Irish Church Records
Parish registers are the most important source of information on Irish family history prior to the commencement of the civil registration of births, deaths and marriages in 1864. Prior to this parish registers may contain the only surviving record of a particular individual or family and can supply evidence of direct links between one generation and the next (via baptismal registers) and one family and another (via marriage registers).
Following the reformation Catholicism remained the predominant religion in Ireland however until 1869 the ‘official’ religion in Ireland was the Protestant Church of Ireland. The deterioration in the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Pope Pius V, led to the passing of a series of Penal Laws. These sought to discriminate against Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters (such as Presbyterians), in favour of members of the established Church of Ireland. The church and the state could not be separated and religious affiliation assumed a great political significance. Further discriminatory legislation was imposed over the next 150 years forbidding Roman Catholics etc to hold property, maintain schools, follow certain occupations, hold public office or vote. Fines for non-attendance at Church of Ireland services were also imposed.
By the mid 18th century the Penal Laws were no longer being enforced and between 1778 and 1829 a series of Catholic Relief Acts repealed these penalties, leading to a gradual improvement in the status of Catholics and other non-conformists. The main records of the parish used by family historians are baptisms, marriages and burials. Information given in the records will vary depending on the actual religion but can include:
Baptisms: Name of child and both parents (sometimes mother’s maiden name) date of baptism, and sometimes names of sponsors or godparents.
Marriage: Names of the spouses and witnesses plus date and place of marriage. Other information such as the names of the parent(s), residences, ages, occupations etc may also be recorded.
Burial: Name of person, date of burial and sometimes their age.
As the penal laws prevented those not members of the established church from maintaining their own burial grounds most burials were recorded in Church of Ireland burial grounds. More details about the various churches in Ireland and the exact records they generated can be found in James Ryan’s Irish Church Records.
Church of Ireland
The records of the Church of Ireland are unique amongst the Christian churches of Ireland, as they not only chronicle that religious denomination but also the transactions of a part of the machinery of government. The Church of Ireland parish was a unit of local government, its courts the centre of matrimonial and testamentary jurisdiction and its clergy often important officers of state.
Membership of the established church was a necessity for those wishing to attain public office and own land. Thus not only were people attracted by theological reasoning but also out of political, social or economical expediency.
From 1634 there was a legal obligation for the Church of Ireland to keep proper records of birth, death and marriages, however few survive from this period. Under the Public Records Act 1867 and 1875 Church of Ireland registers (marriages pre 1845; burials and baptisms pre 1871) were declared public records. Registers could be retained in parochial custody if there was adequate storage. Half of the registers deposited in Dublin were destroyed in 1922, however much of the lost information survives in transcripts and abstracts.
Currently some registers remain in the custody of the parish, some have been deposited at Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) www.proni.gov.uk, National Archives Ireland (NAI) www.nationalarchives.ie and the Representative Church Body Library (RCB Library) Dublin. www.ireland.anglican.org/library/index.html.
The RCB Library has recently updated its list of Church of Ireland parish registers, which includes full details of what exists, the dates covered and where to locate them. For full details see: http://ireland.anglican.org/cmsfiles/pdf/AboutUs/library/registers/ParishRegistersTable.pdf.
With the relaxation of the Penal Laws, priestly duties became easier and the Catholic administration was quietly rebuilt. The re-emergence of the Catholic Church was strongest in the cities and large towns, due partly to the fact that the Penal Laws mainly disadvantaged landowners.
Catholics in towns and cities were not prevented from trading and many merchants gradually became affluent, actively funding priests and the building of churches. In contrast the majority of Catholics in rural areas were very poor, and could not afford to build churches and support the clergy until much later. Thus, whilst some town registers commence in the mid-18th century, many rural Catholic registers do not commence until after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.
The majority of original Catholic registers remain in the care of the parish priest. However many pre 1880 Catholic registers have been microfilmed and available to view at the National Library Ireland (NLI). A full list of parishes covered can be found at . These microfilms have been recently digitalized and are browsable (free) online at: http://registers.nli.ie.
PRONI also has microfilm copies for parishes in Northern Ireland including Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, and some parishes in Louth and Leitrim.
Presbyterian’s are predominantly of Scottish decent. The religious and civil persecution means that some earlier Presbyterian baptisms, marriages and burials may be found in the registers of the Church of Ireland. The earliest registers commence in 1674, but it was not until 1819 that the Synod required ministers to keep a register, a practice, which did not become widespread until the 1830’s. Many registers are still held locally.
Until 1782 it was illegal for Presbyterian ministers to perform marriages, and it was only from 1845 that they could legally marry a Presbyterian to a member of the Church of Ireland so many marriage entries may be found amongst in Church of Ireland registers.
The Presbyterian Historical Society’s library contains a great deal of manuscript material relating to Presbyterian families. For more details see http://history.pcusa.org. PRONI have also microfilmed a number of Presbyterian Church records, a list of which can be found on their website.
Although the Methodist movement commenced in the 1730’s many Methodists continued to attend the Church of Ireland church for the recording of baptisms, marriages and burials. Additionally a split in the Methodists In 1816 resulted in the Primitive Wesleyan Methodists retaining their links with the Established Church whilst the Wesleyan Methodists allowed their ministers to perform baptisms.
Most Methodist baptism registers don’t commence until the 1830’s and marriage registers until after 1845. Few burial registers exist as few Methodist churches had burial grounds. The majority of Methodist baptism and marriage registers are still held locally. However at one stage it is thought that Wesleyan ministers were required to forward baptismal details to a central register covering the whole of Ireland. A copy for those baptisms covering 1817 – 1850 is available at PRONI. PRONI also holds a full listing of surviving registers for Ulster.
The New Connexion and Primitive Methodist Connexion groups were administered from England. Thus pre-1905 New Connexion records and pre-1910 Primitive Methodist Connexion are held by The Methodist Archives and Research Centre, John Rylands University Library of Manchester. www.library.manchester.ac.uk/searchresources/guidetospecialcollections/methodist/
The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)
The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) originated in Northwest England in the mid 1600’s. The movement was brought to Ireland in 1652, initially supported by English settlers many of whom had come to Ireland with Cromwell’s armies. Initially the Quakers were concentrated of in Ulster, central Leinster, urban Wicklow and Carlow, and coastal trading centres e.g. Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Waterford.
Quakers traditionally were very good record keepers and their records generally contain a lot of information. The records are divided between the Society of Friends Historical Library Dublin http://quakers-in-ireland.ie/historical-library/. Copies of records dating from the seventeenth century can be found at PRONI.
Accessing Irish Church Records
Apart from the locations of specific religious denomination records listed above parish records can also be found on the following websites.
The Irish Family History Foundation (Roots Ireland) www.rootsireland.ie (£) provides access to an index of Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland records covering 26 of the 32 Irish counties (not all complete). Full coverage details can be found on their website.
As part of an ongoing project to give free access to parish registers, Irelands Department of Tourism, Culture and Sports Irish Genealogy website www.irishgenealogy.ie/ are placing indexes and digitalized images of Irish parish registers online. This currently includes Church of Ireland and Catholic records from Dublin, Carlow, Cork and Kerry. A listing of parishes covered can be found at www.irishgenealogy.ie/record_list.html
Ulster Historical Foundation www.ancestryireland.com has a mixture of indexes and transcriptions for Church of Ireland, Catholic and Presbyterian records for Counties Antrim and Down prior to 1900.
It is also worth checking Familysearch https://familysearch.org, Ancestry www.ancestry.co.uk and Findmypast www.findmypast.co.uk who all have a collection of various Irish Church records.
Maxwell, Ian How to trace your Irish Ancestors (howtobooks 2008)
Grenham, John Tracing your Irish Ancestors 4th Edition (Gill & Macmillan 2012)
Ryan, James G Irish Church Records (Flyleaf Press 2001)
The above article features in issue 95 (September 2015) of Irish Roots magazine.