Irish history and FH sources

A brief history since 1600

1603 Ireland wholly under British dominion.

1649-52 Oliver Cromwell’s savage suppression of Irish rebellion.

1690 British kings William III and James II fought at the Battle of the Boyne, resulting in defeat for James and definitive establishment of the Protestant ascendancy.

1692 - 1829 Penal laws exclude Catholics from all public office and professions (and, effectively, from land ownership).

1798 Irish nationalist rebellion.

1801 Act of Union makes Ireland part of the newly-created United Kingdom.

1829 Catholic emancipation granted in Britain and Ireland.

1845-49 Irish potato famine: starvation and emigration reduces Irish population by two million.

1890s Campaign (backed by Catholics and Protestants) for Irish Home Rule, ie, self-government under the British Crown.

1912 Home Rule granted, whereby Ireland still a British Crown possession, but with self-determination in domestic affairs - falls short of the full independence sought by republicans.

1914-18 WWI, in which many Catholic and Protestant Irish fight on the British side, although a significant republican minority opposes this. The search for a political solution to Irish problems is shelved.

1916 Easter Rising: republican insurrection, mainly in Dublin, quashed after seven days.

1918 End of WWI.

1919 Sinn Fein declares Irish independence. War follows, republicans targeting British administration, especially the Royal Irish Constabulary. Killings and burnings on both sides.

1921 Truce, although some IRA militancy continues.

1922 Signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty creates the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland), and partitions off Northern Ireland as a continuing British province with its own parliament (Stormont). This treaty is repudiated by hardline republicans, and violence restarts. Civil war breaks out between the army of the Irish Free State and the IRA.

1923 Civil war ends, with many of the leaders of the independence movement dead.

1937 A new Irish constitution finally shakes off remnants of British sovereignty and the Republic of Ireland is created.

1951-62 IRA campaign of violence in Northern Ireland.

1968-90s The modern phase of “Troubles” break out in Northern Ireland.

1998 Good Friday Agreement ends the armed struggle.

Geography and land organisation

Ireland is divided into

a) four ancient provinces:

  • Munster: Cork, Tipperary, Waterford, Kerry,  Limerick, and Clare.
  • Leinster: Dublin, Wexford, Wicklow, Kilkenny, Kildare, Carlow, Louth, Meath, Laois, Offaly and Westmeath.
  • Connaught: Galway, Roscommon, Longford, Sligo, Mayo and Leitrim.
  • Ulster: Donegal, Derry, Antrim, Armagh, Tyrone, Down, Fermanagh,  Cavan, and Monaghan.

NB: The name Ulster is frequently used loosely in the media to denote the British province of Northern Ireland, which in fact comprises the six counties of Antrim, Armagh, Fermanagh, Down, Londonderry and Tyrone. The ancient province of Ulster comprises these six, plus Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan.

b) 32 counties: 26 in the Republic of Ireland and 6 in Northern Ireland. Most genealogical resources are county-based, so it is important to identify your county of interest.

c) Baronies: which are 273 subdivisions of counties, roughly comparable to hundreds in England and, like hundreds, they no longer have administrative significance, but they may be relevant in searching early nineteenth-century listings.

e) Parishes may be civil or ecclesiastical. The latter are either Church of Ireland (ie Anglican Protestant) or Catholic.

After the Reformation the Church of Ireland took over the Catholic parish organisation of the time. CoI and civil parishes are largely coterminous.

The Catholic church, burdened with confiscation of its assets, was obliged to form larger parish units. Following Catholic emancipation in 1829 and population growth, many new Catholic parishes were formed; some were amalgamated and others had their names changed.

f) Townlands are the smallest official land unit in Ireland. The townland system is of Gaelic origin, and there are 60,000 of them, ranging from one or two acres to many hundreds.

FH records

For a list of Irish genealogy website links see this page.

Civil registration of BMD began in 1864, although registration of non-Catholic marriages had started in 1845. Many civil and Church of Ireland records were destroyed in the Public Record Office fire of 1922.

Baptismal and marriage records before 1864 are parish records.

Church of Ireland (Anglican) parish registers began in the mid-seventeenth century, but the early books were requisitioned by the Public Record Office when the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1869. More than half of the nearly 2,000 CoI parishes complied, only for their registers to be destroyed in the 1922 fire. However due to non-compliance and some prior copying, a fair amount of information, original and transcribed, has survived.

The overwhelming majority of the population has always been Catholic, but surviving Catholic parish records are rare from earlier than the late eighteenth century, and all tend to be limited to baptisms and marriages. Burials were not often recorded. Many Catholic parish records use Latin (never Irish) but this is not usually a problem for researchers, since only forenames were Latinised. Godparents’ and witnesses’ names are usually included.
Many parish records of both religions are indexed in the county genealogical centres and/or online.

Most of the nineteenth century Irish censuses have been destroyed, either in the 1922 fire or by government order. The earliest available in full is 1901. This and 1911 can be searched free online.

Land records form an important source of Irish genealogy, as a substitute for the missing nineteenth-century census returns. Griffith’s Valuation, named after the Commissioner who surveyed Ireland between 1848 and 1864, is the most complete guide to the location of surnames throughout Ireland in that period. 


John Grenham. Tracing your Irish ancestors 3rd ed (Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 2006)

updated 26 June 2018

Additional information