Starting Your Family History | Resources | Researching Non-Fiction
John Grenham

John Grenham

John Grenham is an expert on tracing your ancestors, and is shortly to appear at Waterford Writers Weekend (22nd-24th March). We asked him for some tips for anyone interested in writing their family history. His book  Tracing Your Irish Ancestors (Gill & MacMillan) is an excellent resource, packed full of vital information and his experience that will save your hours of internet trawling searching for references to lost relatives.  Here is John’s advice to get you started:

Before you go near a record:
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.

Surnames and naming:
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.

John Grenham
John Grenham

Record everything:
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.

Start from …
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.

One rule to bind them all:
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.

Get help:
Get some idea of the background to your family surnames and have a look at some of the basic guides to tracing family history. A good on-line guide is at A Primer in Irish Genealogy by Sean J Murphy . Most county libraries now also have their catalogues available on the Internet. The National Library and National Archives both run walk-in genealogical advisory services, where you will get personal advice on records and research.

What will you find?
Every family history is different, so you can’t say what you will find until you start looking. However, as a general rule, the limit for research is the start date of the relevant parish registers. This varies, with records beginning in the late 1700s in Dublin and some of the more prosperous parts of the east of Ireland, but not until the 1840s or 1850s in many places in the west.

About the author

John Grenham came to professional genealogy in 1981, as one of the panel of Genealogical Office researchers and later worked for Hibernian Research. As in-house researcher for the Genealogical Office in 1990-91, he was instrumental in setting up the GO Consultation Service, the forerunner of the current Advisory Services in the National Library and National Archives.

He was Project Manager with the Irish Genealogical Project from 1991 to 1995 and later went on to develop and market his own genealogical software, Grenham’s Irish Recordfinder. Since 1998, he has run the Irish Times Irish Ancestors website. In 2005, he was the first Genealogist-in-Residence at Dublin City Library. He was awarded a fellowship of The Irish Genealogical Research Society in 2007 and of the Genealogical Society of Ireland in 2010. Among his publications are the standard guide to Irish genealogy, Tracing your Irish Ancestors (4th ed.2012), Clans and Families of Ireland (1995), Generations (1996), “The Genealogical Office and its Records” in The Genealogical Office , (1999), Grenham’s Irish Surnames (CD-ROM, 2003) and numerous articles and columns in the UK magazine Your Family Tree. He has written the “Irish Roots” column and blog in The Irish Times since February 2009.

In 2011, along with Irish Times Training, he developed and launched an online genealogical course. Also in 2011 he was co-presenter of the RTE television programme “The Genealogy Roadshow”.

His website is

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