Research History of Irish Area of Origin

By Jayne McGarvey & Mike Collins

Covered In This Lesson:

  • Introduction – Why Research History of Irish Area of Origin?

  • Samuel Lewis Topographical Dictionary

  • Historical Maps

  • Historical Newspapers and Commercial Directories

  • Green Room Irish Homelands Features

  • Conclusion and What To Do Next


Introduction – Why Research History of Irish Area of Origin?

Welcome to the first module in Stage 4 of the Green Room Research Roadmap – “Research the History of the Irish Area of Origin” for your Irish ancestor (or couple). We start the stage with this topic as I think it is wise to stand back and understand more about the place your ancestor came from in Ireland and their everyday life while they lived there.

This knowledge will give you both a better understanding of where to focus in the Irish record collections and how to make sense of the information you uncover within those records.

Ideally, at this point you have completed Stage 3 of the Green Room Roadmap and unearthed key ancestry identifiers and facts in your ancestor’s place of immigration that pointed you towards a specific County and/or Church/Civil parish of origin in Ireland.

You will also have completed a new “Research Planning Worksheet” on completion of Stage 3 which will now guide your research efforts when examining the Irish record sets.


Topographical Dictionary of Ireland

Have you ever wished you could examine a historical account of the landmarks, industries, villages and towns that surrounded the place of origin of your Irish ancestor before they emigrated? Well, the “Topographical Dictionary of Ireland” – published by Samuel Lewis in 1837 – provides just such information. It was published in two volumes, with an accompanying atlas, and gives a snapshot of industrial life and society in Ireland before the Great Famine. It is freely available online at this location

Lewis relied on the information provided by local contributors and earlier published works including the census of 1831. The names of places are those in use prior to the publication of the first comprehensive Ordnance Survey maps of Ireland published in 1838.

I have included the Topographical Dictionary entry for each of the counties of Ireland (and the towns and villages included within each county) in the resources section at the end of this lesson. I suggest that you browse some of these entries to get an overview of rural Ireland in the early to mid-1800s.


Historical Maps

To learn about your ancestor’s life in Ireland I regularly advise our members to spend time examining historic and topographical maps.

Look out for the changes in infrastructure between map editions.  Sometimes these changes in infrastructure and landscape happened slowly and were relatively subtle, perhaps a new house or two were built, or older properties fell into disuse and demolished. As new roads and bridges were developed, our ancestors may have been able to travel easily to a village, town or even church that previously would have been many hours walk away.  Changes like these opened up new opportunities to our ancestors for matchmaking, education and employment. Explore the area where your ancestor lived and see if you can find the places where they worshiped, worked, gained an education and even met their spouses. 

Bantry Town, County Cork 1837 – accessed with

In addition, understanding the topographical details of hills, valleys, railway lines and waterways will also help you understand what travel might have been practical for your ancestors over a given day. Having access to a pony and trap or a horse is likely to have increased the distance your ancestor could have travelled in a day. However, this is more likely to be appropriate travel for a gentleman rather than for a labourer.

Some villages and towns grew into large cities over time while others faded away following changes to farming practices and industrialisation of what were cottage industries. On a grander scale, country and county borders shifted as did more localised boundaries – and urbanised areas expanded or were regenerated. At these times of urban expansion (and following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922) street names may have changed. As a result, it is possible that your ancestors had different addresses in the space of a few years without ever moving house or village.

Bantry Town & Environs 1888 – accessed with

Accessing historic maps has never been easier, many are now available on the internet for free. The best of these historic map sites will even allow you to “slide” between the various historical editions and revisions of the maps. I suggest that you view the Resources window at the end of this lesson to see some illustrations of these maps as well as how to access and use them. 

Bantry Town & Environs Modern – showing townlands. Accessed with

A final thought on the use of maps – it is useful to correlate the content of local maps with the events in your ancestor’s life.  This sort of examination will often throw up further research questions – or maybe close down a line of enquiry. For example, say you are calculating the physical distances between the locations in your ancestor’s timeline using appropriate local maps. You may be wondering if it is possible, or likely, that your ancestor travelled between two “guessed-at” places on your ancestor’s timeline given your knowledge of their occupation, social status and other considerations. As an example, your existing timeline – full of guesses and facts – may suggest that your ancestor:

  • Was born in Cork.
  • Was married in Belfast.
  • Baptised his first child in Derry/Londonderry.
  • Baptised his second child in Galway. 

If he was a mobile official in the Coastguard, the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary), military or other employment that meant moving location every couple of years – then the above facts are plausible.  However, if your ancestor was a labourer, it is very unlikely that all of these locations/facts are correct.

I have included Quick Wins and Training for using Irish Historical maps in the Resources section at the end of this lesson.


Historical Newspapers and Commercial Directories

Both localised events and major national historical events tend to get reported in local and national newspapers. Along with the more traditional obituaries and family notices, articles covering many of the following subjects may be found: 

  • New technology
  • Advice about new animal husbandry methods and crop rotation
  • Land and property for sale / lease / rent
  • Tenant evictions
  • Taxes (including the tithe wars)
  • Plans for new public buildings and factories
  • Plans for new roads and bridges
  • New legislation
  • School exam results
  • Emigration opportunities
  • Court Reports

Commercial directories were often published each year and covered many Irish towns and cities from the 1700s. They are a overview of the various names and occupations of the residents of a town. Mike published a very useful letter here outlining how to use these directories in response to one Green Room member’s questions.

I have included a county-by-county index of historical newspapers and commercial directories in the resources section at the end of this lesson.


Green Room Homelands Features

Since 2015, Mike and Carina have travelled the “highways and byways” of Ireland compiling what we call “Irish Homelands Features“. Each of these features take on a single member’s family tree and associated questions – and then Mike and Carina go off to the Irish place of origin for this ancestor to see if they can find answers to these questions.

These popular county-by-county features will give you a view of the history, society, genealogy, occupations, music and landmarks of a particular part of Ireland. They are a very useful and entertaining way to gain a more complete view of a given county in Ireland.

I have included all of our Homelands features available in the county index in the Resources section at the end of this lesson.


Conclusion and Over to You.

Begin your genealogy research in Ireland by standing back and looking at the bigger picture – and gain a historical overview of your ancestors’ place of origin in Ireland. While reviewing historical and topographical maps and checking through local history books may not seem the most obvious route to successful research, I do want to emphasise how important these resources are to understanding the area where your ancestor lived and the times they lived in. This knowledge may help you make a best guess on which Irish record collections to search and how to make sense of your discoveries. 


What To Do Next:

Do you have the County/Parish of origin for the Irish ancestor you are researching? If so, get a wider sense of the places, society, industry, events and landmarks for that place of origin:

  • Examine the relevant Lewis Topographical entry for that location.
  • Find the location in the historical maps. See if you can find local landmarks such as churches, villages. Note the distance between relevant locations.
  • Review the relevant Homelands feature for your ancestor’s county of origin.

Share your observations and questions with our genealogists in the Ask the Genealogist section of the forum. See link below.

In the next lesson we move on to updating your Research Plan and Timeline.


Click Here To Ask Our Genealogist a Question Related to This Module.



Related Resources.

Quick-Wins and Training:


County by County Historical Research Resources:

Note: Some of the links below take you to a site called “”. Membership of is free to all Green Room members. If you need to activate your John Grenham membership for the first time go here to do so. 

You can also find a Quick-Win on Using here.



County Antrim:
County Armagh:
County Carlow:
County Cavan:
County Clare:
County Cork:
County Derry/Londonderry:
County Donegal:
County Down:
County Dublin:
County Fermanagh:
County Galway:
County Kerry:
County Kildare:
County Kilkenny:
County Laois (Queen’s County):
County Leitrim:
County Limerick:
County Longford:
County Louth:
County Mayo:
County Meath:
County Monaghan:
County Offaly (King’s County):
County Roscommon:
County Sligo:
County Tipperary:
County Tyrone:
County Waterford:
County Westmeath:
County Wexford:
County Wicklow: