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Irish Genealogy:  Roman  Catholic Church Records in Ireland

I’m a little late posting this as I’m on my way to Massachusetts to speak at the New England Regional Genealogical Conference.  I’m hoping the snow is all gone <g>

Prior to the start of civil registration in Ireland in 1864, one of the only sources of family information is church records. The vast majority of the population of Ireland has always been Roman Catholic, however because of religious persecution, the records of the Catholic church began late, usually around 1820.  Understanding the history of Ireland is important as religion in Ireland is a political issue, as well as a spiritual one.  It’s important to remember that the Church of Ireland, which was a state church from 1560 under Elizabeth I until 1869 when it was disestablished, is an Anglican or Episcopal church, not Roman Catholic.   As the state church it also had civil as well as religious functions and the civil parishes will usually match the ecclesiastical parishes of the Church of Ireland.   During the time of the penal laws, all of the former parishes and dioceses of the Catholic church including the large cathedrals became Church of Ireland parishes and churches and they remain that way today.  Last summer on the train from Belfast back to Dublin, I enjoyed a conversation with a gentleman from Dublin who works as a docent at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.  He said that Americans frequently arrive at the church assuming it is Catholic because of the name, St. Patrick, but it is part of the Church of Ireland as is Christ Church Cathedral.  

When the Roman Catholic church began to emerge from the restrictions of the penal laws, they had few clergy and the areas covered were quite large.  Therefore the names of the parishes, as well as the dioceses are not necessarily the same as the civil parishes.  To find the name of the Roman Catholic parish, you first need to find the name of the civil parish.  If you know the townland, use the General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Irelandto determine the civil parish.  Then, use a finding aid such as James Ryan’s Irish Recordsor John Grenham’s Tracing Your Irish Ancestors to determine the Roman Catholic parish and the dates for which they have records.

Most (but not all) of the surviving church records have been microfilmed and can be found at the National Library of Ireland.  In the past there were a few dioceses where permission had to be obtained from the bishop before viewing the records, but in 2008 the National Library opened all the records.  You can check their website to see if they have the records for the correct timeframe of your research.  Be aware that the quality of these parish registers is not great. Some of these films have found their way into the collections of the Family History Library. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, during a time of high unemployment, Irish youth were trained in computer skills by creating indexes to local records through the Irish Family History Foundation Heritage Centres.  Most of these centres now provide an online search for free, however the confirming transcriptions cost €5 (about $7).  If you check the website for the County in which you’re searching, you will find a list the records and dates that have been transcribed.  The Irish Department of Tourism also has a website that currently focuses on the dioceses that are not available through IFHF, such as Kerry, Cork and Ross, Carlow.  If I can find the record in one of these databases (which is a transcription), it makes it much easier to find the original at the National Library. 

Happy Hunting!


© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2013