Research Help: Civil Records Explanation

Important please note : Parish Records are NOT civil records.


Compulsory civil registration of non-Roman Catholic marriages began on April 1st, 1845. The registration of births, deaths and all marriages commenced on January 1st, 1864. The General Register Office (GRO), holds copies of all civil records for the whole of Ireland, from the commencement of registration, up to and including the year 1921. From 1922 onwards, the GRO holds copies of the records for the Republic of Ireland only, those records for the six counties of Northern Ireland are held by the Public Records Office in Belfast, Co. Antrim.

The indices are arranged in alphabetical order, and include the following information – Surname / Christian name / Name of the Registration District also known as the ‘Superintendent Registrar’s District’ (in which the birth, marriage or death took place) / Volume and page number of the register in which the entry is recorded.

Up to the end of 1877 the indices were arranged alphabetically, by year. From 1878 onwards each year was divided into quarters, January-March, April-June, July-September and October-December. The surnames for each quarter are listed alphabetically.

From 1903 onwards, the index of births included the mother’s maiden name.

If your ancestor was born, married or died in Ireland after January 1st, 1864 (and, in the case of a non Roman Catholic marriages after April 1st, 1845) the particular event should be registered. However, many births, marriages and deaths were never registered, during the earlier years.

Civil Registration – districts and indices information

Civil registration in Ireland began on April 1st,1845 with the compulsory registration of non-Catholic marriages.

The existing Poor Law Union divisions were used to designate the ‘Registration districts’ for births, marriages and deaths. The Poor Law Act of 1838 divided Ireland into Poor Law Unions each with a market town as a centre. These union boundaries were roughly 10 miles from the town and crossed parish and county borders. By 1847 there were 130 Unions. In 1851 each union was sub-divided into 6 or 7 ‘Dispensary districts’ each headed by a medical officer. Some subdivisions were designated full Union status resulting in an increase in the number of Poor Law Unions between 1845 and 1864. In later years some Poor Law Unions were dissolved owing to a decrease in the population and the townlands covered by these dissolved Unions became part of the surrounding Unions.

In 1864, civil registration of births, marriages and deaths became compulsory and at that time there were 163 Poor Law Unions(PLU’s) in Ireland. The Poor Law Union was designated the Superintendant Registrar’s District (SRD) and within each of these Districts the ‘Dispensary District’s’ were designated as the Registrar’s Disctricts, (RD’s), totalling 798 registration districts in all at that time.

The medical officers of each district were appointed as registrars. These registrars sent their quarterly returns to the Superintendent Registrar who indexed and retained copies of the registers. These registers were then copied and sent to the General Register Office in Dublin. It is from these that the master index for the entire country are compiled.

It is believed that it would be unusual for a birth to be registered in the local district without a copy being forwarded to Dublin so this master index is considered to be all inclusive. However, there have been instances of records being found in local districts which have not been found on the master index reported on Rootsweb mailing lists.

Over the years, some registrar’s districts changed and were amalgamated into nearby superintendents registrar’s districts. Various sources can help identify these changes, there is a map on the wall of the research room in the GRO, Dublin and for those who have not got access to this a book titled ‘Townlands in Poor Law Unions’ (George B. Handran, 1997) identifies changes in districts. It is necessary to remember that the designations SRO and PLU refer to the same districts.

The master indices are sorted alphabetically from 1845 (non-Catholic marriages) and 1864 (all births, marriages and deaths) until 1878. From 1878 each year was subdivided into four quarters: January-March; April-June; July-September and October-December. The surnames in each quarter are listed alphabetically. For these years therefore, it is necessary to check each quarter separately. Here it is necessary to remember that a birth, marriage or death for the period covered by any quarter may not have been registered until the following quarter. Each volume also has a section at the back to which late registrations for that year may have been added, it is necessary to check this also. It is even possible to find an event registered a few years late.

In 1879, registration of births and deaths outside the United Kingdom (remember Ireland was part of the UK until 1922) for Irish born soldiers and people emplyed in the civil service working abroad was introduced. There is a separate section at the back of each volume for such registrations.

In 1903, the format of the registration indices changed once again, from then on the surnames are listed alphabetically from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.

Births and deaths at sea which were registered are also found indexed at the back of each volume up to 1921.

Births, marriages and deaths for the 32 counties of Ireland are found indexed in the volumes of the General Registrar’s Office in Dublin up to the year 1921. From 1921 forwards, the records pertaining to the six counties of northern Ireland (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry (Derry) and Tyrone) were only sent to the General Registrar’s Office of Northern Ireland. Records of all other counties in Ireland remained the responsibility of the GRO in Dublin.

Birth records provide: The date and place of birth, given name, sex, father’s name and occupation, mother’s name, informant of birth, date of registration, signature of Registrar.

Marriage Records provide: Date and place of marriage, names of bride and groom, age, marital status (spinster, bachelor, widow, widower),occupation, place of residence at time of marriage, name and occupation of father of bride and groom, witnesses to marriage and cleryman who performed the ceremony.

After 1950, additional information is provided on marriage records as follows: dates of birth for the bride and groom replace simply age, mother’s names appear and a future address is supplied.

Death records provide: Date and place of death, name of deceased, sex, age (sometimes approximate) occupation, cause of death, informant of death (not necessarily a relative), date of registration and Registrar’s name. Even today, Irish death records do not include a maiden name for married women or date of birth for the deceased.

Registration was compulsory, it was the responsibility of the family to register births and deaths while generally the clergy registered marriages. However, regardless of this fact many births, deaths and marriages remained unregistered. A simple glance at the early register indices compared to later register indices shows this fact, the earlier registers containing fewer entries than the later ones. People may not have known about these new laws, may not have cared or quite simply may not have been able to afford the registration fee.

Nevertheless, the early indices provide us with some useful information even those whose ancestors left Ireland before registration began.

The early death registers give the age of the person who died and this can be handy in certain instances to identify those areas of a county where a surname may have occurred in earlier years, such as when someone knows that their ancestors came from a particular county but not the area in that county. If a surname is found in a few districts, and all the deaths registered in one district are of older people, and those in another of young adults and children then it is possible to assume that people had moved into that second district in the recent past and those seeking ancestors who left Ireland prior to civil registration would have a better chance of finding their ancestors in other records of the first district.

Spellings of a name can vary from district to district in the earlier indices. This may relate to the phonetics of the area, how the name sounded to those who filled in the registration forms. As we move through the various registers for each year we can begin to see standardisation in the spellings of names, but in those earlier volumes sometimes a particular spelling is found in one or two parts of the country and a different variation in others. For some, this may be their clue as to where in Ireland their ancestors may have originated from.

Each county page on this web site has links to pages with extracts from the Irish birth, marriage and death indexes. These references can be used to order photocopies or certificates from either Dublin or Belfast. Most reference extracts are random – for some surnames all references over a period of years have been taken. See each county page to link to the main reference tables.