Searching Irish Church Records Needs More Than a Lilting Lullaby

RecordClick Genealogists Research Church Records

When thinking of doing Irish religious genealogical research, a picture of Bing Crosby as the “newcomer” parish priest in the movie Going My Way comes to this RecordClick genealogist’s mind. Who can forget Father O’Malley saving St. Dominic’s parish by having the boy’s choir sing “Swinging on a Star,” which is overheard by a music executive who buys the rights to the song? Of course the proceeds were used to pay off the church mortgage.

If only Irish genealogy were that simple. With the “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral” lullaby out of the way, we need to remember that, while overwhelmingly Catholic, Ireland was the home to other religions, as well. They got along . . . like oil and water. Church records in Ireland are like the pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow for genealogists and family history researchers looking to trace family trees in Ireland.

Photo courtesy of Joan Shurtliff

When thinking of doing Irish religious genealogical research, a picture of Bing Crosby as the “newcomer” parish priest in the movie Going My Way comes to this RecordClick genealogist’s mind. Who can forget Father O’Malley saving St. Dominic’s parish by having the boy’s choir sing “Swinging on a Star,” which is overheard by a music executive who buys the rights to the song? Of course the proceeds were used to pay off the church mortgage.

If only Irish genealogy were that simple. With the “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral” lullaby out of the way, we need to remember that, while overwhelmingly Catholic, Ireland was the home to other religions, as well. They got along . . . like oil and water.

My Timeline:

  • 400s A.D. – St. Patrick brought the Catholic religion to Ireland.
  • 1541 – Henry VIII was proclaimed King in the Irish Parliament.
  • Abt. 1560 – The First Irish rebellion.
  • Late 1500s – Two Irelands – Gaelic-speaking Catholic and English-speaking Protestant – were evolving. Elizabeth I consolidated English power in Ireland.
  • 1740 – Protestant Householder Returns. The Irish House of Commons ordered a census of protestant households.
  • 1766 – The Church of Ireland was responsible for a religious census.
  • Early 1800s – Tithe Applotment Books were kept. They were the record of a survey to determine the amount of tithe payments to the established church – the Church of Ireland. Many Catholic parishes began keeping baptism, confirmation, marriage, and burial records.
  • 1922 – The Public Records Office in the Four Courts building burned. Ireland was partitioned into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Researching religious records is like researching land records. “Location, location, location” is most important. Ireland has 26 Catholic dioceses and approximately 2,500 parishes. Diocese borders do not, however, coincide with civil boundaries. The Catholic Ireland website lists the dioceses, parishes, and websites. The general location of each diocese is provided. The closer the family historian can place a family, the better the chance of finding the correct parish. Obituaries, naturalizations, correspondence, or a search of collateral lines may provide clues.

Original records are kept at the parish. Some parishes began keeping baptismal, confirmation, marriage, and burial records in the late 1700s, but most started about 1820. Microfilm is available at the National Library of Ireland for the years prior to 1880. At one time, almost every family in Ireland had a member who became either a priest or a nun. The names and addresses of the clergy can be found in the annual Irish Catholic Directory (published annually since 1836).

The Church of Ireland records also remain with the pertinent parish. Those for the pre-1870 period are public records and may be available on microfilm at the Representative Church Body Library in Dublin. Some of the listings are online at www.ireland.anglican.org.

The Society of Friends (Quakers) also has a small (less than 2,000 member) presence in Ireland. It does, however, keep excellent records. The website lists meetings (houses of worship), history, and library/archives information. The Dublin Friends Historical Library serves as the archives for the country. It contains manuscripts and printed archives of Quakers in Ireland since their beginnings in Ireland in the 1600s.

The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has a section devoted to church records. Online church records (transcribed) include Carlow (COI); Cork & Ross (RC); Dublin (COI)(PRESBY)(RC); and Kerry (COI)(RC).

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland, also known as Ulster, has worked gathering religious records. Due to the nature of the country, many records are protestant. Most parochial registers for the northern counties of Ireland are available on microfilm at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). Their microfilm records collections include: Church of Ireland, Quakers, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Methodists, Moravian, Congregational and Baptist.

Church of Ireland information can be found on their denomination website.

The Presbyterian Historical Society is located in Belfast. Established in 1907 to house church records, it contains an online list of church history holdings. There is a membership fee to access online information. Presbyterian vital records are on microfilm at the PRONI.

Other Data Bases

Three other religious related resources may be of interest to genealogists. They are:

1) Protestant Household Returns (1740)

The Irish House of Commons seemed to have ordered a census of Protestant Households in 1740 known as the  Protestant Householder Returns. The original returns were lost in 1922. Some transcripts made by antiquarian Tenison Groves survived. It appears the census was carried out by the Hearth Tax Collectors. The returns are lists of names of heads of households arranged usually by county, barony and parish. The returns are located at PRONI, and there is a search engine on the website.

2) Religious Census (1766)

In March of 1766 the Church of Ireland clergy were ordered by the Irish House of Lords to compile complete returns of heads of households in their respective parishes. Although the original returns were lost in 1922, extensive transcriptions survive thanks to the efforts of Tenison Groves. The existing fragments are at PRONI and consist of approximately 30 parishes in Ulster and more than 30 parishes in what is now the Republic of Ireland. There is information on the surviving parishes and a search engine for the data base on the PRONI website.

3) Tithe Applotment Books (1814-1855)

The Tithe Applotment Books were completed between 1823 and 1837 in order to determine the amount that residents, with agricultural holdings exceeding one acre, should pay in tithes to the Church of Ireland. Because the tithes were levied on agricultural land, urban areas are not included. The books provide only the names of the heads of family. The books have been digitized by the LDS. Images organized by county and a search engine can be found at FamilySearch. The books for Northern Ireland are held at PRONI, and for the Republic of Ireland at the National Archives of Ireland.

If an Irish lullaby can’t take your mind off the Irish brick wall you keep bumping into, consider reaching out for the help of the expert genealogists at RecordClick. We are knowledgeable in Irish records and can help you develop a genealogical research strategy or assist you in trying to find and obtain those illusive documents.

Photo courtesy of Joan Shurtliff

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