Before you go near any records, talk to your family. It makes no sense to spend days trawling through databases to find out your great-grandmother’s surname if someone in the family already knows it.

So first talk to parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents – find out what they know before they’re gone for good. Most families have at least one individual who keeps track of the extended network of relatives, and if you can buttonhole her (it usually is a her), you’re off to a good start.

What you’ll uncover depends on the quality of the surviving records for the area of origin, on the point where you start and the most important ingredient of Irish research, luck.

For Irish online research, the glass is both half-empty and half-full. A huge quantity of irreplaceable records was blown up in 1922 – almost all 19th century censuses, to name just one – and nothing will ever bring them back. On the other hand, there are only four universally relevant sources, civil records, church registers, censuses and nearly all of them that survived is online and free.

The easiest win for most people starting out is the free National Archives of Ireland census website ( It’s plain but powerful and serves up images of the original returns for the earliest complete censuses, 1901 and 1911, complete with great-grand-parents’ signatures and overviews of names, family relationships and occupations.

There are links to very helpful websites on the links section on this site. Contact us for help anytime