Today is St. Patrick's Day. For many places it is an unofficial early rite of Spring and it affords many people a chance to think about Ireland, whether or not they actually have any Irish heritage. In the last census more than 36 million Americans claimed Irish heritage - 11.9 percent of the population, while another 3.5 million (1.2 percent) claimed specifically Scots-Irish heritage. These numbers are actually small, and the number of Americans with at least one ancestor of Irish blood, whether Catholic or Protestant, is undoubtedly much higher. Even President Obama claims Irish heritage on his mother's side.
Family historians wishing to trace their Irish heritage face a number of obstacles. The biggest problem that most encounter is not knowing the exact place in Ireland where their ancestor was born. Scots-Irish settlers who arrived in the eighteenth century usually came from parts of Ulster (the counties of Down, Londonderry, Tyrone, and Antrim), while those arriving later in the 1840s during the Potato Famine came from all over Ireland, especially the western provinces of Connacht and Munster. Passenger lists from the period typically list just "Ireland" for a passenger's birthplace.
Here are some steps for researching one's Irish heritage. First, identify the immigrant as completely as possible from American sources. Use census records, church records, cemetery records, mortuary records, city directories, newspaper obituaries, and even fraternal lodge records.
Second, look for other identifying information about the immigrant in American sources. If your Irish ancestor got married in America, there is a chance that the birthplace or at least the county of birth was recorded in the church record. The amount of detail preserved varied greatly from church to church, depending on the interest and record-keeping practices of the pastor or priest. Look also for the burial and cemetery record of the immigrant. Sometimes specific birthplace information was recorded in the church burial register or on the tombstone. Look for the obituary. If he or she died in a city with a sizable Irish population, there might have been specific information recorded about the place of birth. If a family arrived with children born in Ireland, seek out records for the whole family, including marriage and burial records for every sibling. It only takes one such record to provide the necessary clue.
Sometimes notices were published in newspapers by relatives in Ireland looking for lost family members who had immigrated. Those published in the Boston Pilot between 1831 and 1920 have been gathered in a set of books titled, Search for Missing Friends 974.402 B65sea.
If you can identify the town and county, a number of tools exist, both in Ireland and in The Genealogy Center, to go further back in time. Ireland has suffered a great deal from record destruction, including a 1922 fire in the Public Records Office that destroyed many census, court, and probate records, as well as some church records stored there. Many records have survived, however, and there are guidebooks available to show what kinds of sources may exist for a particular place.
The task of bridging the genealogical divide between America and Ireland can be challenging. But persistence and tenacity can sometimes pay off.