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Sean Hayes

Trouble seemed to follow Sean Hayes’ ancestors down generations and even over an ocean. But trouble, especially when it led to clashes with the law, became a lynchpin in uncovering Sean’s story.

Researching ancestors in Ireland has always required some creativity due to the loss of 19th-century census returns. Censuses are a staple in U.S. research, and researching families in Ireland without them can be a challenge. But it can also lead to the discovery of some very fascinating alternative records. One of these is the Petty Sessions Court records.

The Petty Sessions Courts were organized in Ireland in the 1820s, but most areas don’t have records available until about the 1850s. Most court districts have records available between the 1840s or 1850s and 1913. These courts were held on the local level and mainly dealt with minor crimes and squabbles between individuals within the court district.

Sean Hayes’s great-great grandfather Patrick Hayes lived in County Kerry, Ireland, between 1842 and 1923. Typically, records available for Patrick would include baptism, marriage, death, and perhaps a few taxation records. However, with the Petty Sessions Court records, we were able to locate Patrick in more than 100 additional contemporary records! These records told about his life in Ballylongford as a boatman and gave us loads of personal detail about his life that basic birth, marriage, and death records don’t generally contain.

For example, after the death of his first wife, Patrick Hayes’s appearances in court increased dramatically. It seems he was greatly affected by the loss of his wife and may have responded by getting himself into trouble. Patrick remarried about seven years after his first wife died. The Petty Sessions Court records show Patrick filing assault charges against two of his young adult children around the time Patrick remarried. Is it possible that the fighting had something to do with their soon-to-be stepmother?

For Sean Hayes, the Petty Sessions Court records brought his ancestors to life by providing unexpected and stark details about their day-to-day interactions with each other and their community. Petty Sessions Court records have the potential to help anyone researching in Ireland to find exciting and colorful details about their ancestors’ lives—whether trouble dogged their footsteps or not.

Tips from AncestryProGenealogists:

When researching in the Petty Sessions Court records, it’s helpful to keep the following things in mind:

  • It’s important to first know the specific location or townland where your ancestor lived. Due to the commonality of both given names and surnames in Ireland, you’ll need a specific town or townland to be able to differentiate your ancestor from everyone else. For example, there were over 300 entries in the Petty Sessions Court records for men named Patrick Hayes just in County Kerry. Knowing he was from Ballylongford was essential in narrowing down which entries pertained to Sean’s ancestor.
  • If it is difficult to narrow down which results pertain to your ancestor, it may be helpful to research extended family members, such as siblings or cousins. Maybe a sibling will have a less common given name than your direct ancestor and can be identified in records more easily.


Learn more about Sean's journey or watch episode recaps from previous seasons on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 10|9c on TLC.

Research Manager on Project:

Kyle J. Betit

Project Hours:


As an avid traveler and the manager of Ancestry’s travel program, Kyle enjoys taking people on ancestral journeys, whether it is on a group heritage tour or to visit their exact ancestral homes. Kyle is an expert genealogist, lecturer, and author residing in Salt Lake City, Utah. He grew up in Juneau, Alaska, where he started researching his family history at the age of 9, under his grandmother’s tutelage. By age 16 he was working for a genealogy company in Salt Lake City. Kyle began traveling regularly to Europe for genealogy research in 1993. Kyle is one of the co-founders of ProGenealogists. His research interests include Ireland, Eastern Europe, Catholic research, and genetic genealogy.


Kyle has appeared on the “Who Do You Think You Are?” television program with Bill Paxton, Trisha Yearwood, Chris Noth, and Scott Foley, among others, and he has worked on many other episodes, such as those for Matthew Broderick, Rosie O’Donnell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jason Sudeikis, Chelsea Handler, and Cindy Crawford. He was a co-editor of the popular genealogy journal The Irish At Home and Abroad, and he is co-author of A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Irish Ancestors. He lectures widely in North America and Europe.