Anyone with Irish ancestry who has tried to research their family tree, knows that it is quite different from English ancestry. Where you have access to centralised records in the 19th century for England, in Ireland there are only partial records for the censuses, and the records for centralised birth, deaths and marriages are not there at all.
If you have a lot of money available, then searching the Church records (if your ancestors are Catholic) is possible, but often you need to know which parish or general area of the country your ancestor lived in, to be sure of the result. It makes it ever more essential to have as much detail as you can muster from the family’s memories, documents, photographs. If your ancestor had, or rented, land, there are records such as Griffith’s Valuation, which may help, but they often only show a name which makes it difficult to confirm.
It doesn’t make it easier that enumerators for the census in England, often only put “Ireland” against a person who is living in England for the census. Marriage certificates too, are likely to have “Ireland” only for the place of birth for someone or their father.
Early on in my research, I concentrated on my mother’s family, because they had much less common surnames. I’d also learned a lot about my mother’s parents’ families, because I spent a lot of time with them as a child, leafing through old photographs and talking to them about their childhoods. I never knew my paternal grandparents at all, and know very little about them and had no photographs and no documentation. I knew that my grandmother was Irish because my father had dim memories of her. She died while my Dad was evacuated in 1942, and all her possessions were dealt with, which meant that my Dad had nothing, no address, no possessions, and only two photographs – one of himself as a tousle-haired child, and one of his mother. (He’d mislaid both of these when I first started my researches, but located them later.)
As a child I made the mistake of thinking that both my paternal grandparents had been killed in the war. This wasn’t the case. My grandmother died in hospital from kidney problems. When I sent for her death certificate I was able to see that her sister, from Dublin, had reported the death. I searched for information about both, but could find very little information. I searched a lot of Irish birth records at around five euros a time, to no avail.
I thought that her name, Honora Fitzpatrick, was rather unusual… until I discovered that Honora is a traditional Fitzpatrick name and there were dozens of them. I joined the Fitzpatrick Clan online, not really because I thought they could help me with my search, but because I wanted to feel part of the family, I think. It was my only connection to the grandmother I’d never had a chance to know.
I posted about my grandmother to the group, but didn’t really expect any help. And then I wrote a piece of music about My Irish Grandmother, which I posted to the group. Having started with that, one evening I decided to stop looking for her – there were so many entries, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack, and I had so little information to go on – her rough birth year and the fact she had a sister called Bridget Ruth. Bridget is not an uncommon surname in Ireland. I thought I would put her to one side for the moment.
The 1911 census is available for Ireland, and I had found quite a few entries for Honora Fitzpatrick but had no way of distinguishing one from another. I looked at one which seemed the most promising, but the name was spelled Hanoria, and I thought it was unlikely that her own father, who had filled out the form, would misspell his own daughter’s name, so I rejected it. I learned a lesson through that alone. Some people simply can’t spell!
Having written one piece of music, I decided to write another for the Fitzpatrick Clan, and I posted it to the group, explaining that I had reconciled myself to the fact that I might not ever be able to identify which of the Honoras was my Honora, and that I had written the music to honour all the Fitzpatrick descendants who were working away on their ancestry, weaving connections to each other with every day that passed. I tried to convey that idea in the music, which I called Fitzpatrick Fanfare.
Somehow, my despair galvanized the group, and they did some amazing things for me. Ronan Fitzpatrick, who runs the group, phoned every Mr or Mrs Ruth in the Dublin phone book to see if there were any connection. Colleen Fitzpatrick, who works as a forensic genealogist, went through all the records for me. They taught me some valuable lessons about what is possible, if you only follow each trail to its end. Colleen advised me that the record for Kilkenny looked like the best bet, and encouraged me to buy the baptismal record for “Hanoria”.
I must admit, that at that time, I was not working, as I had small children at home, and I had very little spare money. The idea of spending another five euros on possibly another red herring was a pressing concern – I’d already spent more money than I should have done. And I doubted that the baptismal record would really take me any further – I’d probably still be unsure whether this was my grandmother. But the fact that they had put in so much effort on my behalf, and the desire to know, was too much, and I spent the five euros on the record.
And it was magical. There, in the notes area of the record, it was noted that Honora Fitzpatrick had married in London, and it gave the dates and the name of her spouse. I’ve been researching family history for decades, and I have never seen such a thing on a birth record, before or after this one example. It seemed miraculous to me, because this identified my grandmother’s family. I have since made contact with the family, who still live in the same place that my grandmother was born. I wrote a third piece of music to celebrate the discovery, which I named Ronan and Colleen: Honora found! in gratitude for their help. I learned a lot from that experience.
Irish ancestry is definitely more difficult to research than English ancestry, mainly because of the lack of census returns through the 19th century, which are so useful in knitting together the individuals in a family. But my experience shows it isn’t impossible, even if you have very little information to go on.
There are a lot of Irish resources for genealogy, including Ireland Reaching Out, a non-profit, volunteer-based website which helps people with an Irish ancestry to connect with other people researching the same families. The Irish diaspora, or dispersion, wasn’t just because of the famine, and didn’t simply happen in the 19th century. In my own Irish family, in the early 20th century, one son went to Canada, a son and a daughter to the US and my own grandmother to the Isle of Man and then England. Families used to hold a wake for their children before they left, knowing that the likelihood was that they would never see them again.
I will add a section on free Irish resources to the Resources page.