Posted by Ancestry Team on December 21, 2015 in Australia, Canada, Research, United Kingdom

When I first started researching my family genealogy, I wanted to fly over to the UK and visit where my people lived, look in cemeteries for tombstones and go to the churches to look in the registers. All normal things to want to do, but boy was I wrong! Before you jump on a plane, you need to do your research at home.


Whether you’re searching in Northern Ireland or the Republic, the internet makes historical documents more accessible than ever before. Using online genealogy databases you can do most of the legwork at home and in your jammies! I’ve learned a lot on my journey to discover my ancestors and these tips should help you too.

Note: I am Canadian, so some of this post applies to Canadians researching their roots, but these tips can work for anyone trying to trace back to the Emerald Isle.


  1. Start at home: Search attics and storage rooms for mementos including wedding announcements, postcards and letters sent from Ireland. These could provide names of relatives who remained in Ireland and addresses of a hometown. Talk to your family about your findings to get the facts and stories. Use free downloadable forms or a genealogy program or create your family tree online to record the information. 
  1. Collaborate with the Ancestry Community. Ancestry does much of the searching for you and will automatically use what you enter in your tree to search the billions of historical records in its database for likely matches. In addition to historical records, search the millions of family trees created by other members and add relevant information you discover to your tree. You can also upload photos and stories – and even record conversations – and save them to your tree in just a few simple steps.
  2. Check census records: Look for birthplaces and ethnicity listed in the Canadian Census records. Begin with 20th century records and search the whole family. Remember to look at neighbours who may be relatives or had come from the same place. Pay special attention to year of immigration in these records. The 1901 and 1911 Irish Censuses are now online free to search and has images of all the original census forms:
  1. Check ship records and border crossings: Check passenger lists records and you might see who they indicated as their relatives back in Ireland and where they were intending to live. And consider border crossings. Keep in mind that people sometimes did not cross the border immediately after arriving in North America, so make sure to check a generation or two later.
  1. Visit the cemetery: A simple tombstone may hold the birthplace or middle name of an ancestor. Families are often grouped together, so a trip to the cemetery could offer information about undiscovered ancestors. Using online websites like Find A Grave and Canadian Headstones means that you can see them right from your own home! Make sure you contact the cemetery before you go to get any info like a plot map and confirm if there was a tombstone.
  2. Search military records: Military files from both world wars can be brimming with family details, including hometown, occupation, and names of nearest kin. For earlier arrivals to Canada, enlistment and pension records may be even more revealing. The 1750’s until the early 1870’s, British forces defended Canada and records relating to the British Army and the Royal Navy in Canada are another important source of information about our ancestors. There were many Irish men in the British Army and the records consist of service and discharge documents, hospital and pension records, and in most cases, we find age, birthplace and even physical descriptions.
  1. Canadian Parish Records: A terrific resource to delve into is the Drouin collection which consists of 25 million historical records from 1621-1967 which includes baptism, marriage and burial records and also a compilation of church and records from Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and various New England states. You can find records from multiple religious denominations and cultural backgrounds, including Irish, British, Italian and Polish descent.
  1. Irish church records are among the most useful records as they include rich details about the individual. This includes names, birth dates, birthplaces, christening dates, family names, marriage years, marriage registration dates, death years, ages at death and more. The collections online at Ancestry include indexes to more than 22 million Irish birth, marriage and death records dating back to the year 1620 from the Catholic Church, which historically represented about 80 per cent of the population, and the Church of Ireland, the official state church from 1536 through 1870. The National Library of Ireland also gave free online access to its Catholic Church records collection online last summer.
  1. Land and Tax Records: Griffith’s Valuations is an invaluable reference in part because very little census material from the 19th century has survived. It is the only detailed guide where in Ireland people lived and what property they owned or leased and includes map reference numbers that can help identify and perhaps locate property on Ordinance Survey maps created before the valuations took place. Once you’ve identified an ancestor’s townland and civil parish it can lead you to ecclesiastical parish records of births and marriages. The Tithe Applotment Books record the results of a unique land survey taken to determine the amount of tax payable by landholders to the Church of Ireland, the established church until 1869. This data set represents a virtual census for pre-Famine Ireland. Since it covers all of Ireland it is immensely important in terms of constructing, not just an image of a particular family line, but of wider social conditions in the country.
  1. All historical records – I always look in the Library Catalog to see if they have microfilmed any historical records or parish registers in the area my ancestors were from. The costs are reasonable to order and then you can view them at your local Family History Center.

There’s lots of information to be found online, but not all. I’ve visited Ireland a few times to conduct research in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in Belfast and the National Archives in Dublin. Both of these facilities also have a good online presence that host a number of interesting collections as well as other archives. Make sure you check these out BEFORE you leave for Ireland!


I know it’s hard to pull yourself away from the archives but there’s lots of things to do and see as well!

Not to miss in Dublin:

  • Trinity College – Book of Kells
  • Dublinia
  • St. Patrick’s Cathedral
  • Chester Beatty library
  • Grafton Street (restaurants)
  • Stephen’s Green (parks and shops)
  • The International Bar (bars and clubs)

Not to miss in Belfast:

  • Kilmoyan Gaol
  • Belfast Castle
  • Titantic Belfast
  • Giants Causeway
  • St. George’s Market



Researching Irish ancestry is always a challenge so why not move the search to the land of your ancestors and join me on a 15 day grand tour of Ireland in April 2016? Three days of research at the National Archives in Dublin and the Public Record Office in Belfast, plus a fully guided tour of historical and interesting sites around the whole of Ireland. See the land, breathe the air … experience Ireland with me!

For more information including the itinerary and how to reserve your spot – click here. ***US Researchers Take Note – The pricing is in Canadian Dollars!***


  1. Al Arca

    Great tips! I’ve wanted to see an article like this for quite a while. I’ll love to see a similar one for a trip to Peru, or more generally a South American country, and unique challenges presented by such a trip.

  2. Ce patterson

    I am looking for a similar situation for Riga, Latvia is there any ideas for researching with a group to Riga

  3. Denise

    Great tips. I wish someone would do the former Yugoslavia. It is so hard to get records. Many churches are gone due to the wars. Maybe some day…

  4. Lori Ballew

    I just returned from doing a second trip to London, to further our research. I was pleased to read this article and be able to “check off” the check list. Our preparation before hand was priceless. When we requested information from the Westminster Abby Librarian, she didn’t really want to help us, because she thought we were tourist. When she asked us specific questions about names, places, times, etc. and we were able to answer her, then she had confidence that WE REALLY DID KNOW what we were doing and looking for. After that, she was MOST helpful and gave us more sources. ( : It pays to do your HOME work. Now I can’t wait to work on my Irish side.

  5. Frank McGonigal

    Excellent posting Lesley.I’m a NON Member volunteer at my local FHC..(for 14 years)..I would add Greencastle and the Inishowen Peninsula to the List…and my wifes home town of Ramelton Donegal.

  6. Elizabeth May

    I am looking for anyone related to Sarah Jane Cochrane, she had a sister named Bella who married Fred Millar before she migrated to Canada, my mother Sarah Jane was aged 21, and was not married, if anyone could connect me to the rest of my mother’s family or give me a hint as to who they are, I would appreciate it.
    Sarah had ten children, only myself and my brother are still living, both in 70’s so I understand that I will be looking for cousins,but what I would like to know is my mother ‘s history, such as her mother’s and father’s name, and a list of her brothers and sisters,
    since my mother , Sarah Jane pasted away in 1957, when I was nine, I know very little about her family.
    thanks for any help or light you may be able to share with me

  7. Renush

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  8. GeorgeWillis

    Thanks so much for this info. I need to do an essay on the history of Server Ireland next week. I constantly don’t have time for such things and am glad that I found your blog with useful information.

  9. DamienJones

    History isn’t such a simple question as it seems but it is very interesting. I commissioned several studies by professional writers to have a good example of written work – I was very interested in reading this and my professor liked it) I plan to look for more information about this. Thanks for this article.

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