Start Your Research: Church Records

Other than the destruction of approximately two thirds of the Church of Ireland’s parish register in 1922, most church records in Ireland survive.

However, the date from which they commence can vary widely. Those from towns tending to begin at an earlier date than those from rural areas. Likewise, parishes and congregations on the east coast tend to have earlier records than those on the west coast.

One of the most useful publications on Irish church records is that produced by Flyleaf Press under the title Irish Church Records, edited by James G. Ryan (Dublin, 2001). It has chapters of all the main denominations.

Roman Catholics
Parochial records for the Roman Catholic Church are generally written in Latin, although this rarely inhibits their interpretation by the novice. Baptismal records can occasionally appear as accounts, noting the sum due and/or paid by the child’s parents. At their fullest, records of baptism will note the child’s name and date of birth and/or baptism, parents’ names, home address and sponsors’ names. Those for marriage will note the date of marriage, parties’ names and address and the witnesses names. Those for burial might note the deceased’s name, date of burial and/or death and address. However, none of this is uniform and can vary widely by parish. It should also be noted that many parishes maintained no burial register at all.

Kilconnel Abbey, Co Galway, in 1793. Founded 1353.

From about 1856 most parishes in the diocese of Dublin began keeping pro forma registers, these were printed books with columns requiring standardised data. Over the following fifty to sixty years, all Catholic parishes began to use these registers. They have the added advantage that for marriages, unlike the civil records, they note the bride’s and groom’s parents’ names and their addresses.

In the 1950s, virtually all Roman Catholic parish registers were microfilmed by the National Library of Ireland, where they are available with free public access. Copies of these films were given to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland for those dioceses covering the province of Ulster. Digital images from these microfilms are now freely available on the website Catholic Parish Registers at the NLI.

A comprehensive list of Catholic parish registers (arranged on a county basis, rather than by diocese) noting the commencement dates for each parish can be found in Tracing Your Irish Ancestors by John Grenham (Dublin, 2012).

 

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Church of Ireland burial register, 1827.

Church of Ireland
The Church of Ireland (the Anglican Church) was the ‘church established by law’ at the Reformation and in principle everyone was considered to be a member of it. But of course history tells us that this was never the case, although of the Protestant denominations in Ireland the Anglicans were (and still are) the largest.

Two thirds of the records of the Church of Ireland were destroyed during the conflagration which consumed the Public Record Office of Ireland at the height of the Irish civil war in June 1922. Lucklily, a third had remained in local custody and a small number of those destroyed had already been transcribed and/or published. Some Anglican parish records date back into the seventeenth century (mainly for urban areas), though on the whole, even the parochial records of the ‘State Church’ can have surprisibly late start dates.

Up until the early years of the nineteenth century registers were usual entered up in manuscript volumes. This generally meant that no real uniformity existed in the data recorded. From about the 1820s, earlier in some parishes, pro forma registers began to be used. But, as a wide variety were available for purchase it can be difficult to state for sure exactly what information one should expect to find. With baptisms, often the date of birth and baptism should be noted, the parents’ names (though rarely the mother’s maiden surname) and their address and possibly the father’s occupation. Marriage records will note the parties’ names, address and marital status and the witnesses’ names. Rarely would the father’s name be noted. Perhaps the groom’s occupation might be given too. In Burial records the deceased’s name and date of death will be given, other information might include the occupation, address, age and perhaps the cause of death. In larger urban areas, burial registers are always worth searching for any denomination, particularly in Dublin.

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Church of Ireland baptismal register, 1826.

Although now out of date, the most reliable published list of Church of Ireland parish registers, noting both the commencement date for each parish and whether they survived 1922, is A Table of Church of Ireland Parochial Records and Copies, edited by Noel Reid (Dublin, 1994). Copies can be obtained from the Irish Family History Society (IFHS). A less complete list can be found in the first edition of Tracing Your Irish Ancestors by John Grenham (Dublin, 1992). A regularly updated list of those registers now held by Representative Church Body Library (the Church of Ireland’s main archive in the Republic) can be found here. In addition, a comprehensive listing of all Church of Ireland registers, noting commencement dates and if they have survived or not has also been compiled by the RCB Library and can be found here.

In Northern Ireland, most original registers are still held by the local parish, though virtually all have been microfilmed by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) and which collection also covers the three historic counties of Ulster now in the Republic: Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan. In the Republic, original registers can be found in local custody or at the RCB Library, though a few are also held by the National Archives of Ireland. The National Archives also holds a number of microfilm copies of registers, particularly good for the diocese of Cork, Ferns, Glendalough, Kildare, Killaloe, Meath and Tuam. The RCB Library has copies too of microfilms from PRONI for registers for those diocese which criss-cross the border: Armagh, Clogher, Kilmore and Raphoe. Here is a link to a map of the Church of Ireland dioceses c1906. In 2012, a new development saw the beginning of the Anglican Record Project, which has begun to place scans and indexes to Church of Ireland records on to the Internet.

 

Presbyterians
The Scots brought Presbyterianism to Ireland through the plantation of Ulster at the very beginning of the seventeenth century. As more Scots were ‘planted’ and began to prosper and multiply, the number of congregations grew. Today, Presbyterians represent the largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland. They are the followers of John Calvin, who championed the adoption of simple religous worship. Traditionally, Presbyterian meetinghouses are generally plain, unadorned buildings. Outside of Ulster, by the mid to late nineteenth century most medium to large sized towns in the rest of Ireland had a Presbyterian congregation.

Presbyterian church, Caledon, Co Tyrone

Akin to the records of other denominations, Presbyterian congregational records generally date from an earlier period in urban areas. Although some do date earlier, approximately 1770 to 1780 is the guide date from which most urban congregations will have begun keeping records. In some instances, don’t be surprised to find that in rural areas even longstanding congregations do not have records before the 1830s and 1840s. In fact, so many congregations failed to maintain records that in 1819 the General Assembly (the main Presbyterian denomination in Ireland) passed a resolution requiring each congregation to maintain a register of baptisms and marriages, even requiring that each congregation should annually submit a transcript of the previous year’s entries to presbytery. Unsurprisingly, this demand was only partially successful.

There is a wide variety in the format of registers used and in the difference in data recorded. Some urban congregations devised their own registers and had them printed, Mary’s Abbey in Dublin being one example. Others, however, used bound volumes of blank pages of dubious quality. One should expect a child’s name and date of baptism and parents’ names, but one might also hope to see the parents’ address and maybe the mother’s maiden surname. But rarely are godparent’s names’ recorded. In marriages, in addition to date of event and parties’ names, there should also be the names of the witnesses. In fuller register entries, addresses may be given too. Few congregations have maintained a burial register even though almost all rural congregations have a burialground attached to the meetinghouse.

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Presbyterian baptismal register, 1821.

Other records produced at congregational level are pew rentals, membership lists and communion rolls. The latter two were often in use over a number of decades and are annotated to note changes in status, such as death, marriage and emigration.

The best list for the start dates for congregational records is A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland by Brian Mitchell (Baltimore, 2009). Helpfully, this book is arranged by county and civil parish. For microfilmed records held by PRONI, its online index to church records is very helpful. For Dublin A Dictionary of Dublin Dissent – Dublin’s Protestant Dissenting Meetinghouses 1660-1920 by Steven C. Smyrl (Dublin, 2009)lists the capital’s congregations, briefly givng the history of each and noting the surviving records and locations.

Original Presbyterian congregational records are generally held locally, though a number of the very earliest records have been centralised at the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland in Belfast. Outside of Ulster, records for defunct congregations tend to be held by the nearest active congregation, but bear in mind that in rural areas of Ireland this could be many miles away. The records of most congregations in the nine counties of Ulster have been microfilmed by PRONI. However, this is not the case for congregations in the rest of Ireland, where often the only access is through a local congregation.

Many congregations have had histories written for them, of varying standards, and these can often include extracts from the registers and rolls and even gravestone inscriptions. Brief congregational histories of virtually all Irish Presbyterian congregations can be found, too, in History of the Congregations edited by Rev. W.D. Baillie (Belfast, 1982).

Baptists
A significant number of Baptist congregations were formed, mainly in urban areas, by Cromwellian soldiers during the Commonwealth period. Only a handful, including included congregations in large towns such as Cork and Dublin, survived the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Baptists do not subscribe to child baptism and, generally, at the early period of their history in Ireland, they were Calvinists. The general growth in Protestant non-conformity from the early years of the nineteenth century saw a resurgance in their numbers and congregations began to pop up across Ireland in small and large towns. Some of these subscribed to general salvation, rather than to the predestinationism of Calvin. Many of the congregations outside of Ulster soon failed, having no real core members beyond a handful of transcient families.

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Baptist congregation burial register, 1841

Baptist congregations rarely maintain a baptismal register, preferrring to record adult baptism in the congregational minute book. But even this pheonominum can be rare. Generally speaking, most Irish Baptists have failed to maintain adequate records of general use to genealogists, though there are exceptions. The main Dublin congregation opened a pro forma register of biths, marriages and deaths in 1837, the year a new minister was installed. But even before then, the congregation had kept reasonably good minutes and accounts, which include nominal subscription lists.

Again, generally speaking, Baptist congregational records tend only to be found in local custody. Some Dublin records are held on microfilm at the National Library of Ireland and PRONI has a few microfilm copies of records of Ulster Baptist congregations.

 

Congregationalists
Independents, as Congregationalists tended to be known in seventeenth century Ireland, arrived as did the Baptists, during the Interregnum, mainly from England amongst Cromwellian soldiers.. At the Restoration they disappeared, with only the Dublin congregation surviving, though by the early eigthteenth century even it had become Presbyteran. They are Calvinists, but unlike the Baptists, they actively support child baptism.

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Congregational church membership roll, compiled about 1862.

The survival of local records for the Congregational Church is not terrific, mainly because there was little overall centralised authority until the Congregational Union of Ireland was founded in 1829. And even that body was not particularly effective or vigorous. Beyond the usual records of baptism and marriage, which will only be as infomative as the person who compiled them felt was necessary, the membership or communion rolls of this denomination are always an excellent source for genealogists. They are usually compiled in date order of commencement of membership and are heavily annotated with notes of death, marriage, migration and ‘backsliding’.

Surviving records are generally held locally, though a number for now defunct congregation’s records have been loaned to PRONI, which body also has a small collection of microfilm copies too.

Methodists
John and Charles Wesley and their followers brought Methodism to Ireland in 1747 from England, where it has formed only a few years earlier. At the outset it was not a formal denomination, but rather a connexion, or body, of ‘worshiping societies’ which considered itself not to be in competition with the Established Church. Methodist preaching houses opened right across Ireland, in both urban and rural areas, and were served by travelling preachers. The preaching houses (later known as churches) were grouped into circuits, and one or more preachers would be stationed on a circuit and would move between each meeting place. By the middle of the nineteenth century circuits tended be be formed or no more than three or four churches.

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Methodist circuit baptismal register, 1833.

Friction and division among Methodists in England after the death of John Wesley in 1791 eventually spilled over into Ireland and the group split in 1816. The larger number formed the Wesleyan Methodists, a distinct denomination, quite separate from the Established Church. The smaller number formed the Primitive Wesleyan Methodists, retaining their informal links with the Established Church and believing themselves to be following the wishes Wesley.  This situation prevailed until after the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in January 1871. With no Established Church for the Primitives to link with the separation of the two Irish Methodist bodies looked ever more pointless and in 1878 they united to form the Methodist Church in Ireland. A period of rationalisation followed the union, requiring the disposal of the excess of congregational property.

Performance of baptism and marriage by Methodist preachers to their own people was one of the issues which led to the split in 1816. Generally speaking, circuits only began recording baptisms from approximately 1816, with one or two circuits predating by two or three years. Preachers on most Methodist circuits did not begin conducting marriages until the commencement of civil registration of marriages in April 1845. Before these periods, it is recommended that researchers check the registers of the local Church of Ireland parishes, where they have survived.

Virtually all surviving Methodist circuit and church registers have been microfilmed by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) for the nine counties of Ulster. Unfortunately, the situation is not the same in the Republic, where records tend only to be available in local custody. The Methodist Historical Society of Ireland holds many original records from around Ireland, while most of the records from the Dublin circuits are held at the Society’s Dublin Archive, based at Christ Church, Sandymount, Dublin 4.

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Page  last updated on 23 January 2017.