Roman Catholic baptism, marriage and burial records
How to find your family history using Irish Catholic records.
The bad news is that, as a result of restrictions placed on Irish Catholics from 1550 until the Emancipation Act of 1829, proper record keeping was difficult and potentially dangerous for priests and their congregations, and only a small proportion of Roman Catholic baptism, marriage and burial registers survive from before the 1820s.
There are some real highlights, however. A number of urban registers date back to the mid-1700s (St Mary's in Limerick City (1745), or St Catherine's in Dublin (1740), for example) and even some small country parishes managed to keep their Roman Catholic baptism and marriage registers more or less intact from these early days (Wicklow (1747), Nobber in co Meath (1754) and Kilkerley in co Louth (1752) are examples).
But the very oldest Irish Catholic records leap back almost another century; registers survive for Wexford Town since 1671.
Admittedly, legibility is poor for the first 15 years or so, and there are quite a few gaps in coverage across the centuries, but if your Catholic ancestors hailed from this town you have a real chance of being able to trace your family history over four centuries. That's exceptional for Irish genealogy.
In general, the oldest records hail from the more prosperous and anglicised eastern half of the island. Registers for more densely populated and poorer parishes in the west and north usually do not start until the mid-19th century. Of course, the poorer areas were also those that supplied the greatest numbers of emigrants which means that the descendants of those that left Ireland are the most likely to be frustrated by the lack of Catholic records.
Fortunately, the majority of Roman Catholic baptism and marriage registers date from the first quarter of the 19th century ie some 40 years before the Irish civil registration system began. When it comes to burial registers, the picture is rather more patchy (see below).
Roman Catholic baptism registers
Surviving Roman Catholic baptism records usually record the date of baptism, the child's name, the father's name in full, the mother's first name and maiden surname, the name of any godparents (sponsors) and the residence of the parents. Unfortunately, this latter element does not always appear.
The inclusion of the mother's full maiden name, however, is the norm, unlike in Church of Ireland' registers.
This is huge boon to Irish genealogists because it means you can be confident you are correctly matching each of the couple's children. In areas where surnames are especially common, this would not otherwise be the case. It also means you can trace your family history on your maternal lines as easily as your paternal lines. (Well, that's the theory, at least. It isn't always so easy in practice!)
Roman Catholic marriage registers
Latin in Irish Catholic registersRoman Catholic baptism and marriage registers were written either in English or Latin. Typically, Latin was used in the more rural, Irish-speaking parishes while English was used in urban districts. Irish was never used.
Translating the Latin words is not difficult because they tend to follow the same format, over and over.
Place names and surnames were not translated but first names were. The Latin versions are usually obvious enough, but here are translations for the vocabulary you're likely to come across.
Roman Catholic baptism registers
A typical full form Latin entry in a Roman Catholic baptism register would read: Baptisavi Michaeli, filium legitimum Patricus Daly et Ellena Driscoll de Courtmacsherry. Sponsoribus Johannes Doyle, Marian Shea.
This might be abbreviated to Bapt Michaeli, fl Patricus Daly et Ellena Driscoll, Courtmshry. Sp John Doyle, Marian Shea.
The translation is: I baptised Michael, legitimate son of Patrick Daly and Ellen Driscoll of Courtmacsherry. Godparents John Doyle and Mary Shea.
Roman Catholic marriage registers
A typical full form Latin entry in a Roman Catholic marriage register would read: In matrimonium conjunxi sunt Cornelius Crowley et Honoria Hayes, de Garranes. Testimonium: Thaddeus Buckley, Brigidam Lorigan.
The abbreviated version might read: Mat con Cornelius Crowley, Honoria Hayes, Garranes. Thad Buckley, Brigidam Lorigan.
The translation is Cornelius Crowley and Nora Hayes of Garranes were joined in matrimony. Witnesses Tim Buckley and Bridget Lorigan.
Roman Catholic burial registers
It is usually quite easy to translate Latin names into English but here are a few that you may find in Roman Catholic baptism and marriage registers that could trip you up.
Most marriages took place in the bride's 'mother' church, ie the place where she was baptised. The wedding ceremony was usually held in the afternoon or early evening, and Christmas Eve and St Stephen's Day (26 December) were popular dates.
A marriage entry typically includes the first name, surname, age, father's name and occupation, and place of residence for each of bride and groom. In addition, the address of the church where the ceremony took place is provided, as is the name of the officiating priest, and the names of two witnesses.
The latter are often a brother or best friend of the groom and a sister or best friend of the bride but this is not always the case.
The place of residence was sometimes omitted in earlier registers but after the 1860s this became rarer because priests were provided with new registers which included a section for addresses.
Roman Catholic burial registers
Compare that with county Cork, the island's largest county, where no burial registers survive, and county Clare, where only one register survives and that covering less than four years from 1844.
Where they do survive, Catholic burial registers contain only the name of the deceased and the date of burial. That's it. Which is why they are not of much value genealogically.
Don't forget to check the burial registers of the local Church of Ireland if you can't find what you are looking for in the Catholic register.
Where to view the registers
The National Library in Dublin holds microfilms of 1066 sets of Roman Catholic baptism, marriage and burial registers. These very nearly cover the entire island. Most extend to 1880, a few to 1900. See below for details of the National Library's microfilmed collection.
Most of the remaining Roman Catholic registers are held in local custody.
The LDS Church (Mormons) has copies of just under 400 of the National Library's microfilms. These can be viewed (or ordered if not in stock) at any LDS Family History Center.
Also from LDS is the IGI which contains only a small proportion of Catholic records (and you must make sure to verify them).
PRONI has copies of most Catholic baptism, marriage and burial registers covering the counties of Ulster province.
Local Heritage Centres may have indexed or transcribed records available for a fee or through the IFHF online database.
Links for the above are in the Resources Box on the main Irish Church Records page, together with more general info about how to trace family history in Irish church records.
Roman Catholic baptism and marriage registers at National Library
You can find a very detailed list of the National Library's collection of microfilmed Roman Catholic baptism, marriage and burial registers on the Library's website. These registers are available to consult at the Library's study room in Kildare Street, Dublin.
The list itself is divided into four sections, and arranged by diocese. The dioceses cover the following counties or parts of counties:
All of these registers are freely available to the public but this is strictly a do-it-yourself option. There is no research service at the Library. You have to visit in person, or hire a genealogist to do the research for you.
Most of the original registers are in local custody and are unlikely to be made available for public browsing.
If you have precise dates for your ancestors's birth/baptism or marriage, you could contact the local priest and offer a donation in return for a 'look-up'.
In my own Irish genealogy research, results from this approach have been mixed.
Tips for using Roman Catholic baptism, marriage and burial records
In the 19th century, new Catholic parishes were created (you can find out more about parishes on the Irish land divisions page). As a result, the starting dates given for may registers may not look very promising. Don't be put off. Many parishes changed their original geographical spread so you may well find there are earlier records for your ancestors' locality in the registers of an adjoining parish. Getting to know the geography of your ancestor's place of origin is therefore time well spent.
Correctly identifying the parish of your ancestors can be tricky and the only readily available help is Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of Ireland. This was published in 1837, just one year after Catholic emancipation ie just as the Catholic Church became free to expand. As such, the information may have been superseded. None the less, it is a good place to start. There's a link at the bottom of the page.
Be especially relaxed about the spellings of names in Roman Catholic baptism, marriage and burial registers.
Before the 20th century, only a small proportion of Irish people could read and write, and there was no standardised spelling of names such as there is now.
With so many regional and local dialects, even phonetical spellings of the same name can show huge variation.
Photos on this page: Under 'Roman Catholic baptism registers', photo shows the interior of Duiske Abbey aka Graiguenamanagh, co Kilkenny.
Under 'Where to view registers', the photo shows the ruins of Timoleague church, co Cork.
Under 'Tips for using Roman Catholic baptism, marriage and burial records', photo shows St Mary's, Cahir, co Tipperary.