The following are frequently asked questions by those carrying out genealogical research. Click on each question to find a summary answer. More information on the sources discussed can be found in our range of genealogical publications.
All references, unless otherwise stated, are for documents held by PRONI.
How should I get started?
The best way for someone to begin researching the history of their family is within their own family. In nearly every family there is at least one member with an encyclopaedic knowledge of who married who and how many children they had and where they lived etc. Collect as much information as possible on names, dates and places relating to your family, write it down and begin to plot out the skeleton of a family tree. Once you have done this it is much easier to see where the gaps in what you know are. A family Bible is another possible source of information on your ancestors. Gathering this information before you visit the archives can save a great deal of time.
Weren’t all the Irish records destroyed?
A popular misconception about researching Irish ancestors is that it is a fruitless exercise because so many records were destroyed. There is no denying that the loss of so many records in the destruction of the Public Record Office, Dublin, in 1922 was a catastrophe as far as historical and genealogical research is concerned. However, since 1922 the work of archivists to gather records of historical importance has resulted in a vast amount of material being available for the genealogical researcher to peruse. In addition there are other repositories in Ireland where the collections have survived virtually intact, as well as categories of records now available that were not in the Public Record Office in 1922 and so escaped destruction. Reading through the answers to other questions posed in this section will reveal something of the extent of the records which are available for genealogical research.
How can I find my ancestral home?
For many people coming to Ireland to look for their ancestors, one of the most important activities for them is to look for their ancestral home. Even if the house no longer stands, just to stand on the site it once occupied is a special experience. It may be possible to find out from knowledgeable local people where your ancestral home was located. If this is not possible a mid 19th-century land valuation might provide the answer.
The Primary Valuation of Ireland, better known as Griffith’s Valuation after the Commissioner of Valuation, Sir Richard Griffith, is arranged by county, within counties by Poor Law Union division, and within Unions by parish. It includes the following information: the name of the townland; the name of the householder or leaseholder; the name of the person from whom the property was leased; a description of the property; its acreage; and finally the valuation of the land and buildings.
For Northern Ireland it is available in manuscript form at PRONI (ref. VAL/2B). A bound and printed summary version is available in the Public Search Room, PRONI, and at major libraries. Accompanying Griffith’s Valuation is the valuer’s annotated set of Ordnance Survey maps showing the location of every property. These maps are available at PRONI (ref. VAL/2A) for Northern Ireland. For the Republic of Ireland the manuscript books and maps are available in the Valuation Office in Dublin. The books and maps enable a researcher to identify the exact location of the house in which an ancestor may have lived. Scans of the printed books & maps are now available on the free website www.askaboutireland.ie/griffith-valuation
How can I find where my ancestors are buried?
The value of gravestone inscriptions for ancestral research has long been recognised. The discovery of a single gravestone may provide more information on the history of a family than could otherwise be gleaned from hours of searching through documentary sources. A visit to the graveyard in which your ancestors are buried is, therefore, an essential part of compiling your family tree. Discovering the graveyard in which your ancestors are buried is not necessarily straightforward. They may be buried in the graveyard adjoining the church to which your family belongs. Alternatively they may be buried in a graveyard no longer in use or adjoining another church. Burial registers kept by a church are one way of finding the place of burial, but as is explained below, these have limitations and do not survive for every graveyard. In nearly every parish in Northern Ireland there is at least one graveyard pre-dating the Reformation of the sixteenth century. In these graveyards it is not unusual to find all denominations buried.
The Ulster Historical Foundation has a searchable database of over 50,000 inscriptions for a large number of graveyards in Northern Ireland. These are available as a pay-per-view resource on our website www.ancestryireland.com/family-records/gravestone-inscriptions (free for Guild members). Another major resource on our gravestone website www.historyfromheadstones.com is a series of maps showing the location of graveyards. These are interactive so that it is possible to plot graveyards by denomination or view the location of all graveyards in a county at one time. Precise grid references are provided making it possible, using the Ordnance Survey Discoverer series of maps (1:50,000 scale), to pinpoint exactly the site of a graveyard. Case studies look in detail at individual graveyards and there is also a guide to how to study a graveyard.
Many inscriptions appeared in the Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland, published in twelve volumes between 1888 and 1931. These recordings are particularly useful if the gravestone can no longer be traced. There are sets of the Memorials of the Dead in the Linen Hall Library and Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
Where can I get a birth, marriage or death certificate?
Civil or state registration of all births, deaths and marriages began in Ireland on 1 January 1864. Non-Catholic marriages, including those conducted in a government registry office, were required in law to be registered from 1 April 1845. The Ulster Historical Foundation has almost all civil marriage records for Counties Antrim and Down on our website, as well as many civil birth records for the Belfast area: www.ancestryireland.com/search-irish-genealogy-databases. The Irish Family History Foundation holds civil birth, marriage and death records for the majority of other counties in Ireland: www.rootsireland.ie.
The General Register Office of Northern Ireland (GRO) in Belfast holds the original birth, marriage and death registers recorded by the local district registrars for Northern Ireland from 1864 (1845 for non -Catholic marriages) until the present day. They have recently added historic records to their website. Further information, including opening hours and fees charged, can be found on their website: www.nidirect.gov.uk/gro
The General Register Office of Ireland has copies of births, deaths and marriages for all Ireland from 1845 to 1921 and for the Republic of Ireland from 1922. Further information, including opening hours and fees charged, can be found on its website: www.welfare.ie/en/Pages/General-Register-Office.aspx.
From 1948 the Latter-Day Saints (LDS), or Mormons, began microfilming documentary material in Ireland. The most important resource acquired at that time was the registers of births, deaths and marriages as well as the indexes to these records held in the Registrar General’s Office in Dublin. The Mormons were not able to complete the filming of all registers before work was suspended. Available microfilms can be consulted at their Family History Centre, 401 Holywood Road, Belfast. Telephone 028 9076 8250 for opening times. The Church of the Latter-Day Saints also holds the civil registration index for Ireland (1845-1922 for Northern Ireland, 1845-1958 for the Republic of Ireland) on their website: https://familysearch.org/search/collection/1408347.
What information do birth, marriage and death certificates contain?
Birth certificates record the date and place of birth of the child. Normally the name of the child is also given, but in some cases only the sex is given, i.e. the child had not been given a name by the time the birth was registered. The name and residence of the father is given. Usually this will be the same as the place of birth of the child, but in some cases it will show that the father was working abroad or in another part of Ireland when the child was born. The father’s occupation is also given. The mother’s maiden name is provided as well as her first name. Finally, the name and address of the informant is given, together with his or her qualification to sign. This will usually be the father or mother or someone present at the birth, such as a midwife or even the child’s grandmother.
Civil records of marriage normally give fuller information than birth and death certificates, and are the most useful of civil records. Information on the individuals getting married includes their name, age, status, and occupation. The names and occupations of their fathers are also given. The church, the officiating minister and the witnesses to the ceremony are named. In most cases the exact age of the parties is not given, and the entry will simply read ‘full age’ (i.e. over 21) or ‘minor’ (i.e. under 21). If the father of one of the parties was no longer living, this may be indicated in the marriage certificate by the word ‘deceased’ or by leaving the space blank, but in many cases it is not.
Civil records of death in Ireland are rather uninformative in comparison to other countries. The name of the deceased is given together with the date, place and cause of death, marital status, the age at death, and occupation. The name and address of the informant is also given. Usually this is the person present at the time of the death; this may be a close family member.
What are the different religious denominations in Ireland?
Prior to the commencement of civil registration the main sources of family history information are church registers. PRONI has a vast collection of microfilms and photostat copies of church records, as well as some original material, relating to nearly all denominations in Ulster. Family historians should consult the Guide to Church Records published by the Ulster Historical Foundation in 1994. This lists, parish by parish, all the church records held by PRONI. Copies of the Guide are available in the Public Search Room and Microfilm Reading Room in PRONI.
The Church of Ireland
In 1536 Henry VIII was declared ‘the only supreme head in earth of the whole church in Ireland’, marking the formal beginning of the Reformation in Ireland. The Church of Ireland was the established or state church until 1869. In 1634 it was required to keep proper records of baptisms, marriages and burials, but very few registers survive from the seventeenth century. In general, however, the records of the Church of Ireland start much earlier than those of other Protestant denominations and of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of Ireland is organised into parishes which in general conform to civil parishes. In 1922 over 1,000 Church of Ireland registers were lost in Dublin in the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland. Surviving Church of Ireland registers in PRONI are listed under MIC/1 and CR/1. We hold many Church of Ireland records on our online database for Counties Antrim and Down: www.ancestryireland.com/search-irish-genealogy-databases; those for other Counties are available on www.rootsireland.ie.
The Roman Catholic Church
Following the Reformation in Ireland in the late sixteenth century the Roman Catholic Church went through a lengthy period when its activities were severely curtailed. During the eighteenth century the Catholic Church was able to set up diocesan and parochial structures and from the beginning of the nineteenth century many new churches were built. It is important for family historians to bear in mind that Roman Catholic parishes generally do not conform to civil parishes. The Guide to Church Records provides the names of the civil parishes, or parts of them, included in each Catholic parish. Most Roman Catholic parishes have more than one church. Sometimes only one register was kept for the entire parish, but at other times each church had its own registers. PRONI has microfilm copies for Roman Catholic churches listed under MIC/1D. In addition there are some copies under CR/2. Few Roman Catholic registers pre-date 1800 with most not beginning until the 1820s or later. In addition they will often be written in Latin and at times are almost illegible.
However there are exceptions include the records for St Patrick’s Belfast which commence in the late-eighteenth century and parishes in mid and south county Down, some of which are extant from the first years of the nineteenth century (though it must be remembered, often with gaps in the records).
We hold almost all pre-1900 Roman Catholic records for Counties Antrim and Down and are currently adding records from 1900 to 1930. These are available at: www.ancestryireland.com/search-irish-genealogy-databases; those for other Counties are available on www.rootsireland.ie.
The Presbyterian Church
Presbyterianism came to Ireland from Scotland with the first plantation of Ulster during the early seventeenth century. It did not become an organised denomination until the second half of the seventeenth century, however. The distribution of Presbyterian churches in Ulster is generally a reflection of the pattern of Scottish settlement in the province. Presbyterian registers are available on microfilm in PRONI under MIC/1P. An indispensable guide to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is the History of Congregations published by the Presbyterian Historical Society in 1982. It provides brief sketches of each of the congregations, mainly focussing on the succession of ministers. It is important to remember that other branches of Presbyterianism exist or existed in Ulster, including the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Secession church.
We hold many Church of Ireland records on our online database for Counties Antrim and Down: www.ancestryireland.com/search-irish-genealogy-databases; those for other Counties are available on www.rootsireland.ie.
The Methodist Church
To begin with the majority of Methodists belonged to the Established Church and they remained members of their own local churches. Therefore they continued to go to the parish church for the administration of marriages, burials and baptisms. In 1816 a split developed between the Primitive Wesleyan Methodists, who retained their links with the Established Church, and the Wesleyan Methodists, who allowed their ministers to administer baptisms. Registers of individual Methodist church are available in PRONI under MIC/1E. An important record is a large volume of baptismal entries for Methodist churches throughout Ireland deriving from the administrative records of the Methodist Church in Ireland (MIC/429/1), which may have been the product of an attempt to compile a central register of baptisms. Although incomplete, it contains baptisms from 1815 to 1840 that often pre-date the existing baptismal registers of Methodist churches.
What information can be found in church registers?
The basic information provided in a baptismal register is the name of the child, the name of the father and the date of baptism. The mother’s name will usually be given as will a specific location. The occupation of the father and the date of birth of the child may also be provided. Roman Catholic registers will normally give the names of the sponsors of the child.
The Catholic baptism records for the diocese of Down and Connor, and to some extent the diocese of Dromore, contain valuable annotaions to baptismal records, which often give details of the marriage of the indvidual concerned. Given the high levels of Irish emigration at this time, or indeed the movements of the population internally within Ireland, these annotations often refer to a marriage which took place in another country, or county within Ireland. Such records are an invaluable source for tracing Catholic ancestors. Researchers can maximise the research benefits of these records by using the Foundation’s online pay-to-view baptisms and marriages search facility: www.ancestryireland.com/search-irish-genealogy-databases.
Prior to the standardisation of marriage registers after 1845 for non-Catholics and 1864 for Catholics, these will give in their simplest form the date of the marriage and the names of the bride and groom. The residence and the name of the father of each party are often provided. The names of the witnesses may also be given.
Burial registers can be fairly uninformative, with the name of the deceased, the date of burial and occasionally the occupation and age at death given. The deaths of children will usually include the name of the father, while the burial of a wife may include her husband’s name. Many Catholic ‘burial’ registers are actually registers recording payments made at the funeral of the deceased.
Vestry minute books
Vestry minute books record the deliberations of the parish vestry and will be found, where they survive, with the Church of Ireland records for a particular parish. The role of the vestry included the upkeep of the Church of Ireland church, the maintenance of roads in the parish and the care of the destitute and abandoned children. The money to pay for these things was raised through a cess or tax on the land in the parish. Vestry minute books are a rich source of information on life in a parish in bygone times. Occasionally they will include a list of the names of the parishioners drawn up for taxation purposes.
Are census records available?
The first census was held in Ireland in 1821 and thereafter every ten years until 1911. Unfortunately, the earliest census that survives in its entirety for the whole of Ireland is the 1901 census. Census returns 1821-51 were almost entirely lost in 1922 in the destruction of the Public Record Office in Dublin. Census returns 1861-91 were completely destroyed by government order, many during the First World War. The first census after the partition of Ireland was held in 1926 in both Northern Ireland and what was then known as the Irish Free State. It now appears that the 1926 census for Northern Ireland has been destroyed.
The original returns of the 1901 and 1911 censuses are deposited at the National Archives in Dublin and are now available online at www.census.nationalarchives.ie, along with surviving fragments from the nineteenth century census returns.
The information in the 1901 census is listed under the following headings: name; relationship to the head of the household; religion; literacy; occupation; age; marital status; county of birth (or country if born outside Ireland); and ability to speak English or Irish. The 1911 census additionally includes the number of years a wife was married, the number of children born and the number still living.
What records can be used when researching pre-1800 ancestors?
When searching for ancestors prior to the 19th century, the best single work of reference is Researching Scots-Irish Ancestors. The essential genealogical guide to early modern Ulster by Dr William Roulston and published by the Ulster Historical Foundation. This provides a detailed guide to records from the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the more important ‘census substitutes’ from this period are set out below.
Hearth money rolls, 1660s
In the 1660s the government introduced a tax on hearths as a means of raising revenue. The returns, arranged by parish and usually with townland locations, list the names of all householders paying this tax survive for half the counties in Ireland with coverage most complete in Ulster (in full or in part for all counties except Down). Surviving hearth money rolls for counties in Northern Ireland will be found in PRONI and also on our free online resource: www.ancestryireland.com/scotsinulster.
The ‘census of Protestant householders’, 1740
What has generally been termed a ‘census of Protestant householders’ was compiled in 1740. The returns were made by the collectors of the hearth money and it has, therefore, been suggested that this ‘census’ is actually a hearth money roll and for some areas includes Catholics as well. It is no more than a list of names arranged by county, barony and parish and, reflecting its supervision by the inspector responsible for collecting hearth money, it is occasionally divided into ‘walks’. Some parishes are also divided into townlands. The original records of this survey were destroyed in Dublin in 1922, but the names and locations are available on our free online resource: www.ancestryireland.com/scotsinulster and on PRONI’s Names database: www.proni.gov.uk/index/search_the_archives/proninames.
The religious census of 1766
In March and April 1766, Church of Ireland rectors were instructed by the government to compile complete returns of all householders in their respective parishes, showing their religion, as between Church of Ireland (Episcopalian), Roman Catholic (termed ‘Papists’ in the returns) and Presbyterians (or Dissenters), and giving an account of any Roman Catholic clergy active in their area. Some of the more diligent rectors listed every townland and every household, but many drew up only numerical totals of the population. All the original returns were destroyed in the Public Record Office in 1922, but extensive transcripts survive and are now available on PRONI’s Names database: www.proni.gov.uk/index/search_the_archives/proninames.
Petition of Protestant Dissenters, 1775
The Petition of Protestant Dissenters is a list of names of Dissenters on either a parish or a congregational basis which were submitted to the government in October and November 1775. The information from this source can be found on PRONI’s Names database: www.proni.gov.uk/index/search_the_archives/proninames.
The Flaxgrowers’ List, 1796
In 1796 as part of a government initiative to encourage the linen industry in Ireland, free spinning wheels or looms were granted to farmers who planted a certain acreage of their holdings with flax. The names of over 56,000 recipients of these awards have survived in printed form arranged by county and parish and can be found on our free online resource: www.ancestryireland.com/scotsinulster.
What records are available that will show that my ancestors were farmers?
Until relatively recently Ireland was an overwhelmingly rural society and even today the influence of the countryside is much stronger than in most western European countries. Until the early part of the twentieth century, most of the land in Ireland, was split between a large number of landed estates. Nearly everyone who farmed in Ireland was a tenant on one of these estates, leasing their holding, if not from the landlord himself, then from a middleman or subtenant of the landlord.
The records generated by the management of landed estates are a major source of genealogical information. The best collection of Irish estate papers is housed in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). For several of the larger estates there are excellent records. For many of the smaller estates, however, there are relatively few records available for inspection in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. More information on estate collections held by PRONI can obtained on their electronic catalogue: www.proni.gov.uk/index/search_the_archives/ecatalogue.htm.
Some categories of estate papers are more useful to genealogists than others. Title deeds are concerned with the legal ownership of an estate, and are generally of limited value to genealogists. The same can be said of mortgages. Wills and marriage settlements usually refer only to the members of the landowner’s family. However, rentals, leases, lease books, maps and correspondence can all be extremely useful to those searching for their ancestors within landed estate records.
Many of those who occupied smallholdings will not appear in estate collections because they did not lease their ground directly from the landlord. Instead their few acres were sublet to them by another farmer. While landlords were firmly opposed to the practice of subletting they found it very difficult to stamp out. It does, however, make it almost impossible to identify such people in the historical record. Occasionally they will turn up in correspondence if a landlord was trying to do something about subletting on his estate.
Griffith’s Valuation of c.1860, discussed above, will also provide information on the farming community. Another useful source is the Tithe Valuation of 1823–38 which was a complete valuation of all tithable land in Ireland. The results of this valuation are arranged by parish in the Tithe Applotment Books. For Northern Ireland these volumes are available in PRONI under reference FIN/5A. An index to the Tithe Applotment Books for Northern Ireland is available on CD-ROM from Heritage World. The National Archives of Ireland have digitised the Tithe Books for the Republic of Ireland which are now available at: www.titheapplotmentbooks.nationalarchives.ie.
Those recorded in the Tithe Applotment Books were generally occupiers of land, i.e. farmers. Landless labourers and those who lived in towns were excluded. Tithes were used to support the Church of Ireland, but were paid by all occupiers of land regardless of denomination.
How can I find out if one of my ancestors left a will?
Once the date of death of an ancestor has been discovered, it is worth finding out whether they left a will. Wills contain not only the name, address and occupation of the testator, but can also include details of the larger family network. Many wills also include the addresses and occupations of the beneficiaries, witnesses and executors. It must be borne in mind, however, that the vast majority of people did not make a will.
Prior to 1858 the Church of Ireland was responsible for administering all testamentary affairs. Ecclesiastical or Consistorial Courts in each diocese were responsible for granting probate and conferring on the executors the power to administer the estate. Each court was responsible for wills and administrations in its own diocese. However, when the estate included property worth more than £5 in another diocese, responsibility for the will or administration passed to the Prerogative Court under the authority of the Archbishop of Armagh.
Unfortunately, nearly all original wills probated before 1858 were destroyed in Dublin in 1922. However, indexes to these destroyed wills do exist and are available on PRONI’s Names database www.proni.gov.uk/index/search_the_archives/proninames. The indexes list the name and residence of the testator and the date that the will was either made or probated. Occasionally the testator’s occupation is given. The indexes are arranged by diocese, not by county.
Despite the loss of virtually all pre-1858 wills, in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland there are over 13,000 abstracts, extracts and duplicate copies of the originals. These derive from a wide variety of sources: landed estate papers, solicitors’ collections, the papers of private genealogists etc.
Another useful source for pre-1858 wills is the Registry of Deeds in Dublin. A will was usually registered if there were concerns that it was going to be contested. Abstracts of over 2,000 wills registered between 1708 and 1832 were published in three volumes by the Irish Manuscripts Commission (P.B. Phair & E. Ellis (eds), Abstracts of Wills at the Registry of Deeds (1954–88)).
The testamentary authority of the Church of Ireland was abolished by the Probate Act of 1857. Testamentary matters were brought under civil jurisdiction and exercised through District Probate Registries and a Principal Registry in Dublin. The registries covering what became Northern Ireland were at Armagh, Belfast and Londonderry. The wills of wealthier members of society tended to be probated at the Principal Registry. The district registries retained transcripts of the wills that they proved and of the administrations intestate that they granted. Thus, while original wills were destroyed in Dublin in 1922, the transcript copies in will books survived. Those for Northern Ireland are available on PRONI’s website: www.proni.gov.uk/index/search_the_archives/will_calendars.htm for the period 1858–1900.
Bound annual indexes of testamentary papers called ‘calendars’ are available on the shelves of the Library at PRONI. These calendars are of value to genealogists since they provide the name, address, occupation and date of death of the testator as well as the names, addresses and occupations of the individual or individuals to whom probate was granted, the value of estate and the place and date of probate. Each calendar covers a single year and the entries are in alphabetical order. Even if you have only an approximate date for the death of an ancestor it is worth looking through a number of volumes in the hope of spotting an entry giving details of their will. These calendars are now available online at www.proni.gov.uk/index/search_the_archives/will_calendars.htm from 1858 to 1965.
Wills from 1900
PRONI has in its custody all wills for the districts of Belfast and Londonderry from 1900 to, at present, the mid-1990s, and Armagh from 1900 until it closed in 1921. After 1900 the original wills and their associated papers are available filed in a separate envelope for each testator. If the person did not make a will there may be letters of administration that give the name, residence and occupation of the deceased as well as the name and address of the person or persons appointed to administer the estate. Indexes to wills from 1900 to 1965 can be found on www.proni.gov.uk/index/search_the_archives/will_calendars.htm. Post-1965 wills are found by using the annual will calendars located in the search room at PRONI.
How can I find out if my ancestor went to school?
A state-run system of education was established in Ireland in 1831. Prior to this (and for some time after it) there were several different organisations and institutions providing education in Ireland. From 1831 National Schools were built with the aid of the Commissioners of National Education and local trustees. The records of over 1,500 schools in Northern Ireland are held at PRONI under reference SCH. Some school records remain in local custody, while others have been lost. The National Archives in Dublin also has a large collection of school registers for the Republic of Ireland.
The most important records as far as schools are concerned are the registers of attendance. These record the full name of the pupil, his or her date of birth (or age at entry), religion, father’s address and occupation (but unfortunately not his name), details of attendance and academic progress and the name of the school previously attended. A space is also provided in the registers for general comments, which might tell where the children went to work after leaving school or if they emigrated. Some registers have an index at the front that can greatly ease searching. As they include the age of pupils, school registers can be cross-referenced to other records such as baptismal records or birth certificates.
Were my ancestors able to vote?
Prior to 1928 when all adults in Ireland, north and south, were permitted to vote, the franchise was carefully controlled. Until the late nineteenth century the qualification for voting was generally linked to the tenure of land, and only a small minority of men had the right to vote. In Ireland, from 1727 to 1793, only Protestant men with a 40-shilling freehold had the right to vote. Between 1793 and 1829 both Protestants and Roman Catholics with 40-shilling freeholds had votes, although a Catholic still could not become a member of parliament. The 40-shilling freehold was property worth 40 shillings a year above the rent, and either owned outright or leased during the lives of named individuals. Many important and indeed prominent people had no vote because they leased their property on the wrong terms. PRONI has a database of nearly all the registers of freeholders and other lists of voters prior to 1840 in its custody available online at www.proni.gov.uk/index/search_the_archives/freeholders_records.htm.
On occasions in estate papers researchers can find material relating to the county elections, which were the play thing of the landed gentry in eighteenth and early-ninetheen the century Ireland. On numerous occasions researchers will find details of challenges or disqualifications made against voters on the basis of their not being eligible to vote as a result of the discriminatory legislation relating to elections and the right to vote at that time. These records, in addition to providing valuable genealogical information on families, provide a fascinating insight into the geo-political and socio-economic life of rural Ireland in this period.
Are records relating to the poor available?
The very poorest in Irish society frequently escaped the written record, certainly prior to the introduction of civil registration of birth, marriages and deaths. Occasionally vestry books will contains lists, often quite lengthy and occasionally giving the residence, of those who received alms from the parish. These will be found with Church of Ireland records.
The new English system of Poor Law administration was applied to Ireland in 1838. Destitute poor who were previously granted relief at parish level were to be accommodated in new workhouses, where conditions were to be as unpleasant as was consistent with health. As a result Ireland was divided into 137 Poor Law Unions in each of which a workhouse was built. The management of the workhouses was the responsibility of a Board of Guardians. Surviving records of these Boards in Northern Ireland are available in PRONI.
Each workhouse kept registers of those admitted to it. These record the names of people admitted to the workhouse. The information on each individual comprises the name, age, condition (i.e. married, single, orphan etc.), disabilities, religion, employment, name of spouse, number of children, observations, electoral division and townland, date admitted, date left or died. Occasionally outdoor relief registers, recording similar information, are available.
In the second half of the nineteenth century industrial schools, managed mainly by the different Christian churches in Ireland, cared for destitute and orphan children. While records are not always open to any researcher, indeed in many cases only direct descendants of an ‘inmate’ may gain access to the material, these records, and those of the Irish religious orders which cared for the poor and destitute, more and more, are becoming available to identify the great multitude of the Irish poor, for whom often, no other record exists.
Are there any printed sources that might help me?
Printed sources come in various forms, from academic histories to single page descriptions of buildings or families. Many family histories have been compiled, while there are numerous genelogical guides in print. The Linen Hall Library in Belfast has an excellent collection of published local and family histories. Some printed sources are clearly more useful than others. The more important ones include:
Ordnance Survey Memoirs
Ordnance Survey Memoirs provide a great deal of background information on the character and habits of the people who lived in Ireland during the early part of the nineteenth century. The memoirs were written descriptions intended to accompany the original Ordnance Survey maps, containing information that could not be fitted on to them. They are a unique source for the history of the northern half of Ireland before the Great Famine, as they document the landscape and situation, buildings and antiquities, land-holdings and population, employment and livelihoods of the parishes. The surveyors recorded the habits of the people, their food, drink, dress and customs. Details of ruined churches, prehistoric monuments and standing stones were also included. The Ordnance Survey Memoirs were published in 40 volumes by the Institute of Irish Studies at The Queen’s University of Belfast, with an additional index volume covering the entire series. The Ulster Historical Foundation has taken over responsiblity for distributing the Memoirs and these can be purchased via our website www.booksireland.org.uk
Street directories contain a great deal of information on the gentry, the professional classes, merchants, etc. They include information on even the smallest of market towns and ports in Ireland. Beginning with a description of the town and surrounding countryside, the names and addresses of the local butchers, pawnbrokers, blacksmiths and coach-builders are given, as well as the various places of worship, with the names of the local ministers etc. and the location of local schools. Street directories can therefore be useful if you wish to find out which church or school your ancestor attended. The names and addresses of the local members of parliament, magistrates, Poor Law Guardians and town commissioners are also included in many street directories. In fact the only classes that are excluded from all directories are the small tenant farmers, landless labourers and servants. There is a good collection of street directories in Belfast Central Library, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, the Linen Hall Library and Omagh Library.
Newspapers are an important source of family history information. The major drawback with using them is usually the lack of an index of names. Of particular interest to genealogists are birth, death and marriage notices. In many cases a newspaper notice may be the only record of one of these events if it took place prior to civil registration and if a church record has not survived. The Belfast Newsletter was first published in 1737. Its readership extended far beyond Belfast to cover much of Ulster. The Londonderry Journal as it was originally known (now the Derry Journal) first appeared in 1772. The Newspaper Library in Belfast, the Linen Hall Library and PRONI all have good newspaper collections.
What are the different land divisions in Ireland?
A unit used in Ireland between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries for administrative (census, taxation, and legal) purposes. Often drawn on pre-existing Gaelic divisions, baronies consisted of large groupings of townlands within a county. The 1891 census is the last to use the barony as an administrative unit.
The county system as a form of territorial division was introduced into Ireland shortly after the Norman Conquest in the late-twelfth century. The creation of counties or shires was gradual, however, and the present arrangement of county boundaries was not finalised in Ulster until the early-seventeenth century. In 1898 local councils based on county divisions were created. County councils remain the principal administrative body of local government in the Republic of Ireland but were abolished in Northern Ireland in 1973. The counties in Ulster are: Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, Monaghan and Tyrone. Of these, Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan are in the Republic of Ireland, with the rest in Northern Ireland.
A diocese is an area controlled by a bishop and composed of a group of parishes. The number of parishes in a diocese varies considerably. In the diocese of Connor, there were over seventy parishes, while in the diocese of Clogher there were approximately thirty-five parishes. The network of dioceses was created in the medieval period and continues to be used by both the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic Church with only minor alterations. The dioceses in Ulster are Armagh (covering all or part of counties Armagh, Londonderry and Tyrone), Clogher (Donegal, Fermanagh, Monaghan and Tyrone), Connor (Antrim, Down and Londonderry), Derry (Donegal, Londonderry and Tyrone), Down (Down), Dromore (Antrim, Armagh and Down), Kilmore (Cavan and Fermanagh) and Raphoe (Donegal).
The manor was introduced to Ireland by the Normans in the twelfth century. In the early-seventeenth century grantees in the Ulster Plantation were given power to ‘create manors’. The manor provided the basic legal framework within which an estate could be managed and was vital to its successful development. The lord of the manor was enabled to hold courts leet and baron to regulate the affairs of his estate. The manor courts also provided an arena where tenants could settle their disputes (see Chapter 6.3.8 for more information on manor courts).
This territorial division refers to both civil and ecclesiastical units. Civil parishes largely follow the pattern that was established in medieval times. Ecclesiastical parishes do not always coincide with civil parish boundaries, however. Following the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Church of Ireland more or less maintained the pre-Reformation arrangement. Church of Ireland parishes are, therefore, largely coterminous with civil parishes. When the Catholic Church began its institutional re-emergence in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it constructed a new network of parishes which did not follow the civil parish network.
Poor Law Union
Under the Irish Poor Law Act of 1838 commissioners were empowered to “unite so many townlands as they think fit to be a union for the relief of the destitute poor”. A Union was a group of parishes usually centred on a market town, where a workhouse might be built, with parishes and townlands as subdivisions. Rates, land based taxes, were collected within these areas for maintenance to the poor. They were named after a large town. The same districts later became used as General Register Districts.
Provinces are composed of groups of counties. There are four provinces in Ireland: Ulster in the north, Leinster in the east, Munster in the south, and Connacht or Connaught in the west.
This is the smallest administrative territorial unit in Ireland, varying in size from a single acre to over 7,000 acres. Originating in the older Gaelic dispensation, townlands were used as the basis of leases in the estate system, and subsequently to assess valuations and tithes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They survive as important markers of local identity.
The townland is the vital piece of geographical information needed to successfullly unlock one’s Irish ancestry. Understanding the townland, and its importance to the island of ireland, will explain the uniquely Irish obsession with place. Understanding the concept will also enrich the researcher’s visits to the homeland. For more information on the location and meaning of townlands in Northern Ireland, visit: www.placenamesni.org.
BELFAST CENTRAL LIBRARY
GENERAL REGISTER OFFICE
Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency
49/55 Chichester Street
Belfast, BT1 4HL
Telephone: (0300) 200 7890 or (028) 9151 3101
LINEN HALL LIBRARY
PUBLIC RECORD OFFICE OF NORTHERN IRELAND
GENERAL REGISTER OFFICE
Tel: +353 (0) 90 6632900
NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF IRELAND
REGISTRY OF DEEDS
MELLON CENTRE FOR MIGRATION STUDIES
VALUATION OFFICE IRELAND