Updated: Oct 20, 2019
Last week I discussed Wills and Administrations before 1858 when they were managed by the State Church, the Church of Ireland. Beginning in 1858, the responsibility for matters of probate was transferred from the ecclesiastical or church courts to the civil courts. The Principal Registry was set up in Dublin with eleven other district registries set up around the country. (Brian Mitchell’s A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland lists the probate registries by county on the Poor Law page.) The registry would make a copy of the will or administration in a Will and Admon book, and after 20 years the books were sent to the Public Record Office. A Calendar or index of the probate grants or administrations was kept with names listed in alphabetical order.
As is the story with so many Irish records, the original wills and books, sent to the Public Record Office were lost in the PRO fire in 1922. That includes almost all of the records for the Principal Registry (Dublin and Kildare). Some of the district registry books have survived, but for the most part, we are left with only the Calendars or indexes. These Calendars contain information about the testator (name, address, total effects), the date of death, the date and place of probate or grant of administration, names of beneficiaries/executor and possibly their relationship. Usually the marital status of women is mentioned. One comment about the date of probate, it could happen years after the death, so don’t stop searching within a year of death. Also, note that the material was not transferred to the Public Record Office until 20 years after their creation, so wills probated after 1901 may have survived (as well as where the Registries were slow to send their books, some earlier wills survive).
The indexes for these post-1858 wills are in multiple places. The National Archives of Ireland has the Calendar of Wills and Administrations 1858-1920 online. This database covers all of Ireland until 1917. Beginning in 1918, it only covers the 26 counties of the Republic. Above is a sample page from the Will Calendars. The first entry on the page shows that James Moughty, a Merchant and Farmer of Westmeath, died 17 February 1905 and that his will was probated at the Principal Registry (Dublin) on 16 Mar 1905 to Patrick Moughty. The value of his estate was £1,784. Is there more information? Since it is after 1901, I requested a copy of the will from the National Archives (when I was in Dublin). The wills are not kept at the National Archives and have to be ordered up from the Four Courts so it takes an extra day. I returned to the Archives and was able to see the will. I do not have an image of the will as I found it in the early 2000's (I'll have to correct that this October) but I transcribed it. From it I learned that James' eldest son, Patrick, received his land; that his second son Michael was in Buenos Aires and if he didn't return within three years, the land left to him was to be sold and the proceeds go to to his daughter Mrs. Annie Feeney, also in Buenos Aires. He had a life insurance policy on his son Bernard, which when payable was to be divided between his son Herbert (Hugh) in Australia and daughter Annie Feeney in Buenos Aires. The executors were his son Patrick and Daniel Flood (see blog here on the Flood family, although I haven't discovered if there is a familial link). Wow! Lots of information, married names of daughters, locations in Argentina and Australia. It's also interesting for what it doesn't mention...a son, James who was a priest and a daughter, Mary Jane who took the name Sister Mary Gertrude, a nun. James is not in the direct line of my husband, but a great uncle. As a merchant, he left a large cache of records that were not available in the direct line and in part allowed me to reconstruct this family back into the 1700s. I was also able to follow up in newspapers and found a number of Auctions of his properties.
For the six counties of Northern Ireland after 1918, you need to go to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) for wills and administrations for the registries of Belfast, Armagh and Londonderry. The database at PRONI covers 1858-1965, so you will find an overlap for the counties of Northern Ireland occurring both at the National Archives and PRONI prior to 1917. For example, the admon (administration) for William Moag who died 20 September 1879 was issued on 28 January 1891. Note the amount of time between his death and administration. The administration was done just 2 months before his wife, Mary, emigrated with all but two of the children that hadn't already settled in the US. The land passed to James Rush (Rush was Mary's maiden name) according to the Revision Books and I'm trying to work the James Rush family back to discover the connection. Based on his age, James could be a nephew or cousin. Here is the index image from the PRONI database but it is also in the database at the National Archives.
In this case there was no image of the document, but I did find an online image for the will of John Moag who died in 1908 in the PRONI database. (This John was the son of Stewart Moag.). PRONI has not imaged all of their wills...this is an ongoing process. Also, as I've mentioned in the past, one of the things that makes PRONI unique is their attempt to find alternate sources for documents lost in the 1922 PRO fire in private papers. In some cases they were able to obtain copies of wills from solicitors, so you may be lucky enough to find an older document.
Here's another anomaly to be aware of. Above I mentioned that the Calendar at the National Archives covers all of Ireland until 1917. Ireland wasn’t partitioned until 1922, so you may find probate documents for some of the border counties (Louth, Monaghan, Cavan) probated in Northern Ireland. Don’t forget to check both locations. The Will of my great grandfather, James Sprague of Dundalk in Louth, was probated in the Armagh Registry and appears in the PRONI index with an image.
You can also find some of the will calendars at Ancestry (use the card catalog and search on Ireland Wills) and FindMyPast (Calendar of Wills and Administrations 1858-1920). What I like about FindMyPast is that their index includes the names of executors or others named in the will. If John Moag was named as an executor on the will of John Dawson this could be the hint you need to determine that Dawson might be the maiden name of his wife.
You may be thinking that your ancestors left before 1858, or that they didn’t have a will. Look for wills for family members that remained in Ireland. These can frequently help identify family members and may even mention your ancestor, already in America.
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