How to start

  • Start from what you know and use it to find what you do not know. For example, do not presume that you must be connected to the O'Kellys of Ui Maine and try to stretch their 17th-century pedigree to fit your family. Start from Grandpa Joe Kelly and work backwards.

  • Be sceptical. Genealogy is not forensic science - nobody (one hopes) is going to jail on the basis of what you uncover - but a mistaken assumption can cause endless frustration and wasted effort.

  • Be patient. Researching your family history is the work of months and years. Computers and the internet notwithstanding, there are very few shortcuts.

  • Think laterally. Your poor great-granny's rich second cousin may have left a lot more in the way of family records than your poor great-granny herself, and following these records may tell you a lot more about your family history.

To use the surviving records, the single most useful piece of information is a specific location in Ireland . Unless your ancestor had an outlandish surname, the minimum you’ll need to know is the county of origin, and if the surname is common even a county or indeed a parish may not be specific enough. The vast majority of the pre-1860s records are location-specific, and the reliance on fragments or local census substitutes - one of the results of the 1922 disaster - means that even adjoining parishes can have quite different record profiles. Both of the standard guides to Irish research, my own Tracing Your Irish Ancestors (Gill & Macmillan, 3rd edition, 2006) and James Ryan’s Irish Records (Flyleaf Press, 2nd edition, 1998) include detailed listings by county showing what records survive.

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