During the 19th century a countrywide census, organized by county, then barony, then parish and finally by townland, was taken every ten years, beginning in 1821. Enumerators of the 1821 census were supposed to list all members of a household, their ages, relationship to the head, occupation and number of acres and stories of houses. Enumerators of the 1831 census were to provide the name of the head and numbers of male and female family members and servants, as well as the number of established church members, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and other Protestants. The 1841 census was the first where information was to be provided by the head of the household and both it and the 1851 census included the names of all who slept in the house the night of enumeration, their age, sex, relationship to the head, marital status, year of marriage if married, occupation, literacy and nativity. In addition, these censuses asked for information about household members who had died and members who were away; this last possibly providing useful emigration information as the head was supposed to state the country, county or city where the missing person resided and “America” was expected as a possible response.
Unfortunately, war and government blundering or indifference has resulted in the loss of most of the first six sets of nineteenth century Irish census records and the near obliteration of the last two. The first four sets of Irish census records were a casualty of the Irish Civil War. On 30 Jun 1922 the Irish Public Records Office was burned and most of its records – some dating back to the 13th century – were lost. The census returns for 1861 and 1871 were destroyed soon after they were collected, apparently by official order, but it is unknown where, when or why this occurred. Probably as a result of a paper shortage, the government ordered the pulping of the 1881 and 1891 returns during the First World War.
Fragments of the 1821 to 1851 census survived; apparently not all of the records were in the records office the night of the fire. These remnants are now held by the National Archives of Ireland. They have been microfilmed and FindMyPast.com has created an index. The microfilms can be viewed at Family History Libraries and there is a list of available fragments on the FamilySearch website. There are also searchable online databases with links to the images of the original records on the National Archives and FindMyPast.com websites. Access to the former is free; the latter requires a subscription.
FamilySearch, Irish Census Fragments Available at the Family History Library, wiki, FamilySearch.org, accessed 24 Mar 2015.
FindMyPast, Ireland Census, 1821-1851, searchable online database, findmypast.com.
National Archives of Ireland, Census of Ireland 1901/1911 and Census Fragments and Substitutes, 1821-51,
It is worth noting that ages in the nineteenth century census records are notoriously inaccurate and that the names of both people and places are subject to much variation.
In Ireland, the civil registration of births, deaths and Roman Catholic marriages did not begin until 1864, although the civil registration of non-Catholic marriages began in 1845. Up until these dates, parish registers provide the only records of most baptisms, marriages and burials. Unfortunately, church record keeping also began late in Ireland, with most registers beginning in the nineteenth century. Fortunately, most of these registers survive, either as originals or copies.
Church of Ireland records
Parish registers generally began in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, although parishes in urban areas may have registers dating back to the mid-17th century and some records exist as early as 1634. Baptismal records may provide as little as the names of the child and the father, the mother’s Christian name and the date. Sometimes the parents’ townland is given and, starting from 1820, the father’s occupation is often included. Early marriage records might provide just the names of the couple and the date. After 1845 the marriage records are the same as civil marriage records and they give the date, the couple’s names, their ages or whether they were over the age of majority, their occupations, their fathers’ names and their townlands. Burial records were rarely more than a name, a date of burial or death and the person’s townland. If the deceased was a child, its parents’ names might be given.
Roman Catholic records
Roman Catholic records begin later than Church of Ireland records, most registers begin in the 1820s, although churches in urban or Anglicized areas may have records beginning in the 18th century and the earliest record in existence is dated 1671. These records are mostly baptisms and marriages and some of the records may be in Latin. Baptismal records include the names of the child and its parents, including the mother’s maiden name, the date and the names of godparents, who were often siblings of the parents. Marriage records usually provide the names of the groom, the bride and witnesses and the date. Burial records, kept by only about twenty percent of parishes, usually provide little information – only the name of the deceased and the date.
The loss of Church of Ireland records
The Irish Church Act of 1869 disestablished the Church of Ireland in 1871 and the church’s marriage records before 1845 and its baptism and burial records before 1870 were declared the property of the state. Unless a parish could demonstrate that it could safely store the records it was required to deposit them in the Public Records Office. The records of 1,006 parishes were turned in with only 637 parishes maintaining local custody. Unfortunately, all but four sets of the original records held by the government were destroyed in the 1922 fire. It is estimated that one-half to two-thirds of the records survived however, either as originals or copies. Parishes also kept other records that are of value to a genealogist and that did not have to be turned in and these may still exist. These records include such things as vestry minute books, confirmation registers, account books, registers of the vestry and even an occasional parish census.
Finding church records in Ireland
About one-third of the original Church of Ireland registers survive and they often remain with the original churches. The Representative Church Body (RCB) Library in Dublin is the principle repository for Church of Ireland records and holds a large number of parish registers, either as originals or as microfilms.
Most original Roman Catholic registers remain with the relevant parish. In the 1950s the Catholic Church allowed the National Library of Ireland in Dublin to microfilm the registers of some 1,091 parishes with records from the 1740s. The cutoff date for microfilming was 1880, although a few later registers were included.
The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in Belfast holds microfilm copies of most parochial registers for Northern Ireland as well as some originals and records for border counties in the Republic of Ireland.
The National Archives of Ireland holds some microfilm copies of Church of Ireland parish registers. The RBC Library, the National Library of Ireland, the PRONI and the National Archives have all prepared lists of their own holdings and the RBC Library has prepared a list of the locations of Church of Ireland holdings throughout Ireland and these are available online as:
RBC Library, “A Handlist of Church of Parish Registers in the Representative Church Body Library, Dublin, www.ireland.anglican.org, 2015.
RBC Library, “Table of Church of Ireland Parish Registers Throughout Ireland (Baptisms, Marriages, Burials & Copies): What Exists, Dates Covered, Where to Find Them,” www.ireland.anglican.org, updated 15 Feb 2015.
National Library of Ireland, “List of Parish Registers on Microfilm,” National Library of Ireland, www.nli.ie.
National Archives of Ireland, “National Archives Church of Ireland Parish Registers: Microfilms,”www.nationalarchives.ie.
Finding church without going to Ireland
The FHL has microfilms of many Roman Catholic and other denomination parish registers. To see whether they have a microfilm for a particular parish, go to the Catalogue part of the Family Search website, enter the parish and click on “Search”.
Commercial and other websites are beginning to put records online. The Anglican Record Project, headed by Mark Williams is an ongoing project to digitize the Church of Ireland registers. The small, but growing, database can be searched for free on the RBC Library website.
The Anglican Record Project, www.ireland.anglican.org.
Ancestry.com currently has some Roman Catholic records online. The first two searchable databases have links to images of the records; the second two are indexes.
Ancestry.com, Ireland, four online databases, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011,2014,2011, 2011.
Select Catholic Birth and Baptism Registers, 1763-1912
Perhaps the most ambitious project is that of the Irish Family History Foundation which has been coordinating the efforts of a network of countywide genealogy centers in the indexing of parish records. The result is almost sixteen million records in an online searchable database on the RootsIreland.ie website. To see what records are available for a particular county, click on the county of interest on the map image on the homepage. Then click on “sources list …” . This gives the dates of the available baptismal, marriage and death records for each parish for different denominations. Searching the available records requires a subscription, but one-month subscriptions are available as well as longer ones.
A good way to locate Roman Catholic records, including those that are online, is through the Irish Times website.
Irish Ancestors, “Roman Catholic Records, www.irishtimes.com/ancestor.
Go to the website and click successively on “Browse” and “Roman Catholic Maps”. Click on the county of interest on the map image and then the parish. The result is a list of the existing records and where they are located, both online and off.
If a record cannot be located on a FHL microfilm or online and a trip to Ireland is not in the offing, it may be reasonable to hire a local researcher. Both the National Library of Ireland and PRONI have lists of local researchers on their websites. Alternatively, it may be worth writing to the priest or minister of the local church that is likely to hold the desired record. Their contact details can be obtained by googling the parish name. Requests are probably best made by mail or email and should be quite specific and accompanied by a promised donation.
Advice and guides
As the Church of Ireland was the Established Church until 1871, its records were theoretically the only ones with legal standing; hence, its registers often include records for people of other denominations. If the records for the parish you are interested in start late, it may be that this parish was created out of another parish and that the records of nearby parishes should be searched.
An excellent, if slightly dated, guide to Irish church records, including Presbyterian records, is an online tutorial from Family Search.
Housley, E., “Ireland Church Records,” online video, familysearch.org, 2009.
The Poor Relief Act of 1838 divided Ireland into 130 administrative districts known as poor law unions. These unions were centered on a workhouse, generally in a large town and were not necessarily related to parish and county boundaries. In the 1850s Ireland initiated a public health scheme based on these unions. The number of unions had grown to 163 and each was divided into on average of six or seven Dispensary Districts, each headed by a medical officer. In 1864 the Dispensary Districts also became Registrar’s Districts and the doctor usually became the registrar, with all of the registrars in a union supervised by the Superintendent Registrar. The registrar in each district was charged with recording births, marriages and deaths in a volume. When each volume was full, he sent it to his superintendent, who made a copy and sent the copy to the General Register Office (GRO) in Dublin. The copies were used to create centralized all-Ireland indexes.
The birth records were to contain the name and sex of the child; the date and place of birth; the names of the parents, including the maiden name of the mother; the parent’s dwelling places and the father’s occupation. The marriage records were to contain the date and place; the names, ages, marital conditions, occupations and residences of the couple and, importantly for genealogists, the names of the couple’s fathers. The death records were to contain the date and place; the name, sex, marital condition, age and occupation of the deceased; the cause of death and the duration of the final illness.
Searching the indexes of the civil records presents some challenges. There was significant variation in the spelling of nineteenth century names and the O or Mac at the front of a name might or might not be included. The limited number of common first names makes it difficult to link a record to a particular individual. The Irish Times website says that an estimated ten to 15 percent of births and marriages were not recorded.
In the Republic of Ireland the only official access to the indexes and copies of the registers is through the research room of the GRO in Dublin. There is a rather awkward pay-as-you go system where researchers first search the indexes and than use the results to try locate a record in the copies of the registers. Indexes provide the first and last name, the registration district and the volume and page number in the copies of the registers. Death indexes also have the age at death and from 1903 on, the birth indexes have the mother’s maiden name.
FamilySearch has microfilms of earlier records and indexes to a wider range. It has also put its indexes online.
FamilySearch, microfilm, Salt Lake City, UT, Genealogical Society of Utah, 1953 – 1961.
Death Records of Ireland, 1864-1870, with an Index of deaths, 1864-1921.
Family Search, Ireland, Registration Indexes, 1845-1958, online index, FamilySearch.org, accessed 2015.
Indexes can also be found on Ancestry.com.
Those interested in Northern Ireland records are more fortunate. Until recently, the only official access to the indexes and copies of the registers was through the research room of the General Register Office of Northern Ireland (GRONI) in Belfast. However, on 31 Mar 2014 GRONI put all of its records online. They can be accessed at www.nidirect.gov.uk/family-history.
Tithe Applotment Books of 1823-1837 and Tithe Dissenters Lists, 1831
The Tithe Composition Act of 1823 required Irish landowners to pay cash tithes to the Church of Ireland. While viewed as inequitable and as British oppression of those who were not members of the established church, it had the genealogically favorable side effect of necessitating a survey. The survey resulted in the Tithe Applotment Books recording the name of the landowner, his townland, the amount of land held and his tithe payable. The survey did not record city dwellers or non-land-owning laborers and there are gaps; entire parishes were not recorded. The books are available on microfilm at the National Archives, the National Library and the Church of the LDS; the books for the Ulster counties are available on microfilm at the PRONI.
In 1831 there was a widespread organized refusal to pay the tithe. Churches were compelled to file for compensation and to produce lists of those who were required to pay and who did not. Some of these lists survive. They are held by the National Archives, are available on microfiche at the National Library.
Tithe Applotment records can be viewed online at the National Archives, Family Search and Ancestry.com (index only). The Tithe Dissenters lists can be viewed online at FindMyPast.com.
Heritage World and Genealogical Publising Co., Ireland, Tithe Applotment Books, 1823-1837, online database, Provo, UT, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2008.
FindMyPast.com, 1831 Tithe Defaulters, findmypast.com, accessed 2015.
Griffith’s Valuation, mid century
In the early part of the nineteenth century, Ireland began to develop a standardized system of land taxation. As part of this process Sir Richard Griffith conducted a valuation of Irish land and the results of this process were published between 1847 and 1864. Arranged by county, barony, poor law union, civil parish and townland, the valuation provides the name of the primary occupier of each piece of land; his townland and address; the name of the person from whom the land was leased; a description of the land, is acreage and valuation. As it was common for townlands to have more than one primary occupier with the same name, valuators were told to distinguish between people with the same name by obtaining an agnomen, or additional name. The additional name that is provided is typically the person’s father, although it might be his occupation.
Copies of Griffith’s valuation are available in their original format or on microfilm at libraries or from the Church of the LDS. These records are widely available online. Ancestry.com has an index with links to images. AskAboutIreland.ie has a particularly nice free search with links to images and to maps.
Heritage World and Genealogical Publising Co., Ireland, Griffith’s Valuation, 1847-1864, online database, Provo, UT, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2008.
AskAboutIreland.ie, Griffith’s Valuation, askaboutireland.ie, accessed Mar 2015.
Wills and deeds can be useful sources of genealogical information. Unfortunately, most of the original copies of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Irish wills were a casualty of the 1922 fire and widespread registration of deeds did not occur until the mid-nineteenth century in Ireland. Useful information on Irish wills and deed can be found at:
Irish Ancestors, “Wills,” www.irishtimes.com/ancestor, accessed Mar 2015.
Irish Ancestors, “Registry of Deeds,”www.irishtimes.com/ancestor, accessed Mar 2015.
Murphy, Sean, Memorandum on the Fate of the Destroyed Returns of the Census of Ireland, 1861 – 91, Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies, 25 Oct 2001, homepage.eircom.net/~seanjmurphy/nai/censusmemo.htm.