Author: Lesley Anderson
There are more than 4.6 million people of Irish descent in Canada — over 15% of the nation’s population. With 146 million Irish family history records available online at Ancestry.ca, Canadians can discover more about their ancestors from the Emerald Isle to find out how they fit into their family tree.
Irish names tend to be common, so the more you know about your ancestor, the better equipped you’ll be to start the search. In this guide, you’ll find ten places that will help you learn more about your Irish immigrant and his or her family, plus additional tips and resources.
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.
2. In the Census
Check birthplaces listed on census records. You may discover that the ancestor you thought was your family’s first immigrant was actually the immigrant’s child, cousin, or in-law. Begin with 20th-century records and search for everyone in the family. The Canadian Census collection covers 1851-1921. Look for year of immigration in census records for 1901- 1921 (remember that anyone born in Ireland didn’t need to naturalize as they were part of the commonwealth) and then look in the Immigration & Travel collection to find them on a passenger list. Research the entire family and follow your ancestor’s siblings, and even their descendants. You never know whose entry will hold that key bit of information. Plus, knowing as much as possible about the extended family group will make it easier to identify the family in the records as you go back in time. Also, the 1901 and 1911 Irish Censuses are now online, free to search and have images of all the original census forms.
3. With Friends and Relatives
Ever notice how many people on a single page of a census seem to have been born in the same country? It could be the result of chain migration. Often a single immigrant would arrive in North America, land a job, and send word of opportunity back home. Soon more family and friends would immigrate and send for their families and friends. For researchers, these ethnic enclaves can provide all manner of clues: maiden names, hometowns, extended family lines. Do a little digging and also check online trees to see who’s researching the neighbours as they may have some details you’re looking for.
4. On Board a Ship or Crossing a Border
Irish immigration to North America peaked around the time of the Great Famine; official incoming Canadian passenger lists began in 1865 up to 1935, but if your ancestor arrived at an American port, those lists typically date back to around 1820. Typically you’ll only get the name, age, occupation, and country of origin for English, Irish, and Scottish immigrants, but later lists may be a little more detailed. These lists also hold the names of other passengers, who may have been your ancestor’s friends or relatives in the old country. Families were often listed together in a group, so family structure can help. Be aware, though, sometimes one or both parents went ahead to secure jobs and a place to live before sending for the rest of the family, so you may find the family’s arrival split in groups.
Scan the entire manifest looking for other related surnames. (Think sponsors at baptisms, witnesses to marriages or neighbours, etc.) You may find extended family, friends, or neighbours from the old country traveling with your ancestor. When you find these members of your ancestor’s FAN club (friends, associates, neighbors), research them as well and see where they went and if their paths crossed your ancestor’s again.
Also, the manifest changed to Ocean Arrivals (Form 30A), 1919- 1924 before changing back to the large forms, so check that collection out as well. Your Irish ancestor may have crossed the border immediately or even a generation or two later. Border crossings into the U.S. began being kept in 1895 and Border Crossings: From U.S. to Canada in 1908-1935.
5. Church Records
Don’t overlook your ancestor’s religious community. Baptisms, weddings, funerals, and more took place in churches. A terrific resource to delve into is the Drouin Collection of Vital Records which consists of 25 million French-Canadian and English historical records from 1621-1967 which includes baptism, marriage and burial records and also a compilation of church 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. Use census records and city directories to find your ancestor’s address, then search for surviving churches near the family home. Contact the church to inquire about records created when your ancestor lived in the neighborhood. Also call the local library, which may know of other resources you haven’t yet considered.
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 and in some cases images of 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. For more on researching in religious records, see our guide to Using Religious Records.
6. Civil Registrations
Civil registrations of marriages and deaths may include a place of origin in Ireland. Search for all members of the family as your direct ancestor’s record may only say “Ireland” but that of a sibling have a more detailed location. Read the records carefully. Check to see if the names of witnesses sound familiar. They may be family and represent new avenues of research for discovering your Irish roots.
7. 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 1750s until the early 1870s, 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.
8. Read Between the Lines of Family Stories
Family stories may not always be entirely accurate, but they’re often full of names, places, and relationships that can help you figure out when your ancestor was where. Use them to build a timeline that you populate with details from the records you find. And enjoy the tales, which give you a better idea of the characters in your family tree.
9. Making Headlines
A graduation, engagement or even a visitor from out of town may have been big news at the time. Look in local newspapers for daily comings and goings as well as bigger events. And if your family is full of city dwellers, ask the local library if there were smaller, neighborhood or Irish-specific publications.
Check multiple newspapers for obituaries. Some were better than others when it came to listing parishes and/or counties of origin in Ireland. This extract from the Marriage Notices of Ontario, 1813-1854, includes a number of entries where the place of origin in Ireland is included.
10. Cemetery Records
A simple tombstone may hold the birthplace or middle name you’ve been trying to locate for years. The one next to it could offer an elusive maiden name. Families often stayed together, even in death, so a trip to the cemetery could introduce you to distant family lines you may not have heard of and other details your ancestor surely wanted you to know. Make sure you contact the cemetery before you go to get any info like a plot map and confirm whether there was a tombstone. If you can’t make it to the cemetery, you may find someone else has visited and created a memorial for your ancestor on FindaGrave.com. If your ancestor’s memorial doesn’t have a photograph, you can post a request for one.
There are thousands of volunteers who post memorials and fill photo requests at local cemeteries.
Tips for Searching In Irish Records
Following your Irish ancestors back to the records they created in Ireland seems like a natural next step, but if you’re not armed with just the right information, the search can be slow-going. Use the following tips to help make your journey through Irish records as simple as possible.
Spelling Doesn’t Count
Irish surnames can have many variants. You may find letters that were used interchangeably (Huggins, Higgins, Higgans, etc.), and prefixes were added and removed (Reilly, O’Reilly, McLoughlin, McLaughlin, Loughlin, Laughlin, Loghlin, etc.). In addition, nicknames and variants for first names were common as well. A good source of information on Irish names is Varieties and Synonyms of Surnames and Christian Names in Ireland, by Sir Robert E. Matheson (1901). It has been digitized and is available online at Internet Archive.
Here again, knowing the family structure and extended family will be very helpful in identifying your family in the records. Noting family naming patterns can be helpful as well.
When you’re looking at parish records, keep in mind that many of the registers were kept in Latin, so knowing the Latin version of your ancestor’s name will also be useful.
Cast a Wide Net at First
Start your search with the county and narrow to parish or townland if necessary. Just as with Irish surnames, you may find your ancestor’s parish or townland had variant spellings. When you’ve found the name of the parish, you’ll want to determine whether it’s a civil parish or an ecclesiastical parish. While Church of Ireland parishes tend to run along similar boundaries as civil parishes, Catholic parishes did not and tended to cover more area. Spending some time getting familiar with Irish land divisions and the area where your family lived will pay great dividends when it comes to searching for them in the records. The Fianna Guide to Irish Genealogy website has a good description of Irish land divisions and a list of reference books that can help you become more familiar with the lay of the land in Ireland.
Resources on Ancestry include:
- Samuel Lewis’ A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland
- Ireland, Ordnance Survey Maps, 1824-1846
- Cassell’s Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland
Once you know where your ancestor hailed from, look at landowners and tenants nearby. You may discover other names that sound familiar to you–possibly friends and relatives who also maintained ties with your family after immigrating to the U.S. Gr iffith’s Valuation of Ir el and, 1847 -1864 is a good resource for mid-19th – century research. Use these records in conjunction with the Ordnance Survey maps to plot where families were in relation to one another and look for those familiar surnames in places near your ancestor.
Searching in Baptismal Records
When you’re searching online baptism records in the collections on Ancestry, try a search leaving the child’s name blank and including only the names of both parents. In this way, you may be able to identify additional children born to the couple.
Collaborate with the Ancestry Community
Ancestry.ca 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.
Irish Content Highlights on Ancestry
Civil and Parish Registrations
- Ireland, Catholic Parish Registers, 1740-1900
- Ireland, Select Catholic Birth and Baptism Registers, 1763-1912
- Ireland, Selections of Catholic Parish Baptisms, 1742-1881
- Ireland, Select Catholic Marriage Registers, 1775-1912
- Ireland, Civil Registration Births Index, 1864-1958
- Ireland, Civil Registration Deaths Index, 1864-1958
- Ireland, Civil Registration Marriages Index, 1845-1958
- Ireland, Select Births and Baptisms, 1620-1911
- Ireland, Select Marriages, 1619-1898
Other Birth, Marriage, and Death Sources
- Belfast, Northern Ireland, The Belfast Newsletter (Birth, Marriage and Death Notices), 1738-1925
- UK and Ireland, Find A Grave Index, 1300s-Current
- Web: Belfast, Northern Ireland, Burial Indexes, 1869-2011
Maritime and Immigration Records
- S. Passenger Lists (all ports)
- Canadian Passenger Lists, 1865-1935
- Canada, Ocean Arrivals (Form 30A), 1919-1924
- S., Border Crossings from Canada to U.S., 1895-1956
- S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925
- S. Citizenship and Naturalization Records
- UK and Ireland, Masters and Mates Certificates, 1850-1927
- Irish Emigrants in North America,1775-1825
Wills, Probates, Land, Tax and Criminal Records
- Ireland, Encumbered Estates, 1850-1885
- Ireland, Dog License Registrations, 1810-1926
- Ireland, Prison Registers, 1790-1924
- Ireland, Petty Session Court Registers, 1818-1926
Photos and Other Records
- Ireland, Lawrence Collection of photographs, 1870-1910
- United Kingdom & Ireland Historical Postcards – FREE
- Ireland, Grand Lodge of Freemasons of Ireland Membership Registers, 1733-1923
- Ireland, Lord Viscount Morpeth’s Testimonial Roll, 1841 – FREE
- Ireland, Casualties of World War I, 1914-1922
- Ireland, Indexes to Wills, 1384-1858
- Ireland, Famine Relief Commission Papers, 1844-1847 – FREE
- Ireland, City and Regional Directories, 1847-1947
Check out other New and Updated Irish Records – https://www.ancestry.ca/cs/recent-collections
Lesley Anderson has worked with Ancestry for over 12 years as our Canadian spokesperson and has done numerous presentations for genealogy societies and conferences across Canada as well as TV and radio appearances.
She has been researching her family tree for over 50 years and her passion for genealogy has branched out to DNA genetic genealogy, teaching classes and researching for others. Recently she organized a group of 30 on a research and sightseeing trip to Ireland. She was the Director of Education for BIFHSGO (British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa) for many years and volunteered at the Ottawa Stake – LDS Family History Center where she got great joy out of helping genealogists with their research.