Catholic Church Records: Lecture Notes

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The notes below accompany an on-line presentation on ‘Catholic Church Records‘ given by Dr Jim Ryan of Ancestor Network 

Ireland has historically been a predominantly Catholic country.  In the 1861 census 78% of Irish people were Catholic, and up to 95% of those in the provinces of Munster and Connaught.  However, the earliest (and very exceptional) Catholic record is for 1670, and records are sparse until the early 19th century. Nevertheless Catholic Church records are the only evidence of most 18th and 19th century Irish people and they are a hugely important component of Irish genealogical information.   They are the core source of information used in our research services within Ancestor Network for the period before 1864.   To understand the records and their availability, it is useful to explore some aspects of the history of Irish Catholics, and the political and social factors which affected record-keeping by the Catholic church.

The Irish Catholic Church had a well-developed infrastructure up until the 17th century.  However, during this century religion and politics became intertwined in Ireland and Britain as Catholic and Protestant monarch competed for the Crown of England.   Catholic interests were finally defeated with the victory of William I over James II  in 1692 and from then Catholics became firmly identified as enemies of the Crown.   To ensure that a Catholic threat did not re-emerge, and to eliminate the Jacobite cause which had made claims to the English throne anti-Catholic measures were adopted in Britain and Ireland.    In Ireland this took the form of a very repressive set of ‘Penal Laws‘ which came into effect from the late 1690s. Catholics in Britain were also penalised,  but not to the same extent.   The Irish ‘Penal Code’ provided that Catholics could not enter professions, hold public office or political positions, inter-marry with Protestants, or purchase or lease land.  Renting was the only option for farmers and small-holders and this lead to a regime in which the landlords became an all-powerful force in Irish life for the course of the 18th century.  Our blog on Rentals discusses some of these issues.  The purpose of the laws, according to the historian William Lecky was ‘To make Catholics poor, and keep them poor‘. Some of the descriptions of life for the common people in Ireland in the 18th century are provided in our blog on visitors descriptions of Ireland.  To quote one source from this blog “There is neither balanced power, nor a middle class of people. The country is divided between the disproportionately rich and the miserably poor. It is ruled by an aristocracy with a rod of iron… there is scarce any intermediate station between the sultan and the slave”.

The functioning of the Catholic Church was particularly severely repressed.  It was the subject of several specific Penal Laws in the period 1698-1703 whose basic purpose was to eradicate Catholicism completely (see Froude’s comment below).   An example of one of this  series of Penal Acts is at left.   Some of the many detailed provisions included:

–  Catholic church was a proscribed organisation: churches are closed and infrastructure (dioceses, bishops etc) outlawed.                                                                                                                                                      –  The number of priests in each parish is limited by law and  their practices are restricted                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       –  Seminaries are closed and there is no training of priests

The Catholic church infrastructure was therefore destroyed, priests were restricted in number and practices; and the Catholic laity were substantially impoverished and largely unable to contribute to Church upkeep.  This very significantly affected the keeping of records during much of the 18th century.  Although the of the Penal Laws varied between parts of the country,   it was nowhere easy to maintain the normal services and processes which might have been provided by a church.

However, these laws could not be sustained for ever.  Catholics were the great majority of the population and it was not practical to repress so many people indefinitely.  More charitable voices within the ruling classes made the case for relaxation.    In parallel,  events elsewhere in Europe, particularly the French Revolution,  also provided the ascendancy with  reason to doubt the wisdom of continued repression.    The ‘Penal Code’  was therefore gradually dismantled during the late 1700s and the final remnants were repealed in 1823.   As noted by the historian J.A.Froude  “From the day the penal laws were passed,  the government had been growing in embarrassment. They had hoped that the terrors of the threatened penalties would prove sufficient and…that when the existing generation of priests had died off, popery would come to a natural end. Had the laws been enforced in Ireland as they had in England the desired effect might have been produced. (However)  ….In England popular sentiment was on the side of the law.  In Ireland it was antagonistic. …the Government finding that they could not carry out the laws without violence, preferred for the most part to earn an idle popularity by affecting to hold them in suspense”.  

As the Penal laws and associated anti-Catholic measures were dismantled (from about 1780) the church was legally enabled to formally rebuild its  diocesan and national  infrastructure,  and record-keeping gradually began again. However, this process  took time.  In some dioceses the bishops issued specific instructions on record-keeping,  whereas others did not.   In addition it took decades for parishes in the poorer rural areas to build and equip their churches so as to enable record-keeping.  The major period of growth in church-building (and record-keeping)  was the first few decades of the 19th century and by about 1820 about half of Irish parishes were keeping records. However, there is very clear regional variation in the extent and form of record-keeping.

Major factors which determine whether and when individual parishes kept records during the 18th and 19th centuries  include:

(i)  Parish income:  many parishes, particularly in rural areas, were impoverished and did not even have a church.  Record-keeping was understandably not a priority for such parishes.  As the penal laws relaxed, some Catholics became very successful in business and provided funding for religious orders and activities.  However, these benefactors tended to be in cities and large towns.

(2) Availability and level of education of priests:  There was a severe shortage, and even absence,  of priests in many areas during the 1700s.  As there were no seminaries in Ireland to train priests, they were trained abroad in one of many Irish colleges in Spain, France, and Belgium.  This required funding and the young men sent abroad tended to be from wealthier families,  and to return to their areas of origin to serve.  Although the overseas trained priests were well-educated,  there is evidence to suggest that some poorly educated priests were appointed in some areas to meet the need for priests. The ability to keep records was further affected by this.

(3) Parish and diocesan commitment to record-keeping:  There was effectively no church above the parish level for much of the 1700s, and many problems faced the diocesan when they began to rebuild their infrastructure. Some dioceses did not instruct their priests to keep records until well into the 1800s.  Nevertheless, many priests did themselves begin the process without instruction.

 (4) Freedom to Operate / Attitude of the local :   In some areas, local magistrates and landlords turned a blind eye to church practice, whereas in others there was rigid enforcement of the Penal Law provisions.  This also affected the ability of some priests to run their parishes.

The result of all of this is that there is a low level of record-keeping during the 18th century. Overall, only about 14% of parishes kept records by 1800.  However, there is big regional variation.  In Leinster (SE Ireland), about 30% of parishes did so, whereas in Ulster (North) and Connaught (West) only about 3% kept records.   There is also a major differentiation between rural and urban areas, with records commencing earlier in the urban areas.  It was not until around 1840 that most parishes had records.

Marriage and baptism records were usually kept, but burial records were only maintained by about 20% of parishes, especially in Ulster.  A factor which must have affected the extent and accuracy of records,  is that until around 1850 most baptisms and marriages were held in the family  home.  Historically this was necessary due to the absence of a church.  The priest would travel around the parish performing his duties and keeping a notebook of the details of persons married, baptised etc.  This information was transcribed into the register (where a register was being kept) when he returned.  The transcription process may have resulted in some inaccuracies.  I am aware of priests’  notebooks whose contents were never transcribed into the main register.  We have published these as blogs.  They are available for Rathangan, and Killanerin,  both in county Wexford.

The earlier records (to about 1850) are usually in ‘blank books’, i.e. unlined pages.  In these,  the priest decided on the layout and content of the records (see example above from Cork) and a wide range of formats are found.  From the mid-1800s ‘pro-forma’ registers with columns of defined information became more used.  Baptismal records usefully state the mother’s maiden name, and addresses are sometimes provided.   The records may be written in English or Latin,  or rather  ‘church Latin’ which is relatively easy to decipher with the aid of a short list of commonly used terms.   

The registers available are as follows:

Original registers.  Almost all original registers are in their parish of origin and are sometimes accessible with permission of the priest. However, many priests will understandably take the view that they have made their records  available for on-line indexing and for filming.  They may therefore be less willing to provide access to callers.

On-line.   The National Library of Ireland collection of microfilms of Catholic Records has been digitised and is available free on-line at  The records are not indexed but are freely searchable and there is a good system of parish maps.   The subscription sites Roots Ireland (below), and do have most of these records indexed and providd a link to the NLI site.  However, if you know the parish your ancestor is from, it may be worth a search yourself as indexing is not perfect.

Roots Ireland.   Most Catholic church records have been indexed by Heritage Centres which exist in almost all counties.  Note that the indexing by these centres was conducted from the original registers rather than the microfilmed copies.  They are therefore working from a more legible original and this affects the quality of the output.  Their indexed collection of records is available on the website  and can be searched on the Roots Ireland  site for a fee.    Records from certain areas have not been indexed by Roots Ireland, including County Kerry, Dublin City, and the Diocese of Cork and Ross in Western Cork.  These records have been indexed and made freely available at  This site also provides access to Civil Records.

Ancestor Network expert researchers are very familiar with these, and associated, records and are available to provide research services if that is of interest.  You can outline your research interests in our contact form here.

Useful references:

  • Patrick Corish. The Irish Catholic Experience:  A Historical Survey.   Gill & McMillan, Dublin 1985.  ISBN-10: 089453534X   Amazon copy here.
  • Dr Jim Ryan. Irish Catholic records   in ‘Irish Church Records’ by Flyleaf Press, Dublin.     Available here.

Other articles in our series:

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