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Irish Genealogy:  Presbyterian Records in Ireland

Transcript of the records of the 1st Boardmills Presbyterian Church,
County Down, dating to 1782. 

Based upon the 1861 census of Ireland, about 9% of the population was Presbyterian, mainly centered in the northern counties (where 26% were Presbyterian).   During the Protestant Reformation, John Knox brought the the religion to Scotland in the sixteenth century, but as dissenters they were persecuted for their religion.  The Plantation of Ireland (1606-1610) brought many of these Presbyterians to Ulster.  By the mid-1600s many of the Presbyterians were again emigrating, this time to America for the same reasons of religious intolerance and persecution.   

Although the Presbyterian churches started early in Ulster and the earliest register dates to 1674 in Antrim, their records typically don’t begin until the early 1800s for the same reasons as the Catholic records.  It was only after 1819 that Presbyterian ministers were required to keep registers.  Having said that, I have found records for my Presbyterian family in County Down dating to the 1760s, including burials.  The list of  births (right) gives the date, name, birth order (how many other children previously born to the same parents), father, mother including maiden name and townland address.

The Presbyterian church has suffered from many schisms over the years, with various groups identified as seceding, non-subscribing (Unitarian), or reformed (Covenanters) congregations each keeping their own records.  My 1840 most had come back together.  

In the late 1600s, legislation was introduced in Ireland that required all Presbyterian ministers to swear an oath to the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland.  Failure to do so, meant that ministers could be deposed making any marriages performed invalid and children born of those marriages illegitimate.  Because of this,  you should always check records from the Church of Ireland for marriages of Presbyterians, especially if they owned any property.  You might also find burials in the Church of Ireland since dissenting religions were not allowed to have their own cemeteries.

The records kept by the Presbyterian church includes baptisms and marriages, and occasionally burials.  Unlike the Catholic church children were not necessarily baptized shortly after birth...sometimes multiple children in a family would be baptized at the same time.   

Kirk session minutes (equivalent to the Vestry minutes of the Church of Ireland) can also provide information.  Prior notice of marriage was required, so even if the marriage registers don’t exist you may find information in the session minutes.  Also frequently found in these minutes are “examinations” of unmarried women who gave birth as well as other disciplinary actions.  These records are most likely still in local custody.  Other records you may want to check are Communicant’s roll books and Certificates of Transfer (from one kirk to another).  

Finding the name of the Presbyterian church can be a little more difficult, as the denomination does not have the parish and dioceses structure of both the Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland.  John Ryan’s Irish Records lists the Presbyterian churches by county and the status of their records.  Many of the records, especially in the north, have been microfilmed and are available at PRONI and some have been indexed by the various Genealogy Centres.

The Presbyterian Historical Society located in Belfast has information on their website regarding the records of the church.  Most of the records on microfilm are also available at PRONI.   A number of years ago I visited their office and was told they couldn’t help me and to go to PRONI.  They have since moved and their website indicates that research is possible at their location.  They have a link that shows records that are only available at the Historical Society.

Happy Hunting!

© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2013