Researching family history

What are you hoping to discover?

Are you interested in finding out more about your family history or are you looking for a very specific document relating to an individual, such as a will?

Why do you think a visit to the National Archives is necessary?

The National Archives hold records of the modern Irish state from its foundation to approximately 1987, as well as a number of other major collections acquired as a result to the amalgamation of the Public Record Office of Ireland and the State Paper Office in 1986 when the National Archives was established. These include archives of the British administration in Ireland from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the largest collection of which is the Registered Papers of the Chief Secretary’s Office.

The National Archives also holds a number of private collections, including business records, some landed estate collections and private donations. Our collections are particularly useful for anyone interested in researching the political, social and economic development of Ireland from the 18th century to the present day. A number of our collections, including Commissioners of National Education, the Ordnance Survey and Valuation Office, are particularly useful for local history research as they contain archives relating to practically every part of Ireland.

Have you undertaken any background research?

Often researchers visit the National Archives without undertaking any secondary research on the individual or family they are looking for. We would strongly advise researchers to begin their search by collecting basic facts about the individual or family they are interested in.

Gather information from family sources including letters or official documents, such as passports, which can provide useful information about the spelling of a family name, maiden names of married women, what county, parish or townland the individual came from and when they left Ireland and where they emigrated to. Information about when a person left Ireland is vital to determining the kind of records they are likely to be found in. It is also useful for locating an individual who may have moved to a different part of the country.

Many of the sources in the National Archives date from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, but other sources such as church records or civil registration records may be helpful. It is also useful to establish if the individual you are seeking was a member of a profession or trade. The National Archives holds valuable information for those seeking to trace ancestors who were national school teachers, for example.

Before you visit

Read our Sources for Family History booklet.

Undertake some background research using digitised sources such as the 1901 and 1911 census or the records of the Valuation Office freely available on our Genealogy website. Use other free online sources including, which includes many records of the General Register Office, and the National Library of Ireland, which has digitised Roman Catholic parish registers up to approximately 1880.

If you identify archival material you wish to consult, and which has not been digitised, check whether it is located in the National Archives or another institution, such as the National Library of Ireland.

Basic facts you will need

In order to have a reasonable chance of success, and of correctly identifying an ancestor in archives or other sources of information, it is generally advisable to know at least three things:

  • the name of the family;
  • the parish or townland in which they lived;
  • the approximate period of time in which they lived.

If you know a name, a place and an approximate time period you will have a greater chance of finding a connection. If you do not know the parish or townland in which an ancestor lived, there are a number of free online searches and indexes that may be used in order to help focus searching to a particular geographic area. Further information on sources is available in Our sources for local & family history.

Many genealogy sources held by the National Archives have been digitised and are freely available on our Genealogy website. Further details about the collections found there and their usefulness for family history research can be found in Our sources for local & family history.

Some useful advice about undertaking online research

While there are many family history websites with digital resources and search facilities that permit surname searches, it is important to remember that to focus your searches and assess the relevance of search results, it is useful to have additional information on the parish or townland in which your ancestor lived and the approximate time period. Searches in surname indexes are generally of value only if the surname is fairly unusual as they can yield a long list of people with the same surname, but with no way of knowing which, if any, are connected with the family being investigated.

Many national institutions, including the National Archives and the National Library of lreland, have made freely available online access to digitised collections. It is advisable to consult these free resources before subscribing to private websites.

The National Archives does not charge a fee for access to any of its websites.

What do I need to understand about using the National Archives before I visit?

You need to understand the type of records we hold and why. It is also important to have an idea of what it is you are hoping to find when you arrive. Archival research can be difficult and time consuming. The onus is on researchers to ensure they provide themselves with adequate and realistic time-frames in which to undertake their research. Further information on undertaking archival research and understanding how collections are arranged is available in Getting started with archival research.

Any other advice?

We provide a free professional genealogy advisory service to researchers. This service is available Monday to Friday from 10:00 to 17:00 (with a break for lunch from 13.30-14:00) to anyone in possession of a valid reader’s ticket. The service is staffed by professional genealogists who are all members of Accredited Genealogists Ireland. Further information on visiting the National Archives and using the Genealogy Service is available at Visit us.

Almost all the archives held in the Public Record Office of Ireland, the predecessor institution to the National Archives, were destroyed by fire and explosion at the beginning of the Civil War in June 1922. Consequently, the archives now held by the National Archives date mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries, although several date back as far as the 13th century.