Top 10 Sources of Free E-Books For Your Irish Ancestor Research
Updated: Aug 31
Reading and research material to get you through the
COVID-19 Coronavirus lockdown
If you’re running out of reading or research material while #stayingathome during the COVID-19 Coronavirus lockdown, this post provides the Top 10 sources of free online books that will give you ample material for furthering your genealogy research. The focus here is on material that can help with your Irish ancestor research, but of course the array of books available is much broader than simply Irish genealogy.
The sources mentioned below give access to a huge range of out of copyright books, or books that are still within copyright and that may be ‘borrowed’ virtually.
These providers have a comprehensive choice of books that can help you with your Irish family history research that includes for example, specific family genealogies, biographies, histories and travelogues of geographic areas, heraldic books, church histories, gravestone inscriptions and Calendars of State Papers. Your ancestors may be mentioned in some of these books and you may find a clue that provides vital information that can take your research further.
A follow up blog post Top 12 Sources of Newspapers, Journals and Periodicals for Your Irish Ancestor Research will also be of help - it covers a range of free and subscription sources where you might find interesting information about your ancestors.
The Internet Archive
The Internet Archive is a wonderful source of digitised books that are out of copyright and there are some real gems to be found. You’ll find books containing transcripts of parish registers, travel books, histories, passenger lists, headstone inscriptions, church histories and family genealogies. It’s worthwhile doing a search on your family name or a geographical area to see what it brings up.
Do be aware that while there are a large number of family genealogies available, the quality of them varies considerably. As with any ancestral research, check that each fact presented is backed up with a reference or a source and if at all possible, replicate that search to reassure yourself that it is accurate and what it claims to be.
A few of my favourite books available on Internet Archive are as follows:
William Makepeace Thackery’s ‘The Irish Sketchbook of 1842’ describes his travels around Ireland in which he describes the scenery, the people and local stories.
George Hill’s (1877) ‘An historical account of the Planation of Ulster at the commencement of the 17th century 1608 – 1620’ is a scholarly work that provides a picture of the country drawn from original sources. This work included the names of the Undertakers (those who were allotted land in Ulster), the conditions of plantation and Nicholas Pynnar’s Survey of 1618 when he surveyed the counties of Armagh, Tyrone, Donegal, Cavan and Fermanagh to determine how well the conditions of Plantation had been met.
For example, Undertakers who has been awarded ,1000 acres were to have built a strong bawn [a fortified enclosure around a farmhouse or castle] or court, to have planted on his portion ten British families containing twenty-four men of at least 18 years of age, to have two fee-farmers, three lessees and four husbandmen or cottagers, to have a convenient store of arms and to have in readiness six muskets and calivers, six hand-weapons to arm twelve men. There were additional requirements for those Undertakers who had been allotted larger portions of land.
Pynnar’s Survey found for example, that John Hamilton Esq had 1,000 acres called Kilcloghan in County Cavan and he had built a bawn of lime and stone, 80 feet square, 13 feet high with two sound towers being 12 feet diameter. A stone house was also being built along with another bawn of stone and clay and a village consisting of eight houses, all inhabited by British tenants. There was a water-mill and five houses adjoining it.
The freeholders were named as David BARBER and David MCCULLOGH while one of the lessees named is Alex DAVYSON who got a lease on 02 December 1618 on land called Glasdromen for the term of his own life and that of his wife Jennet.
James Adair’s (1775) ‘The history of the American Indians’ is considered one of the finest histories of the Native Americans, although he devotes some space to his belief that they were the lost tribes of Israel.
The sub-title gives an idea of the breadth of coverage with the book:
‘Those nations adjoining to the Mississippi, East and West Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina and Virginia containing an account of their origin, language, manners, religious and civil customs, laws, form of government, punishments, conduct in war and domestic life, their habits, diet, agriculture, manufactures, diseases and method of cure and other particulars … with observations on former historians, the conduct of our colony Governors, Superintendents, Missionaries, etc. Also an Appendix containing a description of the Florida, and the Mississippi lands with their productions – the benefits of colonising Georgiana, and civilizing the Indians – And the way to make all the Colonies more valuable to the Mother Country.’
James Robert ADAIR was thought to have been born in County Antrim, Ireland Abt. 1709 and to have gone to the colonies in 1730 with his father Thomas and three brothers. He settled first in Pennsylvania and later in Charleston, South Carolina. [i] James traded with different Indian tribes including the Catawba, the Cherokee, the Chickasaw and the Choctaw.
Robert Young’s (1896) ‘Historical Notices of Old Belfast and its Vicinity’ is a collection of transcripts of manuscripts that includes the Depositions in the case of the Island Magee Witches, 1710 and a biography of Mary Ann McCracken amongst other gems.
The Internet Archive - it's not just books
The Internet Archive isn’t just books – it also has a broad range of other resources:
· Wayback Machine – has more that 424 billion web pages saved over time.
· Moving Image Archive – this library contains movies, films and videos that range from classic full-length films to news broadcasts, to cartoons and concerts. You can also upload your own movies.
· Audio Archive – this library contains recordings ranging from alternative news programming to Grateful Dead concerts, to Old Time Radio Shows to book and poetry readings. You can also upload your own audio.
· TV News Archive – allows you to view clips from nearly 2million shows since 2009 and to borrow a DVD of any full show.
· The Internet Archive Software Collection – is the largest vintage and historical software library in the world providing instant access to millions of programmes, CD-ROM images, documentation and multi-media.
· The Image Library – contains digital images ranging from maps to astronomical imagery to photos of artwork, many of which are available for free download.
· Live Music Archive – contains high quality live concerts in a downloadable format and on-demand streaming.
National Emergency Library
Due to libraries and universities closing down temporarily because of the Coronavirus, Internet Archive has suspended waitlists for the 1.4 million books in their lending library – this suspension will run through to 30 June 2020 or the end of the US national emergency, whichever is later.
During the waitlist suspension, users will be able to borrow books from the National Emergency Library without joining a waitlist, ensuring that students will have access to assigned readings and library materials that the Internet Archive has digitized for the remainder of the US academic calendar, and that people who cannot physically access their local libraries because of closure or self-quarantine can continue to read and thrive during this time of crisis, keeping themselves and others safe.
This is in addition to the free public access to 2.5 million fully downloadable public domain books, which do not require waitlists to view at Internet Archive.
Google Books has a good range of eBooks that you can download and save into your own Google Play library. Many of the out of print books are free while you can also buy books and download them.
John Burke’s (1847) ‘A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland’ Vol 1, A - L and (1850) Vol 2, P - Z is freely available as are both volumes of Samuel Lewis’s (1837) ‘Topographical Dictionary of Ireland’. (Vol 1, A - G) and (Vol 2, H - Z) Lewis’s books are a fascinating glimpse of our towns and villages nearly 200 year ago and well worth investigating.
Several pages are devoted to Belfast but even small villages and parishes get an entry, often giving a history of the area and an explanation of where the name originated. My hometown of Ballymena, County Antrim has an entry over two pages that provides information about events in the town during the 1798 Rebellion and discusses the courts, the linen industry, markets, fairs, churches, schools and names some of the local worthies.
Lewis provides an alternative name of Ballymania but this seems to be an attempt to spell the town’s name in the Ulster-Scots dialect that would have been used by most locals. I would spell the local pronunciation as Ballaminnah. [ii]
The Hathi Trust has millions of books freely available and also references the libraries where books may be found if they are not digitised. There is a useful variety of genealogy books, family histories, etc, many of which have an Irish focus.
Those who have Scots-Irish / Ulster-Scots ancestry will be particularly interested in George Fraser Black’s (1962) ‘The Surnames of Scotland, their origin, meaning and history’. This work is still considered a key text for researching Scottish ancestor’s surnames.
Family Search Digital Library
Perhaps less well known, but nonetheless a valuable addition to the online library offerings, the Family Search Digital Library has a genealogy focus and describes itself as ‘the largest genealogical library in the world’.
It is actively digitising family histories, local histories and other collections to make them searchable and available to researchers worldwide.
It has partnered with institutions and organisation such as the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Centre, Arizona State Library, Birmingham Public Library, Brigham Young Family History Library, Houston Public Library, Dallas Public Library, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Midwest Genealogy Center, Onondaga County Public Library, Ontario Ancestors, St Louis County Library and University of Florida Library.
There are different access levels and some books are classified ‘Protected’ – in other words they are not publicly available, most likely because they are still in copyright and therefore cannot be made freely available.
Some interesting and freely available Irish themed books in this digital library include Olive Armstrong’s (1923) ‘Edward Bruce’s Invasion of Ireland’ along with various family histories, heraldic volumes and church histories.
Project Gutenberg offers over 61,000 free e-books available to download as well as a range of periodicals. You can find here Cyril Falls's (1922) ‘The History of the 36th (Ulster) Division’ and John O’Rourke’s (1847) ‘The History of the Great Irish Famine of 1847 with Notices of Earlier Irish Famines’.
This is a very useful site that enables you to search over 80,000 genealogy books – searching can be by name, location, date range or title of a publication - this site is well worth a visit.
Viewing up to three books a week is free, but they ask for a small donation of $3 to view an unlimited number of books for a month, or $20 to view an unlimited number of books for a year.
Free Irish Ebooks - Index
This site provides an index and link to over 5,000 free eBooks and journals on the topics of Irish history, biography and genealogy, most of which can be downloaded for free.
Northern Ireland Libraries
Northern Ireland Libraries have been closed since 18 March 2020 due to the Coronavirus, but you can still access eBooks, audio books and magazines for free. They have over 17,000 eBooks and over 160 eMagazines to choose from. You can join online and the only stipulation is that you must live, work or study in Northern Ireland.
Within the Republic of Ireland, Libraries Ireland provides access to eBooks, audiobooks, eMagazines, online courses and online newspapers. Libraries Ireland are also currently closed due to Coronavirus but you can join up online and access the resources for free.
With these Top 10 Sources of Free eBooks you now have a huge range of information and potential sources at your fingertips, all without leaving the house. Do let me know how you get on and if you’ve uncovered any useful information about your Irish ancestors by using these sources.
About the Author
Natalie Bodle, a native of Northern Ireland is the author of the Roots Blog and founder of Roots Revealed. She is a professionally qualified genealogist and is a member of APG. She is also a qualified tour guide and a member of TGNI.
Roots Revealed provides genealogy research services to clients who are searching for their Irish, Northern Irish and Scots-Irish ancestors, in addition to genealogy tours and family history courses. For more information about the full range of services provided by Roots Revealed, please visit www.rootsrevealed.co.uk or get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] NCPedia. Smith, Maud Thomas. (1979) Adair, James Robert, ca. 1709-ca.1787. https://www.ncpedia.org : accessed 27 March 2020. [ii] Lewis, Samuel. (1837) A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland. Vol 1. Pp.148-49. London: S. Lewis & Co. https://books.google.co.uk/