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Unpuzzling Ireland's Church Records

Updated: Oct 20, 2019

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

   Once you have worked through Irish Civil Registration and arrived at the period prior to 1864, you’ll want to begin working through church records.  If they exist, church records may be the only record our Irish ancestors left.  In the past, finding and accessing them presented a challenge however, the digitization and indexing of these records over the past five years has made this process much easier.

   The first thing you need to decide is your ancestor’s  denomination.  Since Ireland is now and always has been primarily Roman Catholic you may think that’s an easy question, but it may not be.

    Take me for example. I was baptized Methodist, but raised in the Congregational Church. I remember coming home from Sunday School at the Congregational Church to pick up my younger sister and take her to the Methodist Church to be baptized.  I also frequently attended the Presbyterian Church with my grandmother.  In high school I decided to join the Episcopal Church. I was confirmed there and also married my Roman Catholic husband there.  Two of my daughters were baptized in the Catholic Church and one in the Episcopal Church.  They were all confirmed Episcopalian.  A few years ago I requested a copy of my husband’s Catholic baptismal certificate and discovered the record of our marriage was noted on the back (since he required a dispensation to be married in the Episcopal church).  Good luck to anyone in the future who tries to find my religious records…and I’m not all that unusual, especially when looking for  Protestant records.  We Protestants tend to shop more for our churches either as a matter of convenience…what’s the closest church, or who’s got the best preacher.😀 You need to be open minded when researching religious records.

   So where do you start?  In order to find church records in Ireland (or just about any other record) you need to know the locality, preferably the townland, but at least the civil parish.  Once you know the locality you can determine the ecclesiastical  parish (which would likely be the same as the civil parish for the Church of Ireland but might be different for the Roman Catholic parish). John Grenham’s IrishAncestors site provides information on the church records of all denominations and the dates covered.  Go to the SiteMap and select the Civil Parish Maps>select the county>select the parish>in the right select church records. For more information on John's excellent site I wrote two blogs last year, "IrishAncestors(when you know the county)" and "IrishAncestors (when you know the locality)."

To save yourself a lot a time and aggravation, find out what dates are available! If your ancestor was Roman Catholic and born about 1805 in Annahilt, there are no records. No matter how many times you search, they are not going to be there! You need to change your research question. Prior to 1801 my Presbyterian ancestors attended 1st Boardmills in Saintfield Parish. The records have been transcribed back to 1782. Stewart Moag, the 4th child of John Moag and Mary Petticrew is listed as born in 1783. No matter how many times I search, I'm not going to find the names of children 1 - 3, because there are no records!


 When looking for the information on a place in Ireland check all records your ancestors left, and not just their records, but those of their siblings or other family members, witnesses, neighbors, etc.  Frequently someone other than your direct ancestor left the important information as to their townland in Ireland.  If you haven’t read my blog from February 25th, “Getting Started on This Side of the Pond,” check it out for additional ideas.

   It’s also very important to understand that religion in Ireland was a political issue as well as a spiritual one.  Understanding the history of Ireland will help put religious records (or lack of them) in context and may explain why records are not where you expect them to be. Therefore a brief look at the history of Ireland may help you understand their church records.

  • 1537 - Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the Church of England (Anglican)

  • 1541 - Henry VIII became King of Ireland

  • 1560 - Church of Ireland became the State Church under Elizabeth I

  • 1605-1609 - Plantation of Ulster began

  • 1634 - Law passed requiring Church of Ireland registers to be kept (mostly ignored)

  • 1637 - Presbyterian worship was suppressed by the Church of Ireland

  • 1695 - Laws for the Suppression of Popery (the Penal Laws)

  • 1719 - Toleration Act protected Protestant dissenters

  • 1772-1795 - Catholic Relief Acts began to restore rights taken away under the Penal Laws

  • 1782 - Act validating marriages performed by Presbyterian ministers

  • 1819 - Presbyterian ministers required to keep records

  • 1829 - Catholic Emancipation

  • 1869 - Church of Ireland disestablished as the State Church

  • 1876 - Law required Church of Ireland registers to be stored at the Public Record Office in Dublin

  • 1878 - Storage law amended to churches with suitable storage facilities to keep their registers

  • 1922 - Fire at the Public Records Office destroys records stored there

   So that in a nutshell, is the history of the religious and political strife that continues in some areas up to today in Ireland.  By studying religious history in general, and denominations in particular you will learn about the conditions that affected your ancestors lives, as well as the possibility of finding church records.

   Because of the Penal Laws, religious registers, other than the Church of Ireland were generally not kept until the latter part of the 18th Century when the Catholic Relief Acts were passed.  Most registers for rural areas, however, and especially for the west of Ireland don’t begin until well into the 19th Century. In the case of my Daly line in Kilvine in County Mayo, the records don't start until 1870...after Civil Registration. No matter what you believe is your ancestors religious affiliation, it’s important to check any Church of Ireland registers that survive in the areas where your ancestors lived for marriages and deaths.  Prior to the 1780s, the only legal marriages in Ireland were performed by Church of Ireland clergy. Because “dissenters” didn’t have burial grounds, some were buried from the Church of Ireland.  This is true especially if the family was better off.  You also might also find the oldest son of a Catholic family joining the Church of Ireland in order to be able to inherit the land.

   In the 1861 census (which was destroyed in the fire) statistics show that Irish religious affiliation was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic…77% and this was 8 years prior to the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland.  The Church of Ireland was next, coming in a distant second at just under 12% of the population; then Presbyterians at 9% primarily located in Ulster.  Methodists represented less than 1% and others also at less than 1%, included Quakers, Baptists and Jews.

In addition to the IrishAncestors website, below are some additional resources for church records. Most of the books can be found in a library which has a good genealogical collection that includes Ireland.

Over the next few weeks I'll delve into more details on the major religions in Ireland.

    Happy Hunting!

Grenham, John. Tracing Your Irish Ancestors: The Complete Guide, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Baltimore, 2012, 4th Edition.*

Mitchell, Brian.  A Guide to Irish Parish Registers, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Baltimore, 2009.

*The 5th edition of John's book is due out in April in Ireland. John will be attending NGS this year and hopes the US publisher will have his book available by then. I will let you know as soon as it is available in the US.

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