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

Armed with a place – ideally a parish or townland – hit the internet. Free access to many of the major sources of records is now available online. For instance the National Archives of Ireland website hosts the 1901 and 1911 censuses, FamilySearch hosts indexes to the civil indexes to births, marriages and deaths, some parish records are available at the government website, and the Ask About Ireland website hosts what’s called Griffith’s Valuation – an important property tax survey carried out in the mid-nineteenth century. The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland has a number of street directories, with calendars and other information on their website and the National Library of Ireland has photographs online. Many other official records are being launched regularly as they become digitised.

One of the most important online resources is the Irish Family History Foundation site, It’s a co-ordinating body for a network of government approved genealogical research centres and has the largest database of records They have a presence in almost every county in Ireland (north and south) and you can arrange to meet with a local expert no matter where your family are from when you come over. Searching is free, but there is a charge to see the details of the retrieved records.

Consider also the option of commissioning professionals like Eneclann to do the work for you, or check out the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland. Another idea is to contact operators that provide an entire family history experience. For instance Irish Ancestral Holidays provides a team of travel, genealogy, hospitality and history experts in Ireland that create vacation plans around Irish roots tracing.

Coming to Ireland

Reliving your family’s history in Ireland is a very personal experience. But setting foot in your ancestral area, learning about how your family lived and why they left can be extraordinary. Interviewed after her 'Who Do You Think You Are?' programme, an emotional Rosie O’Donnell said: “It was, you know, very eye-opening and heart-warming. It definitely changed my view of my own childhood, my own family, and what I could share with my children.”

Even if the house no longer stands, just to be on the site it once occupied, to visit a church or headstone, or simply travel through the ancestral landscape, townland or parish can be stirring. And to understand the life of your forebears there are a number of exhibitions and attractions in Ireland that depict the life of emigrants before they left. One, the Ulster-American Folk Park in County Tyrone follows the emigrant trail from the thatched cottages of Ulster to a full scale emigrant sailing ship leading to the log cabins of the American Frontier with exhibits from both sides of the Atlantic.

Over 2.5 million fled the Irish Famine through the transatlantic port of Cobh (pronounced ‘cove’), near Cork. At the town’s heritage centre there are brilliant exhibitions and audio video experiences where you can learn about ‘American wakes’ (bittersweet parties held on the last night at home before an emigrant left Ireland), see the actual possessions of famine emigrants and witness the horrifying conditions on board the early ‘coffin ships.'

The Irish National Famine Museum – one of the most important museums in Ireland – is another highly recommended visit. Set within the magnificent Strokestown Park House, County Roscommon, guided tours let you experience Georgian Ireland at the time surrounding the Famine from the perspective of the upper class and the starving tenant farmers.

Come and join the family

If you are one of the millions who have Irish ancestry there’s never been a better time to find your family connections and come home. You might be banjaxed at the extended family you’ll be joining. ‘Surprise’ personalities of Irish heritage include the likes of American screen star Robert De Niro. Always thought of as Italian, actually three of De Niro’s four grandparents were Irish, and the great man hitched around the Emerald Isle as a teenager.

Or how about young music hotshots Taylor Swift (Irish blood on both sides of the family) and Rhianna (father of Barbadian-Irish descent)?

Irish Americans in the no-longer-with-us category include Walt Disney and Jimi Hendrix (honest, mother was the daughter of a Cherokee Indian woman and an Irishman).

Leaving the shores of America for Australia and low and behold pop diva Kylie Minogue, and Oscar-winners Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson are but three prominent Aussies with Irish roots.

Canadians too can claim plenty of Irish blood: 'Dawson's Creek' star Joshua Jackson (mother from Dublin) and wouldn’t you know a third of Canada’s 22 prime ministers to date, including Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin.

Head to Argentina (Che Guevara), France (Charles De Gaulle) and then to Britain to check out rock icon Mr David Bowie, whose mother was a certain Mary Margaret Burns, of sound Irish stock.