10 July 2013


     I am very excited to present an e-interview with Brian Mitchell! His books, articles, and services have helped countless numbers of family historians to negotiate the maze of Irish genealogical records. Brian Mitchell is a genealogist with the Derry City Council, and his well-known genealogy reference books include A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland, A Guide to Irish Parish Registers, Irish Passenger Lists 1847-1871, and Genealogy at a Glance: Irish Genealogy Research. He has an MA with honours in Geography (University of Edinburgh), is a Fellow of the Genealogical Society of Ireland, and is a Member of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland. Brian has published close to 100 articles plus 28 books and genealogical guides.
Deborah: Please tell my readers a bit about yourself.
BRIAN MITCHELL:  I have been involved in local, family and emigration research in the wider Derry area since 1982. The database whose construction I supervised from 1982 to 2007, containing one million records (dating from 1642 to 1922) extracted from the major civil and church registers of County Derry, can now be accessed at www.derry.rootsireland.ie.
      I offer a free advice service to anyone tracing their roots in North West Ireland (i.e. Counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone). Be it a query about place names, surname origins, sources to search or record offices to visit, visitors and locals alike are encouraged to forward their queries to me at genealogy@derrycity.gov.uk.
Deborah: What mistakes do family history researchers outside of Ireland commonly make? What basic information does a researcher need before commencing research in Ireland?
BRIAN MITCHELL: Making the jump across the Atlantic to trace Irish roots without completing research in the home country!       The first step in tracing your Irish roots is to gather as much information about your ancestors from research through sources in USA, Canada etc.:
 ·         Where he/she came from in Ireland; the county of origin, a townland or parish
 ·         What was his/her religion
 ·         What are his/her ‘vital statistics’, such as dates of birth, marriage and death
      Family memories and knowledge should not be underestimated. There are many instances where family folklore, passed down through the generations, extends beyond what is written in historical records or captured in databases.
      In addition to oral tradition, a search should be made through family papers to unearth old photographs, newspaper clippings with perhaps an obituary, letters, or even a family bible with its own family tree within.
      Armed with this information, family history researchers will be in a much better position to undertake online research of Irish databases and/or explore record holdings in local and national archives in Ireland.
Deborah: What is the key to unlocking family origins? You mentioned "the importance of place."
BRIAN MITCHELL: The key to unlocking Irish family history origins is the knowledge of place.  In tracing your roots in Ireland the most important piece of information, to be gleaned from either family folklore or record sources, is any information as to a place of origin of your ancestors. 
      The most effective way to view Ireland is as a country that is subdivided into 32 counties, which in turn are subdivided into parishes (2,428 civil parishes), and which in turn are subdivided into townlands (60,462).
      As many records of genealogical value were compiled on a parish basis it means that, in absence of indexes or databases, genealogical research generally requires knowledge of the county and parish in which your ancestor lived.  The “Placenames” search facility at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor allows researchers to search more than 65,000 Irish placenames to pinpoint their county and parish locations.
Deborah: How can researchers obtain such information?
BRIAN MITCHELL:   An excellent starting point for research of Irish surnames is the Irish Ancestors website at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor as their ‘Surname search’ option enables you to examine the location, frequency and history of Irish surnames.
      A good starting point for tracing your Irish family history is an examination of the indexes to 20 million birth, marriage and death records for Ireland at www.rootsireland.ie. This website is the largest online source of Irish church register transcripts. You can either search across all counties or search a particular county (for example, County Derry at www.derry.rootsireland.ie).   
      As the search facility on this website is very flexible it means that you should be able to determine if any entries of interest to your family history are held on this database. For example, if you are searching for the baptism/birth of a child you can narrow the search down by year, range of years, names of parents and by parish of baptism/district of birth. Marriage searches can be filtered by year, range of years, name of spouse, names of parents and parish/district of marriage.        
      It must be stated, however, that a failure to find any relevant birth/marriage entries in this database doesn't mean that the events you are looking for didn't happen in Ireland. It simply means that they are not recorded in the database; for example, they may be recorded in a record source which doesn't survive for the time period of interest or in a source that has not been computerized or, perhaps, in the database of another county. For example you can search, for free, the church registers for Dublin city, south Cork and Counties Carlow and Kerry at www.irishgenealogy.ie.
Deborah: Any other advice for researchers?
BRIAN MITCHELL:  Researchers of Irish record sources must realize there are many ways of spelling the same place names and surnames in Ireland!!
      Place names, originally in Gaelic, were Anglicized from the 17th century, by settlers with little knowledge of the Irish language. This resulted in a number of different spellings of the same place name. For example, in Clondermot Parish, County Derry, the townland which was standardized as Coolkeeagh in the Townland Index was recorded as Killkeeraugh in the 1831 census and as Culkeeragh in the Tithe Book of 1834.
      You will find that in the context of Irish historical records there are many spelling variations of the same surname. There is no doubt that the process of Anglicization has obscured the origins of many Irish surnames. From the 17th century Gaelic surnames of Irish and Scottish origin were translated, and in many cases mistranslated, into English; others were changed to similar-sounding English names. Family names of Gaelic origin were further disguised in the 18th century by discarding the prefix Mac, Mc and O.
      Thus, in conducting family history research you should be aware of the possibility of different spellings of the same surname. For example, Doherty can also be written, to name but a few, as Dogherty, Dougherty, Docherty, O Dochartaigh, O’Doagharty, O’Dogherty and O’Doherty in record sources
     Deborah: A huge THANK YOU, Brian Mitchell,  for sharing your expertise and advice with us!