An important new tool in tracing your Irish family history has been released in Ireland.

The National Library has released a searchable online database for the April 1911 family census for the entire 32 counties.

Genealogists can search by name, surname, age, sex and place.

Even better, the entire database is free.

This is the first time such information - which includes the images of the original census forms - has been put online.

The forms offer a view into an Ireland from long ago.

A world divided into type of resident (boarder, visitor or family) religion, literacy, profession, marital status, Irish language ability and children.

Using the 1911 census search, my partner Sean McPhail found his grandfather Thomas, 19, staying in a house owned by "head of family" and "police pensioner" Thomas Naughton and his wife Honorah in Bundoran in County Donegal.

Thomas McPhail is listed as a carpenter from Fermanagh, where, on the same night, Thomas's widowed mother Bridget is listed as being in residence at the Eniskillen hotel the McPhails owned with her 15-year-old Thomas, who is listed as a "scholar."

I clearly need to do more research because my mother's family names (Lynch and Clarke) will need more investigation while I can find 77 Arrigans from my father's side (his mother)  in their home county of Waterford.

The project has so far taken three years to get online and the results are astonishing.

The census search is markedly different from the CSO tables which cover 1926 to 1991 and were released earlier this year.

They show the data tables from the Central Statistics Office rather than the actual forms or identifying information.

The head of the 1911 census search project, Caitríona Crowe, said the CSO census forms are still considered too modern for public release and the records themselves remain confidential for 100 years.

The 1911 census - which is available two years short of the 100 - was the last census completed until 1926.

Crowe said they hope to get the 1901 census online by spring 2010; they released the 1911 census first because it as better quality than the 1901.

Crowe said she also hoped to include Google maps to compare street maps between 1911 and now.