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!

OTHER BLOGS IN THE SERIES “TRACING YOUR IRISH ROOTS”:
Blog 1: Irish Immigration

End Notes

1Saint Patrick’s Guild, The Many Interpretations of the Trinity Knot (http://irishfireside.com/2012/12/03/trinity-knot : accessed 1 June 2021).
2Caitriona Crowe, Ruin of Public Record Office marked loss of great archive (https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/ruin-of-public-record-office-marked-loss-of-great-archive-1.1069843 : accessed 1 June 2021).
3Ibid.
4Ibid.
5Central Statistics Office, Access to Old Records (https://www.cso.ie/en/census/aboutcensus2011/accesstooldrecords : accessed 2 June 2021).
6Ibid.
7Wikimedia Commons, (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Four_Courts_Conflagration.jpg), “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.
9Ibid.
10Ibid.
11Ibid.
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 (https://www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com/County-map-of-Ireland.html : accessed 2 June 2021).
14Family Search, Ireland Personal Names (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Ireland_Personal_Names : accessed 1 Jun 2021). Also, Ireland XO Reaching Out, IrelandXO Insight – Irish Naming and Baptism Traditions (https://irelandxo.com/ireland-xo/news/irelandxo-insight-irish-naming-and-baptism-traditions : accessed 1 Jun 2021).
15Ibid.
16Ibid.
17Wikimedia Commons, (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Irishin1871.jpg), “File:Irishin1871.jpg,” rev. 18:45, 3 February 2015.