Tracing Your Irish Roots – Untangling the Trinity Knot in Ancestry Research

The last three hundred years has witnessed extensive Irish immigration to all corners of the globe. Close to 80 million people who claim Irish roots or affiliation are connected in a vibrant community of shared cultural identity and heritage. This network of Irish descendants is an important part of Ireland’s ongoing tale. No wonder so many people journey to Ireland to connect to their past and become a part of that country’s story. Searching for your Irish ancestors is fun, exciting, and gratifying. Experiencing your Irish heritage within the context of your ancestors is unmatched. 

This is the second post in a blog series authored by Melanie Nelson, US-based professional genealogist and founder of MelNel Genealogy. Follow her here as she reveals the story of her Irish ancestors and provides helpful Irish research tips and tricks along the way. 

Untangling the Trinity Knot in Ancestry Research

I’m fascinated by symbolism typically found in early Medieval Irish art. For me the designs embody the myth and magic of Ireland, conjuring visions of misted, rolling green hills and mischievous fairies lurking among moss-covered stone walls. The images of intricate loops and braids that seemingly go nowhere are found in almost any jewelry store. 

My favourite motif is the woven trinity knot, also known as a trefoil, comprising three curved and interlaced arcs which appear to have no beginning and no end. The ancient Celts believed anything of importance came in threes, like the natural elements of earth, air and water.1 Legend has it that St. Patrick, determined to convert the Celt pagans to Christianity, used a three-leafed shamrock to reproduce their familiar idea of three parts (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) to one God. The significance of three continues even today as Ireland’s flag features the tricolour of green, white, and orange.  

Image 1 – Irish Trinity Knot

For me, the trinity knot also serves as an apt metaphor for the predominant challenges that sometimes make Irish genealogy feel like an intractable problem with no solution. Once I learned I had Irish ancestry, I unknowingly dove in with high hopes that I’d soon find the Irish king to whom I was related. I quickly came to a hard stop, stuck in genealogy limbo. I had no idea where to look – or why. I faced three intertwined issues that created a knot of constraints relatively unique to research in the Emerald Isle.

Record Loss

The unfortunate elephant in the room for any Irish researcher is the massive loss of records in “the biggest explosion seen in Dublin before or since” in 1922.2 Munitions stored in the Dublin Public Records Office (PRO) exploded on the opening day of the Irish Civil War (Image 2).3 Seven hundred years of priceless records disappeared on the spot, obliterating generations of Irish identities, relationships, and activities. 

With the exception of a handful of charred fragments, the carefully documented 1821, 1831, 1841, and 1851 censuses were incinerated.4 Centuries of church registers, land deeds, and wills burned to ash. Bits of court, military, and transportation records drifted into the dense black smoke. Poof. Never to be seen again. 

You may wonder about the fate of census records from 1861, 1871, 1881, and 1891. The government authorized the destruction of the earlier two sets to protect the confidentiality of those documented in them.5 Additionally, the latter two were pulped due to paper shortage the country experienced during World War 1.6 

Ironically, this irreparable loss severely simplified research for this country. Four record types survived the destruction because they happened to be stored elsewhere at the time of the fire. The hopes of all genealogists reside primarily in the 1901 and 1911 censuses; civil birth, marriage, and death records; non-Church of Ireland records; and property records (especially Griffith’s Valuation). Resources such as newspapers, city directories, and gravestone inscriptions supplement first order references. And there’s better news. Out of a sense of obligation, or perhaps chagrin, most of these resources are freely provided online by the government. 

Destruction of Public Records Office Dublin
Image 2 – Destruction of the Public Records Office during the Battle of Dublin, 1922 7

Ambiguous Boundaries

Although Ireland is about the size of West Virginia, it has arguably the most administrative divisions you’ll encounter in practice. The townland, the oldest and smallest  geographic location (often measured in acres), was frequently named for a local land formation. For instance, my third great-grandparents lived in Drumadoon (drum = ridge) and Clough Mills (clogh = stone) in County Antrim. 

The English concept of a county arrived in the 12th century. Ireland was carved into 32 counties, becoming the geographic location with which most Irish were affiliated (Image 2).8 Over time, other jurisdictions influenced the constantly moving boundary lines. Baronies (331) were established in 17th century land surveys. The government installed Poor Law Unions (829) to allocate financial responsibility for the poor in the early 1800s.9 This type of jurisdiction centered on large towns and poor houses, irrespective of county boundaries. English civil parish (2,508) boundaries, which designated the local government, were closely aligned with the state-sponsored Church of Ireland parishes.10 The Roman Catholic church created parish boundaries completely independent of civil parishes, and sometimes crossed county boundaries.11 Each of these institutions created their own records. 

Most Irish were tied to the land through ownership, rent or family connections. Identifying your ancestor’s county of origin and religion simplifies the mishmash of places to research, thus allowing you to focus on the correct jurisdictional records for that locale. Oh, and you’ll need a really good map.12 

Image 3 – Counties of Ireland 13

Puzzling Name Practices

As I attempted to track ancestors in County Antrim, I began to notice a repetition of first names from one generation to the next. All of my Roberts, Jameses, Williams, Margarets, and Sarahs began crossing lines in my family tree. I even found two Thomases born to the same parents! The extensive use of nicknames led me to question whether I had the correct people. Could my ancestors be known in records as both Catherine and Kate, Margaret and Maggie, Bridgid and Bridie? Once I understood key naming practices in Ireland, my research became simpler.

The Irish honored senior family members by naming children after them in a predictable pattern through the 19th century (Table 1). Not only does this convention explain the frequent use of the same first names, the framework provides clues about names for unknown ancestors.  

Table 1 – Irish Naming Convention for Children 14

Honoured names were precious commodities within these large families. Therefore, parents sometimes reused a child’s name if he or she died.15 People also commonly used nicknames or shortened versions to differentiate same-named members of a family. Throw in a little Latin written in Roman Catholic church records, and we have to manage a veritable melting pot of spelling hybrids. 

Unfortunately, naming inconsistencies don’t stop with the first name. The evolution of surnames is equally hazy stemming from the development of language in ancient times. Ireland had its own language, sometimes referred to as Gaellic, but more accurately called Irish. As the English gained power in Ireland, they set the language standard as English, and all sorts of complications ensued. Irish was still the primary language spoken by residents in many counties even into the late 1800s (Image 3). Irish speakers reported names to English record keepers who butchered spellings or Anglicized names outright. They recorded names with mixed Irish and English spellings. Crucial prefixes (like “Mac” and “O”) that indicated Irish name patronymics (“son of”) were completely dropped, thus creating spelling variations meant to frustrate genealogists.16 For example, McCormick may have been transcribed as Cormick or O’Brien written as Brien. 

Moreover, illiterate Irish never saw their name in writing, didn’t know how to spell it, and didn’t much care about it otherwise. As a result, surname variants developed even within the same family group, making tracing more difficult. One family I investigated had six surnames appear in records across three generations: Cowen, Cowan, Cohen, Cohan, Coen, and Coan. 

Image 4 – Concentration of Irish Speakers, 1871 17

Cutting Through the Knot

Each of these three issues is substantial on their own. Together, the formidable web makes the problem feel colossal. Rather than untangling the knot, perhaps the trick is to simply slice through it. Irish research is challenging and yet extraordinarily straightforward. Once you understand the contextual rules, the principles feel the same: master the available record set, study the locales, and learn about the names. 

In my next post, I’ll share the steps I took to get started with my Irish genealogy research. With that, you can easily put together a plan for chasing down your own Irish ancestors. 

Your journey into your past starts here …

Whether you’re beginning your family history research or are ready to hop the pond, it’s your time to feel the myth and magic of the Emerald Isle. Contact MelNel Genealogy or Kerry Experience Tours to find out more about our joint offering Ireland Heritage Travel that weaves your ancestral search with a wonderful travel experience!

Blog 1: Irish Immigration

End Notes

1Saint Patrick’s Guild, The Many Interpretations of the Trinity Knot ( : accessed 1 June 2021).
2Caitriona Crowe, Ruin of Public Record Office marked loss of great archive ( : accessed 1 June 2021).
5Central Statistics Office, Access to Old Records ( : accessed 2 June 2021).
7Wikimedia Commons, (, “File:Four Courts Conflagration.jpg,” rev. 13:43, 27 October 2020. 
8Brian Mitchell, A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland, (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 2002), 7-9.
12Ordnance Survey Maps 1:50,000 area with townlands are generally available on Amazon and in Ireland bookstores. 
13Irish Genealogy Toolkit, County Map of Ireland ( : accessed 2 June 2021).
14Family Search, Ireland Personal Names ( : accessed 1 Jun 2021). Also, Ireland XO Reaching Out, IrelandXO Insight – Irish Naming and Baptism Traditions ( : accessed 1 Jun 2021).
17Wikimedia Commons, (, “File:Irishin1871.jpg,” rev. 18:45, 3 February 2015.

Ring of Kerry Staycation – Things to Do and See

The Summer of 2021 in Ireland will be another Summer of Staycations. One of the most popular areas – and for good reason – is the Ring of Kerry. It is the gateway to some of the most amazing scenery in Ireland’s Southwest. In this Blog we’ll give you tips on the best things to do and see on your Ring of Kerry staycation, from road trips to historic places and fun activities!

There are plenty of accommodation options on the Ring of Kerry, including hotels, B&B’s , and self-catering rentals. Great places to stay are Kenmare, Sneem and Killarney. From these charming towns you’ll have easy access to all 5 peninsulas that extend out into the Atlantic Ocean: the Ring of Kerry, Dingle Peninsula, Beara Peninsula, Sheep’s Head, and Mizen Head. In this blog you’ll find ideas for things to do and see on all these must-see peninsulas.

Here are some great tips to get the most out of your family staycation on the Ring of Kerry.


The famous Ring of Kerry is perfect for a family road trip. Picture yourself strolling along secret beaches, visiting ancient castles and forts, exploring tranquil villages and watching the wild Atlantic Ocean from spectacular cliffs. 

The ultimate Ring of Kerry family road trip should include the ancient Cahergal Ring Fort and Ballycarbery castle ruin, the Skellig Ring coastal road, Ballinskelligs Beach, and Coomakista (fingers crossed that the Kingdom Ice Cream Truck will be there!).

Those who want to explore the Ring of Kerry off the beaten path can do a private tour. It’s a relaxed way of exploring the many hidden gems of the Ring of Kerry. Your family will love this, and your camera will love it!


Skelligs Chocolate Factory

At this little chocolate factory, you can see the chocolate treats being made, and you can have a taste. A great experience for chocoholics of all ages!
More info

Derrynane House & Beach

Explore the ancestral home of Daniel O’Connell, one of the great figures in modern Irish history. Complete your trip with a visit to the beautiful Derrynane Beach.
More info

Skelligs Eco Tour

Take a boat trip around the famous Skellig Michael and little Skellig. See the steps the monks carved into the rock, the monastery, the lighthouse, and all the birds.
More info

Blueberry Hill Farm

Blueberry Hill Farm in Sneem are now offering Candle Making Workshops. Fingers crossed that the guided Family Fun Farm Tours can start up again soon! Keep an eye on their Facebook page for the latest updates.

Killarney National Park Staycation_family picnic

Killarney National Park

You can easily spend a full day in the Killarney National Park. Take a boat trip on the lakes, walk up to Torc Waterfall, and visit Muckross House and Traditional Farms, and the impressive Ross Castle.

Cahergal Ring Fort

If you’re interested in ancient history – with a fab view – then Cahergal Ring Fort near Caherciveen is certainly worth a visit. The walls are 5 meters thick and rise up to over 3.5 meters on the highest point.


Slea Head on the Dingle Peninsula is one of the most scenic parts of the Wild Atlantic Way. Here you’ll find breath-taking coastal scenery, beautiful beaches and soaring cliffs. The Slea Head area is dotted with ancient sites, including beehive huts, ring forts, ogham stones, and old church sites.

Top tip: have a picnic lunch on the gorgeous little sandy beach at Coomeenoole. Dip your toes into the Atlantic, or walk up to Dunmore Head for more fabulous views. Your family will love the following places on the Dingle Peninsula:


Inch Beach

Before you promise the kids to walk to the end of the beach and back ….. this beautiful sandy beach is 3 miles (5.5km) long! A great spot for a walk, swim or surf, or enjoy the views from Sammy’s Cafe.
More info

Hold a Baby Lamb

This might very well be the highlight of your family’s trip to Dingle …. to hold and bottle feed a baby lamb, what else can you possible wish for.
More info

Dingle Boat Tour

Take a cruise around Dingle harbour and into the bay, and enjoy stunning views of the coastline, cliffs and sea arches. Also on offer are Eco cruises that are great for spotting seals, dolphins and whales.
More info

Murphy’s Ice Cream

Delicious home-made ice cream, lots of lovely and unusual flavors to choose from….. Irish Coffee, Brown bread, Sea Salt & Caramel, Dingle Gin, just to name a few. Yes you can have another scoop 🙂
More info


A road trip of the Beara Peninsula will take you through a remote, quiet and tranquil area of great scenic beauty. Here you’ll find miles and miles of tiny coastal roads, mountain passes, colorful villages, and many historic sites. Do check out MacCarthys Bar in Castletownbere, lovely traditional pub that serves great bar food. The Beara Peninsula is definitely off the tourist track!


Ballycrovane Ogham Stone

This pillar stone stands at an impressive 17 feet (over 5m) and is said to be the tallest ogham stone in Europe. The Ogham inscriptions are believed to date back to the 4th-6th century AD.

Copper Mine Museum

The hills around Allihies are dotted with remains of the old copper mines. The nearby beach is made of crushed stones from these mines! Find out more at the Copper Mine Museum.

Ireland’s only Cable Car

Ireland’s only cable car connects the mainland with Dursey Island, and runs high above the ocean! The island is part of the Beara Way and is great for walking.
More info

Gleninchaquin Park

Gleninchaquin offers walking trails of all levels in an area of outstanding beauty. Don’t miss the Uragh Stone Circle on your drive down to the park.
More info


The Sheep’s Head Peninsula is the smallest of the 5 peninsulas – the loop drive is about 70km – but well worth a visit! When driving out to the end the road becomes more narrow (single lane!) and offers spectacular view. You can start your drive of Sheep’s Head from Bantry Town.

When driving from your accommodation on the Ring of Kerry to Bantry, take the scenic coastal road! It will take you over the Caha Mountain Pass, through Glengarriff, and along the stunning West Cork coast.


Molly Gallivan’s Cottage

Not far from Kenmare, on your way to Bantry, you’ll find this 200 year old cottage and traditional farm. Experience the simple lifestyle before the days of electricity! The historic farm walk is also highly recommended.
More info 

Bantry House & Gardens

Explore this stately home that is surrounded by beautiful gardens overlooking Bantry Bay. The house is also available for overnight stays!
More info

Garnish Island

Take the ferry from Glengarriff to Garnish Island, and see the tame seal colony on your way. Enjoy a walk around the amazing gardens on the island.
More info

Sheep’s Head Lighthouse

Drive up to Toreen Point and follow the walking trail to the lighthouse. The loop walk takes about 2 hours and offers fab views of the coastal scenery.
More info


The Mizen Peninsula is the most southerly of the 5 peninsulas. The drive up to Mizen Head is spectacular. The cliff coast here is a must see, and the old signal station is also well worth a visit. Continue to follow the coastal road to Barleycove Beach, Crookhaven and Schull, and make a stop at these places!


Mizen Head Signal Station

Take the 99 steps down and cross the arched bridge to get to the old signal station. Explore the early history of maritime telegraphy and radio, and the story of the Mizen Head light house keepers.
More info


Take a little detour to the picturesque village of Crookhaven. For centuries ships stocked up at this little harbour before making the crossing to America. On the way to Crookhaven, make a stop at Barleycove Beach and dip your toes into the Atlantic. Great spot for lunch: O’Sullivan’s Bar.

Altar Wedge Tomb

This megalithic tomb dates back to the end of the Stone Age. In the 18th century it was used by priests as an altar, when they were not allowed to hold mass in churches. The Altar Wedge Tomb is close to the main road and it is signposted.

3 Castle Head

Three Castle Head (Dunlough Castle) is series of 3 castle tower ruins on the edge of a cliff, connected by a wall. It take a couple of hours to walk to this scenic location and back, but it is well worth the effort!
More info


When we travel again ….. why not treat the family to a unique Private Tour! Travel off the beaten path, at your own pace, and get the most out of your day out with the family.

Choose from the Ring of Kerry, Dingle, Beara, Mizen Head, Killarney National Park, Bantry House & Garnish Island, or create your own tour! All tours can be tailored to suit your wishes.

Make your trip to Kerry a memorable one!

About Kerry Experience Tours

For a truly local experience in one of the most charming and warm cultures in the world, Kerry Experience Tours will show visitors the most magical parts of Ireland. On offer are private day tours and multiday tours, tailored to suit your wishes. Enjoy the most scenic drives, spectacular land and seascapes, historic wonders, inspirational places, and hidden gems off the beaten path, completed with background information and stories. Enjoy the absolute best Ireland has to offer, creating memories that last a lifetime.

Bespoke Tours of Ireland

Thinking of exploring Ireland in 2021 or 2022? Join award winning private tour company Kerry Experience Tours on a Bespoke Tour and find the Ireland you’ve always imagined! A tailor-made private tour is built around your desires and requirements. You can customize your adventure and travel at your own pace rather than following the itinerary of a large group.

A Bespoke Tour of Ireland is perfect for individuals, couples, families, friends and small groups who are looking to enjoy the Emerald Isle at an exceptional level. Whether you wish to explore the highlights of Ireland, travel off the beaten path, enjoy a golf tour, organise a family gathering, or find the home of your ancestors, we can plan the perfect trip designed around your travel dates and special interests! Find out more

Chauffeur Driven Private Tours on the Ring of Kerry, Dingle, Beara

Make your Ireland vacation one to remember with a Private Day Tour through the beautiful Southwest of the Emerald Isle. A chauffeur-driven journey through one of the most loved parts of Ireland. Hiring a private driver for your sightseeing experience will ensure that you will get the upmost out of your day. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the incredible scenery, intriguing history, and fascinating culture. All private day tours on offer can be customized to suit your wishes. These are some of our most popular private day tours:

The Skellig Ring

Lonely Planet names Skellig Ring as Top Destination

The Skellig Ring in County Kerry Ireland has been named one of the top ten regions travellers should visit  by Lonely Planet. It is the gateway to Skellig Michael and is located just off the famous Ring of Kerry. Travel with Kerry Experience Tours and we will take you along the Skellig Ring, a place that is wild, unique and majestic, and an integral part of the Wild Atlantic Way. The Undiscovered Ring of Kerry Tour includes the spectacular Skellig Ring Drive. Enjoy breathtaking scenery, rugged coastlines, and get a glimpse of the Skellig Islands that lie in the Atlantic off the Skellig Coast.

The Lonely Planet Travel Guide describes the area as “perhaps Ireland’s most charismatically wild and emerald stretch of coastline”. Well, what can we say … they are right!

The Kerry Experience – guest photos

We always truly enjoy meeting new people on our tours and to show them the most beautiful places in Ireland. It makes out day even better when it turns out that there is a young photographer on board that has captured the essence of Kerry in many beautiful shots! Julia and her parents traveled with us last Summer, and we were just overwhelmed by her beautiful photographs. Enjoy Julia’s “Kerry Experience”:


StarWars – The Last Jedi in Ireland

StarWars “The Force Awakens” broke box office records and brought the magnificent scenery of Skellig Michael and Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way to the attention of millions of people around the globe. But the StarWars journey goes on ….. “The Last Jedi” hit the big screen recently. The last Jedi takes the fans back to Skellig Michael and several stunning places along the Wild Atlantic Way. Locations in Kerry, Cork, Donegal and Clare were picked to appear in Episode VIII. Here at Kerry Experience Tours we feel fortunate to be based in county Kerry, where The Force has awakened. Both our “Undiscovered Ring of Kerry Tour” and the “Dingle Tour” will show you some of the Star Wars hot-spots. Read more …

Skellig Islands

Skellig Islands



Beehive Huts on Skellig Michael

Beehive Huts on Skellig Michael








The locals in Sneem talk about filming of

The Lobster movie in their region.

“Gerrit Noordkamp, who lives locally and runs Kerry Experience Tours and chauffeur business, drove several of the stars while they were on set, and said the film should be a huge boost for the area.

Local Tour Operator Kerry Experience Tours drove the stars to the filming of "The Lobster" starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz and John C Reilly.

It resulted in him collecting French actress, Lea Sedoux, the new Bond girl in Spectre, from Cork Airport for the drive to Kerry, and he drove Yorgos, Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz and Ashley Jensen from time to time. He even took John C Reilly grocery shopping at one stage. He drove Ben Wishaw, who plays Q in the new Bond movies, to a B&B on Valentia Island for a short break. Read the full story here …