Beginning your research

Infolearn 01rmation on how to plan your visit, advice on choosing your subject and how to avoiding common problems experienced.

Choosing a subject to research

There are an enormous number of interesting people, places, significant events and eras in Irish History. As such there is an enormous amount of interesting subjects to be researched by students. Your choice of subject is important and you need to bear in mind matters like the type of project you are being asked to do, the time you have and what sources are available. By being practical and realistic, you should avoid problems and get the most from your efforts.

The type and length of your essay/project

This will dictate the amount of detail needed; the amount of research required; and the range of sources to be consulted. You will also have to think about what combination of primary and secondary sources (link) to use. With major projects and theses, you will be expected to do a lot of original research using primary sources. You should discuss this with your teacher or tutor before beginning your work.

Begin with secondary sources

It is advisable to look at what has already been researched and published on the subject area you are interested in. Apart from getting valuable ideas, you will also see what sources others have used, and can examine those yourself where possible.

The availability of primary sources

This is most important because, without at least some archives and other primary sources, you will not have the kind of evidence needed to write a detailed account. You should begin by checking what sources are available and where they are located.

Sadly, many Irish archives were destroyed over the centuries in a variety of ways: through accidents such as fires and floods; deliberately because people did not want them to be seen in the future; through neglect; and as a result of rebellions and wars. The biggest loss was in 1922, when the Public Record Office of Ireland was bombarded at the beginning of the Civil War. Amongst the most important archives lost, from the point of view of local historians, were many census records, land records and wills.

You must also remember that it was only as time went by that record keeping became more common. Also, over a long period of time, only the rich and powerful were mentioned in records. Such people had property; they were sometimes involved in court cases; they made wills; and were involved in politics. Poorer people were not educated and had little or no property, so they usually had no reason to be mentioned in records, unless as tenants or workers.

In general, as you move closer to our own time, the range of sources, and as a result, the range of possible subjects, grows.

To find out what archives there are relating to your subject you can:

  • Contact your local archives service, or another service, to ask about the collections there.
  • Check the websites of particular archives services for information.
  • Check the Directory of Irish Archives (4th ed., Dublin, 2003), edited by Seamus Helferty and Raymond Refauss√©, which has contact details and brief information on the holdings of all archives services around the country.
  • Check the catalogue entitled Manuscript sources for the history of Irish civilisation (11 volumes, Boston, 1966), edited by Richard Hayes, with its supplement (published in 1979). This is better known as the 'Hayes catalogue' and it tells you what archives were available at that particular time, and where they were located.

Ideally, you should have a range of archives and other sources to use so that you can get a full picture of your subject. By having various sources, you can crosscheck the information and hopefully detect bias or incompleteness in some.


You will have a deadline to meet in the writing of your project. If you find that the only archives of importance to your proposed subject are not at local level, but in Dublin, or even outside the country, you must consider whether or not it is practical for you to travel to use them. If it is not, you should choose another subject.

Interpreting the sources

Most archives are easy to use and interpret, but you will find some that are more challenging. Generally, archives from before the year 1700 can be the most difficult for users. They may be written in a particular style of handwriting (link to handwriting styles) and some may also be written in Latin. You will find collections from many different periods in the Irish language. Deeds (link to article) can be very difficult to interpret because of the legal language used, and the great amount of detail they often contain. Obviously, in such cases, you will need the advice of an archivist or other specialist, and possibly someone to translate for you. You must take account of the time and effort involved in these situations.

Be realistic in your approach

Historical research can be fascinating and very rewarding. But you should be prepared to 'hunt down' the sources, then carefully read them, and weigh up the evidence from them. Often there will be gaps and you will have to speculate about some points. That is not a problem in itself once you base your arguments on the evidence available to you. It is likely that at the end of your project there will be unanswered questions but at least you will have asked them!


The more preparation you have done before approaching an archives service, the more useful your visit or contact will be because you can ask specific questions.

Now you have decided on your research subject take a look at our guide to visiting an archives service and also our information on what archive services are available to you.

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