Starting your family history


Talk to your family. It makes no sense to spend days trawling through databases to find out your great-grandmother’s surname if someone in the family already knows it. So first, talk to parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents etc., and find out what they know. Most families have at least one individual who keeps track of the extended network of relatives, and if you can trace her (it usually is a woman), you’re off to a good start.

You can’t place any importance on the precise spelling of any of the surnames you’re dealing with. Although the spelling matters to us now, before the 20th century extraordinary variations regularly occur in different records – illiteracy was widespread and large numbers spoke Irish as their native language. Most people simply had more important things on their minds than how their name might be spelt in a record in a foreign language. Having enough to eat, for example.

Reported ages are almost never accurate. Before 1900, only a few very privileged children celebrated birthdays and without a celebration, why would you need to know a precise date? In addition, hardly any unfortunate souls over the age of 40 feel as old as they actually are. Put the two together and you have the prefect recipe for unlikely numbers of people reporting their ages as 30, 40, and 50. The moral is simple. Be sceptical. Be very sceptical.

The amount of information you’re dealing with can grow very quickly, especially in the early stages, so it’s a good idea to decide at the outset on a way of storing information that makes it easy for you to find things quickly. Most people pick up and put down family history research episodically, and the less time you waste hunting for something you just know you wrote down on the back of something somewhere, the easier the research will be. A shoebox with alphabetical index cards for each individual is perfectly fine. So is a loose-leaf binder. There are also some inexpensive software packages and websites that allow you easily to store and retrieve complex family information.

The 1901 and 1911 census site – – is by far the best place to dip a toe in the water: it’s free, intuitive and has images of all the original census forms. Find your great-grandparents here, and you’re hooked.

As far as research is concerned, the only cast-iron rule is that you start from what you know and use it to find out more. It is almost impossible to take a historical family and try to uncover what your connection might be. Instead, think of yourself as a detective, taking each item of information as potential evidence and using it to track down more information that in turn becomes evidence for further research.