How to trace ancestors who were Irish Protestants
Church of Ireland records of baptism, marriage and burial. Irish parish registers and vestry minutes.
To trace ancestors in Church of Ireland records you need to know the townland or parish where they lived (see Hunt the Townland page). Assuming you have this information, you'll need to appreciate the availability (or lack of it) of surviving parish registers.
The good news is that Church of Ireland registers generally start a lot earlier than those of most other faiths in Ireland. This is because it was the Established or State Church and, as such, was legally obliged to keep records.
And now the bad news. More than half of all Church of Ireland registers were destroyed in the 1922 fire at the Public Records Office in Dublin. Ironically, they had been ordered to be sent there for safe keeping.
That order had been made in 1876, a few years after the dis-establishment of the Church of Ireland as the state church. All its old registers, being state records, had to be sent to the Public Record Office unless the local clergy could demonstrate that they had suitable safe storage for them.
Nearly 1000 parishes had decided to comply with the order to surrender their original registers to Dublin.
Fortunately, some clergymen made transcripts before parting with them. Another 637 parishes had not complied with the order and those registers survive.
Finding the right parish
While locating the correct Roman Catholic parish can be difficult, it is quite easy to identify the parish of Irish protestants. Church of Ireland parishes are nearly always carbon copies of civil parishes.
If you know the name of the townland where your family lived, just enter it in the search box at the Placenames Database of Ireland, confirm the county and then find the civil parish name on the right-hand side.
(When trying to trace ancestors in Ireland it's worth taking the time to understand the differences between the various Irish land divisions.)
Where to trace Protestant ancestors online
A good number of Church of Ireland registers of baptisms, marriages and burials have made their way online over the last five years or so. The following databases hold the most significant online collections:
RCBL: The largest collection of registers (830 parishes) is held by the Church of Ireland's Representative Church Body Library (RCBL). It contains the oldest surviving Irish parish records – the baptism, marriage and burial registers of St John the Evangelist in Dublin – which date from 1619, and its collection grows every year as more parishes hand over their records for safekeeping.
Remember that you may be able to trace ancestors in Church of Ireland registers even though they were not practising Anglicans.
Penal laws made public compliance with the established church a sensible move for many, even if their true beliefs were practiced in private elsewhere.
The registers themselves are available to personal visitors to the Library. The Library's staff do not carry out any genealogical research. However, they have transcribed 12 registers for purchase (details here).
The Library is also the online host of the Anglican Record Project which transcribes registers and makes them available by free downloadable pdf.
Contact: RCBL, Braemor Park, Churchtown, Dublin 14. Tel: 00 353 (0)1 492 3979. Email: email@example.com.
NAI: The National Archives of Ireland has microfilms of about 350 Church of Ireland registers. These are on free public access and include many of the original registers now held at RCBL.
No appointment is necessary, but you need a Reader's Ticket to use the Reading Room which is open from 10.00-17.00 Monday to Friday. Details at www.nationalarchive.ie. Although there is a genealogical service at the NAI, it is available only to personal visitors. NAI staff do not carry out genealogical research.
PRONI: Surviving Church of Ireland records for all Ulster counties, plus those for Leitrim and Louth, can be viewed on microfilm at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. You need a Visitor's Pass if you want to trace ancestors through these records. Hours 9.00-4.45 Monday to Friday plus a later evening closure on Thursdays.
Contact: PRONI, 66 Balmoral Avenue, Belfast, BT9 6NY. Tel: 00 44 (0)29 9025 5905. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. More details.
Local Custody: In view of what happened to the registers when sent to a state archive, the Church of Ireland is understandably nervous about releasing originals from its own safekeeping. Many originals remain in local custody. While some are handed over to RCBL every year, there doesn't seem to be any great rush from the local clergy to relieve themselves of the responsibility of caring for their historical documents. It is, therefore, a good idea to contact the local parish or church early in your research to ascertain where its registers are kept and whether they allow researchers to trace ancestors through the original pages. When a transcript or microfilmed copy is available elsewhere, the local clergy often keep their originals under permanent lock and key.
Irish baptism records: Church of Ireland baptism registers usually give the child's name, the father's full name and at least the mother's first name. In most cases, the mother's maiden surname is not provided. Sometimes a townland or urban street name is included.
After 1820 it became more common for the clergy to record the father's occupation and the child's date of birth. The latter can be an important addition because some families waited several months to baptise their infants.
Marriage records: A typical entry in an early marriage register would record the full name of the groom, the full name of the bride, the date of the wedding and the name of the officiating clergyman. And that was it.
Burial records: The majority of Church of Ireland clergymen also recorded burials as well as baptisms and marriages. Burial registers usually give the name of the deceased and date of burial. Sometimes the residence of the deceased (ie the townland) is provided, and sometimes the deceased's age.
Vestry Minutes: The minutes of parish meetings sometimes contain interesting snippets or surprisingly candid comments that can be of value to family historians. Some even contain notes of baptisms, marriages and burials, along with information additional to that contained in the official registers.
To trace ancestors in these records can be tricky because the vestry books, like the registers, are not held in one place.
Some are at PRONI, some are at RCBL, some are in local custody. And some are on the NAI microfilms.
All contact details and links can be found above.
Photo top right: St Brigid's Christ Church, Glandore, Co Cork.
Photo bottom right: St Brendan the Navigator, Bantry, Co Cork.