Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Irish Ancestry Search: Your Irish Family and Mine

Hugh Byrne, circa 1915, my grandfather on my mother's
side, who had roots back to Ireland
Photo -- family photo

By Adrian McGrath

Where did your family come from in Ireland? Do you
know? I’m not an expert in ancestry research or
genealogy, so I can’t help you too, too much.
But maybe I can help you a little to get started
in your search.

Yes, there are places online where you can
search for professional help, and I’m sure they
are good sources. But you can start on your
own too, and see what you can find out.
Then get experts to help you
later on.

To start, ask your relatives where did your
parents and grandparents come, getting as
much detail as possible? Where did their
parents come from, and so on. But
remember, they did not exist in a vacuum.

Historical and even dramatic historical events
may have occurred which
led your distant relatives to leave Ireland and
come to America. And other historical events
happened in America that your
relatives might have participated in.

Did they leave Ireland because of the Famine,
as many did? Were any of your relatives
soldiers in any American wars?
All of this can lead to historical documentation
and more information about your ancestors.

A baptism certificate is
a good source of info
-- my relatives
from a family photo

For many of you, your relatives came during the Irish
Potato Famine
(or Great Hunger as they say in Ireland) or near that time.
Ask your relatives about this.  Some distant relatives
may have witnessed incredible events in American history --
especially for the Irish this
could be the American Civil War where so many Irish
immigrants and early generation Irish Americans served.
(My family had a relative in the Union Army,
although I was born in the South, because part of my
ancestry is from the North.)

Your ancestors might
date back in America even to the time of the
Revolutionary War.

Many Irish were in the Mexican-American war since that
happened around the time of the Great Famine in the mid 1840s.

A relative of mine --
"Hugh Byrne a native of Ireland" --
words written on this legal document
show a clear tie to Ireland
Family photo

Were your ancestors here during World War I, the Great
Depression, or World War II? Just ask your relatives
what they know and make a
list of the facts you find. Military records are a good source
of information.

Other sources of information could be birth certificates,
marriage licenses, and church wedding documents,
baptism documents, school records, and
death notices in newpapers, or death certificates.  

Look at old family photographs. Who are the people in
them? What are
the places in the photos and the surroundings? What can
they tell you about your family’s past?

Old photographs can sometimes
indicate the time of year or an approximate date.
By observing something
in the background of the photo like an old appliance,
a tool, a machine, a car, or certain buildings, or farms,
or the countryside you can get clues.

Hugh Byrne -- A marriage license from 1877
Family photo of my relative

Much like doing a jigsaw puzzle, put all the disjointed pieces
together to see the big picture.

You can also check the history of your last name. Many
last names give us a clue as to where our most
distant ancestors came from.

Some will probably be an Anglicized version of an
ancient Irish Gaelic name or word.

A very old family document
from the 1870s gives us ancestry clues
Family photo of my relative

You might find, most likely, that your ancestors were
Irish and something else. Mine are mainly Irish
(McGrath and Byrne),
but also some German (Bahl) and Scandinavian (Andersen).
But for some unknown reason we seem to cling emotionally
to the Irish.

I can’t explain why. Maybe you know or have your own views
on why we focus our emotions on the history of an exiled
people who were so badly treated for so long,
but who survived and later prospered in America?

One source you can use which is free of charge is the
website of the National Library of Ireland which has
a free Genealogy Advisory Service.
( See more information at NIL )

The website says a good way to start your family history
search is to ask family members, check old photographs,
newspaper articles, old letters, family Bibles, and family
grave sites. Try to focus in on approximate dates, names, and
places your ancestors were. Also, check for religious
or church records for
births, marriages, and deaths.

Map of Ireland, Jeffreys and Kitchen
1804, from Wikimedia Commons

Also check for
census data, the website advises. The website has a free booklet
too which may help in your initial search. You can find the pdf file

To search for where your family came from is a fascinating
puzzle. And it might suggest where you might want your family to
go in the future. The future is built on the past.

As for me, I know only a few things; but I will share some
of this with you and perhaps you will  find it interesting.
Maybe you can use this as a guide in your own search.

From Ireland to Wisconsin to New Orleans

My mother and father during
the War years, World War 2
John and Isabella McGrath
Family Photo

My mother’s side is Byrne; my father’s side is McGrath.
Both, of course, are Irish names.

Let’s start with some general information which is fairly easy
to find online about the name “Byrne.” It is an English language
variant of the old Gaelic name O’Broin. This was a descendant of
a son of the King of Leinster, a province in ancient Ireland.
(See more about that here.) It might also be from O Beirn
which was from the Northwest of Ireland around Mayo or Donegal.
Variations of the name in English could be Burns, Byrnes, or

In general, “O’ means the “grandson of”; and “Mc” or
“Mac” means the “son of”.

It is possible the different locations were the result of various
invasions of Ireland over centuries by different people like
the Vikings, the Normans, and, of course, the English.
(See more on that here.)

What I know is that my mother was a Byrne; and she had
six brothers, a mother, and a father who all lived in New Orleans,
Louisiana. I also know the Byrne family arrived in America after
the American Civil War. But I don’t know exactly when.

of her brothers served in the US military during World War II.
One in the US Army Air Force, one in the US Merchant Marine,
and one was a US Army medic. This information can be helpful
in further research as the US government has information on military
service to some degree.

All were raised Catholic, and so that is
another source of good ancestral research -- marriage certificates,
birth certificates, baptism records, etc. Church records are a good
source of information.

My father, Master Sergeant John McGrath
(center) at the US Army LaGarde General Hospital
c. 1943. "You're in the army now ..."

The other side of my family, my father’s, is McGrath
(which is my name).
This is an ancient Irish name from the Gaelic “Mac Craith.”
It came from
a place called the Kingdom of Thomond in Munster, Ireland.
This was before the Norman invasion in the 12th century.
(See more here.)
The McGraths were Dalcassians, who lived in Southern Ireland.

“Craith” means divine grace, and “Mc” means son of, so
McGrath means “son of divine grace.” How about that!

Different versions of the name in English are McGraw, Mac,
Crae, McKray, and so on.

School records are a good source of info
My father's high school diploma from Highland High School in
Highland, Wisconsin (70 miles west of Madison), 1936 
Family photo

Some sources indicate that the original McGraths were descendants
of a group called “Cenneide.” In English that is Kennedy. And they
were somehow related to the High King Brian Boru, who united
Ireland but was killed in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf by the Vikings.
(See more here.)

My father,
Master Sergeant
John McGrath
US Army, c. 1943

Some sources say the McGraths were
originally poets, dating back to 1086 AD.
And, of course, as every pub crawler
knows there are at least two Irish pub songs
about McGrath.

One is an anti-war song
called “Mrs. McGrath,” and the other is
about and Irish dog who beats an English
dog in a dog race. The Irish dog and the
song are named “Master McGrath.”

My McGrath side came from Wisconsin;
my father was born in a small town
named Highland, WIsconsin about
70 miles west of Madison. ( See more about Highland
at the Facebook page for the Highland, Wisconsin
Area Historical Society. See more about Highland at
their website and Village of Highland.)

In the mid 1800s,
many Irish immigrants settled in Wisconsin and in the farming
areas west of present-day Madison, where Highland is.

My father was a farmer, a US army soldier in World War II,
and an accountant. He eventually moved to
New Orleans where he met my mother. Tracing his line back,
we can find connections to Boston,
Canada, and ultimately Ireland.

My father had a sister named Mary and a brother named Glen.
Glen went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison and
became a journalist. He was a member of the Wisconsin Press
Association and wrote for newspapers in Madison and also
Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Like my father, my Uncle Glen grew up in Highland, WI and
graduated from Highland High School. I corresponded with him
by snail mail -- before we had computers and the internet.
Uncle Glen was always interested in Irish history,
and he encouraged me to write more and create a journal.
My father John McGrath (standing)
and my Uncle Glen (sitting)
circa 1991

If you are searching for your family history,
then that is a good way to start. Look for
general information about your Irish last name,
then look for church records and military records.

The search can take awhile and can be frustrating at times.
But give it a try and you might find out some interesting
things about your Irish background.

I hope this helps a bit to get you started in your search.

Sources and further reading:
National Library of Ireland (NLI) Genealogy Advisory Service


  1. And don’t we all wish we’d asked more questions when our grandparents were alive.��

    1. My Dad died when I was 13; it never occurred to me to ask. I thought we'd be in touch with them forever. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. I was contacted about 4 years ago by a cousin in Wisconsin who found me on Her mother was my Dad's niece.We've stayed in touch.

  2. My Dad's family is O'Byrne, from Cork City. He came over in 1928 a few years after the Irish Civil War.