Roots: A Guide
By Maeve Molloy, Editorial Assistant
June / July 2008
Not everyone has the benefit of a knowledgeable grandparent or oral tradition surrounding our family surnames: but fear not, researching the origins of your family name is easier than ever, and the connection it provides to your Irish ancestry is immeasurably rewarding.
With the growth of the Internet, genealogical and historical information has become increasingly accessible, and there are a myriad of Internet sites devoted to Irish surnames, origins, and lore.
In order to initially sort through these sites, decide whether you are looking for information on your family name and where it came from, in the style of our Roots column, or if you are looking for your genealogical information (e.g. family trees, lost cousins, where your grandparents came from).
If the information you seek is the latter, you will do best to search genealogical sites. Some useful ones are www.genealogy.com, rootsweb.com, and ancestry.com. If you already have some information, such as a grandparent’s occupation or hometown, The National Archives are a great resource. These archives, however, are so vast that it is best to approach them with as much information as you have at hand. If you cannot visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the information is available in the “digital vault” online, and can be accessed at http://www. archives.gov/genealogy/.
Available here are some of the most useful tools of genealogical research: historic censuses. Generally, a census will tell you the names of family members, their ages at a certain point in time, their state or country of birth, their parents’ birthplaces, year of immigration (if applicable) and much more about their lives at the time. Immigration documents and passenger lists are also available here. Beware, however, that requesting hard copies of any documents will cost about $25 each.
Again, the process is made simpler with access to the Internet, but if you do not have Internet access or prefer manual research, there are resources available in print as well. Michael O’Laughlin, a prominent Irish researcher, commentator, and publisher, has authored numerous books on Irish names and history. For information on your family’s name origin, varied spellings, and history O’Laughlin’s The Book of Irish Families, Great and Small is both a useful and accessible resource. Put this on your bookshelf as an anthology of Irish names that you will surely return to for reference on your family name and others. A similar book, at about the same price of $40, is Irish Names and Surnames, by Patrick Woulfe. Both are published by the Irish Genealogical Foundation.
If you do have Internet access, the possibilities for ancestral and historical information on your family name are vast. Some useful online resources include www.ireland.com/ancestors/surname as well as www.goireland.com. Michael O’Loughlin, mentioned above, also runs a fantastic website www.irishroots.com. Some of the content on this site is membership-limited, though well worth the price. Beware, however, of scams on many pay-for-info sites. Often these sites are very expensive and give little information that cannot be accessed elsewhere. Positive reviews and samples of roots information are important in determining if a site is legitimate.
If you decide to visit the old country then there are useful resources available North and South. For family history in Northern Ireland, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) holds expansive and varied records available both online and in print. Check here for church records, the 1901 Irish Census, National School records, and more. These records can be searched online in their digitized form at www.proni.gov.uk.
Similar resources are available in the Republic through the General Register Office. Here you can find birth and death registrations and help with your genealogical search. However, this information is not digitized and thus is not available online. It is fully searchable, however, at the Register Office in Dublin. If you are planning a trip to Ireland, and would like to research your genealogy, call +353 1-635-4423 for more information.
Other resources within Ireland are the plethora of documents available through various preservation groups’ and societies’ archive libraries. The Royal Irish Academy Library (www.ria.ie) is a great example of one such archive, though little information is available remotely: again, a visit to the library is necessary. A fully accessible online resource is the Irish Family History Foundation, available at www.irish-roots.ie. Here you will find links to more genealogical search-points, public records for each county in Ireland, and much more, including a guide to searching public records for your family’s history.
Given the long history of Ireland, very little information is guaranteed to be accurate as it is known today mostly through folklore and oral tradition. Thus, you may find conflicting accounts of the origins of the same name. These may both be true, or even versions of the same root name.
Not finding the information you’re looking for? Don’t have the time to research? Send in a suggested surname for our next Roots column!