Tracing Irish Roots (Courtesy of MovingHere.org.uk)
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In Celtic Ireland, genealogy was hugely important. One reason for this was that in Gaelic society what you could possess depended directly on whom you were descended from and so family history was very significant.
In the 10th century, the Gaels were among the first Europeans to begin adopting true hereditary surnames. Almost without exception, these names were patronymic in form - that is deriving from the father of the person concerned - and incorporated:
- Ó (or its earlier form Ua), meaning "grandson of"
- Mac, meaning "son of"
In other European cultures, surnames relating to places (Da Vinci), occupations (Smith) or descriptions (Negri) appear as well as patronymics. In Ireland, surnames were almost exclusively patronymic.
A poster dated between 1926 and 1933 showing flax being harvested in Northern Ireland. Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) CO 956/207
Despite the long history of invasion and migration in Ireland, and the change from a culture based on the Irish language to one based on English, society in Ireland until quite recently remained deeply local, with intense regional and family loyalties.
For the vast majority of people in Ireland, the answer to the question of where they came from was simply: 'Here'. This is an answer as true for Northern Presbyterians as for Southern Catholics.
For the Gaels of a thousand years ago, ancestry was only important in terms of kinship - that is how individuals were related to each other. In modern Ireland, as increasing prosperity and social mobility have begun to dissolve traditional ties, the search for ancestors and the records relating to them have taken on a new significance.
Women sit with their spinning wheels outside a cottage in rural Ireland in a photograph taken before the First World War.
The basic principles of research on Irish ancestors are the same as those for any research:
- Start from what you know and use it to find what you do not know. For example, do not presume that you must be connected to the O'Kellys of Ui Maine and try to stretch their 17th-century pedigree to fit your family. Start from Grandpa Joe Kelly and work backwards.
- Be sceptical. Genealogy is not forensic science - nobody (one hopes) is going to jail on the basis of what you uncover - but a mistaken assumption can cause endless frustration and wasted effort.
- Be patient. Researching your family history is the work of months and years. Computers and the internet notwithstanding, there are very few shortcuts.
- Think laterally. Your poor great-granny's rich second cousin may have left a lot more in the way of family records than your poor great-granny herself, and following these records may tell you a lot more about your family history.
A few persistent myths beset Irish genealogy:
The records were all destroyed in 1922. No, they weren't. The Public Record Office in Dublin was indeed destroyed during the Irish Civil War in 1922, along with virtually all its holdings. From the point of view of genealogy, the most significant losses were the 19th-century census returns, the Church of Ireland parish registers and the testamentary collections. Anything not in the PRO has survived, including non-Church of Ireland parish records, civil records of births, marriages and deaths, property records and later censuses. For much of the material that was lost, there are abstracts, transcripts and fragments of the originals.
Irish research is impossibly difficult. To the contrary, there is actually quite a compact set of relevant records, almost all held centrally in Dublin or Belfast. If you start with enough information - in particular, a place of origin in Ireland - research is actually very straightforward.
All the records for Northern Ireland are held in Belfast and those for the Republic of Ireland are in Dublin. Wrong again. Until 1922 the entire island was one administrative unit. Both Dublin and Belfast repositories have at least copies of the pre-1922 records, with those in Belfast largely, but not completely, confined to the nine historic counties of Ulster. It is only after 1922 that the records are different.
The front cover of the British Railways 1955 ferry timetable for sailings between Ireland and Britain. Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) RAIL 910/1
Location, location, location, and as much else as possible. Generally speaking, unless your ancestor had a fabulously exotic surname, the minimum information you will need to make use of Irish records is a county of origin, and if the surname is a common one, even this may not be enough.
As is so often the case in genealogy, however, there are almost as many ways around a difficulty as there are obstacles. If you know a couple were married in Ireland after 1864 (or 1845 in the case of non-Roman Catholics) you should be able to identify the marriage in General Register Office records. If your ancestor (or any of his brothers or uncles or cousins) was a policeman, their service records will at least narrow the area of enquiry. The same is true for a member of the armed forces.
If you know the two surnames even before the start of a marriage, it is possible to narrow the areas where the two names are recorded using some of the finding aids for Griffith's Valuation. The individual circumstances of families vary so widely that it is not possible to give universal advice. This is the main reason why family history research can (thankfully) never be standardised.
The answer depends entirely on the nature and quantity of the information with which you approach Irish records. In most cases, for those researching Catholic tenant farmers, the earliest limit for research is generally the starting date of the local Catholic parish records, which varies widely from place to place. The later records are generally found in the poorest areas, which saw the most emigration. It would be unusual for records of such a family to go back much earlier than the 1820s.
Once again, though, there are many exceptions, with:
- Local censuses or tenants' lists for particular areas
- Early directories for towns
- Some very good records for smaller denominations
- Plentiful records for those who had property of any description
The single biggest obstacle for families born in Britain is the collapse of native Gaelic culture in the mid-17th century, leaving an almost unbridgeable gulf of five or six generations, even in the case of the Gaelic aristocracy.
Before embarking on the Irish records, though, it is worth exhausting those available in England. Read about Irish perspectives on UK records.
According to his service file held at the National Archives John Milbank of Carlow, who was born in 1840, joined the newly re-formed 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers as a farrier at the Newbridge in March 1858. He had previously been working as a blacksmith. To read more on the Case Study of John Milbank, please follow the link.
John Milbank the Soldier
According to his service file held at the National Archives John Milbank of Carlow, who was born in 1840, joined the newly re-formed 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers as a farrier at the Newbridge in March 1858. He had previously been working as a blacksmith.
Originally formed in 1689 as the Royal Irish (Wynne's) Dragoons during the Jacobite war, the 5th (Royal Irish) Dragoons had been disbanded in 1799 after the 'United Irishman' rebellion, after the discovery of a plot by new recruits to murder the officers and loyal men. It was re-established in 1858 as the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers but was amalgamated with the Queen's Royal Lancers in 1922.
Milbank subsequently served for 21 years with the same regiment, spending over 11 years in the Indian sub-continent. The Fifth Lancers had arrived in India (via Mauritius) for garrison duty at Lucknow in February 1864, remaining there until they marched for service at Sealkote in December 1869. It returned to England in December 1875. Milbank was first promoted to farrier-sergeant in October 1860 but three years later was reduced to farrier. He was finally discharged in October 1879, aged 39 with the rank of farrier.
Claims to pension for John Milbank, submitted to The Chelsea Board
Though Milbank's conduct was recorded as being very good and was awarded four 'good conduct' badges, his name appeared four times in the Fifth's regimental defaulters book and was subsequently tried four times and demoted several times. Milbank's offences were not serious enough (he only received a maximum of ten days imprisonment in any one period of service) to be tried by courts martial but only by a regimental court.
After leaving the army he received his first pension payment on November 4th 1879. He was then living at Perfect Street, Manchester. At the time of the 1881 census he was living at 7 Prospect St, Gorton, Lancashire (RG11/3902 f. 97 p. 26) working as a blacksmith and married to 33 year old Martha who had been born in Norfolk.
Read more on the census return for 7 Prospect St at www.familyrecords.gov.uk.
By 1883, he had moved back to Ireland and was living in Mitchelstown, Cork, again working as a blacksmith, where his son John was born on July 20th 1883. According to family tradition, his son was attacked with a brick around the turn of the century and, as a result, the family returned to England where John senior died in 1905 and was buried at Norwich.
Creator: Aidan Lawes