Irish genealogy research from home

Irish house in Burrowa NSW, taken by the author

Irish house in Burrowa NSW, taken by the author

Irish research is a greater challenge than for other countries for many reasons. The lack of indexes, online or otherwise, and the large number of censuses and other resources that were destroyed make Irish research more difficult, but not impossible, from Australia. I have ancestors from Northern Ireland and it is very difficult to find any information about them, and to trace them back further, without going to Ireland. One day I will go to Ireland but until then I have to make do with what I can find online and in books and microfilms.

It is becoming easier, though, with records being indexed and transcriptions being made available on a pay-pre-view basis. I’d like to share some basic principles that are important to Irish research, and a few websites that I have found worthwhile.

Place is important

To find your Irish ancestors you need to know where in Ireland they came from. If you are lucky the parish or townland will be given on the death certificate or immigration list. Convict records may also be helpful here, especially later ones after about 1820. It is practically impossible without a more specific place than just “Ireland” or the name of the county, especially for the many common Irish surnames. Of course, you would no more expect to find your ancestor if you only knew he came from Ireland than if he came from England or Scotland – you need something more specific than that.

If you do have a place and you can’t find a town or a parish by that name then it may be a townland. Try this townland search to narrow it down. The spelling may not be correct, so you may have to experiment a bit, as it was difficult for the early clerks to understand the Irish names they were hearing, and the Irish person concerned may not have been able to read what was written in any case.

What about the Censuses?

Of course, if you only knew that your ancestor came from “England” and had a relatively uncommon surname, and perhaps a middle name, you might find him in the English censuses. For Ireland there is not this option, as almost all of the censuses before the 1901 census were either purposefully destroyed, “recycled” during World War I or lost in the great fire at the Public Record Office in 1922. Both the 1901 and 1911 Censuses have been released and are available on microfilm. For many of us, these censuses are too late to tell us anything about our ancestors who left Ireland many years before.

If you’ve ever asked about Irish research you’ve probably been told about “census substitutes”. These are records that would not be very interesting to family history researchers had the censuses been available, but have taken on great significance in their absence. The two most popular are:

The Tithe Applotment Books 1824-1838 list the occupiers of land for the purposes of calculating the tithes payable to the Established Church, the Church of Ireland. Tithes were not payable on all land and seemed to fall heaviest on the poor, so although not all householders are listed, your ancestor may be.

The Primary Valuation of Ireland, known as Griffith’s Valuation, was made between 1848 and 1864 and lists every householder and occupier of land in all of Ireland. Online indexes are available

These sources only list the head of households and not whole families, so it is more difficult to identify names on the lists as being your ancestors. They show the concentration of surnames in a given area and that can be very useful as a starting point if you only know your ancestor came from “Ireland”.

Online sources

First the bad news – there is very little available online that is free. There may be the occasional kind soul who has transcribed a series of records and put them on the web for everyone to enjoy, but you will be very lucky to find anything relevant to your county, let alone a specific parish. Still, some people are lucky, so do a search on the search engine of your choice and good luck.

For the rest of us there are pay-per-view (PPV) sites. Here are a few of the biggest ones:

AncestryIreland.com is the website of the Ulster Historical Foundation. They are a pay-per-view site where you can search for free and you buy credits to see the details. If you join their guild, the Ulster Genealogical and Historical Guild, then you pay half-price for credits. They specialise in counties Antrim and Down, but they have many records from the other seven Ulster counties, including a large gravestone index. Their History From Headstones site also allows free searching of the index, with payment required to view inscriptions. Their army of volunteers are adding more databases all the time.

Also specialising in Northern Ireland is Emerald Ancestors with birth, death, marriage and census records. They also sell ebooks of rare out-of-prints books, manuscripts and accounts of life in Ireland.

Irish Genealogy has been established by the Irish Genealogical Project to coordinate records from all the Irish Family History Foundation centres over the whole of the island of Ireland. These centres, one for each county or two counties, are responsible for collecting, indexing and computerising church records, civil records, census returns, census substitutes, graveyard inscriptions, and other relevant material. Their Online Record Search contains parish register indexes for many counties.

Their gravestone inscriptions, for example, currently only cover the nine counties of Ulster and seem to include different graveyards than those covered by the Ulster Historical Foundation. Once you have been given the results of your search you can select, and pay for, the record of your choice. They can point you to the relevant county research centre.

Irish Origins is part of the Origins Network which gives unlimited access to their collection for a limited period – 72 hours or monthly. Griffith’s Valuation 1847-1864, Irish Wills Index 1484-1858, the Irish Tithe Defaulters 1831, the 1901 Census for Dublin City and the Griffith’s Survey Maps and Plans are some of the highlights of this collection. Partnered by Eneclann, the Trinity College, Dublin, research and publishing company.

Irish Family Research transcribes old books and documents and makes them available online for subscribers. Directories, graveyard inscriptions, newspapers, landowners lists and Griffiths Valuations are some of the databases you might find. They are adding more all the time. There are some free databases available for registered users, and then different levels of membership allow access to more content, with Premium Members able to request lookups from material not yet transcribed.

The Irish Times newspaper has a large Irish Ancestors site with input from John Grenham, a well-known writer on Irish genealogy (see Sources below). Initial searches are free and then payment is on a credit system, or you can pay for a subscription. Surname searches give the numbers of times the surname appears in the Griffiths Valuation by county (for free) and parish (for a fee). An ancestor search gives a personalised report of sources to be searched (not the sources themselves) for the ancestor in question, based on the information you enter.

There is a large section of links to Irish genealogy websites, and a Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary (1837) database with detailed information on the town or parish you select and a map of the county. You can also commission research from their research partners at Eneclann, the Trinity College, Dublin, research and publishing company.

National Archives of Ireland are digitising and indexing the Censuses of 1901 and 1911. So far only Dublin has been completed but the intention is toget them all up there, and free too. The Ireland-Australia Transportation Database, also known as the Irish Gift, lists all Irish convicts transported to Australia.

Irish Newspaper Archives has a large database of digitised images of Irish newspapers from all over Ireland including the Irish Independent, The Freemans’ Journal, the Connacht Tribune, the Meath Chronicle, and the Donegal News.

Ireland’s Historical Mapping Archive has images of Ordnance Survey maps from the first survey in 1829-42 onwards. They can be downloaded or printed and posted out.

LDS Family History Library

Over the years the Family History Library of the LDS Church has microfilmed everything that they have been able to lay their hands on. Unfortunately what they were able to film in Ireland is less than we would hope, but you may be lucky enough to find what you want in their library.

Search in the Family History Library Catalog for the placename in Ireland if you have it. Again, be adventurous with the spelling that you found on the death certificate or other record.

Films can be ordered and viewed through your local Family History Library or some genealogy societies. The 1901 and 1911 Censuses can also be viewed in this way. Some libraries may have these on permanent loan.

The Family History Library has a new project underway to digitise and index a large number of records from all over the world. These will be available in due course on their new Record Search site, which is currently in the pilot stage. There are mostly USA records so far but more are being added as the many volunteers get them indexed. Many of the Irish civil registration indexes are being indexed now (I’ve done a few myself) and so should be available soon – Births 1884-1921; Marriages 1868-1958; Deaths 1864-1921 at this stage. It’s a great way to become familiar with Irish names and districts.

Other sites:

The Irish Famine Memorial at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney lists names of 400 orphans who were shipped out to Australia from the workhouses in Ireland in 1848-1850 as part of the Earl Grey Scheme.

Irish War Memorials contains photos, text of all inscriptions and a name search of all persons listed on war memorials all over Ireland.

Cora Web’s Ireland links page has many more links for Irish research.

Sources:

John Grenham, Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, 3rd Edition. Genealogical Publishing Co, Baltimore, Maryland; 2006.

Ian Maxwell, Tracing Your Ancestors in Northern Ireland, edited by Grace McGrath. The Stationery Office, Edinburgh, , 1997.

See also the websites cited in the text.

How did they get here? An introduction to NSW immigration indexes

There are four ways that our ancestors could have arrived in Australia in the early years of the Colony before Federation. These are:

  1. Convict transportation
  2. Soldiers assigned to the convict colony
  3. Ships’ crew
  4. Immigrants, whether assisted or unassisted

Today we will be concentrating on immigrants – people who chose to leave their homeland to make a new life in the new Colony. These fall into two categories, depending on whether their passage was subsidised by the government (assisted) or they paid their own way (unassisted). This distinction is important for us looking for their arrival because of the differences in the records that were kept at the time.

sailing_ship 200x300

Assisted immigrants

Immigrants were assisted in order to more quickly populate the new Colony of New South Wales. Of the estimated 1.4 million free immigrants to Australia in the nineteenth century, about half arrived through government assistance. The first assistance scheme was introduced in 1831 in response to the demand for skilled labour and female domestic and farm servants. The schemes were funded initially from the sale of crown land, and later through more direct government funding and contributions from sponsors – usually employers or family members.

Prospective immigrants had to show themselves to be suitable candidates for assistance. They had to be young, healthy, and “useful” in their work experience. The records kept for assisted immigrants contain the answers to many questions asked of them, and these records are invaluable to genealogists today. At best they contain occupation, religion, education (whether they could read, write, or both), parents’ names and residence, and relatives living in the Colony – the Immigration Board’s Lists.

Assisted immigrant online indexes

The first, best, place to look is the online indexes at State Records NSW. Indexes are available for assisted immigrants to Sydney, Port Phillip (before it became the separate Colony of Victoria), Moreton Bay (before it became Queensland) and Newcastle from 1844 (for Sydney, earlier for other ports) to 1896. Index entries give surname and first name, age, vessel, year, and one or two reel numbers. The reel numbers lead to the Immigration Agents’ Lists and the Immigration Board’s Lists, respectively. The Board’s List has more information but both should be examined if possible in case difficult handwriting or transcript errors give different information.

A new index of some assisted immigrants between 1828 and 1843 has also been made available online. Be aware that this index does not cover all arrivals.

Unassisted immigrants

If we cannot find our ancestor among the assisted immigrants, and we have discounted the possibility of arrival as a convict, soldier or ship’s crew, we must look to unassisted passengers, or free settlers. Very little information was collected for these passengers; they paid their money and got a berth, or a cabin, on a ship. At best there will be a title, first name and surname (eg Mr John Smith); age; occupation; country of origin (eg England, Scotland or Ireland); and family members listed by name and age. Less common names might give a positive identification, especially if family members are also identified.

At worst there will be a name only (eg Mr Smith) “and family”, making a conclusive identification impossible. Before 1854 many passengers were not even listed individually, especially in steerage, but just counted in a total. We will never find records of these in passenger lists but must rely on indirect evidence, such as newspaper reports.

Unassisted immigrant online indexes

Again, the first place to look is the online indexes at State Records NSW. An index of unassisted passengers from 1842-1855 gives Surname and initials, age (not always given), Ship, Status (crew or passenger), date of arrival,  previous port, remarks, and a reel number. Use this reel number to find the record at State Records reading rooms or libraries that have State Records reels. Quite often you will find no more information on the reel than is in the index, making it impossible to determine whether the person is your ancestor.

The next place to look is the indexes available at Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters, an epic undertaking by Mary-Anne Warner and her volunteers to index passenger lists from 1845 to 1892 and eventually 1922. This index is still in progress and more volunteers are always welcome!

Another possibility is the Index of Inward Passenger Lists for British, Foreign and New Zealand Ports, 1852-1923 at the Public Record Office of Victoria website. Ships from the UK often stopped at Melbourne before coming on to Sydney and your passenger may be listed there. You can then look for the film on which the ship arrived in Sydney a few days later to see if your passenger arrived here.

Another possibility, so far only for later arrivals, is to find the departure from Britain. FindMyPast has indexes and digital images of passenger lists for 1890 to 1939 with more to come. The information is sometimes more detailed than the arrival information, including occupation and nationality, and is reproduced in full colour. FindMyPast is pay-per-view or by subscription. In some cases it is possible to find a departure from England, arrival in Melbourne and then in Sydney, and all three can give much more certainty than looking at one passenger list alone that may have the bare minimum of information.

Microfilm indexes

Once you’ve exhausted the online indexes it’s time to look for microfilmed indexes:

The Bounty Index 1828-1842 for assisted immigrants is available on microfilm at State Records NSW reading rooms and many libraries. It has also been produced on CD. It can lead you to the passenger lists for Bounty ships, held on microfilm at State Records NSW and many libraries.

An incomplete index of paying passengers from July 1826 to 1853 is available in State Records NSW reading rooms on Reels 1358-1372.

The Society of Australian Genealogists has produced an Index to Passengers Arriving 1826-37, which is available in the Society library at 379 Kent Street, Sydney, and the State Records NSW reading rooms.

Sources:

Haines, Robin F., Nineteenth Century Government Assisted Immigrants from the United Kingdom to Australia: Schemes, Regulations and Arrivals, 1831-1900, and some vital statistics 1834-1860. Adelaide: Flinders University, 1995.

State Records New South Wales, Archives in Brief Nos. 1, 24. Sydney: State Records Authority of New South Wales, 2004-5.

Websites:

FindMyPast

Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters

Public Record Office of Victoria

Society of Australian Genealogists

State Records NSW

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