Tracing Your Irish Roots

Here are some of the top tips courtesy of to trace your Irish roots:

1. Surnames

  • Keep in mind the possibility of various surname spellings
  • Before the 20th century the ‘O’ and ‘Mc’ prefixes were treated by record keepers as entirely optional; McCarthy may appear as Carthy, Carty, Cartie; O’Brien will usually be Brien (or Brian, or Bryan)
  • The vast majority of Irish immigrants were illiterate or semi-literate, very often spoke Gaelic as their first language and invariably had more pressing concerns than the precise spelling of their surname
  • From the 17th century onwards, Irish surnames were translated, pseudo-translated, transcribed phonetically and transposed to their nearest English equivalent
  • Even a common UK surname like ‘Smith’ could be Irish. Mac Gabhainn, from gabhann, meaning blacksmith, became Smith, Gowan or McGowan

2. UK Census Records

  • All these record the place of birth – perhaps you have a hidden Irish ancestors waiting to be discovered in these records!

3. Parish Records

  • These may record the parish of origin of the parents in the case of a baptism
  • Even where a marriage has already been uncovered in civil records, it can be worthwhile checking the church record
  • As well as the place of origin in Ireland, the church record may also record the maiden names of the mothers of the two people who are married

4. Birth, Marriage and Death Records

  • These records are invaluable for tracing your immigrant ancestors back to Ireland. For example, Marriage records provide the name of the couple’s fathers