Choose your Ancestor and Discovery Questions.

In this module we will decide on the ancestor we wish to research, gather what we already know about them and decide on what we would like to further discover about them before we search the Irish records.

I will illustrate how you might do this using a real individual and his family. We will use them as subjects of a case-study throughout the rest of this course.

Table of Contents:

  • Introduction.
  • Gather “ancestor identifiers” for your target individual (or couple).
  • Primary sources for finding “ancestor identifiers”.
  • Where to gain access to local records.
  • Ideal ancestor identifiers to uncover.
  • Case-Study: Meet Patrick Dolphin, Manchester, NH (1900 Census).
    • Gather all the information (ancestor identifiers) we have on Patrick Dolphin and his family.
    • Format this information as a timeline.
    • Examine the timeline for gaps in our information – Use the gaps to list what you would like to further discover about them (discovery questions).
  • In Conclusion.
  • Try for Yourself.
  • What’s next?


In this module we look at the first essential step of Tracing back to your first-known Irish Immigrant in your own country BEFORE making the leap back to Irish records.

Why “before”?

Let me start with a question. How many John Murphys do you think are in Ireland? As you may have guessed – quite a lot! Now, imagine if that was the name of your Irish ancestor and you are eager to get get started looking through the Irish records for John Murphys – hoping that one of them might be yours. It might take some time to find the right one! In fact, you may quickly realise that you have no way of telling one from another.

Also, Irish names can be very localised. While there may only be dozens of John Murphys across all of County Sligo – there are probably hundreds of John Murphys in every parish in County Kerry – many of them are related to one another!

It is important to first do your due diligence in the country to which your ancestors emigrated – this will help ensure that when you do get back to Irish records you will have a whole lot of “ancestor identifiers” to help you recognise just which “John Murphy” is likely to be your one.

So, that’s the purpose of this module – to give you some guidance on assembling these “ancestor identifiers”, noticing the gaps in your information and finally listing what you would like to further discover to guide our search of the Irish records.

Assemble Ancestor Identifiers for your target individual/couple.

Once you have chosen a person (or a couple) to research, you then assemble known facts about that individual or couple. These “known facts” typically fall into one of the following categories:

  • Names: First names, middle names, surnames, maiden names, nicknames. Names of parents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles, neighbours, sponsors for baptisms and marriages.
  • Dates: Dates of birth, dates of baptism, dates of marriage, dates of immigration, dates of death.
  • Places: Places in your country (outside Ireland): point of immigration, early addresses, places of work. Places in Ireland: Point of emigration, last place of work (and occupation), place of residence (townland/village/town), place of court appearances (for some!), place of birth.
  • Religion And Occupation: What was the assumed religion of your ancestor on immigration? Were they Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist or other? This can have a big bearing on how to later search for Irish records – to make sure you are looking in the right church records. What was the occupation of your ancestor on immigration? Did they change occupation?

Two primary sources for finding “ancestor identifiers”.

Source 1. Living Relatives:

In Ireland, if you want to find out something – you ask someone who knows already. I think this is the way in most countries around the world. In this day and age, we have become a little too computer-dependent – forgetting that it is often a good idea to pick up a phone or knock on a door and to ask people questions about the ancestor who you wish to research.

Remember to follow any factual questions up with “what do you remember about him/her?”. It’s not just about hard facts and details, but also about the qualitative and objective memories others may have about your ancestor. The stories and hearsay that were passed down. You can corroborate the memories you uncover with hard records at a later date. It is also useful to ask for photographs (often showing a date and place) as well as private correspondence. It’s amazing what does not get offered if you don’t ask!

Source 2. Records:

Gather available records in the country of immigration (we’ll deal with records in Ireland later). These might include:

  • Obituaries in papers.
  • Civil records: Births, marriages and deaths.
  • Census records.
  • Immigration and passenger lists.
  • Naturalisation records.
  • Military and military pension records.
  • Passport applications.
  • Church records.
  • Local newspaper articles and histories.
  • Gravestone and burial records.
  • Personal correspondence.
  • Transportation records for convicts (Australia).

Where to gain access to local records.

Presuming you have uncovered some records in your extended family possession, I think it’s a good idea to take the following approach – starting with the first and then see how far you get:

Option 1: Go To Your Local Library.

Local libraries are often your gateway to local knowledge AND the online world – staffed by librarians who have been asked the same kind of questions many times. Libraries also often have free access to online ancestry sites such as Speaking of….

Option 2: Sign Up For A Paid, Or Free, Ancestry Site.

These sites typically do 3 things for you:

  • They give you a place to “plant and grow” your family tree records.
  • They help you to connect with other amateur genealogists – maybe even potential cousins – and compare notes.
  • They give you search-access to many of the records mentioned above. Remember, your local library can often give you free (sometimes limited) access to these services.

The main ancestry sites include:

  • Free Sites: This is a free-to-use genealogical record site run by the Church of the Latter Day Saints. It allows you to build a family tree and search through a wide range of worldwide civil records, church records, census data and other record types.

As I mentioned, a lot of local libraries, county and state archives offer free access to many of the services offered by one or more of these ancestry sites. Many of our readers have found that membership of (or a visit to) their local historical/genealogy society is also a wonderful way to connect with like-minded people in their localities.

Alternatively, you can access your local records more directly e.g. go to your local census site online, check out online grave records sites and so on. As your search progresses, you will probably go directly to the source site for records more often.

Option 3: Engage The Services Of A Genealogist.

This won’t be for everyone – but there are professionals out there who can accelerate your search by carrying out some, or all, of the research on your behalf.

Costs for a genealogist can vary from less than a hundred to thousands for an assignment. However, most genealogists are very upfront with their fees and will examine your research aspirations BEFORE they decide that they can help you.

Ideal ancestor identifiers to uncover.

The aim of this step is do preparatory research by finding as many facts that will differentiate your ancestor from someone else of the same name, location and age when you eventually get back to the Irish records.

So, let’s say you have worked your way back to your earliest arriving Irish ancestor. Ideally, you will have uncovered their:

  • Full name.
  • Approximate date of birth.
  • Parents’ names.
  • Place of birth.
  • Name of spouse.
  • Date and country of marriage.
  • Names of children.
  • Date and Country of birth of children.
  • Names of siblings.
  • Religion.
  • Occupation.

Of course, this list is ideal – it may not always be possible to assemble such a comprehensive list for every family history research project.

A Note of Caution:

You will come across many hints and guesses that you may assume to be “facts” on ancestry sites such as This does not mean they aren’t useful – you just need to treat them with scepticism, especially as you start to gather facts from others. Always look for a record source to accompany a “fact” on a given family tree. In fact, the “gold standard” is to include two independent record sources for each fact in your tree.

Let’s now review a case-study that we will use for the rest of this course. We will use it to illustrate the principles we discuss and how to use the various research tools and sites highlighted through the rest of the course.

Case-Study: Meet Patrick Dolphin, Manchester, NH (1900 Census).

Why choose this person and his family for our case-study?

First, he is a real person so the facts I discover and share are also real. This will allow you to replicate the results for yourself.

Second, as the purpose of this course is to familiarise you with how to locate and search Irish record sets, I chose a person with a low-frequency surname in Ireland and who lived in the later part of the 1800s. This will make it a little easier to find and fully navigate Irish record sets.

I acknowledge that you may be researching a person with a higher frequency Irish surname or a person who lived at an earlier time, but hope that once you have examined the Irish record sets using my example, you will see the usefulness of each of those record sets when it comes to researching your own ancestors.

Back to Patrick Dolphin. Here is more information on him and his family extracted from the June, 1900 US federal census:

Head of Household: PATRICK DOLPHIN.

Address: Elm Street, Manchester, New Hampshire, USA,
Occupation: Print works
Born: May, 1860.
Birthplace: Ireland
Immigration year: 1883

Married: 1893
Born: May, 1860.
Birthplace: Ireland
Immigration year: 1890

Born: May, 1881*
Birthplace: Ireland
Immigration year: 1890

Born: May, 1896.
Birthplace: New Hampshire.

*It turns out that Patrick Dolphin was married previously and Michael Dolphin appears to be his son who was born in Ireland during that first marriage.

Here is the process we will follow to assemble all that we know about Patrick Dolphin – and put together a list of what we would like to discover in order to guide the rest of this training course:

  • Gather all the information (ancestor identifiers) we have on Patrick Dolphin and his family.
  • Format this information as a timeline.
  • Examine the timeline for gaps in our information. Use these gaps to list what we would like to further discover about Patrick Dolphin.

Let’s go through each step in this process in turn.

Gather all the information (ancestor identifiers) we have on Patrick Dolphin and his family.

I uncovered most of my information about Patrick’s life using US sites such as (death records, marriage records, birth records, naturalisation records and census records) and talking with my extended family members.

Let me start by sharing what I discovered in a narrative format as that is how most of our members usually share such information inside the Green Room (before our genealogists request that you reformat it as a timeline):         

“Patrick Dolphin was living in Manchester, New Hampshire, USA, at the time of his death in 1926. The death record shows he was 72 at time of death and a native of County Galway in Ireland. His birth date is given as 19th March, 1855. It also states that his father was Michael Dolphin and mother was Margaret Dolphin.

Other records show he married Mary Cuniffe (born in Ireland) in 1894 in the USA. In their marriage record, it states that he was Roman Catholic and a widower at the time. The couple went on to have one child together – called “Margaret” (1896).

Patrick was naturalised as a US citizen on October 15, 1886. That record states that he was a native of “Ballydavid, Ireland” and that he arrived in the USA through Boston in June, 1881.

One mystery appears in the 1900 US census. An additional child of Patrick, Michael, appears. It seems that this Michael was born in Ireland in 1881. Was this a son of Patrick and his first wife? This means that Patrick’s first marriage must have occurred in Ireland in, or before, 1881. The child’s arrival in the US was in 1890 – meaning that he must have lived with his mother or relatives in Ireland following Patrick’s immigration.”

Format this information into a timeline.

Next, we will format the above information as a timeline – this will help us to notice gaps in the information:

In Date Column:

  • Cal = Calculated from given document.
  • Est = Estimated – a range of years showing an estimated guess
  • Location
1855 (est)Birth of Patrick DolphinBallydavid, County Galway, Ireland.Parents – Michael and Margaret Dolphin.Patrick Dolphin NH Death Record.

Patrick Dolphin NH Marriage Record.

Patrick Dolphin NH Naturalisation record.
1881 (est)Marriage of Patrick Dolphin and first wife.Ireland?First marriage – estimation based on birth of son, Michael, in 1881.1900 US Federal census.
1881 (est)Birth of Son – Michael DolphinIrelandMichael Dolphin, son of Patrick Dolphin and first wife is born in Ireland1900 US Federal census.
1886, June 21.Naturalisation for Patrick DolphinNH, USA.Birth location given as “Ballydavid, Ireland”. Arrived in Boston.Patrick Dolphin NH Naturalisation record.
1890 (est)Immigration of Michael Dolphin to join father, Patrick, in USA.Manchester, NH, USA.1900 US Federal census.
1894, January 20.Marriage of Patrick Dolphin and second wife – Mary CunniffManchester, NH, USA.Patrick Dolphin NH Marriage Record.
1896 (est)Birth of
1928 – February 24DeathManchester, NH, USA.Patrick Dolphin NH Death Record.
  • 1855: Patrick Dolphin was born in County Galway, Ireland. Maybe in a place called “Ballydavid”? His parents were Michael Dolphin and Margaret Dolphin.
  • 1881 (or before): Patrick married his first wife in Ireland. We don’t know her name.
  • 1881: Michael Dolphin (son of Patrick and first wife) is born in Ireland.
  • 1881: Patrick Dolphin arrives in Boston, USA.
  • 1886: Patrick Dolphin is naturalised as a US citizen. He is living in Manchester, New Hampshire at this time.
  • 1890: Michael Dolphin immigrates to join his father in the USA.
  • 1894: Patrick Dolphin remarries – to Mary Cunniffe.
  • 1896: Margaret (child) is born.
  • 1928: Patrick dies in Manchester, New Hampshire, USA.

Next, let’s spot the gaps in this timeline that we need to investigate.

Examine the timeline for gaps in our information. Use these to note Discovery Questions.

Now that we have our timeline – what do we do with it? I like to look at each item on the timeline and notice gaps and guesses – and then write a long-list of discovery questions inside the timeline as follows (my questions shown in italics):

  • 1855: Patrick Dolphin born in County Galway, Ireland. Ballydavid? to Michael Dolphin and Margaret Dolphin.
    • Is Ballydavid in County Galway?
    • Was there a Dolphin family living there in 1855?
    • Did Patrick have siblings?
    • When did his parents die?
    • Where are they buried?
    • Are there still Dolphins in the area today?
  • 1881: Michael Dolphin (son of Patrick and first wife) is born in Ireland.
    • Where and when was Michael born?
    • What was his mothers name?
  • 1881: Patrick Dolphin arrives in Boston, USA.
    • Why did Patrick leave for the USA?
    • Was his wife living at this point?
    • Did he join a family member in the USA?
  • 1886: Patrick Dolphin naturalised as a US citizen. He is living in Manchester, New Hampshire by this time.
    • Was his first wife with him at this point?
  • 1890: Michael immigrates to join his father in the USA.
    • What happened to cause Michael to join his father?
    • Did his guardians/mother die in Ireland?
  • 1894: Patrick Dolphin marries Mary Cunniffe.
  • 1896: Margaret (child) is born.
  • 1928: Patrick Dolphin dies in Manchester, New Hampshire, USA.

You can see that I have included many questions that crossed my mind (I could have penned many more!). Listing out the questions – and slotting them into the timeline – helps keep my head clear as I consider the main discovery questions that I need to answer.

Choose the main Discovery Questions we would like to pursue for the rest of this course.

Let’s now select the main discovery questions we would like to pursue. This will help us to later decide on the relevant Irish record sets we need to search for answers:

I would like to to focus on the following discovery questions:

  • Where was Patrick born in Galway?
  • Is Ballydavid in County Galway?
  • Was there a Dolphin family living there in 1855?
  • Are there still Dolphins in the area today?
  • What was his first wife’s name?
  • Where was she from?
  • When and where did they marry?
  • Where and when was Michael Dolphin junior born?
  • When did Patrick’s first wife die?

As we progress through the rest of this course, we will carry these discovery questions forward with us. This will help keep us on track with our research as we search the Irish record sets and attempt to answer each of the questions.

In Conclusion.

That’s it for this module – “Choose your Ancestor and your Discovery Questions”. 

The approach I suggest – gathering “Ancestor Identifiers” for an Irish ancestor (or couple) would be the same for ancestors of any particular heritage. However, the steps outlined in this module are often skipped over in a rush to jump into the Irish record sets.

However, if you:

  • Limit your search to one early Irish ancestor (or couple).
  • Uncover as many “Ancestor Identifiers” as possible related to them.
  • Assemble those “Ancestor Identifiers” into a timeline format.
  • Notice the gaps in knowledge as you review the timeline.
  • Note down any (and every) discovery question that comes to mind as you examine the gaps.
  • Choose some of those questions as your main discovery questions before making the leap back to the Irish records.

You will then be well-positioned to choose the best Irish record sets to research – and discard irrelevant and misleading information along the way.

Try For Yourself.

In the later modules of this course I will be encouraging you to replicate all the discoveries I make as part of the case-study we work through together. We haven’t started our record search yet, so I encourage you to:

  • Review the information (ancestor identifiers) I lay out above for Patrick Dolphin and his family.
  • As you examine the discovery questions I have included in the assembled timeline – ask yourself if you would include any more/different discovery questions?

Note: At this point I discourage you from researching your own ancestor during this course until you have completed the eight modules of this course and replicated the findings that we uncover in the case-study. This will ensure that you develop a good understanding of the Irish record sets and useful search tools before starting a more complex search for your own Irish ancestors.

What’s Next?

Very shortly we will be going to the Irish record sets using our case-study, but first we will take a little detour to learn some essential basics particular to Irish genealogy.  

We will have a more detailed look at Irish Land Divisions – the different types, how each evolved and which ones are most important to know about as you examine various Irish record sets.