Irish Family History Research in O'Neill Librarycross

By Kathy Williams

In a special newsletter for St. Patrick’s Day 2006 the United States Census Bureau reported that 34.5 million people claim Irish ancestry. The number of Americans of Irish descent ranks second highest in claimed ethnicities, just under those claiming to be of German descent. Twenty four percent of Massachusetts residents are of Irish descent. Among the states only Delaware claims a higher number. Irish who came to the United States made great contributions to the development of the country. Many worked to build the railroad system; many went into public service as teachers, firefighters, policemen and even served as presidents of universities. Boston College was founded by John McElroy, S.J. originally from the north of Ireland. Perhaps one of the most prominent Americans of Irish descent is John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts who became president!

The O’Neill Library is frequently visited by people seeking to identify Irish ancestors. Why? Well, many resources that have been collected over the years to build an Irish History collection also serve the needs of genealogists. Among these are:

  • census information (Griffith’s Valuation, Tithe Applotment Books, Spinning Wheel Index)
  • books with ship passenger lists
  • historic Irish and Irish-American newspapers (see Irish News and Newspapers Research Guide)
  • Vital Statistics on microfilm
  • Irish local and family history journals

Ireland, like many other countries has a history that includes turbulent times. Fires, uprisings, resulting damage to buildings that housed vital records, such as birth, marriage and death records leave some researchers at apparent closed doors in tracking ancestry. Resources such as the census substitutes listed above can provide openings. Other cruelly turbulent times were times of famine in Ireland, times which led to the emigration of huge numbers of people. The famine year 1847 was one of the most devastating. The Boston Pilot is a newspaper that, at the time, was geared to Irish Americans published advertisements between 1831 and 1921 for persons who had left Ireland but could not be traced by friends or family members after departure. The number of ads in 1847 was probably the highest for all years that the ads were published.

The Boston Pilot ads are transcribed in The Search for Missing Friends (O’Neill Stacks F73.9.I6 S43 1989) edited by Professor Ruth-Ann Harris, who also built a database of records based on the ads. Boston College created a new version of the database, The Information Wanted Database. The searchable online resource offers a fascinating look at people who were being sought and the seekers. Facts about those being sought include such data as name, gender, age, port of departure from Ireland, date, and occupation. Information on seekers includes name, address at the time of the ad placement, and sometimes relationship to the person being sought.

If you are of Irish ancestry, like so many others who have contributed in significant ways to the development of the United States, and want to trace a great-great-great grandmother or father, spend some time in O’Neill or use some of the online historical resources.

For more detailed information on the resources listed here and to see other resources such as helpful websites visit the Irish Genealogy Research Guide.

Kathy Williams, Manager of Circulation Services and Irish Studies Bibliographer