Irish Family History: Parish Registers

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In the third instalment on Researching Your Irish Family History, Nicola Morris explains how to research your Irish ancestors through the useful resource of parish registers.

NB: Ancestry and Find My Past are free to search, but require subscriptions to view records.

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Much like records for Irish civil registration, Irish parish registers can be found in a number of different locations online.  Before signing up to a website to search for your ancestor in Irish parish registers it is important to make sure you are looking in the right place.

In the first instance it is necessary to establish the religious denomination of the family you are searching for.  The majority of the Irish population were Roman Catholic, but there were also Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Moravian and Jewish congregations in Ireland.  It should also be noted that with intermarriage some families changed religion during the course of the 19th or early 20th century.

The 1901 and 1911 census of Ireland recorded the religion of the population.  Even if your ancestor was not residing in Ireland at the time of the census, a look at the returns for families with the same surname in the same county may help to determine whether they were generally Roman Catholic or of another faith.

The denomination of the church in which your ancestor married should also be recorded on their civil marriage certificate and it is worth checking this source for a clue to their religious denomination.  However, some Irish emigrants may have arrived in England as Roman Catholic but married in the Church of England and brought their children up in their spouse’s faith.

Roman Catholic Records

Roman Catholic parish registers are the property of the church and were kept by the individual parishes.  This means that there was no wholesale destruction of these records. The survival of parish registers varies from parish to parish.  The majority of Catholic parishes in Ireland have records that survive from the 1830s.  In some cases there are registers that date from the mid-18th century and other parishes, particularly those on the north western seaboard, only have records that date from the 1850s, 1860s or later.

Large Roman Catholic parishes were often made up of several chapels.  The records for the various chapels were combined to create the register for the parish.  However, some early surviving records are only the registers for one chapel and do not represent the entire parish.

It is always helpful to try and identify the parish where your ancestors were born to determine the extent of the records that survive.  If the records no longer survive for the period when your ancestor was born, it may not be worth paying for access to a database of records to search for your ancestor’s baptism.

National Library of Ireland Collection

Every Roman Catholic parish maintained its own registers.  In order to preserve a resource that documented the Roman Catholic population of Ireland from the mid-18th century, Dr. Edward MacLysaght, Chief Herald of Ireland, approached the Bishop of Limerick offering the National Library of Ireland’s services to help preserve these records.  The Catholic hierarchy agreed to his proposal and from the early 1950s almost the entire surviving collection of Roman Catholic parish registers were microfilmed by the National Library of Ireland.  The agreed cut off for microfilming was 1880, 16 years after the start of civil registration in Ireland, as it was felt that the entire population would be recorded in civil records by this time, even though this was not the case.  

These microfilms have been digitised by the National Library of Ireland and are freely available on their website (https://registers.nli.ie/).  You can view this collection and manually search the images for baptismal, marriage and in some cases, burial entries.  The National Library have not indexed the registers, so you cannot search for specific entries by name, but it is very easy to navigate a register to a specific event (baptism or marriage) and date and check the register yourself.

This collection of microfilms has been indexed by Ancestry.co.uk and Findmypast.ie.  On Ancestry this collection is “Ireland, Catholic Parish Registers, 1655-1915”.  On Findmypast you just need to select “Parish Baptisms” under the “Life Events” category.  Ancestry and Findmypast collaborated to index these parish registers once they were published by the National Library.  Both databases have the same errors and omissions and their publication has been criticised for large numbers of inaccuracies, particularly the incorrect transcription of names, so do be cautious when searching these records.  The absence of your ancestor from these records does not necessarily mean that there is no baptismal or marriage record for them and you may have to resort to a manual search of the images of the original registers.

The records on both of these sites are generally limited to the 1880 cut off point set by the Catholic hierarchy when the registers were released for microfilming.  There are a small number of parishes whose records were microfilmed much later, who released registers that go up to 1900 or 1915, but this is not true for the majority of records.

County Heritage Centres

In the 1980s a heritage centre was established in each county in Ireland to transcribe and index parish registers.  The transcription was often undertaken locally using the original registers (not the microfilm copies from the National Library).  In some cases additional registers had been found that were not microfilmed in the 1950s and 1960s.  These were indexed by the county heritage centres, which means that their collection of records differ slightly to those in the National Library collection.  For example, the registers for the Roman Catholic parish of Blessington in Co. Wicklow date from 1852 in the National Library of Ireland collection.  However, an additional earlier register was found in the 1990s in either a book shop or a skip in Dublin and returned to the parish.  This additional register, dating from 1821, was indexed by the Wicklow Heritage Centre.  If your ancestor was baptised in this parish in 1827, they will not appear in the National Library collection or at Ancestry or Findmypast, but will appear on www.rootsireland.ie.

Nearly all of the county heritage centre databases have been published online at www.rootsireland.ie.  This is a subscription or pay-per-view website that also includes records of civil registration, Griffith’s Valuation, census returns and some burial records and gravestone inscriptions.  The collections vary from county to county, so it is best to investigate their “Online Sources” for the county you are interested in before making a large investment in this site.  Counties Clare, Wexford and parts of Tipperary, among some others, are very poorly represented on this site, while other counties such as Mayo, Galway and Derry have very extensive collections.

What makes www.rootsireland.ie such a good resource is the flexibility of the search engine.  If you choose to search the records for a specific county, it is possible to search for all births and baptisms for a child with the surname Murphy with a mother named Anne Ryan or even all children, irrespective of surname, born to a mother named Anne Ryan.  You can also search for all children born to a mother named Anne Ryan at a specific townland address.  It is even possible to search for all baptisms in a particular parish where the first godparent is named Murphy.  Godparents were often siblings or cousins of the parents, so identifying Godparents on baptismal records can help to build a wider family profile.  

There are plenty of errors on this site as well.  I frequently find baptismal records for a number of children in one family, but on inspection of the original registers find additional children that are missing from the online database.  

The quality of the transcription varies from county to county, so always be cautious and don’t assume that all records have been correctly transcribed.  You can manually search the original register at the National Library of Ireland website to make sure nothing has been missed.

There is another set of Roman Catholic parish registers available online at www.irishgenealogy.ie the free Irish government website for genealogy.  This collection comes largely from the county heritage centres and are records that are not found on www.rootsireland.ie.  They include the registers for Dublin City, Kerry and parts of Cork and are free to search.  This site has a very straight forward search engine and will list all instances of a particular name, whether the person was recorded in the register as a child, parent or Godparent.  Some, but not all, of the entries are linked to the original registers.

Understanding Roman Catholic Parish Registers

Unlike records for civil registration, parish registers did not always follow the same format, particularly in the earlier 19th century.  This means that you need to be prepared for unusual spellings and an unclear layout.

Most registers will record the date, the name of the child, the names of the parents and the sponsors (Godparents).  The register is written in Latin and first names were Latinised.  At www.rootsireland.ie the Latin first names have been anglicised.  On Ancestry and Findmypast they have remained in the original form. This means that Mary will appear as Maria and William as Guilliumus or James as Jacobus.  Surnames remain unchanged in the Latin registers, but it is not uncommon to find the first names of parents incorrectly recorded by the parish priest, particularly the name of the mother.  I have found ten children born to John Reilly and Anne Murphy, with a further two born to John Reilly and Rose Murphy in the same parish.  The address recorded with the baptism confirms it is the same family, despite the fact that the mother’s first name was incorrectly entered by the priest.  If I had used a search engine to find the children born to John and Anne, I would have missed two of the baptismal entries.

When searching the records on RootsIreland I try to keep the search broad and then narrow it down.  The search engine will identify a wide variant spelling of surnames, which is helpful but requires the exact spelling of the first name.  This can be difficult if you are searching for a child named Ann, as you will need to search for Ann, Anne, Annie, etc.  However, you can search for all entries beginning with ‘An’ or just ‘A’, which should reveal all variants.

When using the address as part of your search, the wild card is ‘%’ and I use plenty of wild cards as the spelling of townland addresses in parish registers was not standardised.  So Philipton, may appear as Phillipson, Philipstown, Phillipton.  It should also be noted that local place names may have been used instead of the standard townland name assigned by the Ordnance Survey of Ireland in the 1830s.

In Roman Catholic parish registers the mother’s maiden name was usually recorded.  However, different parishes used different formats.  Some registers might give the family name with the child and the mother’s maiden name with the parents.  You might find the baptism of James Burke to William and Mary Connors.  This means that James was the son of William Burke and Mary Connors.  Alternatively, you may find an entry that reads James to William and Mary Burke, with the mother’s maiden name missing from the register.  It can be difficult to determine the format used by the parish priest when searching online indexes.  If you locate a baptismal or marriage entry, use the National Library of Ireland collection of parish registers to identify the original entry to confirm the accuracy of the record you have found.  Most entries on the various sites, Ancestry, Findmypast and RootsIreland will link to an image of the original register.  

Viewing the original register is also important to make sure that there is no additional information missing from the online index.  The parish priest occasionally recorded notes in the margin of the register that relate to the individual.  If the parishioner married, details of their marriage might be written over or beside their baptismal entry. This can include overseas marriages.  I have found baptismal records for a set of children that recorded marriages for four of the family in Boston written over their baptismal entry.

When searching for Roman Catholic ancestors born or married in Ireland prior to civil registration there are a number of websites where you can search, each with its own errors and omissions.  Before you start your search you can get a feel for what survives and where it is published online at John Grenham’s website www.johngrenham.com.  There is a small subscription, which is very much worth the investment because of his detailed guides to parish registers and other genealogical sources.  

Roman Catholic parishes have different boundaries to civil parishes.  If you can establish an address for your ancestor and identify the civil parish in which they were living, you will need to translate this into a Roman Catholic parish.  This is easily done on John Grenham’s site. You may find that there were three Roman Catholic parishes that served the civil parish of your ancestors.  John will link to where these records have been indexed online and the extent of the records on each site.  You will also find a listing of the records for other denominations that correspond with your civil parish of choice.

Church of Ireland and Other Denominations

The majority of Church of Ireland parish registers were destroyed by fire in 1922.  The Representative Church Body Library in Churchtown, Dublin is the repository for all surviving Church of Ireland records for the Republic of Ireland and they have produced a listing detailing all registers, those that were lost, what survives and where it can be found (https://www.ireland.anglican.org/cmsfiles/pdf/AboutUs/library/registers/ParishRegisters/PARISHREGISTERS.pdf).  Microfilm copies for some of these parishes can also be found in the National Archives of Ireland and this is recorded on the list.

Church of Ireland parishes in what is today Northern Ireland and from some of the counties on the border with Northern Ireland, can be found in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), who have also published an excellent guide to their parish record collection (https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/Guide_to_church_records.pdf)  John Grenham should indicate which of these records have been published online by the county heritage centres.  Very little of the surviving Church of Ireland collection has been published online by Findmypast or Ancestry.  In some cases it will be necessary to visit PRONI or the Representative Church Body Library in person to search their records if they have not been indexed online.  

The same is also true of the records for Presbyterian congregations.  Largely found in Northern Ireland the majority of records are available through PRONI or the Presbyterian Historical Society (http://www.presbyterianhistoryireland.com/our-services/family-history/) in Belfast.  The Presbyterian Historical Society also holds Presbyterian records for some parishes in the Republic of Ireland.  There are also listings for other denominations, such as Methodist and Baptist, found in Steven Smyrl’s Dictionary of Dublin Dissent, a useful tool for figuring out where records for an obscure congregation might be found.

Some Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist registers have been indexed on the various county heritage centre sites at www.rootsireland.ie but this is certainly not a comprehensive collection for these denominations.

Before signing up and paying for an online collection it is worth using the guides at www.johngrenham.com, PRONI and the Representative Church Body Library to plan your search and determine the most likely place where the records you require have been indexed.  There is no point paying for a Findmypast subscription if your ancestors were Presbyterians from Ulster, your money would be better spent on a researcher in PRONI.  Don’t sign up to Rootsireland if your family were Roman Catholic and came from Kerry, these records are freely available online at www.irishgenealogy.ie.

Parish registers, if they survive, are the source that will document your family prior to the start of civil registration in 1864.  They can be challenging to navigate, but ultimately rewarding to see your ancestor’s name, in the poor hand of the parish priest, written 180 years ago.

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Nicola Morris M.A.G.I is a professional genealogist and member of Accredited Genealogists Ireland. She is the director of Timeline Research Ltd, one of Ireland’s leading genealogical research companies. Nicola has undertaken the Irish research for WDYTYA? in the UK and US and has appeared in numerous episodes. She was also the presenter of the first series of the Genealogy Roadshow broadcast in Ireland in 2011.

Nicola's next post in a few weeks time examines the surviving Irish census returns, where to find them online and tips for how to get the best out of the records.