Tips for Researching Desmond (& other Irish Surnames)

Last week I received an email from a fellow Desmond named “Claire” via the GeneaJourneys blog you’re reading right now.

She’s  been researching her genealogy for a fairly short time and wondered if perhaps we were related due to having Desmond ancestors who also had similar given names as well.

While some of the names of her Desmond ancestors did match a few on my tree, I knew we probably weren’t related–at least not closely related–because the birth and death dates were pretty far off and our ancestors didn’t live in the same locations.

Her inquiry (which appears at the bottom of this post) was both earnest and hopeful. She’d clearly done her homework and had garnered much data about her ancestors’ lives in a short time. She also reminded me of myself about eight and a half years ago when I first began the geneajourney of researching my Desmond ancestors.

Back then, when I left similar inquiries on genealogy message boards (like most people I suspect), I rarely got more than a one-line answer from those I reached out to. Most responses–if I got one at all–simply and succinctly stated that “No. We’re not related.”

Pretty discouraging for a beginner…

Ultimately, that surprise inquiry from Claire got me to thinking—particularly about just how much I’ve learned over the past 9 years (primarily on my own) through reading, classes, workshops, conferences and plain old trial-and-error. Claire’s heartfelt email made me realize I would have been much further ahead in my research by now if I’d only had a few tips from a mentor who’d been at it a little longer.

So in the spirit of helping my younger self, I answered Claire’s inquiry—first letting her down easy (please read on), but then offering a host of suggestions that I hope will kick start her entry into Irish research with much more success than I initially had. My response appears below, which I later learned was both encouraging and helpful to her.

At the bottom of this post is an edited version of Claire’s original inquiry just in case there are other readers researching Desmonds who have names, dates and locations that match those of Claire’s ancestors. Perhaps that will be just the connection you both need to break a stubborn brick wall.

Desmond, or not, May the Luck of the Irish be with ALL of us who continue to seek out our hidden Gaelic ancestors.


Hi Claire ~

Thanks for reaching out to me to see if we’re related. Always nice to hear from another Desmond family history researcher. While many of our mutual ancestors’ given names are similar, based on the dates and locations you’ve provided, I don’t believe you and I are closely related, though we may be very distant cousins.

Like yours, my Desmonds also come from Cork (where I understand the Desmonds were–and still are–concentrated).  I’ve also seen many Desmonds listed in databases as coming from Macroom. Mine settled in upstate New York when they came to America, though numerous Desmonds settled in  Minnesota, Massachusetts, and elsewhere, so you’re probably correct about where your Desmonds settled when they arrived here.

I’m sure you’ve heard or read that Irish research can be difficult, and that it’s best to work backwards by exhausting all record sets on this side of the pond first. As one who is still new to Irish records, I can tell you I’ve definitely found that to be true.

But…the data in American records (if the person you’re following is truly your ancestor) should provide unique details about him or her that will enable you to then search more successfully for them in records abroad.

Here are some ideas for doing Irish research that have worked for me:


You mentioned I’ve found FAG to be a mother lode for hints on other family members and have been able to greatly expand my tree that way. I caution you, though, that those hints are exactly that—only hints—and they should always be confirmed in other ways (vital records, obituaries, census, newspaper articles, etc.) If not, you may end up following someone who’s NOT your ancestor—a big disappointment and an even bigger waste of time.

The good news is, there’s a man named William Desmond who goes by “Des” on FAG who keeps track of all the Desmonds that he comes across. Here’s his FAG bio:

One-name researcher with info on thousands of Desmonds. Your queries are welcome. Leave a message. Be sure to check the “Desmond Variant Spellings” Virtual Cemetery below. There are many more Desmond obituaries, death and funeral notices, and other information, at my Desmond Archives website:

Try contacting Des for some guidance on that. Here’s a link to Des on FAG:

A U.S. Expert in Irish Genealogy

Have you heard of Donna Moughty? She’s a U.S. based expert on Irish research who uses her website, speaking engagements, and Facebook page to educate others in Irish research. I attended several of her sessions last year at a local conference and have been following her ever since.

She (like others) also publishes Quick Reference Guides on Irish research topics, and offers coaching in Irish research. She even organizes research trips to Ireland for those who are far enough along in their research to make that worthwhile. (Not me, yet, but perhaps someday!)

An Expert Based in Ireland

Do you know about John Grenham? Based in Ireland, he has a website (part free; part fee-based); a Facebook page; and an indispensable book called “Tracing Your Irish Ancestors: The Complete Guide” which I highly recommend. It’s loaded with details on how to go about doing Irish research from getting started; to church, land and county records in Ireland; to research services, Irish repositories, and publishers. (There are dozens of books on Irish research but this is the most comprehensive and useful one I’ve found so far.)

A Specific Database on

Do you know about the database entitled “Ireland, Catholic Parish Registers, 1655-1915″? Try it! Plug in one ancestor’s name at a time and see what pops up. You may be as lucky as I was.

Using that specific  collection, I was able to find baptismal, marriage and death records in Ireland that took me back two more generations on my direct Desmond line and I was also able to find similar records for siblings of those direct ancestors.

One-Name & One-Place Sources

There are also organizations, websites and Facebook pages dedicated to researching the genealogy of a single surname or a single location in both the U.S, and other countries.  (Full disclosure: I haven’t fully researched any of them but I know they exist.)

Examples I’m aware of include the Guild of One-name Studies  and Wikitree’s One Place Study project. To thoroughly investigate this topic, try googling “one name study” or “one place study” to learn more about how they can help you with your Irish Desmond research.

Online Courses in Irish Research

The National Institute of Genealogical Studies (NIGS) also offers a series of classes on Irish research. Two very basic ones I’ve taken are: Irish: Understanding Ireland, History and Source Records and Research: Irish Ancestors. You can learn more about these courses (and many others) by going to:

Other online providers offer general courses in genealogy as well.

Books for Your Own Personal Genealogy Library

Eventually—when you’re further along in your Irish research—you may want to pick up a few of the reference books mentioned below.

Some are introductory guides to pursuing Irish research; some are guides to Irish surnames and places; one focuses on records located in Ireland; and the other is about the social history of everyday life in Ireland in the 1800s. (Can’t wait to dig into that one!)

Some you’ll refer to often and others, for the most part, will remain on your bookshelf but  come in handy when you need them. A sampling:

Finding Your Irish Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide by David S. Ouimette (c. 2005)

Tracing Your Irish Ancestors by John Grenham. (c. 2012)

The Surnames of Ireland by Edward MacLysaght (c. 1999)

Special Report on Surnames in Ireland by Sir Robert Matheson (c. 1909)

A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland by Brian Mitchell (c. 2002)

Irish Place Names by Deirdre and Laurence Flanagan (c. 2002)

General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland as reprinted by the Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. (c. 1851).

Irish Records: Sources for Family & Local History by James G. Ryan (c. 1997)

Everyday Life in 19th Century Ireland by Ian Maxwell (c. 2012)

By the way, when it comes to buying books, you don’t have to buy them new. I often use online booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble to find gently used copies that are in “very good” to “excellent” condition for a very reasonable price.

(For other tips on buying books see this 3-part series of posts I wrote a few years ago for this GeneaJourneys blog.)

There are a host of other resources (websites, webinars, conferences, institutes, archives, specialty libraries, etc.) that are available for doing Irish genealogy research as well, but the ones above should give you a good start.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll find out we’re more closely related through the Desmond line than we thought!

Best of luck in your research, Claire.

Pat Biallas

Following is an edited version of the original inquiry I received from a fellow hunter of Desmond ancestors whose origins are in County Cork, Ireland.

If any of the facts from your family tree match those of Claire’s, feel free to reach out to me through the “Contact page” on this blog. I’ll be happy to forward your name and information to Claire so you can contact her directly.


Hello Patricia,

I joined four months ago, completed two genealogy courses, and am a member of my local genealogical society. My current research relates to my great grandfather, Timothy Desmond who was born in 1838, Macroom, County Cork, Ireland. His father was also named Tim Desmond and his mother was Johanna Foley. They immigrated from Dublin to America in 1849. Sadly, Johanna died on board their ship (Bark Argyle). I have not found my great grandfather’s name on the ship’s registry, however every document I have confirms that he immigrated in 1849.

Timothy Desmond settled in Massachusetts. He had at least three older sisters.  One sister was named Johanna Desmond. Johanna was also born in Macroom, Cork, Ireland in 1824. I was intent on learning more about her and eventually found a listing for “Johanna Desmond Holland”. From there I went to Find-A-Grave and found your name.  I now realize that it’s a coincidence that there were two Johanna Desmonds born in Ireland around the same time, who were both immigrants.  I’m just wondering if there could be any family connection between us?

As I said my great grandfather immigrated as a youth, settled in MA, was a boot maker, and eventually married Margaret Gertrude Lyons in 1906. They had 2 sons Clarence F. Desmond and Walter J. Desmond, who all lived in the Waltham, Milford and Worcester area of MA. I am a descendant of Walter J. Desmond, my paternal grandfather. Hoping to hear from you!

Thanks for reading this.


No, Claire, thank YOU for reaching out and inspiring me to write this post. I hope that the tips above on pursuing Irish research will prove useful to you and others like you who are just getting started on their Irish geneajourney.

(…and an early “Happy St. Patty’s Day” to you and yours!)

Copyright © 2018 Patricia Desmond Biallas

This entry was posted in Ireland, Research, Research Tips. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Tips for Researching Desmond (& other Irish Surnames)

  1. Claire Desmond-Ward says:

    March 14, 2018 Hello Patricia, What an incredible and thorough guide for beginner genealogists like myself! I plan to share your information with the Genealogy & Heritage room at my local library, as well as with fellow amateurs. A million thanks for such a warm and heartfelt blog. ‘Tis a great day for the Irish! Best, Claire


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