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Irish genealogy can be very tricky, and it's common for those with Irish heritage to quickly run into a brick wall. Findmypast’s Irish genealogy expert Brian Donovan recently took some questions from users of the family history website.

Here are the highlights:

Joe asks... What are some good ways to find clues to my Irish family’s point of immigration? Records seem to have been lost in fires and other disasters. I believe they may have been in County Sligo or Roscommon, but not sure when or where they immigrated to Canada from. What suggestions for alternate resources do you have?

Brian: Its true Ireland has been unfortunate in the scope and range of its archival disasters, but that does not mean it’s impossible. Far from it. If your ancestors were from Roscommon/Sligo they most likely emigrated from the port of Derry/Londonderry in the north-west.

Of course they may have emigrated from a different port, but people generally left the country from the most convenient port of emigration and Derry was far more significant than often appreciated. But unfortunately emigration to Canada rarely generated the sort of records you are looking for.

The USA maintained a whole series of immigration records as it was a separate country. Canada was just another part of the British Empire, like Ireland. The British only began to keep systematic records of emigration in 1890 all of which are on Findmypast. So in short it’s unlikely there are any emigration/immigration records for you. But don't despair, migration records are not the most important set of records you need to look at anyway, even if they had existed.

What you need to do is focus on the records about the family once they settled in North America. Census records often record place of origin. So do newspaper obituaries. If the family migrated further into the USA then you should look for Naturalisation papers. And if you can't find the information for your direct ancestors, make sure you check the same records for their brothers or sisters who may emigrated too. It is highly likely one of them has a record of their place of origin.

Once you have this place, plus information about dates of birth and other qualifying information you can launch yourself into the Irish records. But without a place of origin, your Irish research is likely to be a very frustrating process.

Tim asks... I have an ancestor with a very common surname and a very common given name. This naming pattern seems to run rampant in Ireland! What can I do to find my needle in the haystack?

Brian: This is often a serious problem in Irish research. Even today there are parts of the country which are represented by only a small number of dominant surnames, like Ryan in Tipperary, or O'Donnell in Donegal, McCarthy in Kerry, O'Sullivan in Cork and so on. This is a legacy of medieval Irish lordships, both Gaelic and Norman. The problem is compounded as the pool of forenames was limited to the principal Christian saints' names (e.g. Patrick, Bridget, Mary, John, etc.).

As a consequence you need to expand your specific family history to a community analysis, and seek wherever possible to cross-reference your research. In practical terms you should use the major land surveys of the nineteenth century, especially the Griffith's Valuation on Findmypast, to establish what families existed of a specific surnames in a geographic area.

From the mid-nineteenth century parish registers also regularly have townland specific addresses too, so you can start to pin families to a very specific part of a county. Townlands were the smallest land denomination in Ireland representing only a couple of hundred acres on average. So they are very important.

The original survey maps for Griffith are also online at Findmypast so you should map the results from your analysis of potential families. But also look at sponsors names for baptisms and witnesses for marriages as these represent the wider family group and social unit. It’s likely they were related or were neighbours. This can start helping you disentangle the families from each other.

Kirsten asks... When researching in Ireland, it seems there is very little opportunity to build a pile of evidence to support a theory. At what point have you reached "reasonably exhaustive search" for Ireland?

Brian: With poor record survival, Irish research requires that you use a far broader range of sources than would be needed for other countries. This can make it unfamiliar when you start, but the result is a far richer history than you are likely to achieve elsewhere.

To explain what I mean, in Irish research we habitually use land records (like Griffith's Valuation or the Landed Estate Court rentals) as regularly as census records. We also use the records of the Poor Law (workhouses and Board of Guardian records) and the extensive local court system to supplement civil registration and church registers. But what this means is that your history will provide a lot more detail and context than you are likely to achieve by relying on just census and BMDs. So what constitutes a "reasonably exhaustive search" in Ireland is quite different to that in the US.

It’s also shifting as millions of new sources are being digitized and indexed all the time. So while in the past no project could have reasonably be expected to search all the surviving newspapers and court records, now it's a relatively straight forward task at Findmypast.

As a consequence what would have been considered an "exhaustive search" 20 years ago just constitutes the basics now. But methodology in Irish research is at least as important as the surviving evidence. You need to try and analyse the family you are tracing to see what types of evidence they might have left, rather than just adopting a scatter-gun approach and look at everything.

You also need to develop a broader search of community and geography to ensure you tracing the right family in the right location. Bear in mind that in the nineteenth century and earlier Ireland was a largely bilingual country speaking Irish and English or just Irish. When you look at records bear in mind that they were probably written down by someone (a clerk or cleric) who spoke a different language to those he was recording. What this means is that you need to keep an open mind about the spelling of names and places.

Michelle asks... I'm looking for my Irish family in South Africa – are there passenger lists available? Were skilled workers "recruited" to South Africa?

Brian: Skilled workers were indeed recruited for South Africa, but very little survives for emigration before 1890. Like Ireland, South Africa was just another part of the British Empire requiring no immigration process, so no papers would have been created. An important contingent of the Irish to South Africa was via the British Army. Irish recruits made up a very significant component of this force. The service records are online at Findmypast, along with many other records about the activities of the army in South Africa during the Boer war and earlier.

Carol asks... I have an early ancestor from Scotland that died in Ireland – I think around 1690. Are there resources for me regarding his death and burial? How do I locate them?

Brian: When researching a family as early as this the surviving sources are much sparser. The most important surviving evidence of death in this period are the surviving Wills. So look at the indexes of wills which are on Findmypast. Many of the original wills were destroyed in 1922, but there are a lot of transcripts at the National Archives in Dublin (listed at Findmypast) and others in the Genealogical Office collection at the National Library.

Moreover, there are other collections of wills in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast. If your ancestor had any assets in Scotland his will would have been proved there too, so you should look at the surviving wills on the ScotlandsPeople web site too.

For more stories on tracing your Irish heritage from Findmypast click here.

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