Civil records of birth, marriage or death are the gold standard in proof of an event in an ancestor’s life, and certificates make a nice artefact in your collection. In Ireland, civil registration of births, deaths and marriages started in 1864,  except for non-Catholic marriages which start in 1845. Within the Republic of Ireland, the agency with responsibility for collecting and maintaining these records is the  General Register Office (GRO) which is based in Roscommon.  They hold the original civil records and are responsible for issuing certificates and compiling Annual Reports.  In the North of Ireland (i.e. the counties of Derry or Londonderry,  Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh, Down and Antrim) the equivalent agency is the General Register Office for Northern Ireland.    They hold civil records for these counties from 1922.

What you can get: The very good news is that Irish civil records are almost all on-line and free at www.irishgenealogy.ie.  Those not on-line are more recent records which,  due to data privacy legislation,  are only available by mail or by visiting a GRO or GRONI office.  There are over 15.5 million records available on-line. As each record lists several people (e.g. a marriage record will typically list 6 people,  and a birth record at least 3)  this represents a huge resource for genealogy.  The  on-line records that are currently available are:

  • Births registered from 1864  until  100 years ago  (i.e. 1864-1919 at the time of writing)
  • Marriages registered from 1864 until 75 years ago (i.e. at the time of writing from 1845 until 1945 for non-Catholic marriages and from  1864-1945  for all other marriages)
  • Deaths registered from 1864  until 50 years (i.e. 1864-1969 at the time of writing). However, images of certs are only available from 1878 at time of writing.  The remaining records (indicated as (1) in the diagram below, from 1864 to 1878  are being digitised and will be available shortly.

The remaining records (marked  in  beige) are available by post or mail from the GRO (in the Republic of Ireland).  From 1922 the records for Northern Ireland are available  from GRONI.  (see ‘Records available by Post’  below).

The diagram above tries to capture all of these variables to help you understand the availability of records.  Records for the periods in blue are available on-line at www.irishgenealogy.ie while those in beige are available only by post (see Records available by Post below).  From 1922 there were separate administrations in the North and South of Ireland.  Events registered from this date must therefore be sought from the appropriate agency in Northern Ireland or the Republic (see below).

On-line Records: Searching on the website www.irishgenealogy.ie is relatively straightforward. The search page is shown below. To get into the site you must pass some standard security questions, because of the personal nature of the information contained. You can then search by name, date and Registration district . You can see a list of registration districts by county on Shane Wilson’s excellent site. These are usually named by the town at their centre, but contain a much wider geographical area. The Superintendent Registrar’s Districts  are the same area as the Poor Law Union,  and each of these is further divided into Registration Districts.  A fuller description of the establishment of the Civil Registration process is in our blog here.

The search function is robust and will allow for spelling variations  both in surnames  (family names): O’Connor, Connor, Connors etc;   and also personal names: James, Jim, Jimmy;  and Elizabeth, Bessy,  Liz etc.   The search result is presented in two stages.  The first will list all of the results, with registration district and some other details depending on the type of record (e.g. age at death for death certs;  or spouse name for marriages).   You can then select the items of choice from this list and get further details and a link to the image of the full register entry.

The quality of the images is generally good, although in a some cases it  may take a while to ‘get your eye in’ on  the handwriting.  The birth record below is an example of a challenging writing style.   Of relevance to this, note that the  entry of interest to you will usually be on a page with other entries made by the Registrar within the same reporting period and district.  If the handwriting is difficult to decipher, it is often useful to look at all of the records on the same  page to see how the registrar formed certain letters.  This will make it easier to interpret your record.

You can download the full page (it will download as a pdf)  or use a screen-grab or cutting tool to get a copy of the desired entry from the page.   However,   if you wish to obtain a photocopy or formal copy of a certificate,  you can order them from the GRO using a form available on the site here.

Records available by Post (Mail)     Postal delivery is available for all records that are not available online and also formal certified copies of all records. The latter are required for many legal and administrative purposes. The process for postal delivery is described here for the Republic of Ireland or here for the 6 counties of Northern Ireland.      In the Republic of Ireland, they are also available by applying at a local welfare office. If you are in Dublin, a further source is the GRO Search Room at 1 Werburgh Street in Dublin city centre, where index books of events can be searched for a fee.     The types of document you can obtain are:

  •  Photocopies of register entries.  These are available for €5 and are purely for research use. They cannot be used for any legal purpose.
  •  Certified copies:  i.e.  transcriptions of the original in a formal witnessed document. These are required for identification purposes for driving licence and passport applications etc. They are available in either a short or long form. The short form only has basic information and is mainly used for proof of age. The long form (which costs €20) has all of the information on the original register and is quite a handsome document.

To request a certificate, it is necessary to know the date and name.  If the precise date of an event is not known, the GRO will  conduct a search for an event within a five year period specified by you.  Alternatively,  you may find the necessary reference information yourself by searching the www.irishgenealogy.ie site.  Some of the subscription websites (e.g. Ancestry, FindMyPast, Roots Ireland)  and  also  Family Search have also indexed all GRO records and will provide volume and page numbers. A search on these sites will usually provide the data required to obtain a certificate (See example above from FamilySearch.org). For certificates in the Northern Ireland counties from 1922, you can apply here.  If you need assistance with research in this archive,  our researchers in Ancestor Network are available to help.   You can make contact with us here.

The records available, the information they contain,  and other background information,   is outlined below.


Birth

Registration of births was required from 1st January 1864 and reporting was the responsibility of the parents or their associates (see below).  Births occurring in Work-houses or hospitals were often registered by the institution rather than the parents. Note that there are missing records in the early period of registration.  The causes are discussed in our article here.  Birth certificates specify (left to right below):

  • date and place of birth  /  name and gender of child
  • name and residence of father
  • name and maiden name of mother
  • occupation of father
  • name of the person registering  the birth and their ‘qualification’ – (generally mother, father or midwife);
  • Columns for date of registration  / signature of registrar  / addition of child’s name after the initial registration.

The births are registered within a ‘Registrar’s District’ which is a sub-division of a Superintendent Registrar’s district.  The latter is geographically identical to a  Poor Law union (including having the same name).   The example below is the birth of Rebecca McKinley daughter of Archibald (a Policeman) and Rebecca (formerly Berry) of Glin in the Union of Glin, Co. Kerry.


Marriage

Non-Catholic marriages were registered from 1st January 1845;  and all marriages from 1st January 1864.  The process for registration was that the ‘husband’ obtained a blank certificate from the Registrar in his district,  and took it to the clergyman who performed the marriage.  The clergyman would fill in the details following the ceremony.  The ‘husband’ then took the completed form to the registrar within 3 days,  on penalty of £10 for non-compliance.   In practice,  each clergyman was provided with blank certificates for convenience,  so the husband need only take the completed form to the Registrar.  Note that there are missing records in the early period of registration, and the Registrar General reported in 1866 that some Catholic priests were not cooperating with the registration process.  Evidence for this is presented,  and the causes are discussed,  in our article entitled ‘How comprehensive are Irish Civil Records?   Marriage records are arguably the most useful of all certificates and provide a  range of information.

The top line of the certificate states the church denomination and name, and place of marriage (Registrar’s District;  Poor Law Union and County). The other information provided is:

  • Marriage date and names of parties
  • Ages –  note that the ages are usually given as ‘full age’ (see note 1)  indicating that both are over 21.
  • Condition  (i.e. bachelor, spinster, widow etc)
  • Rank or profession – note that ‘labourer’ covered a wide range of occupations in the 19th century
  • Residence at time of marriage (this will often only be the townland name)
  • Father’s name    (if the father is deceased, this will often be recorded)
  • Rank or profession of father.

 

The bottom section is the formal certification of the marriage by the clergyman (in this case a Catholic priest) and the ‘signatures’ of the couple and of the witnesses.  Where any of the latter are illiterate,  their ‘mark’ will be witnessed by the clergyman.   In this case both parties are illiterate as the priest has  witnessed the names,  and  also one of the witnesses – see ‘his mark’  (see note 2).


Death 

All deaths are registered  from 1st January 1864,   but (as of time of writing) the images of certificates are only available from 1878 to 1969 (i.e. only certificates from over 50 years ago) as the digitisation of the remaining records is still in progress.  All records from 1864 will be available in due course.  Death records are the least useful certificates of the three as no relationships are (necessarily)  specified.  Early records of death are known not to be complete. The causes are discussed in our article here. Recording of deaths was significantly increased in 1879 when managers of cemeteries etc were obliged to provide details on all persons buried.The major information of family history relevance specified is:

  • Date and place of death.  The place of death  may provide a connection to other family members:  if it is an elderly person, the address may be that of a relative.  In the example below,  the address is the townland of Aughtanny.   A search of Griffith Valuation (or other contemporary source)  may indicate who was resident in that townland.
  • Name of deceased
  • Condition (marital status)
  • Age last birthday:    this is often rounded as the person reporting the death may not know the age.
  • Rank, profession  or occupation.  In the example below it is ‘child of farmer’ but this column may sometimes provide useful clues to other possible information sources.  Note that the term ‘labourer’ had a far wider meaning in the 19th century and included many factory and other workers.
  • Certified cause of death and duration of illness:  The Registrars were also medical officers and collection of causes of death for public health monitoring was one of the purposes of the registration process.   To ensure conformity among Registrars,  each was supplied with a copy of  ‘Farr’s Nosology‘,  a guide to notation of causes of death.  The cause of death is specified according to the medical knowledge of the day,  and is usually outdated.  For instance, ‘Inflammation of the brain‘,  as in the case below,  was probably meningitis.   A useful source of explanation is here.   The cause of death may sometimes give indication of the occupation of the person;  and if death was from some violent cause,  there may be a newspaper reference.
  • Signature, qualification and residence of informant.  This is often a relative,  but the relationship is rarely stated.  In this case the informant is ‘Margaret Kelly’ who may be the mother.  (Note ‘her mark’ indicating she was not literate).

Issues in Searching 

Hand-writing:   The hand-writing of registrars is infinitely variable and often difficult to read.  When you conduct a search,  you will usually end with a page containing up to 5 registrations made by the Registrar during the same period.      If there is poor hand-writing it is often useful to review all of the certificates on this page rather than just the one of interest.  This will allow you  more opportunity to  determine how particular letters are formed.

Name variations.     Very significant  variations may occur between the names of persons in church records and in civil records. You should therefore look for name variants if you cannot find a record with the spelling used in other records. Where the persons concerned are illiterate (which was up to 60%  in some areas of the West of Ireland) they were not in a position to dictate how their name was rendered.  They are therefore at the mercy of the priest and the registrar in determining the spelling used.  Some name variations  between the names of the same child on their birth and baptismal records found in our research  include:  Downing – Downey,  Byrne – Burns, Adgley – Adley, Mullany – Mulvany, Neylan-Nealon; Gonagle – McGonigle; McGready-McGruddy, Dulap-Dunlop, Whelehan – Houlihan, Bresnihan – Brosnan, Currane – Cournane, Connellan – Conlon, Camphill – Campbell, McEnulla – McNullar, Deegan-Digan, Lynam – Lynane; Doherty – Daughuty, Magrilan – McGrillan; Hagarty – Hegarty.

Dates specified.   A consequence of the fine system noted above is that those registering events seem to have occasionally misrepresented the date of an event.  They avoided paying a fine by stating that the event had occurred more recently than was the case.   If you find a baptismal date that is weeks or months earlier than the date of civil registration,  this is the likely reason.

No name.   Some births were recorded with no name. This particularly occurred in records contributed by large hospitals and institutions. The hospitals reported the births,  but often did not take the trouble to establish the name from the parents.   A blog by John Grenham elaborates further on this issue and reports that between 1864 and 1919 there are no ‘fewer than 193,493 births with no forename’.   There was a process for late registration of names, but it involved payment of a fee and would appear not to have been widely used until recent times.

Missing records.  The records in the early period of registration are not fully  comprehensive.  This is not surprising as the process was entirely new and introduced into a country with a low level of literacy,  and a high level of distrust of government.  The issue of missing records is acknowledged by the Registrar general in the early years,  and has been quantified by this author in a separate blog entitled ‘How comprehensive are Irish Civil Records?’  which discusses the underlying  issues.

Search function.    If you search for an event on a date that is not yet available on-line,  the search function will not indicate that events for the date are not on-line.  It will simply state ‘no results found’,  so be mindful of the dates for which on-line records are available.

Searching Index Books.    When searching the hard copy volumes in the Research Room in Werburgh Street, remember the volumes of indexes are relevant to the year of a registration and not the year of the actual event. So a child born in December 1864 may be registered in January1865 etc etc.

Other civil registration records held by the GRO (but not on-line)   are:

  • Births at Sea:  Details of Irish subjects whose births took place at sea from 1864.   These are recorded from  1866 in a separate index at the back of the main index volume for the relevant year of registration.
  • Deaths at Sea:   In theory,  Irish subjects whose deaths took place at sea should have been registered from 1864. In practice,  there were very few registrations.  However, deaths of ships crew at sea were maintained from 1882 and are available in the National Archives of Ireland.
  • British Army Service: The civil registers also include the details of births, marriages and deaths of Irish subjects serving with the British Army overseas from 1880. From 1888 a separate index can be found at the back of the main index volumes of the above events.
  • Births Abroad:   From 1864 the birth of Irish subjects abroad had to be notified to the relevant British consul abroad. No index is available but the registers may be inspected at the GRO

Other articles in our series:

 

Written by Jim Ryan
Dr Jim Ryan is a writer and publisher who has been active in Irish genealogy for the past 35 years. His books include: Irish Records- sources of family and local history; Tracing your Dublin Ancestors (Flyleaf Press 2009); Irish Church Records (Flyleaf 2001); Sources for Irish Family History (Flyleaf 2001), and Tracing your Sligo Ancestors (Flyleaf 2012). He writes blogs and articles for Ancestor Network and Irish Roots, and previously for In-Depth Genealogist, and Irish America. He has lectured extensively to genealogy conference and societies.