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July 11, 2015

10 Steps to Searching the Irish Catholic Parish Records When You Only Know a County of Origin

By now most of us with Irish Catholic ancestors have been to the awesome new database of all Irish Catholic Parish Records published online by the National Library of Ireland. (See If You Have Irish Catholic Ancestors Today's Your Lucky Day)

The records are not indexed or transcribed and thus there is no search engine where you can simply type in a name to see results. Instead you search for your parish of interest and then scroll through the images to hopefully find the record you want. 

But what about those of us who don't know the parish our Irish ancestors were in? What about those, like me, who only know a county of origin? Well, I have developed a plan for methodically and carefully searching the records in a somewhat organized fashion. 

Faded page of Parish Records
Be aware before you begin that many of the records are so faded they are illegible. Many have terrible handwriting which is cramped and difficult to read. You can use the controls provided with the images to increase or decrease the contrast, to enlarge the images and to increase the brightness. 

Step 1: Look at what you know or what family lore has indicated. In my McGinnis family we have two family stories. One branch of the family who settled in Ontario circa 1833 says the family was in Belfast. My branch also says Belfast. Another branch has a photo of their  ancestor and on the back it says Katesbridge. 

Since I don't want to just start frantically searching all of Co. Down or Armagh, I needed to find out what Parishes cover Katesbridge and Belfast.  Of course I googled it! After quite a hunt I figured out that Katesbridge, Co. Down is in the Parishes of Newry and Drumballeyroney. Belfast city has 15 different parishes so I decided to start with Newry, then Drumballeyroney

Step 2: Next stop was National Library of Ireland where I typed in the parish name (Newry) in the search field. The page that loaded gave me the list of microfilms available for Newry and the dates for the surviving records. I am searching for several baptisms ranging in years from 1807 to 1831 and one baptism circa 1844-1846. Newry had some of those years so I simply began scrolling through the online images until I finished 1825. 

List of Microfilms for Newry Parish
Step 3: When I completed Newry, I went to Drumballeyroney which I learned is also called Annaghlone. Their baptisms started in 1834 and go to 1851. 

Step 4: Use the Filter Tool! I needed to jump to 1844 so I clicked on the microfilm and immediately used the Filter Tool. (Filter Events/Dates). By choosing Event=Baptisms and Year=1844 I was taken to the exact page to start my search.
Filter Tool

Step 5: Both Newry and Drumballeyroney came up empty for me so I turned to Belfast. Of the 15 parishes in Belfast city only 8 have surviving records and of those 8 only 2 had records early enough for my needs. That search also had no results for me. Now came the tricky part - figuring out where to search next.

Step 6: I extended my search to parishes near Belfast and Katesbridge. To do this I used  the map found with the online parish records. Click on "Go to Map" at the top right of the screen, right beside the search engine where you can enter the parish name. 

By clicking and drilling down you can get a map of parishes. I printed this map and put a red star in Newry.  I began systematically began searching adjacent parishes.

Newry Parish and Adjacent Parishes

My goal is to search a wide range of parishes surrounding Newry, Belfast and Drumballyroney. That means I must move on to Step 7.

Step 7: Using GenUki I was able to bring up a list of adjacent towns to Katesbridge. I can do the same for Belfast. This will help me decide which might be where my McGinnis ancestors lived or worshipped. I also brought up a list of nearby churches

Step 8: I printed these lists off and created a file folder for my search plan (maps, lists of parishes, record of where I've searched and so on) as this will be a long-term project.  

Step 9: Go through each parish and eliminate them as having the records you seek. Eventually you will either have success and find your ancestor(s) or you will discover that your ancestors do not appear in the surviving parish records. 

Step 10: I suggest you create a notebook for this project and make notes as you search each set of records. My notebook lists the Parish, the film number, the dates covered and the condition of the records. As well I noted any McGinnis (Magennis) names I found in case one day I find a connection to my family.

My Research Notebook for Irish Catholic Parish Records
If you are looking for instant results you are almost certain to be disappointed. I have  finished searching 17 parishes for my McGinnis ancestors. I have written in dozens of pages in my notebook. I've found many clusters of McGinnis individuals but none are mine. I will carry on searching until I am satisfied that my ancestors are not to be found or I actually find one! Realistically this will be a long slow task possibly taking months of a few hours each day. 

But my motto is "Leave no stone (aka record) unturned!"


Celia Lewis said...

Thanks for your so-helpful post, Lorine. I'm in the same boat for my Northern Ireland ancestors in and around Belfast. I'm not averse to searching page by page, but it seemed quite overwhelming, before reading your post, and seeing your examples. Cheers.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Lorraine for your hard work and great explanation.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

DMac - you're welcome. Hope you have success!

Lorine (not Lorraine, not Lori, always been Lorine)

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Celia good luck! It is not fast or easy but I'm determined to do it. I hope your hunt proves fruitful.

Bernie Vanasse said...

Actually some parishes are not too bad . Was quite surprised in searching places in Offaly .

Michael Collins Dunn said...

In the two cases where I know the parish,I checked them via LDS microfilm 20 years ago and learned the key birth years are missing in both cases. But in one case I know the parents' names and have hopes of finding the marriage or death dates, especially now that I have daily access from home instead of having access to a microfilm for a few days. Add to the faded and illegible handwriting one further caution: in one of my parishes the priest wrote the records in Latin. pretty simple Latin, but still Latin

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Bernard - yes some parish registers are in top notch handwriting and very legible. Others have faded ink, scribbled writing and missing years. It's hit or miss.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Michael - thanks for the reminder. I saw some Latin but not much in the parishes I am searching.

Sharon said...

Great tips! They are quite hard records to go through, but still a lot easier than heading to the Ireland, to the National Library, booking a microfiche reader and spending hours going through the records there. It is great to be able to go through them from the comfort of our own homes with cup of coffee in hand.

Jackie Corrigan said...

I'm also searching without knowing which parish in Longford my husband's ancestors come from. I found that by typing Longford in the parish search box, it brought up all the parishes names. Another hint on their help page is to use Giriffith's Valuation and see which parishes are associated with the surname you're searching.
Haven't found what I'm looking for YET, but like you, I plan to keep at it, and keeping a careful research long.

Lori E said...

You have given some great advice. This method will help people in researching all kinds of records. A very smart, common sense plan of attack.
I only wish I had any idea at all where to look but sadly all I know is Ireland. If I live to be 100 I don't think I would have the time to search them all.

Xfaith said...

Thanks this might help, I tried but all I know for some family is that they are from Mayo. I tried quickly to narrow down parish but was unable to figure it out. Will have to give it another go. I know I have other family members, but those have been labeled as "Ireland" as birth location, have yet to figure out where exactly in Ireland.

GenealogyAtHeart said...

Don't know if this will help you but it worked for me. I paid for a 1 month subscription to Roots Ireland as those records are indexed. As with any index, they aren't 100% accurate but it still helped. (They had some of my folks listed as O'Brien but the NLI records are clearly for Brien). I was trying to find the Baptism record for my husband's 2nd great grandmother, Mary "Mollie" O'Brien Cooke. She emigrated with a relative (probably a cousin) in 1853 from Limerick to New York City, married 11 months later in Newark on her way to Chicago where she raised a family and died in 1903. She fascinates me because the couple raised the boys Protestant and the girls Roman Catholic which must have been a difficult job back in the day.
Using Roots Ireland I was able to identify the parish as Galbally & Aherlow. I also gained the parent's name and informant (sponsor's) names. Having the parents' names I was able to find the marriage index record.
I most likely would not have been able to identify Mary's baptism record on the NLI site as with Murphy's Genealogy Law, she is on the bottom of a page that is missing the date and so dark it's barely readable, even with the tools. Of course, her parents' marriage record was in the same location but 3 years earlier. I find that the bottom left is the most difficult to read. Using the filter you described & knowing the month and year from Roots Ireland, I was able to quickly locate the records on the NLI site. It was so awesome seeing the records! Made yesterday's rainy day all sunny.

Karen said...

Excellent advice. Irish research is definitely not for the faint of heart. May we all find our missing baptisms and marriages.

Seeds to Tree said...

This is such good advice. I'm going to get out my notebook (a green one) and plan to search for a long time. I figure I've been looking for over 20 years, what's another year or two?

MM341 said...

Thanks for the advice, I especially liked the idea of printing the map. But just so your readers don't get discouraged, here's the story of my first experience on the NLI website. I knew that my gggrandparents had been married in County Mayo, Aughagower parish, but not the year. I chose one of the microfilms to search and there at the top of the third page, in big clear letters, was "Walter Macguire to Bridget Higgins". It gave me chills. Now on to the Baptism records to try to find my ggrandmother. I hope everyone gets as lucky as I did.

eejjennings said...

Hello Lorine and other Irish researchers. One of the frustrating things about trying to figure out where our Irish ancestors came from is trying to understand how all the various parishes, townlands, PLUs, baronies, etc fit together. I just stumbled upon this site:

This site sorts out all the various parishes and townlands and shows them on a map! And more, for free!!

Perhaps everyone else already knew about this site and I'm late to the party, but it blew me away, so I had to share.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Ellen - thanks for the link. I was not aware of that site. I can't connect to it tonight but will keep trying!

MM341 - what a great success story- thanks so much for sharing. And congrats!-)

Jacquie - I agree, as frustrating as it is to keep coming up empty, I'm happy to keep looking

Lori - great tip, thanks! i did check Roots Ireland last year (before it went to subscription model) and came up empty but others may have better luck

Jackie 0- thanks for the reminder about Griffiths! I checked and no luck with my main McGinnis guy as there are over 35 with the same name but I may have a lead on my Downey ancestor.

Dennis Tangney said...

The index and transcriptions at have been helpful when searching for records on the microfilms, and expect they also will help when using the on-line images. also has indexed many records from Kerry and Cork Counties. However, as noted in others' comments, some records are difficult to read, resulting in indexing errors.

Dennis Tangney said...

Here's the link to the index and transcriptions of Irish Church records mentioned in my 4:24 PM message:

Cousin Russ said...

+Lorine McGinnis Schulze

Thank you, you added a couple of steps for me.

I have have been using that website since it was announce, found it very Good News, but realized I needed some help. The project that I am working on, if very limited it time and reason for researching in Ireland. It's also the first time I have done Irish Research.

I did Subscribe to RootswebIreland for a month. That really helped me.

The beauty of Browsing this website is just that, just browsing. What it did for me was to find member of the "Fan Club" I had establish from my US records, so I have found the other Surnames in the Church Records that I was Browsing. That told me I was in the right "pew", I mean Parish. Just takes a couple of minutes to look at those records.

I started with the FAN club, that list of Surnames, found one of them on the RootswebIreland cite, then to the NLI County and Diocese. I think I even found the Person that i was looking for. My birth date is off a little, against the Baptismal Record that I found.

I am going to spend a little time digesting what you have offered.

Thank you so much.


Marianne said...

I appreciate all of the advice that has been shared.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for those helpful steps.

Have you tried looking for your ancestors under the name McGuinness? That is also a very common spelling, especially in the north of Ireland. McGinnis and McGuinness are pronounced identically and many of these old records seem to be entered phonetically. Certainly there are numerous instances of spelling variations within the same family for many different Irish names.

Good luck with your searches!

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Anonymous - thanks for the tip. I always use wildcards whenever possible so that picks up variant spellings. In the case of these wonderful Catholic records which aren't searchable I looked for any variant of McGinnis I could spot such as Magennis, Maginnis, McGuiness/McGuinness and more (m'Gennis for eg)

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Russ - glad it was helpful! I am now using Roots Ireland to find my husband's Irish Catholics - his seem to be indexed (mine aren't) and that allows me to quickly go to the images and retrieve them.

Anonymous said...

I am diligently plowing through records from two counties, spreading away from my "known" locations as you describe. I did run into a case when using the filters where the filter was not necessarily accurate. If I remember correctly, it missed some baptisms or marriages (whichever i was searching for). It might be prudent to do a quick scan through the images if your initial search doesnt pan out.
Does anyone know if individual churches might hold records that were not included in the National LIbrary. It also seems like some record books might have recorded events from several towns, as if they were a compilation of another set of record(s). Maybe there is a source on how the record keeping worked?

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Anonymous - I encountered the same thing on one film, where the filter did not take me to the correct spot.

I did read somewhere (I can't recall where, my bad!) that there are churches that were not filmed. I will try to find that again and see if it's a valid source.


Shane said...

Anonymous - The registers were kept by parish, and could cover a number of chapels, spread over several civil parishes. e.g. in the 1830s the parish of Tagoat in Wexford had two chapels, Kinsale in Cork had 3 chapels etc

The original registers were not always kept in neat date order so any indexing may not be able to fully match up, so it's a good idea check earlier and later pages to verify the entered record timeline and confirm any date information included.

There are a small number of parishes that were not filmed by the NLI so not available to place online. A few of these relate to parishes founded in later years, and near to the cut-off point for most films of abt 1880.