This blog contains information to support a  talk by Dr Jim Ryan on ‘Irish Church Records’.  The talk outlined the record-keeping practices, and current availability of records, for the major Irish churches, i.e. Roman Catholic,  Church of Ireland (Episcopalian or Anglican), Presbyterian, Methodist and Quaker. Over 98% of the population were members of one or other of these denominations in 1861. More specifically,  the Irish population was 78% Catholic, 12% Church of Ireland,  and 9% Presbyterian.  There were also very small Jewish, Quaker, Baptist  and other communities.  The Presbyterian, Methodist  and Baptist communities were, and still are,  very predominantly in the Ulster Counties.

The records of these churches are important sources of information for family history but their survival and quality is very variable between churches due to the events of history and the vagaries of the record-keeping practices within each church.  The various denominations and their members were also affected in dramatically different ways by the events of Irish history.  This has affected record-keeping. Catholics and Presbyterians were repressed during the 18th century and their church administrations suffered as a result. The churches also differed greatly in administrative efficiency, and in the degree to which the rules for record-keeping were maintained and imposed. Finally, the format and content of their records, and their survival, was widely variable. This talk described church history and administrative organisation, and how this has affected the types of records available.  It also covered the effects of historical events on the availability of records.   These themes are covered in much greater detail in  the title ‘Irish Church Records‘ edited by Jim Ryan (Flyleaf Press 2001).

Introduction to Record-keeping

As noted above,  churches differed as to what they recorded about their  activities and  communities.   The range of events recorded can be defined as:

  • Baptisms
  • Marriages
  • Burial,  Deaths and/or Obituaries
  • Registers of Members/Attendees
  • Transfers to other parishes
  • Church & Parish ‘Management‘ issues  (vestry minutes, kirk session minutes, diocesan records)

Almost all churches record baptisms and marriages, and many have detailed death, burial or obituary records.   Smaller denominations,  perhaps because  their smaller number of members made it feasible, tend to maintain lists of members,  and some (e.g. Presbyterians and Quakers) to require a letter of introduction when a member moved from one community to another.  These smaller denominations also maintained contact with other religious communities in other parts of the country or in Britain.  This has created valuable records in the Quaker community, for instance.    Whatever about the aspirations of churches to record,  their ability to do so is an important distinction.  The most marked contrast in this regard is the Catholic and Church of Ireland, particularly during the 18th century.   The Catholic church was a proscribed organisation (see below) whereas the Church of Ireland was the Established Church,  effectively an arm of government.  It was supported by a tax levied on all which allowed the building of churches and the maintenance of record-keeping.   The Catholic church, on the other hand,  was severely curtailed in its operations and record-keeping was practically impossible for most parishes during most of the 18th century.   Presbyterians also suffered a level of official discrimination during this time.   All of these issues affected the level of records that were created, and which are now available to us.

Catholic records

The Irish Catholic Church had a very well-developed infrastructure up until the 17th century. However, during this century religion and politics became intertwined in Ireland and Britain when Catholic and Protestant fought for control of the English throne.  Irish Catholics supported James I and his war with William II was  mainly  fought in Ireland.   James was  finally defeated  in 1692. To ensure that a Catholic threat did not re-emerge, and to eliminate the Jacobite cause, the Catholic Church was severely repressed through a series of Penal Laws.  However, during the early part of the 18th century the Catholic church infrastructure was destroyed, priests were restricted in number and practices; and 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. These laws were unsustainable , and in some areas they were simply  not imposed by local administrations on the basis that repression of the vast majority of  a population was impossible.  They were gradually relaxed during the latter part of the 18th century,  but not finally repealed until 1823.   During this period the church was able to slowly resume effective church administration, including record-keeping.  Some further information on the history of Catholic Records is available on a separate blog in our series – see here.

Fig 1. One of the Penal Laws passed between 1695 and 1705

The result of this is that there are relatively poor Catholic records during the 18th century. Overall, only about 14% of Catholic parishes kept  records before 1800. However, there is big regional variation. In Leinster (SE Ireland), about 30% of parishes have pre-1800 records, 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.

As to the nature of the records,   marriage and baptism records were usually kept, but burial records were only maintained by about 20% of parishes, especially in Ulster.  The records are kept in English or Latin. The latter are in ‘church Latin’ which is relatively easy to decipher with the aid of a short list of commonly used terms. The earlier records (to about 1850) are usually in ‘blank books’, i.e. unlined pages in which the priest decided on the layout and content of the records (see Fig 2). From the mid-1800s ‘pro-forma’ registers with columns of defined information became more used.

Catholic baptismal records usefully state the mother’s maiden name, and addresses are sometimes provided.  The registers are available as follows:

• Original registers. Almost all are in their parish of origin and 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 may therefore be less willing to provide access to callers.

• On-line. A digitised collection of microfilms of Catholic Records is available free from the National Library of Ireland on-line at www.registers.nli.ie. The records are not indexed but are freely searchable and there is a good system of parish maps. The subscription sites Roots Ireland (below), Findmypast.ie and Ancestry.com do have most of these records indexed.

Fig 2. An example of a Catholic parish register; from the South Parish in Cork City

Roots Ireland. Most records have been indexed (from the original records) by county Heritage Centres and can be accessed from this centralised portal site. This indexing was conducted from the original registers rather than the microfilmed copies and are arguably more accurate. This collection is available (for a fee) on the website at www.rootsireland.ie.

• IrishGenealogy.ie.  Records from parishes not indexed by Roots Ireland (specifically those in County Kerry, Dublin City, County Carlow and the Diocese of Cork and Ross) have been indexed and made freely available at www.irishgenealogy.ie.

Useful references:

  • Patrick Corish. The Irish Catholic Experience: A Historical Survey. Gill & McMillan, Dublin 1985.
  • Dr Jim Ryan. Irish Catholic records in ‘Irish Church Records’ by Flyleaf Press, Dublin.

Church of Ireland.

The Church of Ireland was the Established church in Ireland until 1869, and effectively a part of government. Rules requiring record-keeping were laid down in 1634, but these appear not to have been widely observed. However, most parishes had started record-keeping by 1750. The records are generally in purpose-designed registers as shown in Fig 3  and baptisms, marriage and burial/death records are usually maintained.   As to content, the records of baptism are less detailed than Catholic records; for instance the maiden name of mothers are not given, nor are the names of sponsors usually listed. However, residences are often listed, and occasionally a trade or profession. An example is shown in Figure 3.

Fig 3: An example of a Church of Ireland register, from Drumcliff in Sligo.

The availability of Church of Ireland records is fully detailed in a very useful list of all parishes published by the RCB library and available here.    Briefly,  the availability and location of records  is as follows:

• About 1/3 were destroyed in a fire in the Public Record Office in 1922
• The remainder are mostly  in Local custody in their parish of origin.
• Some are in the Representative Church Body Library  and digitisation of these records is under way.
• Some registers (Dublin, Kerry, Carlow) are freely available on-line on www.irishgenealogy.ie
• Records for some counties  are accessible through  the RootsIreland  (pay-per-view) website
• The  Anglican Record Project  is an indexing project run by Mark Williams;  records from 22 parishes are available on-line.
• The National Archives of Ireland, Dublin has a small collection of microfilm copies of some registers
Public Record Office of NI, Belfast  (PRONI) also has a small collection

Presbyterian Records.   

The Presbyterian Church was established in Ireland in the early 1600s by Scots who arrived during the Ulster Plantation. The vast majority of Presbyterians in Ireland are in Ulster counties (96% in 1861) and particularly in the extreme North-Eastern counties and in Fermanagh (see Fig 4). They were repressed by the state until late 1780s, although not as severely as Catholics.  This caused significant Scots-Irish emigration to America; and also resulted in their major involvement in the 1798 and other Irish rebellions in support of Catholics.  A feature of the church, which has implications for finding records, is that there have been many internal ‘splits’ and sects:
• Seceders & non-Seceders,
• Covenanters
• Burghers & Anti-Burgers etc

Fig 4. Distribution of Presbyterian population in Ulster counties in 1861.

Unless you know which of these groups your ancestor belonged to, it may cause problems in finding records. There was no formal requirement for Presbyterian kirks to keep records until 1819, and it was not widespread until 1830s.  Baptismal & Marriage records were kept after that, and further useful records include:
• Kirk Session Minutes (which often detail activities of local members)
• Communicants Roll Books
• Certificates of Transference to other Presbyterian meetings

The records are mainly locally held, but there is a significant collection in PRONI in Belfast. Two useful sources of information are the Presbyterian Historical Society  and the Ulster Historical Foundation, both of which have significant knowledge of these records. The Presbyterian Historical Society is also compiling a listing of records for each parish.

Methodist Records:

The Methodist church was established in Ireland in  approx 1738 by John Wesley.   It was originally a Society within the Church of Ireland but gradually became a separate church.  From 1818 it divided into two ‘streams’  (a) Primitive Wesleyan Methodist and (b) Wesleyan Methodist.  These were re-united in 1878  to form the Methodist Church.  There were approximately  45,000 members in 1861 of which over 70% were in Ulster.

Fig 5. An example of a Wesleyan-Methodist register from Co. Fermanagh

Their records include:

  • Registers of Members & Classes
  • Class Lists ( & Class Tickets)
  • Baptismal & Marriage Registers
  • Conference Minutes & Journals
  • Obituaries in Wesleyan Methodist Magazines

The major archives  are the Wesleyan Historical Society   in Belfast.  In addition, there are some records in Public Archives in NI &  Dublin.

Quaker Records. 

The Quakers or ‘Society of Friends’ have  the best set of church records available in Ireland.    Quakers were first established in Ireland in  the 1650s and there were over 100 ‘Meetings’ by 1750s.  the membership was always small and there were only 3,066 members  by 1845.   Quakers were and are prominent in business,  particularly retail and milling,  and also prominent and generous in their charitable work.   Their records are extensive.  To quote Richard S. Harrison,  author of the Quaker chapter in  ‘Irish Church Records‘,    ‘Friend’s records are complete and interlocking, which means that as long as a Friend was counted as a member, his or her movements can be accurately plotted’. 

Record types available are:

  • Birth , Marriage & Death Certificates (abstracted & indexed)
  • Annual Monitor (1813-1918) – Quaker deaths in Irl/Britain
  • Meeting Archives and Minutes
  • Quaker Pedigree collection

The major repository is the Friends Historical Library in Dublin .

Other articles in our series on Irish Family Sources:

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.