTS on Friday 15 May 2015

While it is true that more and more resources for family history research are coming online, before you step out onto the busy information highway you need to identify the websites that are going to help rather than confuse and misdirect you. Over the course of this year I will identify the really useful websites, what you should expect to find on them and the pitfalls of online research.

The first step for anyone tracing their ancestors is asking family members for information about earlier generations. Consult everyone who is still alive and make a written record of what you hear, don’t rely on just remembering it.
The first records that you will need to consult as you build your family tree are civil birth, death and marriage certificates, church baptismal and marriage records and census returns.

The first object of your search should be to locate your family in the 1901 and 1911 Census of Ireland which are available online But before you go rushing off to check the census it is vital that you establish the names and addresses of your ancestors who were alive at the time. I have met too many people who have plucked a family out of the census, without confirming that it is the correct household and spent months working on someone else’s ancestry! Genealogical research is about working methodically backwards linking one generation to the previous.

The names and addresses for ancestors who were alive at the time of the census can be garnered from civil birth and marriage certificates, which can be found at the General Registry Office (GRO).

Civil registration in Ireland commenced in 1864, although non Catholic marriages were registered from 1845. You can now search the GRO indexes online. Volunteers from the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) have transcribed the birth, death and marriage indexes from 1845 to 1958 (excluding Northern Ireland after 1922) and these are available at This website also includes the IGI (International Genealogical Index) abstracts of birth certificates from the 1860s and 1870s as well as abstracts from baptismal and marriage registers for Ireland, although these are far from comprehensive.

On , enter the details of the individual that you are searching for. On the left hand side of the results page there are options to filter your search. In the collections filter you can select Ireland, civil registration indexes, 1845 – 1958. This will narrow the results to this source only. Make a record of the name, registration district, year and quarter, volume and page number for the birth or marriage you are interested in. This information will be necessary for ordering copies of the certificates from the GRO.

The familysearch website will provide you with the reference details for the birth, death or marriage certificate, but not the information on the certificate itself. Once you have identified the relevant references you can either visit the GRO research room in Dublin to purchase the certificates or you can order them online at the GRO website:

Civil birth certificates include the mother’s maiden name, father’s occupation and family address. Civil marriage certificates are more informative and record the name, age, address and occupation of the bride and groom as well as the names and occupations of their fathers. Marriage certificates are easier to identify in the indexes, as the bride and groom should both be listed with the same reference numbers. So, a birth certificate for a grandparent will provide you with both parents’ names. A marriage certificate for the parents will record their addresses prior to marriage and their father’s names. These two certificates will document three generations and should provide enough information to identify the family in the 1911 census.

It should be noted that the index on the familysearch website was compiled by volunteers and as with any transcribed online records there is always the potential for errors and some entries may be missing. Also, although civil registration was compulsory, in some cases vital events were not registered and so will not appear in the indexes, online or otherwise.
Now that you have established the names of the family members who were alive in 1911 and a reference to their address, you can start searching for the family at

You must use the exact spelling of the family name as it appeared in the census when you are searching. At the time of the census your family may have used a different variant of your surname when they filled in the return. You can use the Surname Search facility on John Grenham’s website: to identify the various spellings of a particular surname that were in use in the 19th century.
First names can also be recorded in different ways, for example, Patrick may be recorded as Pat or even Patt and Catherine may be recorded as Kate or Katie. You may have to try different variations of a name before you locate the correct return.

The advance search option allows you to search the census returns by county of birth, occupation, religion and marital status. There are returns that are missing from the online collection but the originals are still available to consult in the National Archives in Dublin.
Individuals who were inmates of prisons, workhouses and asylums at the time of the census were recorded only by their initials. If a family member is missing from the household census return, you can search for them by their initials. Other information, such as gender, age and county of birth, may help to identify a potential family member residing in an institution.

Armed with the information on the census returns, you can now start tracing your family back into the 19th century.
Vital records for the 19th century come in two forms. For births, deaths and marriages that took place after 1864, you should be able to find a civil certificate at the GRO. Prior to 1864, you will be relying on parish registers in order to find baptismal and marriage records.

From the late 1970s centres were established in each county of Ireland to transcribe parish registers for the purposes of genealogical research. Each county ran its own transcription programme, so the records vary from county to county. Nearly all county collections are available online at the pay per view site; Many centres also included civil records up to 1900 and some counties, such as Cavan and Donegal, included census fragments from the 19th century and land records such as Griffith’s Valuation and the Tithe Applotment Books in their collections. The Sources section of the website will indicate what each county has online.

For those counties not included on rootsireland, namely Kerry, Dublin City, Carlow and parts of Cork, you can find the parish registers indexed at This free site contains only Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic parish registers and not civil records. Irishgenealogy also relies on specific spelling of surnames and first names when you are undertaking a search. Roman Catholic parish registers were written in Latin and in some online collections the records have been transcribed in their Latin form. This means that first names such as Mary or William may appear as Maria or Gulielmus. The difficulties presented by the variant spelling of names are one of the pitfalls of online research. Although many sites use soundex and wild card options, the researcher has to be aware of the potential for the subject of their search to be missing because the search term was not spelt the same way.

The above article was published in Irish Roots magazine issue no 81, the series continues in issues 82, 83, and 84.

Nicola Morris M.A.P.G.I. is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland and director of Timeline Research ( She has appeared on numerous episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? in both the UK and US and recently was one of the presenters on RTE’s Genealogy Roadshow.

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