How to trace your roots in Ireland - tips on finding your Irish ancestors

How to trace your roots has become progressively easier with the age of the Internet, just consider how these two leading African American figures have been able to locate their Irish cousins.

The Irish love to claim their own. And boy, they love a welcome home party. So you can imagine the ‘craic’ in the west of Ireland the day Muhammad Ali dropped in on Ennis, Co Clare.

The greatest sportsman of the twentieth century, no less, ‘The Greatest,' in Ireland to discover his Irish roots.

Ali’s 2009 trip was one of the great Irish homecomings. Thousands lined the streets to cheer his motorcade as the three-time heavyweight champion of the world visited the house of his great-grandfather Abe Grady.

Not usually thought of as card-carrying Irish, in actual fact the African-American boxer’s ancestor emigrated to the US from Ireland in the 1860s, later marrying a freed slave in Kentucky. One of their grandchildren, Odessa Lee Grady Clay, gave birth to Ali – then called Cassius Clay – in 1942.

Barack ‘O’Bama’

Of course, Muhammad Ali is by no means the only global figure Ireland can claim. The President of the United States of America, no less again, will accept his green card in May this year when he comes to Ireland to drop in on his ancestor’s place in Moneygall, County Offaly. There’s already an American flag flying on the main – and only – street in the village. This is where Obama’s great, great, great grandfather on his mother’s side, Falmouth Kearney, emigrated from in 1850, aged 19. He was a shoemaker.

The story of ‘O’Bama’s’ arrival on the Emerald Isle will also flash around the world, no doubt stoking up root-searching pangs in the multitudinous Irish diaspora who’ll want to follow suit – this was certainly the case when two of the US president’s illustrious predecessors made it back: Ronald Reagan showed up at his family’s native Ballyporeen, County Tipperary in 1984 and in 1963 John F Kennedy returned to Dunganstown, County Wexford.

Actually, every single president since Kennedy has had Irish roots and of the 44 US presidents to date, an astonishing 21 of them can trace back to the ‘oul sod.' Many were Scots-Irish Presbyterians who emigrated in the seventeenth and eighteenth century from what is now Northern Ireland, mainly ending up in the US southern states.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Given the success of Obama and Ali everyone has a fighting shot at their roots-- and it is getting more popular these days.

Nobody knows if Obama or Ali have ever watched the TV series 'Who Do You Think You Are?' If they did they’d find a ton of fellow celebrities searching out their family histories. It’s quite the latest thing, and the show, hugely popular all over the world – America, Canada, Australia, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Poland, Norway, Britain and Ireland – is helping to power something of a genealogical revolution.

In a recent episode of the American version ‘Queen of Nice’ chat-show host and comedienne Rosie O’Donnell made an emotional and life-changing trip to Ireland in search of her roots. Unlike Ali and Obama, O’Donnell always knew her family had Irish blood. But her mother died when she was 10 and she and her four siblings never knew where her maternal family came from and why they left Ireland.

American census records led O’Donnell to ancestors in Canada, and in a stroke of Irish luck she discovered the big ‘location’ clue she’d been looking for in Montreal. Her great, great grandmother died in a horrific accident there in 1876. A newspaper’s death notice revealed she came from County Kildare.

Once in Ireland, at the Kildare County Library, it proved possible for O’Donnell to find and hold in her hand a document stating that her great, great grandfather Andrew Murtagh, his wife Ann, and four children had been in penury in a workhouse. The document showed they’d had their passage paid to Canada by the poor law union in the 1850s, thus escaping, by the skin of their teeth, the ravages of the Great Hunger – the famine that hit Ireland in 1845 causing the death of over one million and emigration of millions more.

Hit the internet

“Public interest in family history and genealogy is at an all time high,” says Rachel Murphy from the Irish professional genealogical research company, Eneclann, based in the Trinity Enterprise Centre, Dublin. Its experts have worked with TV shows such as 'Who Do You Think You Are?' and 'Faces of America' and have traced Obama’s roots back even further than Monegall to his sixth great-grandfather, Joseph Kearney born around 1698.

“More and more records are going online, such as the 1901 and 1911 censuses, which were completed by the householder, so if your ancestor was literate it means you can see his or her handwriting,” adds Murphy. “The technology of the internet is transforming family history research and making important sources much more accessible.”

Eneclann’s advice to those hoping to trace their Irish connections is to begin by talking to your own family. Build up a picture. The key to making a fruitful trip back to Ireland will be advance research in your home country that – like O’Donnell’s case – reveals a place of birth in Ireland for your immigrant ancestor. Death records, military enlistments, tombstones, church records, newspaper obituaries, passenger lists and naturalisation papers are among the many sources that can reveal the Irish birthplace.