Common Surname? Don’t Despair!

Ireland 1808

Today we publish our genealogy tips on common surnames from our guest blogger Deborah Large Fox.

At my genealogy presentations, I often meet people who have given up researching their Irish roots. Most of them have the same complaint: a family surname that is ubiquitous throughout much of Ireland.
“My family’s name is Kelly (or Murphy or Brennan). And, everyone is named Mary and John and Patrick. It would be impossible to find them!” Difficult? Perhaps. Impossible? Never!
Every family is unique, even if the members share a surname with millions of other Irish descendants around the world. To track a family with a very common surname, you will need to be methodical, patient, detail-oriented, and determined. You will spend much time eliminating other families with the same surname, as well as tracking your own ancestors.
As all family historians must do, it is very important to begin with the present day family and work backwards. Your aim is to discover every possible detail about your family members and to determine what distinguishes them from all others with the same name.
As you go back through the generations, spot those characteristics that make your family recognizable. Did many of your ancestors have the same profession or trade? One woman found her family in County Waterford by researching brush makers. Another is following the paper trail left by generations of ancestors who entered the clergy.
Do your relatives share any distinguishing physical characteristics or special talents? Do special nicknames reoccur in your family stories? Often in rural Ireland, one nickname is given to a family branch to distinguish them from others, the Reds O’Brien’s or the Black Brennan’s, for example (hair color is often a distinguishing characteristic of family branches).
Those with a common surname must also pay special attention to the friends and family of their ancestors. Besides researching the baptismal sponsors and marriage witnesses, do a bit of digging on the neighbors and, especially, on the business partners, fellow workers, and fellow parishioners. These people might possibly have emigrated from the same location as your ancestor.
DNA testing can be a brick wall breaker in the case of common surnames. Many DNA surname studies collect and collate family records as well as DNA matches, enabling members to map out and connect family lines that could be difficult to distinguish otherwise.
Don’t forget: you may have a common surname, but your family is unique!

For more information on your family research visit Deborah’s blog spot:


Church records – Finding parish registers

Today, we publish the third in a series of articles written by our guest blogger, Claire Santry, who is behind the excellent website Irish Genealogy Toolkit and her associated blog, Irish Genealogy News. Here Claire examines Chruch records.

Without one central repository for all surviving Irish church records, finding the parish register that holds details of your Roman Catholic or Church of Ireland ancestors may seem like mission impossible. The records that survive are scattered and incomplete. And even if you know the townland and parish where your family lived and the religion they practised, there’s no guarantee that you’ll find any relevant baptism, marriage or burial records because, quite simply, some of the registers no longer exist.
You may have heard about the 1922 fire at the Public Records Office (PRO) in Dublin that destroyed ALL Ireland’s historical records. While the fire was certainly a tragedy, it is not true that all records were lost. Huge collections of precious documents were nowhere near the fire and they still exist. Sadly, others perished, and among them were half of the registers of the Protestant Church of Ireland.
Around 800 survive (either as original registers, transcriptions of those that burned or as fragmented entries). More than 200 registers start in the 1700s and nearly fifty date from the 1600s (the oldest, for St John’s Dublin, in 1619). The remainder begin in the first half of the 19th century.
A good proportion of these records have been microfilmed and are held at the Representative Church Body Library in Dublin. Others are at the National Archives of Ireland. Those for Antrim, Armagh, Derry/Londonderry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone are also held by PRONI in Belfast.
Roman Catholic registers are easily to locate. They were not kept at the PRO so a fuller collection still exists. However, it was illegal for Catholic priests to keep registers for many years so there are few examples pre-dating 1800. Most start in the second or third decade of the 19th century, but there are some unfortunate parishes with registers that begin only in the 1860s.
All Catholic registers have been microfilmed and are available at the National Library of Ireland and, for the six counties of Northern Ireland only, at PRONI. LDS Family History Centers also have access to microfilms.
To start searching Irish church records, you need first to find the appropriate parish for your ancestor’s townland. You can do this on the free Townland Atlas.
With names, approximate dates and a parish, you can then start searching online. The LDS Family Search [] website is a popular and free first call but it’s a bit hit and miss. A better alternative for those with family from Carlow, Cork Dublin and Kerry is [] which is also free. The largest database is provided by [] It’s a pay-to-view database with a huge collection that covers nearly all the island but you need to check the list of parishes included before parting with any money.

Read more about starting your Irish research from Claire at

Evaluating Evidence – Genealogy Tips

“How do I know that the person in this record is my ancestor?” The answer is not always an easy or definite one. To be able to make an intelligent assessment of family connections, a good family history detective considers and evaluates the evidence.
We all have an innate understanding of evidence. If you see fresh snow on the ground in the morning, you use the rule of circumstantial evidence to deduce that it snowed overnight. If you tell your spouse about car accident you witnessed, you are reporting your eyewitness evidence. If, while gossiping with a friend, you tell her that “Annie said Johnny cheated on Sally,” you are passing along hearsay.
Similarly, genealogy records fall into different categories of evidence, and these categories affect their trustworthiness. For example, the information in a 1900 United States census form for a John Magee in Camden, New Jersey, was given by an unknown person to a census taker. In contrast, the 1901 Irish census form for a John Magee in Belfast was completed and signed by a John Magee. The handwritten personal knowledge on the Irish census is more trustworthy than is the third-party hearsay on the U.S. census.
A researcher must consider the nature and reliability of evidence. Who provided the information? Who recorded it? Was there reason for the person to give or enter false information? Was the information within the recorder’s knowledge, or was it hearsay? What the information recorded close in time to the event?
Thus, a birth certificate filled out, by a parent or midwife, on the same day as the birth is generally considered reliable, while much of the information on death certificates is notoriously untrustworthy. Why? Well, the person with the best knowledge—the one who knows the names of his parents, plus his own birth date and location—is the (silent) deceased!
The best practice a researcher can adopt when placing a person into the family tree is to document the evidence she is using to support her claim of ancestry. Citations are crucial! Are you seeking to join a lineage society or to obtain a Certificate of Irish Heritage? Check the requirements carefully, and make sure your records meet the required standard of proof.

Author: Deborah Large Fox

For more information on your family research visit Deborah’s blog spot:


Today, we publish the second in a series of articles written by our guest blogger Deborah Large Fox.

The dead and the living are the yin and yang of Irish genealogy. Our living and deceased relatives are interconnected, and our research must include searching for both. The living relatives are the ones who will point us in the right direction for finding our deceased ancestors.
Contrary to many of the current marketing slogans aimed at family historians, diving headfirst into online databases is a recipe for mistakes and misinformation. We must have a basic amount of knowledge about our ancestors before searching in these databases. Otherwise, we run into the danger of collecting false information. Many are the times I have had to correct people who have incorporated the wrong families into their trees by following the “hits” on an online database search engine. For example, a researcher cannot claim a “John Magee” on a census record without knowing enough about her Magee family to be able to discern whether the person on the retrieved record is in fact, or very likely to be, “her” John Magee.
So, how does one determine if a person named in a census or other record is most likely an ancestor? As I advised last month, all researchers must begin with themselves in the present, and then work backwards and laterally, in time and generations, through their ancestral tree. Therefore, after you have recorded your current family information, the next step is one that some researchers dread and others love—contacting living relatives for information. Yes, you must now contact that aunt whom you have not seen for years!
Contacting living relatives is very important for Irish family researchers. We need to know our Irish family stories. The Irish tradition is an oral one. Ireland’s early history and its ancient legal system were kept in song and verse. Since so many Irish records have been lost, many life events were not recorded, except in the hearts and minds of the Irish people.
Find and contact as many living relatives, both young and old, as you can. You never know who has a letter or photograph or story that could prove vital to your family history. Your living family stories will help you determine your ancestors’ locations, spouses, children, and occupations, and could provide other clues that will prove instrumental in determining which John Magee is your John Magee.
Plus, you might meet a relative interested in joining you on your genealogical journey!

For more information on your family research visit Deborah’s blog spot:

Irish Genealogy – Griffiths Valuation

Today, we publish the second in a series of articles written by our guest blogger, Claire Santry, who is behind the excellent website Irish Genealogy Toolkit and her associated blog, Irish Genealogy News. Here Claire examines Griffiths Valuation

The lack of 19th century census returns has meant that land records have taken on increased importance in the search for Irish ancestors. By far the most important of these land compilations is Richard Griffith’s Primary Valuation of the Tenements of Ireland, commonly referred to as Griffith’s Valuation.
It lists every landlord and tenant in more or less every household in Ireland, and covers more than one million dwellings and nearly 20million acres. It is the only near complete account of mid-19th century Ireland.
Because it’s so often referred to as a census substitute many researchers expect to find listings of individuals arranged by household. Unfortunately, the Valuation wasn’t carried out for family history purposes! It was a taxation survey, charged with determining the amount of tax, or rates, each householder or landowner should pay towards the support of the poor and destitute within the newly created Poor Law Unions. The tax was to be paid on the size and quality of the property and land.
As such, the names and details of all those who lived in each household was irrelevant. Only the person contractually responsible for the land or property – the leaseholder or householder – was of interest to the authorities.
The Valuation includes the name of the townland, the name of the householder or leaseholder, the name of the person from whom the property or land was leased, a brief description of the property, land acreage and soil quality, and a valuation of the land and buildings. It was compiled on a county by county basis between 1847 and 1864 and is especially useful to those whose ancestors left Ireland in the emigration exodus that followed the famine. Most of the south and west of the island, where the famine hit hardest, had been valued by 1855.
For family historians who don’t know where their ancestors lived, Griffiths Valuation can help narrow down locations areas where their surname was most prevalent. This can be useful for identifying areas for further research.
Arranged by county and sub-divided into Poor Law Union, barony, parish and townland, Griffith’s Valuation, together with its corresponding maps, can help you to pinpoint the exact location of your ancestor’s property or land. It can be searched free of charge at

Read more about starting your Irish research from Claire at

Irish Genealogy – Where Do I Start?

Today, we publish the first in a series of articles written by our guest blogger, Claire Santry, who is behind the excellent website Irish Genealogy Toolkit and her associated blog, Irish Genealogy News.


In Search of the Townland

Although it is may seem logical to jump straight into Irish records in pursuit of your Irish roots, the best place to start is nearly always with your immigrant ancestor in his or her new homeland. The only exception is when you know for certain exactly where your ancestor lived in Ireland.

There’s a good reason. Most old state and church records in Ireland were arranged geographically so unless you know the location, your research won’t get very far.

The most important information to uncover is the name of the townland. Historically, this was an area that could support a cow; a flat terrain with rich soil usually meant a small townland of less than 200 acres while mountainous and boggy land typically created a much larger unit. There are more than 61,000 townlands across the island.

Take care when the ancestral townland’s name has passed down the generations as the story may have distorted with the telling. Your ancestors may, for example, have ‘come from Derry’ but did they set sail from Derry, did they live in Derry City, or did the family come from somewhere in County Derry? There’s a big difference.

Similarly, you may know the townland name was Ballyboy, but was it one of the three Ballyboys in County Galway, one of the four in County Offaly, or one of the ten other Ballyboys across the south?

To establish the exact townland of origin, start asking questions of your closest living relatives. Does any ancestral memorabilia – a bible, memorial cards, letters etc – survive? What about stories of their ancestor’s early life? Ask the same questions of your more distant relatives as you widen the net.

Immigration and naturalisation records, census records, birth/marriage and death records, wills and gravestones should also be carefully examined in your own country. Don’t just follow your direct line. Look also for siblings who may have arrived with your ancestor; did they or their children record the golden nugget? It’s also worth checking people who arrived on the same ship as your immigrant. Friends and cousins from the same town often travelled in groups.

While the townland name is the crucial key that will unlock your Irish heritage, you should also note any record of your immigrant ancestor’s year of birth and his or her religion. If you can find all three precious items you will be ready to turn to records in Ireland and uncover more about your Irish heritage.

Read more about starting your Irish research from Claire at