Many people who contact us for tours know they have Irish blood and would like to visit the county or town of their ancestors, but are not quite sure which generation immigrated to the U.S. or where exactly they came from. We’ve had some success in not only finding information about Irish relatives, but also finding real people! This blog entry contains some of the stories about what worked for me in some of my searches.
The first thing to consider is: how do I organize the information I collect? I started by creating a file folder for each quarter of our family: Jack’s paternal branch, Jack’s maternal branch, my paternal branch, and my maternal branch. When I acquired documents such as my father’s military discharge papers, my great-grandmother’s baptismal certificate, typed copies of family trees, printouts from the Census, or notes of a conversation, they were added to the appropriate folder (with delicate items in protective sleeves.) Over the years, I have scanned these documents and added a lot more digital documents to my digital files! There I find it helpful to add sub-folders: Birth/Baptism, Marriage, Death, Immigration, Military service, Census/Directory.
But that’s just the backup data, how do I get a neat-looking family tree? There are a number of websites and programs out there that can help you record the details of your family. In my early days, I used various PC programs but made the switch to Ancestry.com in 2000 when my old program wouldn’t work on my new computer. Yes, it requires a subscription, but when your subscription lapses, your data isn’t deleted. I find that my genealogy work goes in spurts so from time-to-time, I drop my subscription until I’m ready to get back to it! I also love how I can link photos and documents to an individual as backup for any fact.
Now that organization is done, where do I get my data? Start with your living relatives! Talk to your aunts, uncles, grandparents – anyone who will talk to you. Document as many people in the living generations as you can; don’t just focus on your branch because you never know what thread of information may be important. When Jack’s great aunt died, a letter was found that she had received from her aunt dated 1946. Taking bits and pieces of information in the letter, we were able to search the birth and marriage records to identify the aunt and her hometown. Upon visiting the town and asking a few questions in the local pub (always hit the pub – it’s the best source of information if you have the right pub!), we were informed that the Donovans had left the area, but we were directed to Jack’s first cousin twice removed who still lived on the O’Leary family farm and his sister who ran a pub a few miles away! All from a 70-year old letter!
Visiting the hometown of Jack's ancestors
Once you’ve finished with the oral history, start searching the formal records. A great place to start is the U.S. Census records. Census records up to 1940 are now public and can be searched online. While the questions differ from year to year, there’s a lot of information to be found. Check the original census document for information such as: relation, number of children, number still living, place of birth, U.S. citizen, year of immigration, year of naturalization, father’s place of birth, mother’s place of birth, occupation.
After the U.S. Census records, there’s a number of places to go, but the information becomes less consistent. Birth and marriage records may give more details on the name and place of birth of the parents, depending on the state or county. If you know when someone immigrated, check the passenger lists for more details. Some of those lists include the name and address of the closest relation in the home country and a contact person in the new country. Many times you can also see traveling companions. The story I always remembered was that my grandfather had immigrated to the U.S. with his three sisters sometime after the Titanic was built. (That’s another story …) I was able to find him with one of his sisters in a 1913 passenger list. Upon further searching, I found the other two had arrived earlier and some family members, that I never knew had traversed the Atlantic, had been here multiple times! It was only by looking at the entire picture that I was able to confirm their identification – usually by checking the name and address of their nearest relative back home and/or who they were joining in America. Many times the passengers stretched the truth to slide through immigration easier – add a few years to your age; claim your fiancé’s sister as a cousin; blend your much younger brother into your family as a son. It’s all good!
Passenger Lists from early 20th Century arrivals
Now that you know who was born in Ireland and where they came from, it’s time to start checking Irish records! Ireland also does a regular census, but only the 1901 and 1911 census records are available to the public. Earlier census records were lost and later ones are protected for 100 years by a privacy act. It’s important to note that the Irish census is done according to where you slept on a given day. If a child had a sleepover at Grandma’s house, you would appear in your grandparents’ census record. If you were in the hospital, you would be reported by the hospital. As a result, not seeing someone as expected in a household does not necessarily imply death or immigration.
Going that last step to actually get birth, baptism or marriage records from Ireland may be a little more challenging. The availability of these collections online is spotty at best or only available in Index form. The research I did to find Jack’s family was conducted at the General Register Office in Dublin. If you keep hitting roadblocks in trying to get that official information about your ancestors, consider contacting a local genealogist who can do the legwork for you or plan your own trip to Ireland!
One more resource you may want to search for is books about your family history. It may seem a bit strange, but there ARE books out there and your family may be in one of them! A genealogist at the National Library of Ireland directed me to The Annals of Beara, which is a 3-volume set of the families of the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland. The author had untangled the spaghetti-bowl of the births, deaths and marriages of Jack’s family’s origins and we found details of who married whom and had which kids and which ones immigrated to the U.S. (and which ones returned.) One of our guests also had a book that had been written by her great-great grandfather about her family tree and wanted to visit the town of her ancestors. Her family had immigrated in the early 1900s, so she just wanted to see the town, the homestead and search for names in the cemetery. After all, “her” family wasn’t in Ireland any more! Karen shared her Ancestry.com family tree and a few pages from “the green book” her great-great grandfather had written. One of the pages showed a picture of him with two cousins in front of the house where his Mom was born. Karen wanted to find the house; I was more interested in the cousins. I did a little more reading on the pages she had sent me and conducted a few of my own searches on Ancestry.com for census and birth records, filling out her family tree a little more. Equipped with that information, Jack and I made a trip to the family’s hometown and headed to – you guessed it – the pub! After chatting up the elderly gentleman sitting on the corner bar stool, he directed us to Henry’s pub on the other side of the square. The proprietor was Karen’s third cousin twice-removed. When Karen came to visit, she was able to meet Henry and connect even more with her roots.
This information should keep you busy for a while in your search for your family history, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t give you a few words of caution: always get corroborating sources and never discard something because it “doesn’t match”. Since 9/11 we have all become more sensitive to our exact legal name. Jack used to fly as “Jack” even though his ID was listed as “John” and everyone knew that was “close enough.” Our ancestors did similar things, but we may not be familiar with all of the nicknames. They may also have decided to adopt a nickname for their middle name as their given name when they entered their new country. It is in that way that my grandfather Patrick Francis became Frank and Bridget Ellen became Nellie in U.S. government records. Birthdates and ages should also be taken as an approximate. This same Aunt Nellie reported her age as 25 in the 1920 U.S. Census (although she was 31), 35 in the 1930 Census (consistent …) but came clean with an age of 50 in the 1940 Census (close enough!)
I hope you enjoy exploring your family history. Please share with us some of your stories of tracing your ancestors.