Inconsistent Birth Years and Names in Irish Ancestors

+13 votes
A family member interested in genealogy recently told me that it was not unusual in the 19th century for Irish people to change birth years and names throughout their lives. I don’t know if he was referring to ‘citizens’ of Ireland in general or just those who immigrated to the U.S. I have run into this problem frequently, however, when looking for my ancestors in Irish records. My great-grandmother, for example, used three different names (one was a nickname, though; and her birth year changed as she got older (I think it became more accurate).

QUESTION 1: Can anyone confirm if what I was told is true? I find it very frustrating to research Irish records, in part because I keep running up against this problem.
QUESTION 2: What is a good source that may help me learn to do better research in this area?
in The Tree House by Jeffry Ricker G2G4 (4.5k points)
This might help to explain why some of the Irish censuses were recycled as waste paper.
Just to add to Colleen's response, this is definitely the case from the ages recorded on the two available censuses of 1901 and 1911. There are people in the trees I have researched whose year of birth would differ more than 15 years between the two. There must be a number of factors at play here - pure error, not wanting to give the 'powers that be' accurate information, personal pride, etc.

The variation in names is also prevalent to this day. There are countless examples but a given name of Bernard would commonly become Barney or Brian, Bridget becomes Biddy and so forth.

This is without touching on the possible transcription errors in records - for example, I struggled to find a McNicholl as it had been recorded as Monicholl.

Being armed with the likely variants before hitting the records is highly advised.

Good luck

Thank you, Jason.
if you know the town, Parish or diocese of where they may have been baptized it could help find the baptismal records. Using the site below I found my great grandfather's baptism record fand his parents wedding records from 1853. The site is frustrating to use but does have many of the church records. Need to find the right filters to get get results.

while the tombstone of my Great grandfather indicated he was born in 1870 he was actually baptized in 1866.

There are so many Ellens, Bridgets/Brigids, Annes/Annas, Johns, Michaels, etc., along with various spellings of the last names for each and all born within several years of each other, that I'm not always sure who is the relative I'm looking for. In addition, the civil indexes often give only one person's name (i.e., no parents or spouse) with no county name. It seems that, to figure it out, one would need to take a trip to Ireland and go through records scattered in several counties.

I think that County Longford probably is where the relatives I'm interested in were born. But even when there is much information on an online record, the similar names with different spellings, and the variation in dates on different records for the same person, cause many problems. For example, my great-grandmother went by Ellen and Helen (Nellie); and her birth year varied anywhere from 1862 to 1874 (even her death record, issued in New York, has the incorrect birth year, I think.

And then there is the amusing marriage record I found yesterday:

  • Groom: Peter Oneil
  • Bride: Bridget Oneil
  • Groom's Father: Peter Oneil
  • Bride's Father: John Oneil

All of them came from County Longford. Peter and Bridget's first son was named, you guessed it, "Peter."

And yes, I've used the irishgenealogy site, as well as some others I've found that are maintained by various governmental agencies, individuals, and for-profit businesses.

ADDED: I'm convinced that I will eventually get it all sorted out. But I've hit a wall for now. What's making it particularly difficult is that something was going on back in the 1890s that (we think) led to my great-grandmother purposely trying to obfuscate the origins and relationships of family members.

2 Answers

+9 votes
Best answer
I have been researching my Irish roots for 25+ years, and it has been my experience that it was very common for women to change their names and especially their birthdates. It seems that they changed their ages to suit the situation. Several of my female ancestors changed their ages to be younger as they got older. Whether this was because they actually forgot their real ages, or whether they were being vain, I don't know.

 My great grandmother was born Bridget, a very common Irish name, and showed in 1900 as Bridget on the census in Chicago, but in 1910, after the death of her husband, was listed as Annie. My mother said she remembered calling her grandmother Annie.

In reading Irish records, it is clear that women had nicknames that were often used in place of the real name.

I have used for a lot of my research on my Roman Catholic ancestors. It is a paid service, but you can subscribe by the month. Their records are often attached to copies of the microfilmed parish registers which you can view. However, the registers are written in Latin and are very difficult to read.

For Protestants or others, try the Public Records Office for Northern Ireland. You can google PRONI to get the link. has Irish records now, but I have not spent much time looking at them as I am trying to get away from using them.
by Colleen Morrison G2G3 (3.6k points)
selected by Jeffry Ricker
Thank you for a very informative response. My great-grandmother immigrated to Brooklyn about 1890. She used the nickname "Nellie" (for Helen) on the 1892 NY Census. Over the years, she began to use Helen and eventually Ellen. All of these names were very common at the time, so it is difficult/impossible in many cases to know if a record refers to her. In addition, her sister was named Bridget, and lived in Ireland. My grandmother lived with her for many years. Their last names (O'Niel, Oneil, Oniell, Brew) were as common as their first names.
+4 votes

Not sure if it's a "thing" across the board, but I too have noticed the same with some of my Irish relatives - mainly the ones who migrated elsewhere (as opposed to the ones who stayed).  A couple of data points off the top of my head:

1. Christopher Dunne - his death certificate says he died at the age of 63 in 1934, putting his birth year around 1871.  I've recently found evidence that it was probably more like 1858.

2.  Catherine Cashin (a sister of my great-great-grandmother whom I not yet added to WikiTree!) - born in 1866, but as time went on, she got a lot "younger" in the records; almost 15 years at one point.  I actually thought there must've been two different sisters named Catherine until a cousin pointed out that it's the same person.

3.  Bridget (Frances) Dunne - called "Bridget" on all legal documents and even in her newspaper wedding announcement, but my mother and all of her cousins knew her as "Aunt Frances". They were kinda shocked to learn that it wasn't her first name.

by Vicky Majewski G2G6 Mach 9 (94.0k points)

Oh, just wanted to add that in addition to, I've also had good luck with - which I believe is the Irish government's official search engine? 

Vicky - thanks for this link - I use Ancestry for updating records when I feel like spending some money on the research but these records are far superior - greatly appreciated!

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