Research Help: Irish Church Records Explanation

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Parish Records

Before the commencement of civil registration in Ireland, parish records are the most important source of information for those researching their ancestry. There is, however, much confusion amongst genealogists and historians concerning the existence or availability of Irish parish records.

The first problem is identifying which records exist for a particular area and the period covered. A parish is an administrative unit, be it civil or religious. In general, the Church of Ireland parish boundaries follow those of the civil parish. However, during the 18th and 19th centuries many new parishes were formed (particularly in urban areas) and some old parishes were united as a result of falling populations. Many of these changes are recorded in Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1838). The boundaries of Roman Catholic parishes can be difficult to define as, on the whole, they do not conform to those of the Church of Ireland or to civil parishes. Another problem is that the names of Roman Catholic parishes not only differ from those of civil and Church of Ireland parishes, but may also be known by several names.

In Ireland Protestant dissenters, such as Methodists and Presbyterians, do not conform to a parish structure, but are Congregational in their church government. In ordinary terms, this means that their followers were not (generally) tied to attending any particular church, chapel or meetinghouse.

In where the name of a Minister or Priest is known, but not to which parish or congregation he was attached, it is worthwhile consulting the various published directories of the various denominations. The Irish Catholic Directory was first published in 1836; the earliest directory for the Church of Ireland was published in 1814 as the Ecclesiastical Registry by Samuel Percy Lea; the first Irish Presbyterian Directory was published in 1840 as McComb’s Presbyterian Almanac; the minutes of the annual conferences of Irish Methodists have been published from 1746.

Registers

The information contained in parish registers differs, depending not only on the denomination concerned, but also upon the individual who maintained the register. Among Disstenters and Roman Catholics, many registers were simply notebooks and on the death of the minister or priest were often considered that person’s personal property and passed out of the hands of the church. While other register books were in a printed format (particularly so in the Church of Ireland), often all the details that were meant to be inserted were not. Another point to remember is that while many registers were written neatly, some others can be extremely difficult to read.

The information recorded in Irish parish registers will usually include:
* Baptism – Name of the child and date of baptism and birth (usually only date of baptism in early registers), names of the father and mother and their home address. In Roman Catholic registers the mother’s maiden name is normally recorded and the names of least two Godparents. In Church of Ireland registers, the father’s occupation may be recorded.
* Marriage – Usually record the names of both parties and the home address of each and the names and addresses of at least two witnesses. From the middle of the 1850s Roman Catholic registers (particularly in urban areas) often record both parents’ names and their address. In Church of Ireland registers, before the advent of civil registration, the name of the bride’s father is far more likely to be recorded than ever that of the groom. Protestant Dissenters often married in the Church of Ireland because of the legal implications relating to the validity in law of marriage. [Jane – refer here to ‘See also section on Civil Registration’].
* Burial – The name of the deceased and the home address and date of burial. Church of Ireland registers will often include the deceased’s age, occupation and cause of death. More often than not Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters failed to maintain any type of burial records.

Roman Catholic Records

There are very few Catholic records which pre-date 1800. Those that do tend to relate to urban areas and were begun in the very late eighteenth century. In general, records date from the 1820’s-30’s. Few parishes have maintained burial records.

Most Roman Catholic parishes contain a parish church and a number of other smaller churches or chapels. Usually only one register will have been kept for the whole parish, but occasionally it might be found that each church or chapel has its own register. Establishing into which Roman Catholic parish a rural Irish address falls (especially those taken from civil registration records) can be difficult. The best and most reliable source is the Topographical Dictionary of Ireland by Samuel Lewis, which was published first in 1837. For example, having established that Balgeeth townland falls into the civil parish of Ardcath, in Co. Meath, by looking up the entry for the civil parish of Ardcath in Lewis one finds the description: “In the R.C. divisions the parish is the head of a union or district which comprises also the parish of Clonalvy and part of Piercetown, and contains two chapels, situated respectively at Ardcath and Clonalvy…” Thus, we have discovered that the whole of the civil parish of Ardcath falls into the Roman Catholic parish of the same name. The registers of Ardcath R.C. parish date from 1795.

The National Library of Ireland(NLI) has microfilmed almost all of Ireland’s Roman Catholic parish registers up to the year 1880 (and in more recent times filming has been extended to approximately 1900). Microfilm copies of the NLI’s Roman Catholic parish registers for the the six counties of Northern Ireland are also held at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in Belfast. PRONI also has copies for most of the parishes in counties Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, which are part of the province of Ulster, and some for counties Louth and Leitrim (which border Ulster).

Church of Ireland Records

The Church of Ireland, the state church in Ireland, was disestablished in 1869, and from the 1st January 1871 it became an entirely voluntary body. Under the direction of the Irish Master of the Rolls, and through the Parochial Records (Ireland) Act of 1875, it declared that marriage registers dated pre-1845, and baptismal and burial records pre-1871 were public records and should be deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland in Dublin. Some parishes parishes opposed this decision and there was a further Act passed in 1876 which allowed records to remain in local custody, provided there was provision made for their safe keeping in the form of a fire-proof safe.

By 1922, the records of 1,006 Church of Ireland parishes had been deposited in the Irish Public Record Office, while a further 637 parishes kept their records in local custody. When the Public Record Office was consumed by fire during the Irish civil war in 1922, all but four sets of registers were completely destroyed. The first thing that people hear when they begin Irish research is that all Irish Church of Ireland parish records were destroyed in 1922, but the above figures show that over one third survived.

This was a loss to all, not just members of the Church of Ireland, because these registers also contained information on both Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters.

The privileged position of the Church, up to about 1800, gave it the exclusive right to administer the rites of baptism, marriage and burial. In reality, an ‘official’ blind-eye was turned and the non-Anglican denominations baptized, married and buried their own (although in large urban areas most burials came under some sort of notice of the Church of Ireland as that church controlled almost all urban graveyards and would thus be recorded in Church of Ireland parish registers).

The best publication to consult to establish the current situation relating to Church of Ireland parish registers is ‘A Table of Church of Ireland Parochial Records and Copies’, edited by Noel Reid and published by the Irish Family History Society in 1994. A typical entry records the name of the parish, the years for which the records were extant up to 1922, whether they survived and where they are now held (in original form, microfilm or transcript). However, bear in mind that this publication dates from 1994 and is now out of date in places.

Only the records of baptism, marriage and burial were covered by the Parochial Records Act (1875), all other records kept by Anglican parishes remained in local custody. In more recent years many parishes from the Irish Republic have deposited their records at the Representative Church Body Library, Dublin (which is a stated place of deposit for Church of Ireland records under the 1987 National Archives Act. The types of records, other than registers of vital events, which can be of use to family historians are such items as vestry minutes, confirmation rolls, lists of names of parishioners.

Methodist Church Records

When John Wesley came to Dublin in 1747 shortly after Methodism had been planted in Ireland. Those who joined Methodist societies were from all Protestant denominations, but in doing so remained in full membership with their own churches.

There was a split in Irish Methodism in 1816/1817 over the issue of retaining loose links with the Church of Ireland and the administering by Methodist preachers of the rite of baptism (and to a lesser extant that of marriage). The result was that two bodies emerged, the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion (now a formal church) which from then on allowed its preachers to baptize and marry; and the Primitive Wesleyan Methodist Connexion, which held that its members should still subscribe to the Church of Ireland to the rites of baptism, marriage and communion. However, after the distebalishment of the Church of Ireland, the split between these two bodies appeared to matter little and in 1878 they united to become the Methodist Church in Ireland.

Other branches of Methodism include the Primitive Methodist Connexion, which began in England in 1812, and which was also established in Ireland from 1832; The Rev. John McClure, amongst others, is credited with bringing the Methodist New Connexion to Ireland when he began preaching in Dublin in the autumn of 1800. One year later, in the New Connexion conference minutes, Dublin is referred to as a circuit.

Irish Wesleyan Methodists only began keeping registers of baptism and marriage from the time of the split in 1816/1817, before that one should expect to find relevant records of these events amongst the records of the Church of Ireland (and to a lesser extent the various Presbyterian churches). Primitive Wesleyan Methodists did not begin to perform (and thus record) the rites of baptism and marriage until shortly before the Irish Methodist union in 1878.

Registers are usually maintained on a circuit basis, and their start dates tend to be somewhere between 1816/17 and c1830. A further source for baptismal records of Irish Wesleyan Methodists is the Irish Wesleyan Methodist Connexional Baptismal Register. This record is an official church transcript, compiled during the mid-nineteenth century, of almost all of the then surviving baptismal registers for the various circuits. It covers the period c1815 to c1845. It can be seen on microfilm in both the National Library of Ireland and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Very few Irish Methodist churches have burial grounds.

Most of the Methodist churches from the six counties of Northern Ireland, (Armagh, Antrim, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry (Derry) and Tyrone) have had their registers and other records microfilmed by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). PRONI has also filmed many, but not all, Methodist records from the counties of Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan, which are in the Irish Republic.

Presbyterian Church Records

Presbyterianism was introduced into Ireland in the seventeenth century by ‘planters’ from Scotland. (An explanation of ‘planter’s and plantations in Ireland is in preparation) It should be remembered that the Penal Laws applied to all those who were not members of the Church of Ireland, the state church in Ireland. However, while other Penal Laws remained in force, after the passing of the Irish Toleration Act in 1719, all forms of Protestant dissenting public worship was legalised. Information on Presbyterians can also to be found in the registers and records of the Church of Ireland. While most rural Presbyterian congregations had burial grounds, few maintained burial registers until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

As many Irish towns, particularly in the north of Ireland, had more than one Presbyterian church, to differentiate between each congregation to terms ‘First’, ‘Second’ and ‘Third’ were employed, i.e. Ballymena First, Ballymena Second. A number of congregations existing in a town might have been the result of some historical dispute over doctrine, the choice of minister, or simply because a congregation had grown too big and needed new accommodation.

There were a number of Presbyterian traditions in Ireland, the main ones being the Synod of Ulster and the Seceding Presbyterians (both of which now form a part of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland; the Synods of Munster and Dublin which are in union with the Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church in Ireland; the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Ireland; the Covenanters; and a number of small divisions.

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) has microfilmed almost all of the surviving registers for the Presbyterian congregations of the nine counties of Ulster, Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry (Derry) and Tyrone. A number of early original Presbyterian registers and records are held by the Presbyterian Historical Society for congregations from both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)

This society began in Ulster in the mid-17th century, mainly around Lurgan, Co. Armagh and Lisburn in Co. Antrim and birth, marriage and burial information exists from that time.

Abstracts were made of all monthly meetings from 1860 forward. These abstracts are located in the Dublin Friends Historical Library (DFHL) and are retrospective to the 1670’s. National Abstract Registers have been maintained in Dublin since 1859.

The DFHL holds the following: the registers, minute books and archival material belonging to each monthly meeting; private papers, family photographs, and diaries.

Prof Theodore Moody (TCD)( 1907-1984) created a reference system for Society in 1984, arranging that microfilms of the Ulster province archives were given to the DHFL, and the Lisburn Archives.

Some References:

Methodist Records:

ffeary-Smyrl, Steven C. Exploring Irish Genealogy, No. 1. Irish Methodists – Where do I start? published by the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations, Dublin 2000. ISSN: 1393-9645

Quaker Records:

Goodbody, Olive: Guide to Irish Quaker Records, 1654-1860
Eustace, P.B & Goodbody, O. Quaker Records, Dublin, Abstracts of Wills (2 vols.) Irish Manuscripts Commission 1954-58.

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