How to trace family history in Irish church records
To trace family history in Ireland pre-1864, you will usually need to get to grips with Irish parish registers.
For records of births, marriages and deaths after that date, your ancestral search is better directed towards the Irish civil registration system.
Two pieces of information are crucial before you can realistically expect to trace family history in Irish church records: the name of the place (town or village) where your ancestors lived and their religion.
This is because parish registers were collected locally and remain, generally speaking, accessible at a localised level.
While there has been a concerted effort in recent years to gather these local collections into indexed, online sources via the Irish Family History Foundation (IFHF) or IrishGenealogy.ie (see details below), not all churches and heritage centres have been willing or able to pass on their resources. And there is huge disparity in the cost of using these online resources; while the IFHF charges for its resources, IrishGenealogy.ie's records are free.
The price of access may therefore be an issue when you start to trace family history in Irish parish registers.
A second problem may occur and it's truly galling where it does if the registers no longer exist for the Irish parishes where your ancestors lived. For example, in the parish of Emlafad and Kilmorgan in co. Sligo, the Church of Ireland registers for each of baptism, marriage and burial go back to 1762. Excellent news for anyone who's trying to trace family history of Protestants hailing from near Ballymote. But the news isn't so good if your ancestors from that area were Roman Catholics. Catholic baptism and marriage records for this district survive, with gaps, from 1824; the baptism records from 1824-1856 can only be accessed, for a fee, locally; and there are no burial records.It could be worse. In the neighbouring parish of Achonry there are no surviving registers for either religion prior to the introduction of civil registration. This means that 1864 is your cut-off for birth and death records if you are hoping to trace family history in and around Tubbercurry. The same applies for Catholic marriages (but there are civil records for non-Catholic marriages throughout Ireland back to 1845). Obviously, this seriously limits the depth of your ancestral research. There is really nothing much you can do about this except accept it. And perhaps hope that by some miracle a copy of the local parish registers might, one day, be discovered intact and legible.
Where to start?
To trace family history in Irish church records you have to know where your ancestors lived. This means knowing the parish. The county, alone, will not help you much. If you haven't yet discovered the locality, you'll need to work on finding an exact place of origin.
It's also worth making sure you understand the system of Irish parishes and how this may impact on your search. More about these Irish land divisions.
Do you know the religion of your ancestors? Most researchers will be able to make an educated guess about this based on the faith of more recent relatives, but be prepared for the unexpected. In my own Irish ancestry search I was awash with Roman Catholics on every branch and twig of my family tree, but I found one lone Methodist my 2 x grandfather, George Nichols born in 1844. I was really surprised. He married a Roman Catholic and his six children were brought up as Catholics, but he declared himself a Methodist on both the 1901 and the 1911 census. No wonder I hadn't found his Catholic baptism record where it 'should' have been!
Another common assumption and one that is hopelessly incorrect is that there were 'Protestant counties' and 'Catholic counties'. Typically what is assumed is that all Irish Protestants hailed from the North while the rest of the island was uniformly Roman Catholic.
It just wasn't so. And it still isn't.
In 1831, some 80.3% of the population was Catholic, 10.7% was Church of Ireland (Anglican Protestants), and 8.1% were Presbyterians. Admittedly, these numbers were not equally distributed across the island but nearly half of the Protestants, for example, lived in what is now the Republic.
By 1911, the Catholic population had grown to 83% and the Protestant to 13% while Presbyterians and Methodists made up 2%.
The remainder included a growing Jewish population, principally in Dublin, and Quakers (who had been in Ireland since 1650).
Why were your Catholic ancestors buried in a Church of Ireland (Anglican) graveyard?The first Catholic cemetery opened in the 1820s. Prior to this date, all burials were in Church of Ireland land. From then until 1871, the Church of Ireland, as the established church, continued to have certain state responsibilities including the decent burial of the poor, or those with no family. So when you start to trace family history in Ireland, don't forget to search Anglican churchyards, even if your family was of another religion.
Poverty was not the only reason why a non-Protestant might have been laid to rest in a Church of Ireland graveyard after the 1820s. In parishes where the graveyards of local Catholic, Methodist or other churches quickly filled up, all burials might have transferred to the Church of Ireland grounds. However, in these cases the funeral service would have been conducted (and recorded) in the church of the deceased's faith and the coffin transferred to the final resting place. While there would also be a record of the grave in Church of Ireland's papers, it would not usually be in the official registers.
These 'anomalies' became fewer with the creation of municipal cemetaries on the outskirts of towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They usually have seperate sections for different faiths. Responsibility for these cemeteries lies with county or local councils.
An increasing number of church records are now starting to appear online. Some are even free, which is guaranteed to delight anyone who's trying to trace their family history in Ireland.
Family Search collectionFamily Search (the vast genealogy website run by the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) holds three collections that will be useful when trying to trace family history in Ireland.
In addition to a number of births and marriages (and just a few deaths) transcribed from Ireland's civil registration records, they holds many births, marriages and deaths submitted by LDS members from unidentified records (which must not be relied upon). Their greatest asset, however, is the sizeable collection of entries transcribed from Irish parish registers. Overall, the offer is strongest on baptisms, has a smaller proportion of marriages and hardly any burials.
Sound too good to be true? Well, yes, to some extent. The main trouble with it is that the coverage of the collection isn't very even. So while you can find, for example, several thousand Church of Ireland baptisms from 1683 to the late-1800s for Clones in co Monaghan, the full baptism and marriage records from 1782 to 1870 from the Presbyterian parish of Boardmills, co Down, and just over 40 baptisms from the Methodist registers of Dundalk, co Louth, you won't find any entries from Roman Catholic registers for any of these places.
In fact, the coverage of Catholic church records is limited to just some parishes in counties Cork, Galway, Kerry, Roscommon and Sligo.
It is, therefore, a bit of a miss-mash. Spelling errors abound, especially of place names, and it is far from complete. Some registers were fully transcribed. Others were partially transcribed. Some were not transcribed at all. It is very hit and miss.
For all that, it was, until early 2009 (when it formed part of what was known as the International Genealogical Index (IGI)), pretty much the only free online resource with even vaguely national coverage to help people trace family history in Ireland, and it still earns its place in your ancestral search. I'm extremely grateful to the LDS for it.
The source documents (ie the parish registers) of church records held in this collection can be viewed on microfiche or microfilm through the LDS Family History Center network for a small fee. You simply order the film or fiche containing the images of the register you are interested in. You can get further details of how to do this by contacting one of the Centers.
Tips on how to trace family history in the Family Search collection: Regard each discovery as an important clue worth following up. Don't rely on any record you find. Verify everything.
IrishGenealogy.ieLaunched in late 2009 with funding from the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, IrishGenealogy was updated in June 2010 and October 2011 to include indexed register entries from the following counties:
Cork - Roman Catholic registers for the Cork & Ross diocese
Dublin - Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic registers
Kerry - Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic registers.
Both transcriptions and images from the registers are available, free. This is a truly marvellous additional genealogy resource that's sure to help you to trace family history if your ancestors came from the areas it covers. It's easy to use, too.
Additional RC records for the Diocese of Clogher in co Monaghan, although long promised, are still awaiting upload to the site.
IFHF/Roots IrelandThe huge online database of Roots Ireland is run by the Irish Family History Federation (IFHF) and contains nearly 12 million records of births, marriages and deaths. Not all of them are from parish registers, however, and records from five counties plus Southwest Cork and the City of Dublin are not included.
While you'll be keen to start searching the database the minute you arrive on this site, PLEASE take a few minutes to familiarise yourself with a few features. If you rush headlong in, you may end up incredibly frustrated or incredibly poorer. Possibly both.
Tips on how to trace family history through this database: Be as precise as possible with your searches and set yourself a budget before you begin. The search fields have been extended (Advanced Search) in most counties. Use them if you have additional information. For example, if you are searching for John Doyle's baptism and you know his father was Patrick and his mother's name Anne, include those names in the correct fields. It will narrow down the results significantly.
Many, but not all, churches and congregations hold a copy or transcript of their original parish registers. How far back they go may differ significantly. So, too, will the access offered by the local priest, minister or vicar.
When I started to trace my family history I was spoiled by my experience at St Andrews, the Catholic church in Bagenalstown, co Carlow. Without any appointment or charge, I was allowed to study their neatly filed and typed printouts of transcribed baptism, marriage and burial records. Had I contacted the church by letter or phone, the vestry staff would have offered to do the research for me for a modest fee. I was mightily impressed. I thought this was how it was always going to be, and innocently expected I'd get all my ancestors lined up in a family tree chart in no time at all.
In Cork (I won't mention the name of the parish), the reception was very different. When I rang to make an appointment, I was told there were no printouts, and registers were not available for the public to view. However, if I wanted to make a donation to the church, the priest would see if he could find the records I was seeking. I sent a 'donation'. I didn't hear another thing. Only later did I discover that these parish registers were available on microfilm at the National Library in Dublin. No donations expected.
So, if you are at a distance, you might try approaching the parish church itself to see what arrangements, if any, they could make to help you trace family history in their parish.
You should be able to find details of individual churches on Google.
You'll also find vital additional information on my Main Religious Groups pages.... links at bottom of page.
Archives and Heritage Centres in Ireland
How to trace family history in Irish parish registers: General resources
Ireland's network of Heritage Centres typically one per county has been involved in the transcription and computerisation of Irish church registers for some years. Most of these centres are part of the IFHF and release their records online through that organisation's umbrella website, Roots Ireland (see above). All of these centres, and also those who do not release their records through the IFHF, are available to trace family history on clients' behalf through their research services. In other words, you either make your own search and pay online for individual records or you commission and pay for an Irish ancestry search to be carried out for you.
Unfortunately, some Heritage Centres have closed in recent years ie South and West Cork, Carlow and Derry. In these areas, you might like to consider hiring a local professional genealogist.
Of course, hiring a professional is always an alternative to doing it yourself. They have the specialised skills to help you, whether you want a full genealogy drawn up or just need a little direction over a particular brickwall.
To find one, you could search Google, make contact with members of the Association of Professional Genealogists of Ireland (APGI), or follow recommendations from fellow family historians.
The other main repositories that will help you to trace family history in Irish church records are the 'Head Offices' of each of the main religious groups.
You'll find more information on my Main Religious Groups pages.... links below.
Miscellaneous church resources to help you trace family history in Ireland
There are a growing number of city, county and regional websites containing transcripts of various baptism, marriage and burial registers, as well as gravestones. Some of these are pay-per-view (ie www.ancestryireland.co.uk for Antrim and Down and www.funeralbooking.ie for Dublin), some are subscription sites (ie Emerald Ancestors in Northern Ireland or Find My Past.ie) while others, such as www.cmcrp.net and IGP Archives, are free.
A good many books have also been published over the years containing gravestone transcriptions
Main religious groups
For detailed guidance on the parish registors of specific religious groups, please choose one of these pages:
Find out what the Irish civil registration system offers your ancestral research.
Photos on this page include the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic church, Durrus, co Cork and, below it, the steeple of St Andrews in Bagenalstown, co Carlow.