Wednesday, June 20, 2012

14 Tips + 1 For Conducting Family History/Genealogy Research in Ireland

Watching the tourists trot by on James Street, Dublin. 
Since the peak season for tourism in Ireland is upon us, I think it is a good time to once again post my list of tips for conducting family history and genealogy research in Ireland.

My original list of thirteen tips plus one, first published in 2010, has expanded to 14 Tips + 1 and is based on my annual research trips between 2008 and 2011. In September 2012 and January 2013, I will be returning to Ireland to continue my history research, and of course my family history research too, and I will update you on any further changes.

For a while now there has been a move afoot in the Irish government to amalgamate some of the services of the National Library of Ireland (NLI) and the National Archives of Ireland (NAI). Major changes are on the horizon. Already, there has been an overhaul of the entire genealogy advisory service, a free service which has been available for years at both the NLI and the NAI. The APGI is bowing out and the joint consortium of Eneclann and Ancestor Network is now offering what has been termed an enhanced genealogy service.

Also, because of the economy, many archives have been forced to slash staff numbers. Of course, such changes significantly affect researchers. Despite change, there are many steps researchers can take to ensure they make the very best use of their time in Ireland.

1. PREPARE, Prepare, prepare:

Before you set foot outside the country in which you now reside, do your homework. This means knowing as much information as possible about the persons for whom you are searching. This may sound counterintuitive, but according to members of the genealogy advisory service (NAI and NLI), the number one problem they encounter is people who have not done their homework.

Don't be the one who shows up with an 'ancestor' from the 1700s and expect someone to prove he/she is connected to you. Also, be aware of the fact that an advisory service is available to offer advice, not to do your research for you. In August of 2011, I encountered a very frustrated (and rude) man who thought he could just show up, give a little information, and have his family history laid out for him. If you are not up to the task, or would prefer to have a professional working for you, then consider commissioning research (click here).


Create a page and/or file for every individual for whom you are searching, and make sure it is filled with as much information as possible. Be the researcher who is best prepared. Irish archival and library staffs, and those at register offices etc., usually go above and beyond the call of duty, but even they have limits. In 2009 when I was in the General Register office Dublin, there was a woman looking for a record for her great-grandmother whom she said may have been born in Dublin and may have lived in Scotland in the early 20th century. What?!?!? That is all the info she had, and yet she was upset that they couldn't help her. According to the staff at the GRO, this happens more often than you might imagine.

3. ASK, politely ask:

In 2008, just by politely asking at Kilmainham Gaol, I was taken on a private tour of the floor of the gaol on which the Cumann na mBan women were held during the Irish Civil War, a floor not part of the regular tour. It never hurts to politely ask.

Long before you go to Ireland send emails, write pen and paper letters, or computer generated letters, to anywhere you can think of to ask for information. Include in your letter every possible way of contacting you, i.e. snail mail, email, business address, home phone, fax number, and mobile number.

In 2009, sending a letter to Guinness Brewery asking for information proved very useful. The archivist didn't have information specific to me, but she sent me a long list of all the Breweries/Distilleries that existed in the time period I was researching, including their locations, and on it I found the one for which I was searching.

4. BOOK your research time and get your reader's ticket:

In the past you had to either write letters or telephone the repositories and libraries in order to pre-book time and documents. Now many can be booked either online on their websites, or via email. A couple of days in advance of your visit, phone or email asking for confirmation of your appointments. Be aware that some institutions, such as the Bureau of Military History Archives, strictly REQUIRE advance reservation for conducting research. Bring photo I.D. to every one (your passport is best).

Most archives require readers' tickets. Some repositories may require that you wear your reader's ticket tag while you are in the facility. You must have your reader's ticket on your person in any repository which requires a reader's ticket. At the NLI, if you are only using genealogy services, and no other collections, you will be issued a Newspaper/Genealogy Badge.

Also, for most repositories readers' tickets have a limited lifespan; in other words, they expire. So, you cannot use that reader's ticket you got back in the 80s. They are usually issued for a period of up to three years, but this can vary depending on the repository.

For full information on reader's tickets for the National Archives of Ireland (NAI) and the National Library of Ireland (NLI) click on the individual blue links.

UPDATE: As of September 2012, the Bureau of Military History Archives has now divided its research day. It is still open for research from Tuesday through Thursday inclusive; however the reading room opening times are now divided into two distinct research blocks separated by a one hour break time. The first research block is from 10 am to 12:30, and the second block is from 1:30 pm to 4:00pm. If you require more than one block of time be certain to inform the Duty Archivist when you book your appointment. Not to worry there is a lovely little pub called the Rathmines Inn, just down the road from the base, where you can get a delicious lunch.

5. ARRIVE EARLY and come prepared:

If you booked somewhere for a full day's research, arrive shortly after they open. This creates a good impression and lets them know you're serious about your work, and they will do everything they can to help you. Also, if you are going to a registry office, such as the General Register Office in Dublin, early arrival ensures you can get your registration documents before it gets too busy. Take advantage of websites, such as the LDS site, so that you might have the volume numbers and page numbers of the registration documents you need.

Click on the blue link at the end of this sentence for further information on using the research room of the General Register Office in Dublin.


Be aware of any limits on materials available to you. For example, although this long standing rule may change, currently in the General Register Office Dublin you can only buy 5 registrations per day to take away with you. However, you can request, pay for, and have mailed to you any further registrations you wish to buy. So, if you show up with a long list of Birth, Marriage, and Death registrations to which you wish to lay claim, be prepared to bring 'home' only five per day.


As of September 2012: Although the signs in the GRO research room still indicate a maximum of 5 registrations per day, I was allowed to buy 8 registrations, and then have the rest mailed to me.

As of January 2013: In addition to still being allowed to buy 8 registrations per day, you now have the choice of either having the addition registrations mailed or sent to you via email. You simply write your email address on the envelope they provide and they will send them by email. If they experience any problems in transmission, they will send them by snail mail. A caveat here for email. I had them email 8 registrations to me and received them as word processing files instead of digital images, so I was not able to immediately export them into my photographic archive.

One of a bank of stained glass windows above the stone stairs in the National Library of Ireland.

Remember you are one of many people of Irish heritage searching for information.

For example, if you plan to search the microfilm copies of R.C. Parish Registers at the National Library of Ireland, bring your patience, and arrive early. In 2010, the microfilms were made openly available to the public in one of the rooms with microfilm readers. Although the library has set out a protocol for use of the films, which requires that you fill out a form for the film you are using, and place that form in a box in place of the film you borrow, some persons ignore these simple instructions and just grab any film they want to use. Sorry to say it, but in my experience tourists are the worst offenders in this regard.

Suffice to say this habit of ignoring the rules, and thus making the microfilm reading room a free-for-all, makes me crazy; therefore, I usually arrive right at the time the library opens, so I can do research before the mad rush begins.

Also, if you do not know how to load a microfilm reader, ASK for help. Often I have come to the aid of people trying to jam microfilm onto a reader. Microfilm is fragile and can break easily if it is not properly handled. Thankfully, Fiona Fitzsimons of Eneclann has indicated that members of the new genealogy service team at the NLI will aid the inexperienced with loading machines.

8. ORDER DOCUMENTS in advance.

This gets you off and running as soon as you step into an archive or library. This has always been very helpful for me at National Archives, the Bureau of Military History at Cathal Brugha, and University College Dublin. Everything is ready and waiting. At Cathal Brugha, my contact brought me 'extras' he had uncovered, in addition to the documents I had requested. At UCD, by receiving a documents order in advance, my contact was able to give me an idea of the breadth of what I had requested, so I was able to edit my list to suit the amount of time I would be at the archive.

UPDATES: The documents ordering system for the National Library of Ireland works beautifully when you order in advance. Be sure to use it. Visit their website for precise details on ordering. If you do not order in advance of your visit be aware that they have instituted a strict system of in person document ordering times, so if you do not order in advance, you may find yourself wasting time just sitting there waiting for books/documents.

The NLI also has a new Family History Research Guide for beginners which is chock full of information. Stop by the Family History Research page of their website and download your own PDF copy.

Microfilm of The Irish Times newspaper (1823-1825 & 1859-2012) is now available on a self-service basis in the microfilm room, adjacent to the Main Reading Room. Microfilm of the Irish Independent newspaper (1891-2011) is also available on self-service.

9. BE AWARE of hours of business for Archives and Libraries:

Be aware of business hours for the archives and libraries you plan to visit. In Ireland currently all public archives and libraries are closed for research on Sunday. (At NLI only exhibitions are open on Sundays). Most archives and libraries are closed on Saturday, with the exception of the National Library in Dublin which is open for a half day on Saturday. Most of the heritage centres outside of Dublin operate only Monday to Friday, and many close for an hour midday for lunch, although hours of operation can vary widely. The hours of County archives and libraries can vary widely as well, so check first. (See and Irish Archives Resource). PRONI Belfast is also closed weekends, but offers later hours on Thursday. Some repositories only operate Tuesday through Thursday.

Many repositories limit document ordering hours. Also, since some documents are stored off-site, they usually require from one to three days lead time in order to retrieve them.

Shortly before you leave home, check the websites of the archives and libraries you plan to visit to see if there have been any additional changes to their hours of operation.

10. ASK IF YOU MAY USE YOUR DIGITAL CAMERA to record photos of the materials.

Ask first before taking any photographs of materials. Many repositories will allow you to do this, but they are very strict about the use of materials. ALL of the repositories will have you first sign a document which indicates that you will not use ANY of the materials for publication without their prior written permission. Some limit the hours during which materials can be photographed, and some have a specific area set aside for shooting photographs.

Entry in Donabate Parish Register 1778/79

If you are in Dublin, the Prospect Cemetery at Glasnevin is a must see. With over one million people interred in its grounds it is a place replete with history. Visit their website beforehand to see if any of 'your people' are among their numbers, and then go and pay your respects. If you happen to be a graveyard rabbit, Mount Jerome Cemetery is another must see in Dublin. Over 250,000 people are interred in its grounds, with some buried under some of the finest examples of Victorian period stones. Check out the the Dublin Heritage web page for their directory of graveyards throughout the county of Dublin. Be sure to stop by cemeteries in any area of the country in which you might find yourself. You never know what you might see.

Stones near O'Connell's Circle, The Prospect Cemetery at Glasnevin, Dublin.
The Bradley Tomb, Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold's Cross, Dublin.
12. TALK:

Talk to other researchers you meet, and tell them what you're working on. Prior to the opening of the 'new' research room of the Bureau of Military Archives in Dublin, researchers once had to work side by side in a very small room. At the most five people could squeeze in at one time; however, such tight quarters were conducive to conversation. Here I received a couple of great suggestions about books and documents from Paul, a researcher working next to me. Midway through a research day in 2009, the C.O. even put on tea and biscuits for us and talked to us about what we were working on. This archive is housed on the working Military base Cathal Brugha, so you must be escorted to it by a soldier, which offers another opportunity for conversation and learning.

13. TOUR:

Tour your ancestors' neighbourhoods. Look for the house where they lived. If it still exists, be brave, knock on the door, tell them who you are and why you're there. They may invite you in, and you may discover they know of your ancestors or their descendants. Some Irish are surprisingly open to this, and like me, you may find yourself sitting down to tea with complete strangers who will become friends.


Say thank you a lot. Always ask the name of anyone who helps you along the way. When you return home send thank you notes, or at least a thank you email, to the people who helped you. It will make you more memorable, and you may find little bits of helpful information show up in your mail later on.

Finally... one extra tip, although not related to research:

DON'T WHINE about the rain. Ireland is an island in the North Atlantic, and if you recall your elementary school science, that means its climate is 'governed' by the vagaries of the sea, so it rains there more than it does in a landlocked place. There is rainfall on about 280 days a year in Ireland, sometimes more, sometimes less. That doesn't mean it rains all day long; often the rain falls for just a few minutes or a couple of hours. After the rain comes the sunshine, and the rainbows, and that just has to make you smile.

A shot taken when I stopped for petrol in North County Dublin.



  1. Great post Jennifer...I volunteer for the Archives of a major city Diocese and that involves searching the individual, original Sacramental Registers from one of the many (hundreds) of books collected from the various church in the Diocese.

    People send in with a name and say they live in
    Allegheny County PA and want all the information.

    I think people expect that all records, from the begging of time to be digitized and all you have to do it put their ancestors name into some Sacramental Data Base.

    I think this belief comes from watching the shows on TV where all they have to do is come in and "their" file will be waiting for them. A lot of people expect this all to be done for free, did you ever see any money exchange hands on the TV shows?

  2. Hi Claudia,

    Thanks for your comments. As always, they are much appreciated.


  3. Excellent information Jennifer. I hope to make use of it if we go to Ireland next year.

    1. Thank you Charlotte. I hope it is of some use to you.


  4. Jennifer, Those are great tips. I took just one trip to Ireland and my preparations made all the difference. I had printed out 'Quick Notes' for each family I was researching, just in case my iPad would not cooperate. Those printed sheets were very helpful. People at libraries & archives could easily see what research I had already done & who/what I was still trying to find. I hope to return to uncover even more information.

    1. Thanks Colleen. I really like your idea about the Quick Notes too, just in case technology lets us down.

      Thanks for your comments.


  5. I'm catching up on my blog reading. These pictures, as usual, are outstanding!

    1. Thanks Kathy. As always, your comments are much appreciated.


  6. Jennifer, I've been aware of your family history research trips to Ireland each year, but in the introduction to your post today, you said something else that caught my eye. You mentioned also doing general history research. May I ask what specific topics in Irish history you are pursuing?

  7. Hi Jacqi,

    Thanks for your question. I really appreciate receiving it. As an historian my area of specialization is Early 20th century Irish Conflict. My current research is focussed on actions during the Irish War of Independence, and I am working on a book which focusses most particularly on failed ambushes. In order to understand what led to the War of Independence, I have studied the history of Irish conflict both preceding and following the War of Independence.


  8. Great tips for anyone heading to Ireland. Politeness and thanks are excellent advice. Also being prepared for things not to go how you want them, when you want them and being grateful for discoveries. I've had wonderful assistance from people in Ireland over the years.

    1. Thanks for your comments Pauleen. As always they are much appreciated.

      I'll add an Amen to being prepared for things not to go the way we want them to. Last year I was so sick on my last three days in Ireland I thought they might not let me get on the plane. I was so disappointed to miss out on three days of research, but as you say, I was very grateful for what I did discover.

      Also, I'll add another Amen to your comment about assistance. I believe Irish archivists and librarians are the best in the world. I only wish they had the kind of government (and public) support that they truly deserve.


  9. Great suggestions, Jennifer! Thanks for sharing these and the accompanying descriptions of your own personal research experience. Wish I could tag along with you on a research trip to Ireland some day!

    1. Thanks for your comments Lisa. They are much appreciated. I'd love to see a whole lot of us travelling over there together. We could take over the research sites. :):) I'm off to Ireland again next Wednesday, so I may have some updates to add.



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Cheers, Jennifer

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