Monday, March 10, 2014

What to Know Before You Go

I think many people are under the impression that when they go to Ireland (or any other country their ancestors came from), someone is going to meet them when they get off the plane with a fully filled out pedigree chart for their family.  Well, maybe I exaggerate a little, but people often go off to Ireland expecting to do the bulk of their research there.  They feel that the reason they aren’t finding any information about their ancestors in the USA is because everything they need is in Ireland.  This is definitely not the best approach when it comes to researching Irish ancestors.  I often tell the people who attend my workshops that if you don’t have a clear picture of your ancestor’s existence before you set off, you are not likely to gain one while in Ireland.
There are several reasons why laying the groundwork is an important goal to achieve before you go.  Probably the most significant reason is because without a foundation, you likely won’t find any further information about your ancestor that is specific to him in Ireland.  Secondly, it is far easier to get lost in a maze of records and repositories that is unfamiliar than it is to use resources closer to home.  In Ireland, you typically have a limited amount of time and no one dedicated to specifically guide you in your research.  In the United States (or wherever it is your ancestor emigrated to), you are usually more familiar with the information available there, and if you live near that place, have much more time to devote to it.  Of course there are exceptions to these circumstances, but my point is that the more facts that you find out about your ancestor before you go, the more targeted your overseas research.
The absolute minimum information you need to have about your ancestor is a county of origin.  It remains possible today to visit the relevant county heritage center and commission a county-wide search for records pertaining to your ancestor.  The heritage centers do not allow you to do your own research at their facilities.  From the 1980’s through the early 2000’s, such a search could only be carried out by heritage centers.  Now this search of their holdings can mostly be done online at  It is possible to search for records for your ancestor if you have only a county of origin.  The search becomes more effective if you add additional information to it such as parents’ names (including mother’s maiden name), or search for siblings.  This search can easily be conducted before you leave home.
If you have a place name of origin for your ancestor that is more specific than a county, your next task will be to determine exactly what that name represents in Ireland- is it a townland?  A parish?  Consulting online maps and gazetteers will aid you in this pursuit.  The Irish Times website has an excellent genealogy section, which includes a database of place names, as well a maps of each county which show civil and church parish boundaries.  Knowing the names of these all-important bureaucratic land divisions will allow you to examine the correct records at the National Library or Archives, or to visit the correct parish church or cemetery.  Detailed maps of all areas of Ireland can be found at the Ordnance Survey Ireland website:
So pack your ipad or other device with as much information about your ancestor as possible before you go.  Include a county of origin, other more specific place information if you have it, names of family and/or friends associated with your ancestor, his occupation, and any other information that may be helpful.  All of this will help you stay focused as you do your Irish research, and ensure you are obtaining information about your ancestor specifically.

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