Digging Up Your Irish Roots
Colin R. Chapman examines methods of tracing Irish ancestors.
SOME OF US HAVE Irish gentry or nobility in our ancestry while others are descended from more humble families. It is useful to know about some of the sources available to us - both in Ireland and North America - that can help us trace our Irish ancestors, whatever their origins.
Understanding the background of some of these sources enables us to make the best use of them.
It is essential that we first examine all the material in our own homes and speak with our older relatives to discover as many facts and legends as possible about our Irish ancestors, before we begin looking in other places. Any clues may be useful and it is amazing what information we can find right under our noses.
In the past the main purpose of maintaining a genealogy was to demonstrate a rightful inheritance claim. Those descended from the gentry or nobility of Ireland may be fortunate to find a pedigree or family tree compiled generations ago by a noble ancestor attempting to show relationship to a parent, uncle, grandparent or cousin in proving a claim to inherit a title, property, or even goods and chattels. Some of these pedigrees and associated genealogies have been published in books such as Burke's Irish Landed Gentry and Irish Family Records, and O'Hart's Irish Pedigrees and Howard and Crisp's Visitation of Ireland. These books may be on the shelves or in the stacks at your nearest public or private reference or university library. If not, you should be able to borrow them through inter-library loan. Alternatively you could arrange for your local LDS Family History Center to borrow them on your behalf on microfilm from the Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City; you can then read them in the Center and make notes or take copies.
But most of our ancestors from Ireland (as in other places in the British Isles or elsewhere in Europe) were tenants on someone else's land and had little property of their own. For information on the lives of these less prestigious, but nonetheless proud, Irish ancestors we have to look at other sources. We will be unlikely to find family histories neatly set out with ready-made pedigrees or nicely-prepared genealogies. The vast majority of documents we can use were generated by a central or local government or Church authority for non-genealogical purposes. In spite of many books on Irish genealogy painting a gloomy picture of surviving records, there are very many sources we may use. Thousands of original documents, old and modern abstracts and copies of original items survive and are available to us.
For us to make the most out of the available records, it is essential to understand something about them - their background, why and how they were originally produced and kept and what has happened to them in recent times. It is also useful to appreciate some basic geographical and historical facts, without becoming too emotionally involved about the rights and wrongs of what our ancestors did, or what was done in their name, or what others did to them. We shall concern ourselves with Irish genealogical research and not political interpretations of the activities of either our dead ancestors or our living cousins.
Knowing the Land
The island of Ireland, comprising 32 counties, grouped into four secular provinces, is geographically one component of the British Isles. Great Britain (comprising England, Wales and Scotland) and the British Crown Dependencies of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are also part of the British Isles. Pope Adrian IV (though with whose authority is not clear) had granted Ireland to King Henry II (1165-89) of England and thereafter all English Sovereigns were termed Lords in Ireland.
In 1542 Henry VIII made it clear that he was King and the Irish, like the Welsh and English, came under his rule. In 1801 all of Ireland was formally integrated into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, governed from London; the Irish Parliament was closed and Irish Members sat at Westminster. In 1922 the 26 counties in the south of Ireland, ignoring secular province boundaries, separated from the six northern counties to form the Irish Free State governed from Dublin. The ancient baronies, sub-divisions of counties, had become less important by this time. The six counties were termed Northern Ireland which remained in the newly-named United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Irish Free State changed its name to Eire (from the ancient name Erin, for Ireland) in 1937 and to the Republic of Ireland in 1949 when it left the British Commonwealth and Empire. Also termed the Irish Republic, or Southern Ireland, it is today a separate country with a quite separate government from that of the United Kingdom. However, it was probably a part of Britain in the times of your ancestors who may have been termed British by some authorities, even themselves.
The lives of all our European ancestors were influenced very strongly by not only kings, lords and parliaments but also by the Christian Church. Christian missionaries from Rome were active in the British Isles from the fifth century, becoming more effective in the eighth century. The Pope's chief representative in the British Isles was the Archbishop of Canterbury, based at Lambeth Palace in London.
For administrative purposes the Christian Church, Roman Catholic at the time, divided England, Wales and Ireland into three ecclesiastical provinces, each headed by an archbishop: Canterbury covered Wales and the south of England, York the north of England, and Armagh all of Ireland. Each province was divided into dioceses, headed by a bishop and each diocese into archdeaconries, headed by an archdeacon. These areas did not follow the secular (civil) county or shire boundaries.
Most archdeaconries were divided into rural deaneries. Ireland, having a smaller population, had no archdeaconries. The deaneries were divided into parishes where a parish priest looked after the needs of his parishioners and conducted the services in the parish church, baptizing the babies, marrying the betrothed and burying the dead. In the graveyards tombstones were erected for those who could afford a memorial. The parishes, dioceses and province (Canterbury) nearest to Lambeth Palace tended to follow the wishes and dictates of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who spoke on behalf of the Pope; but as one moved further away, less notice was taken of officialdom. The same applied in secular life - the remote areas of England, Wales and Ireland reacted slowly, if at all, to Royal and parliamentary edicts from London. This later proved most advantageous as in Ireland many bodies, religious and secular, had not got around to depositing their records in the Irish Public Record Office (now the National Archives); hence those undeposited records escaped destruction in the disastrous fire of 1922.
The Reformation swept across the British Isles in the 16th century, replacing Catholicism with Protestantism in England and Wales from 1534, in Ireland from 1537 and in Scotland from 1560. The new (Protestant) Church of Ireland was delighted to be free from management from Rome, a foreign power, and was pleased to take over the administrative framework of the former (Roman Catholic) Church with its parishes and dioceses. Elsewhere in Europe the German states and the Low Countries, happy to be severed from Rome, favored Protestantism, whilst Spain and France favored Catholicism, content to remain linked to Rome.
The Crown and (now Anglican) Church in Ireland, England and Wales continued to work hand in hand, so much so that the ecclesiastical parish areas became recognized as civil parishes. Their almost identical boundaries and names have continued to this day, even though the Church in Ireland was disestablished in 1869. A townland was a smaller civil unit than a parish, commonly used in Ireland and parts of northern England. Social security (the Poor Law in earlier times) was administered through the parish system and the parish was used as the unit for collecting taxes, conducting censuses and undertaking land surveys. In addition, education was encouraged, and in many cases provided, by the Church clergy. Probate was granted (wills and testaments proved and letters of administration issued) by the Church Courts which also dealt with matrimonial disputes and sexual offenses, and issued marriage and professional licenses. The Church of Ireland today comprises two ecclesiastical provinces, Armagh and Dublin, whose boundaries do not follow the civil boundaries of either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland, although the Archbishop of Armagh remains Anglican Primate of all Ireland.
As Catholicism was regarded as synonymous with foreign interference, it was not tolerated immediately after the Reformation and strict laws were enacted in England and Wales to suppress Catholic activities. Some groups, such as the Puritans, were punished because of their activities against the retention of too much Catholic influence, others were punished because they clung to their Catholic beliefs. As a consequence, even though less rigorous anti-Catholic penal laws were applied in Ireland than in England, people emigrated, mainly to North America, from all parts of the British Isles, unhappy with their treatment.
In the early 17th century, fearing collusion on the western side of the British Isles with old adversaries Spain and France (which were Catholic), and a possible invasion, King James I "planted" some Presbyterian families in Ulster from his native Scotland. This was felt necessary because Ireland had not taken to Protestantism as readily as had England - one reason being that whereas the Bible and service books had been translated into English for the benefit of the reformed Christian Church, no one in London had realized that many Irish neither read nor understood English, and it was several years before Irish versions were available.
Toleration of non-Anglicans commenced in the late 17th century throughout the British Isles and gradually Catholics (earlier in Ireland than elsewhere in Britain) began to build their own churches within new Catholic parishes having new boundaries, though these were not officially permitted until the 1829 Toleration Act. Their parishes were collected into new Catholic dioceses, with slightly different boundaries, headed by Catholic Bishops who, in Ireland, reported to a Catholic Archbishop, based in Dublin. Besides the officially-tolerated Presbyterians, other dissenting congregations such as Quakers, Independents and later, Methodists, each having a unique administrative system and organizational structure, began to hold their own services, build their own places of worship, and keep their own registers and membership and associated documents.
With the above background we can discuss some Church and secular records in which we may be able to find details of some of our Irish ancestors. There are many other records not mentioned here because of space constraints, several of which are identified in the books suggested below for further reading.
Henry VIII required the parish clergy of his Reformed Protestant Church to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials from 1538. This appears not to have applied in Ireland until 1634, although one (Church of Ireland) parish register begins in 1619. However, most Church of Ireland registers do not start until the 1790s when a new Archbishop of Armagh took over. Queen Elizabeth I required copies of parish registers to be sent to diocesan registrars from 1598 (the copies were called Bishops' Transcripts), but this was never done in Ireland. Similar copies, termed Parochial Returns, of all their register entries were made by some Irish clergy in the 19th century.
A parish baptismal register entry usually has the name of the child and the father (or mother if illegitimate) and sometimes the father's occupation and address, mother's name, but rarely her maiden surname, or names of the godparents or sponsors. Occasionally the date of birth as well as the baptismal date is shown. A parish marriage register entry has the date of the marriage, the names of the bridegroom and bride, sometimes their occupations and addresses, and the names and occupations of their fathers and the names of the witnesses. A parish burial entry has the date of burial, the name of the deceased, sometimes the address, place and cause of death and supposed age. Copies of most of the Church of Ireland records are now held by the Representative Church Body Library in Dublin, many filmed copies are obtainable through LDS Family History Centers world-wide.
There was no internal compulsion within the newly-tolerated Catholic Church in Ireland to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials. While some Catholic priests did begin registers early (Wexford in 1671, Galway in 1690), most made few entries (sometimes in Latin) until after the 1829 Toleration Act and burials were sparsely noted anyway. Microfilm copies of 90 percent of the registers from the 26 Catholic Dioceses in the Republic of Ireland are kept at the National Library. The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) has copies of the Roman Catholic registers for the northern Roman Catholic dioceses. LDS Family History Centers can obtain copies of many of these films from the Genealogy Library in Salt Lake City.
Records of the dissenting congregations which are available include those of Huguenots from 1685, Quakers (Society of Friends) from 1671, Presbyterians from 1674 (although more prolific from 1819) and Wesleyan Methodists from 1816. The records of some of these and other groups, such as Jews, are held in their own historical libraries (see useful ad-dresses). The Huguenot material was published by the Huguenot Society of London and is available.
Many of the baptisms and marriages from the records of a variety of denominations have been incorporated into the International Genealogical Index, published in microform and on CD-ROM by the LDS Church, and available at their Family History Centers world-wide.
A valid marriage anywhere in the British Isles could normally take place only after publication of banns or issuing of a marriage license by an Anglican bishop or archbishop who kept a record of licenses issued. After the Reformation and until the introduction of civil marriage from 1845, valid marriages could take place only in an Anglican church. Copies and abstracts of many marriage license records in Ireland were made before most of the originals were lost in 1922; indexes of these for various dioceses have been published (see Begley, Chapman and Grenham).
Wills made before 1858 throughout the British Isles were proved by the (Anglican) Church Courts; in Ireland this involved the bishops' consistory courts and the archbishops' prerogative court. In 1858 civil District Probate Registries were opened. All probate material was held in the Public Records Office in Dublin and most of the original documentation lost in the 1922 fire. Fortunately, because of the great academic interest in wills, inventories, and letters of administration, numerous abstracts had been made of these, now in the National Archives.
Following the dismantling of the Church of Ireland in 1869, Parliamentary Acts of 1875 and 1876 declared all of its pre-1870 registers public documents and required them to be deposited in the Irish Public Record Office (now the National Archives) in Dublin. Only about two-thirds of the parishes complied and many copies and abstracts of these deposited registers were made by solicitors' clerks and by amateur and professional genealogists. The 1922 fire did not affect the un-deposited registers, the Parochial Returns or the copies or abstracts. Obviously the tombstone inscriptions in church and chapel yards and cemeteries throughout Ireland were also unaffected and the Association for the Preservation of Memorials of the Dead in Ireland has copies of over 10,000 inscriptions, many of which have been published in the annual issues of its Journal. The Genealogical Office Library, Dublin has a complete set of this Journal. Irish World holds the inscriptions on computer from over 300 graveyards in Northern Ireland.
Although the practice of taking a civil census every 10 years began in England and Wales in 1801, a similar exercise began in all Ireland only in 1821 and none was taken in 1881 or 1891. The censuses were originally undertaken by townland, parish and county, later by District Electoral Division. The official returns for 1861 and 1871 were destroyed by government orders and most of those for 1821-1851 were lost in the 1922 fire. Copies of a few 1861 and 1871 returns and those that survived the 1922 loss are identified in Grenham. Census returns are not normally open for public research until 100 years old, but because of the loss of 19th century records, the censuses for 1901 and 1911 for all of Ireland are available in the Republic, but not in Northern Ireland.
Furthermore, an Old Age Pension for Senior Citizens was introduced throughout Ireland in 1908 and, to verify claimants' eligibility from 1910 to 1922, officials at the Irish Public Record Office abstracted information from the 1841 and 1851 census returns onto "Green Forms" for government internal use. These Green Forms survive in the National Archives, filed by county and parish, for the families that were searched. Censuses have been taken since 1921 in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, but these are not yet open to researchers.
Other censuses and lists of people were taken during, and long before, the 19th century with names and addresses, and sometimes ages and occupations; these include names of poll tax payers from the 17th century, muster rolls for 1630 and later years, the 1640, 1641 and 1703 surveys of land owners, names of persons with title to land in 1659 (Pander's census), subsidy (tax) lists of the nobility, clergy and laity 1662-66, Hearth Taxpayer lists 1664-66, converts to the Church of Ireland 1703-1838, various religious surveys in 1740, 1749, 1766 and later years, with names of householders and their denominations.
The Tithe Applotment Books 1824-38, identifying occupiers of land, and Griffith's Valuation 1848-64, naming householders and from whom each property was leased, both of these lists now with a Householders Index arranged by county (and available at LDS Family History Centers), go some way to make up the loss of the 19th century decennial censuses. The 1873 Return of Owners of Land in Ireland should not be overlooked. Much of this type of material is catalogued under land records in North America. The older material is at the Royal Irish Academy, later records are in the National Archives. Original land deeds are held at the Register of Deeds, Dublin.
Commercial street and trade and professional Directories and Almanacs, published often since 1751 by Wilson, Pigot, Slater and others, and identified in Begley, provide names and addresses of tradesmen and noteworthy residents, particularly in towns. Such directories are available in Ireland, some editions may be consulted in North American libraries.
The civil registration of births, marriages and deaths commenced in England and Wales in 1837, the Channel Islands in 1840, the Isle of Man in 1849 and Scotland in 1855. The fundamental area was a Registration District, based on a Poor Law Union area, which was several parishes grouped together (but not by counties or rural deaneries) with one workhouse serving them. In Ireland civil registration was introduced in stages, beginning in 1845 for marriages of non-Catholics, with subsequent minor amendments to account for Quakers and others.
From Jan. 1, 1864 the civil registration of all births, marriages and deaths in Ireland was implemented, with many later amendments. The information on the certificates is very similar to that on English certificates and to the details in the parish registers described above. Indexes of names were compiled annually for the Irish civil registers; the indexes, and some actual certificates, are available on microfilm in LDS Family History Centers in North America. Copies of any of the certificates can be purchased from the civil Registrars General in Ireland.
Irish newspapers and periodicals from the mid-18th century carry some useful genealogical information on individuals and families from all walks of life. Reports of unusual feats, disasters, dramatic deaths, elopements, bankruptcies, inquests, court trials, and notices of births, engagements, marriages deaths, funerals and obituaries, some of which are indexed (see Grenham) may provide those extra tidbits of information on your Irish ancestors to color your genealogy and bring your Irish family history to life. Irish newspapers, detailed in Begley, are in the National Archives and in PRONI.
Thank you to the Irish Tourist Board for photos used in this article.