You can find Irish people and their culture across the world, and since the 1700s, around 5 million Irish people have emigrated to the USA. In America, many people have Irish heritage, and maybe you’re wondering if you’re one of them. If you have a sneaking suspicion that your family came from Ireland, where do you start looking to discover your Irish ancestry?
To find out about Irish heritage, first talk to relatives. Gather as much information about Irish connections as possible and use those details to search ancestry websites and the US and Irish archives. You can also confirm your Irish heritage with a DNA test.
It’s never been easier to find out if you have Irish heritage, but there are certain things you need to know about Irish genealogy before you start your search. If you want to be successful in your quest for Irish ancestors, take a look at this vital information below.
Can Irish Be A Heritage?
Irish heritage is strong, and you can find evidence of it all over the world. Irish people are proud of their heritage and their beautiful homeland, the Emerald Isle. The Irish suffered persecution in their homeland for centuries, so they’re happy to have overcome so much adversity.
Life started in Ireland around 8000 BC with early hunter-gatherers, and from 4000 BC it was home to early European farmers. The Celts came to Ireland in 5000 BC and Celtic culture and spirituality dominated Ireland for centuries.
Life changed dramatically in Ireland in the 5th century when St Patrick and Christianity arrived. St Patrick famously drove away the snakes from Ireland and became their patron saint, and Roman Catholicism became the new religion.
During the 9th and 10th centuries, the Vikings dominated Ireland. After the Vikings, the Normans arrived in 1169 and stayed for almost 400 years.
King Henry the Eighth of England created the Protestant Church of Christianity in the 8th century, and started mass religious persecution of Roman Catholics all over the British empire, including Ireland. In the 17th century, English protestants arrived in Ireland and took away land from Roman Catholics and turned them into second-class citizens because of their beliefs.
A devastating part of Ireland’s history is the reason why there are so many Irish descendants in the USA today. The Great Potato Famine hit Ireland in 1845, and their staple crop, potatoes, failed for three consecutive years. Ireland lost a quarter of its population to starvation or emigration in three years. To this day, the Irish population has never recovered.
As a result of years of tyrannical oppression from the English, The Irish War of Independence happened in 1919 and lasted for two years. In 1921, Northern Ireland became part of Great Britain, and in 1973 Ireland became part of the European Union.
How Do I Know if I Have Irish Heritage?
If you have an Irish surname or tales of Irish immigrants in your family, you might have Irish heritage. To find out for sure, interview family members, particularly older ones, to get an idea about your past relatives. If you can’t find a paper trail, take a DNA test to confirm if you’re Irish.
There are 70 million people in the world who identify as having Irish heritage – 32 million of those are here in the USA. The population of Ireland is 4.9 million, so as you can see, they’ve done a fantastic job of spreading their genes around the world. If you have an Irish parent or grandparent, you might be entitled to Irish residency.
The first place to start your search for Irish links is with your living family members. Take the time to sit down with them, especially older ones, and ask them to tell you everything they know about your family. Make notes during your conversation and write down specific information such as dates and places of birth, marriages, and deaths.
Sometimes it’s hard to find records, or sometimes stories about your heritage don’t correspond. In this case, you can take a DNA test that will confirm whether or not you have Irish genes. A DNA test can also help you confirm or dismiss things from your research. On the Ancestry website, they can even link you up with your DNA matches.
How Do I Learn About My Irish Heritage?
To learn about Irish heritage, start a family tree. You can find information about your ancestors in USA archives such as the census or church and immigration records or use ancestry websites to help you with your search.
Gather as much information about your family from living relatives before you begin your family tree. You’ll have a much easier time if you’re armed with details.
Let’s take a look at the best ways to start your Irish ancestry research.
Step #1 – Gather Information
Most of the time, your best source of information is your living relatives. Ask them lots of questions and see if can look at any old paperwork such as birth certificates or even photographs that may hold vital information. Maybe someone in your family has carried out research before you? If you have plenty of information to start with, your search for Irish ancestors will be much easier in the long run.
Step #2 – Register with Ancestry Websites and Online Resources
Join genealogy websites such as Ancestry or FamilySearch, where you can find plenty of official documents and records, such as immigration records and birth, death, and marriage certificates. There are loads of genealogy websites to choose from, some are free, and some charge for subscriptions.
Step #3 – Search Local Church Records
A great place to research your family history is with local church records, especially since most Irish people are Catholic. You can find birth, death, and marriage certificates in church records. If the church no longer exists, you might find its records in the local library.
Irish Protestants are a Christian minority in that area. If you don’t find what you’re looking for in the Catholic archives, try moving your research into the Protestant records.
Step #4 – Look for Immigration and Naturalization Records
Your Irish relatives must have emigrated here at one point, so check Immigration records at the National Archives. Most Irish arrived from Irish ports or Liverpool, the closest port in England to Ireland. The city of Liverpool is sometimes known as Ireland’s second city because, in the 1850s, around 40 percent of its population were Irish. If you find a family connection in Liverpool, this might also be worth investigating.
Before 1893, only the name occupation and port of departure are on immigration records. It wasn’t until 1893 that a home address was recorded. Immigrants had to go through a naturalization process, so you can also look for immigrants in naturalization records.
Step #5 – Search The US Census and Military Archives
From 1790 the USA census records only have the name of the head of the house and their age. From 1850 the Census included full details of the whole household.
If you think you have Irish ancestors who served in the military, you might be able to find them on the national military records. You can find census information and military records at the National Archives.
How Do I Find My Family History in Ireland?
Ireland has done a lot to help Irish descendants find their relatives. Most of their records are digitized, and they have family research centers all over the country. You can access many Irish records online, from the comfort of your own home, or you can visit Ireland to search for records.
There are some hurdles when it comes to searching Irish records. The record tower in Dublin Castle was obliterated by fire in 1922 during the Irish Civil War. Many important Irish records were lost in the fire, and sometimes this may hinder your research. The Irish Church Records seem to be the most consistent and reliable ancestry resource.
Additionally, many records of Catholic farmers were lost due to the persecution that occurred in the 1500s. Thus, sometimes, you might only be able to trace your tree back to the mid to late 1700s.
Also, bear in mind that in 1921 Northern Ireland became part of Great Britain. If you’re looking for ancestors from Northern Ireland, you have to search the Northern Ireland records, and their main office is in Belfast.
Below, we’ve listed the best places to look for your family’s records in Ireland.
#1 – The National Archives
At the Irish National Archives, you can access the surviving census records from 1901 and 1911. They also have documents including wills and land and business records. Most of the records in the National Archives are from the 18th and 19th. Some records go as far back as the 13th century.
#2 – The National Library
You can find the church and parish records from all over Ireland at The National Library. Records at the National Library are up until 1880, and they’re on microfilm, so it’s easier to search if you know what you’re looking for.
#3 – The Civil Records
Civil records didn’t become obligatory for everyone until 1864. Before this date, you have to check parish records. In the Irish Civil Records you can find:
- Births – From 1864 to 1916
- Marriages – From 1870 to 1941
- Deaths – From 1876 to 1966
- Griffith’s Valuation (property survey) – From 1847 to 1864
- Court Records
- Migration Records
- Military Records
You can access the Irish civil records for free at the official Irish Genealogy website or the General Register Office (GRO) in Dublin. The Irish General Register Office holds births, deaths, and marriages from 1864 and non-Catholic marriages from 1845.
Need help finding an ancestor’s grave? Read this next: How To Find Out Where an Ancestor is Buried: Complete Guide.
#4 – Irish Genealogy Websites
Roots Ireland is one of the most well-regarded Irish ancestry websites. They transcribe their records directly from the original documents, so they’re high quality and allow for variations in surname spellings. If you want to use Roots Ireland, you must take out a paid membership. Other highly recommended websites are The Irish Ancestral Research Association (TIARA) and The Irish Family History Center.
#5 – Visit Ireland
Ireland has made a great effort to digitize its archives, yet still, there are some things you might only be able to find in a local parish. If you truly want to get in touch with your Irish roots, take a trip to Ireland.
The locals are always happy to discover their kin and help you find yours, and Ireland has lots of family research centers all over the country. Before you visit Ireland, gather as much information as possible and have a rough idea about where you want to go. You need your family name, their parish, and an approximate time they lived there.
Your surname is a big clue about your Irish heritage. If you have an Irish surname such as Murphy or O’Connor, this could be a clue to your Irish roots. Irish surnames are fascinating, but sometimes it’s hard to research your family because the surname keeps changing.
Each Irish surname comes with a whole array of different spellings. For example, Kelly may also be Kelle, O’Kelly, or Kellie, and Byrne can also be Byrn, O’Byrn, and Burns. Irish surnames today are derived from traditional names and are often prefixed with Mac, Mc, Fitz, or O, which all mean “son of”. So, Fitzpatrick is the son of Patrick, for example.
After the Norman invasion, many Irish started to use Fitz instead of Mac. In the 1500s, when the English protestants came, many names were anglicized because the English couldn’t pronounce the traditional names. The name ó Maoilriain became Ryan, for example.
Irish surnames, just like most surnames are handed down through generations, and often they refer to a parent’s name, a geographical part of Ireland, a profession, or a physical or personality trait.
Here are some of the most common Irish surnames and their traditional spelling.
- Murphy – Comes from ó Murchadha, which means sea warrior, and is the most common surname in Ireland
- Kelly – This is the anglicized form of ó Ceallaigh, which means descendant of Cellaig or bright-headed one.
- Byrne – Most common in Northwestern Ireland and comes from the name ó Broin.
- Ryan – From the name ó Maoilriain and is common in Tipperary, Carlow, and Limerick
- O’Sullivan – Means hawk-eyed and comes from ó Súilleabháin.
- O’brian – Comes from ó Briain, and they were one of the most influential clans in Ireland across the centuries.
- Doyle – Means dark stranger, and it comes from the name ó Dubhghaill
- Walsh – Comes from Breathnach and could indicate Welsh heritage.
- O’Connor – Comes from the name ó Conchobhair, and it means dog lover
- Mccarthy – Means loving person and comes from Mac Carthaigh.
The Irish have their own language, usually called Irish or Irish Gaelic. Irish is a recognized language, but Gaelic is considered a dialect. Scotland also claims Gaelic as their language, but Scottish Gaelic is slightly different from Irish Gaelic.
Gaelic was the language of a group of people called the Gaels, and they were a subgroup of Celts. Irish Gaelic is the traditional language of Ireland, but it almost vanished due to centuries of persecution.
These days, Gaelic is taught in schools all over Ireland to revive and preserve the language. In Ireland, 39 percent of people speak their national language, and it’s more common in Northern and Western Ireland.
How Do You Know if You Have Celtic Roots?
If you have Irish roots, potentially, you might have Celtic ancestors. Ireland is one of the last settling places of the Celts, but it wasn’t the only place. There are at least five other Celtic nations – Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Mann, and Brittany in France.
The Celts were an ancient culture that originated in Eastern Europe around 1200 BC. They weren’t a race of people, instead, they lived as small separate tribes that shared the same beliefs and culture. The Celts dominated Europe in 500 BC, from Ireland through to Russia.
Celtic culture is mysterious because they left us no written records. The only written accounts come from the Romans and Greeks, who called them barbarians and pagans, and their reports are likely biased. What we know about the Celts is they were a very influential group of brave warriors who produced beautiful, distinctive art, which is still a popular style today. The celts were also very spiritual and had a close bond with nature.
In around 12BC, Germanic tribes and the Romans slowly forced the Celts west, where they took refuge in Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall in England, Brittany in France, and the Isle of Man. These areas have strong Celtic connections, and their languages are very similar. If you have ancestors from these regions, you might have Celtic roots.
Irish family culture and traditions are strong, and Irish people are generally very family-orientated, including their extended family. Roman Catholicism is the main religion in Ireland and is still quite prominent. Older generations may even be conservative in their religious beliefs.
That said, the Irish are some of the most friendly and hospitable, down-to-earth people you can meet. The Irish are famous for being chatty and charming, and they certainly have the gift of the gab. The Irish love their proverbs too, and they have a saying for every occasion.
An Irish family by birth will argue and fight, but let a shout come from without and see them all unite.
There’s nothing so bad it couldn’t be worse.
A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures for anything.
Generally speaking, Irish people love to celebrate and enjoy life and are famous for their world-renowned folk music, dancing, and folk law. They’re also famous for their ale and whiskey and their love of pub culture, especially on St. Patrick’s day!
If these are traits that run in your family, it’s a good sign you have Irish roots.
The term “Black Irish” usually refers to Irish people with darker features such as black hair and dark eyes. This genetic influence for dark physical features may come from Spain. The term black or dark also means foreigner or stranger in Irish.
A small percentage of people from Ireland may have Spanish heritage. Over the centuries, Ireland potentially had trade routes with the Iberian Peninsula, the Basque region of Spain, and North Africa. Furthermore, thousands of shipwrecked Spanish sailors washed up on the West Coast of Ireland after the Spanish Armada invasion in 1588.
Many people who think they’re Irish from their family tree are surprised to find they have Spanish, French, or even Scandinavian DNA from the Vikings. Just goes to show, that sometimes your family tree can only reveal so much.
Before you set out on your ancestral journey, gather as much information as possible from living relatives. Use the information to search online and local records and ancestry websites to see if any lead back to Ireland.
Once you find an Irish connection, use the Irish civil or parish records to pinpoint your family. If you only get so far with paper records, take a DNA test to confirm your Irish heritage.
Want the best DNA test? Make sure you know which is the right one for your genealogical search by reading this article: Best DNA Tests for Genealogy.
When learning about genealogy, it’s important to learn from various reputable sources. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as genealogists.
- Bresler, Alex. “The 6 Celtic Nations Around the World and What Differentiates Them.” Matador Network, 19 Mar. 2019, matadornetwork.com/read/celtic-nations-around-world-differences.
- “A Brief History of Ireland.” Living In Ireland, 12 Dec. 2018, www.livinginireland.ie/culture-society/a-brief-history-of-ireland.
- “Discover Irish Genealogy Records.” Irish Family History Centre, 25 Feb. 2022, www.irishfamilyhistorycentre.com.
- Irish Family History Centre, 25 Feb. 2022, www.irishfamilyhistorycentre.com.
- “The Fire That Destroyed All Irish Records – the Myth and the Reality.” Irish Geneology, www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com/irish-records-burned.html. Accessed 7 Mar. 2022.
- Marshall, Rich. “Irish Ancestry: How to Find Your Irish Ancestors.” Who Do You Think You Are Magazine, 19 Oct. 2021, www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/tutorials/overseas/best-websites-for-irish-ancestors.
- “Irish Ancestry: How to Find Your Irish Ancestors.” Who Do You Think You Are Magazine, 19 Oct. 2021, www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/tutorials/overseas/best-websites-for-irish-ancestors.
- Mulhall, James. “The Top 10 Most Popular Irish Surnames and Where They Come From.” The Irish Post, 8 July 2017, www.irishpost.com/life-style/top-10-popular-irish-surnames-come-82405.
- “Researching Family History – The National Archives of Ireland.” The National Archives, www.nationalarchives.ie/genealogy/researching-family-history. Accessed 8 Mar. 2022.
- The Irish Ancestral Research Association – TIARA. “Home.” The Irish Ancestral Research Association, 5 Jan. 2022, tiara.ie.
- “US Immigration Records: Find Records of Your Irish Ancestor’s Arrival.” Irish Geneology, www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com/US-immigration-records.html. Accessed 7 Mar. 2022.