Travelling to Trace your Tribe: How to Research your Irish Ancestry

My Dad's baptism - (Centre: Grandma Mary holding my Dad; Left :My Grandpa Thomas, Aunty Mary and Uncle Jim with their neighbours)

There’s only six more sleeps ‘til Christmas as I head down Lower Gardiner Street, Dublin.

Hurrying through light drizzle, I dodge people and puddles to reach the payphone. The dialing display is smashed. I lift the receiver. No dial tone. The call uniting this Aussie lass with her Irish family has been thwarted. And by reckless vandals.

I trudge on umbrella-less in the rain, turning left down Talbot Street. Another pay phone. I reach for my little green notebook. This notebook fat-full of pages is ready to be filled but as I prepare to call, I sense that the few scribbled details beginning my search, may also signify the end…

Researching my Irish ancestry began in the genealogy department of the National Library of Ireland.  Located on the second level was the free genealogy advisory service. I had little information to start with, just my grandparent’s names and dates of birth. The genealogist handed me a leaflet on ‘getting started’ and explained that many Irish records had been lost or destroyed due to pilfering, fires or Civil War. It did not look promising. For the dates I was working with he recommended I continue my investigations at the Irish Life Centre.

Here the research facility at the General Register Office holds all civil birth, marriage and death records from 1864 to 1921. I searched the indexed volumes, scanning pages of the large, red hardbound books. I felt that if nothing else, leafing through those old, fragile books and researching amongst my fellow family-history enthusiasts was excitement enough for my trip.  I located my grandparent’s birth records and purchased photocopies.  I wanted to obtain their marriage certificate but did not have a date.  The assistant advised that if I presumed they were married young, around twenty as many couples were at that time, then I could search records within a five year time frame. I looked through the huge, heavy volumes while he ran a search through the online database. He found a match and I purchased their marriage record.

My grandpa Thomas had died before I was born and my grandma Mary died when I was two. Having no memories of either of them I had just carried the knowledge that at some point my Dad’s parents had emigrated from Ireland to Australia. Standing there with those certificates in hand I knew more about their lives then I had for the past 27 years.

My next step was to find the church where they married. I thought it would be great to get a photo – Dad would love that. The assistant photocopied a Dublin map, traced the directions and highlighted the church.

My grandparents addresses were recorded when they registered to marry. We checked to see if they were still residential. Mary’s address was listed as Arbour Hill Barracks which was now part of the National Museum. Thomas’s Dublin address however was still residential. “Now let’s see if they have a public phone listing” I heard the assistant say as I struggled to keep up with how quickly my search was moving.  He checked the Dublin Directory and turned the phone book around to face me. I read the name where his finger rested on the page: Joan Kinsella. I jotted down her number.

It had all happened so quickly, so easily. I was living a movie cliché – young backpacker locates long-lost Irish connections a week before Christmas – and then he smiled the words “it looks like you might have some relatives to spend Christmas with”.

She picks up. “Hi, my name is Rebecca Kinsella and I’m over from Austra…” “Who?” an older lady hard of hearing bellows back as my words trail off. Mustering courage I begin again. “Who is it?” she repeats quizzically. I attempt a third time, regretting the call and wondering why I got myself into this imbroglio with a random-stranger in Dublin. I’m confusing her and desperately I blurt out “you’re living in my grandpa’s house, so I thought we might be related?”

The phone is passed around. I speak to her son Jacko and daughter Pat. I confirm names and dates, panicky I might not know enough.  I speak to her again. She falls quiet.  In her silence I sense some recognition of my story.  Slowly she asks in a lowered voice “’Was Mary your nanny?”

I tell her she was. I don’t know how we’re related but I’m convinced by the certainty in her voice.

“‘Well it’s a funny story” she says “… two sisters married two brothers. Your nanny Mary was my sister and I married your grandpa’s brother James”.

So there I was speaking to my Great Aunt Joan.  At 85 years of age with 10 kids, 36 grand kids and 37 great grand kids.  My Dad described it as “hitting the genealogy jackpot”. The news travelled fast and the next day I met Aunt Joan and many Irish cousins all huddled into the front room of my grandpa’s house in Terenure, Dublin.  Dad made his first overseas trip to Ireland, with my Aunty for a family reunion. They met over 50 of their cousins and their aunties for the very first time.

Great Aunt Joan

Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend just how huge this experience has been – to process the enormity of locating my relatives in Ireland and the impact this has had on my family at home in Australia. As my Dad said “I knew about it but I just didn’t feel it was real”. Our families have connected through sharing photos, telling stories, laughter and singing – asking questions, recalling memories and exploring our past together.

So, how do YOU go about tracing your Irish Ancestry? Here are 5 quick tips to get you started:

1. Chat with relatives: gathering names, dates and stories from the start will save research time

2. Spell-check: consider variations/nicknames or mistakes in recorded names and dates

3. Hunt for hints at home: photos, letters, certificates, diaries, bibles, scrapbooks and heirlooms

4. Explore all resources: online, genealogy services, libraries, books, groups and workshops

5. Travel to trace: visit the areas your ancestors lived and worked. Talk to the locals

Researching your family history can lead to exciting, rewarding and unexpected experiences. Travelling to Ireland and finding my family was the beginning of a strong connection with this country. I bonded with cousins I’d never known existed and learned who my grandparents were and how they lived. Exploring the homeland my ancestors left behind provided a personal link to the history of this country and its people. It is a sense of belonging shared with others who have traced their tribe and journeyed home to Ireland.

Ádh mór/ Good luck

My Irish Family


See Discover Ireland for Information on planning your trip and tracing your ancestry


19 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. ljgolden
    Jan 16, 2010 @ 02:05:22

    Nice! Almost brought lil’ tears to my eyes.


  2. Barnaby Davies
    Jan 16, 2010 @ 16:28:13

    Said so much more than simply introducing yourself as from Australia.. A really nice concept.


  3. maryrichardson
    Jan 17, 2010 @ 04:52:01

    I really liked your story and the universal theme of finding out where you come from and connecting with long lost family. I was so caught up in that, and rooting for you the whole time!


  4. Felicity
    Jan 22, 2010 @ 03:46:55

    Wow what a great story! That’s really nice to have been able to reconnect to so many people that you can now share so much with. Don’t feel too homesick over there in London, at least Dublin is a much shorter trip to see family than Aus!


  5. ryukyumike
    Apr 15, 2010 @ 10:47:27

    WOW ! Really are Irish !
    Just added you to my blog role and when you hover over it “Writer in London. Might be Irish…”
    That’s what it says!


  6. Women's Tours
    Apr 22, 2010 @ 23:26:32

    wow. great story


  7. Trackback: 10 memorable slow-travel moments in Ireland « The Distance To Here
  8. Kaylene
    Feb 24, 2011 @ 12:49:57

    I’ve only just discovered this aricle Rebecca and i LOVE it. I was reading it through my tears. A beautiful recount of your special and extraordinary discovery of your family. It’s made me, and many others I’m sure, want to go research their history as well.


  9. Mary Stokes
    Apr 14, 2011 @ 02:07:08

    Hi Bec, just found your blog it’s so beautiful I’m so proud of you, I’m crying,
    I’m so glad to say I am your Aunty.
    lots of love
    mary xx


    • Rebecca
      Apr 14, 2011 @ 07:46:36

      Hi Mary,
      Thanks so much for reading my blog and your lovely comment – it made my day. And it was your research and family tree that started this story, so i’m proud of you too 🙂 Much love, Bec x


  10. Jennifer Kinsella
    May 03, 2011 @ 19:23:08

    Hi Rebecca,

    My name is Jennifer Kinsella. I live in the US and am currently researching my Kinsella roots. I have lots of information and our family tree going back to about 1830. There are some missing Kinsella’s in our tree and wonder if perhaps your family might be them! As far back as I can tell from the data I have, my Kinsella relatives originated from Kings County (now Offaly) Ireland. Most are still there but like us a few have immigrated and some are missing. The missing relatives I’m looking for were all born in King’s County and are: Michael Kinsella b. 3-27-1882 , John Kinsella b. 5-6-1885 , Edward Kinsella b. 4-14-1889. Do any of these individuals sound familiar to you? I will be traveling to Dublin next week so hope to uncover more information.

    Look forward to hearing from you!

    Jennifer Kinsella


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