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The Irish Registry of Deeds: a Comment

By Duncan Scarlett

It was one of those awkward searches in the sparse records of the eighteenth century made even more difficult by the lack of a specific parish or townland on which to focus. The client was seeking records of the marriage, somewhere in Ulster, circa 1766, of her Presbyterian ancestors, Joseph McFarland, born c.1747, and Katie Calhoun, born c.1751, the birth, c.1773, of their son, Samuel McFarland and information about his bride Margaret Jane (?) Fulton, born c.1777, location also unknown, and their emigration in 1793 or 1794.

The geographical locations of householders with those three surnames in the Flax Growers Premium List, 1796, and in the Tithe Applotment Books, 1823-38, suggested that the family lived somewhere in north-west Ulster, possibly in Co. Tyrone. After examining, without success, the few extant eighteenth-century Presbyterian registers and other surviving eighteenth-century sources for those areas I turned to the Registry of Deeds. Although it is reputed that exceptionally few deeds were registered by families of the dissenting tradition, I found memorials of at least three deeds made by the client’s ancestors.

The most important of these memorials was a copy of a marriage settlement deed, made on 5 September 1766. The deed was a conveyance of two small areas of land, one with a house, and livestock from both families to take effect when the couple married. The information about the families contained in the memorial confirmed the broad outline of the client’s family history but it also contained other genealogically valuable details about both families obviously unknown to the client.

It added a generation to knowledge about the McFarland family by naming Joseph’s father, Andrew, and the townland, Droit, in which the family lived. It added the names of two generations on the Calhoun side of the client’s family tree as Katie was the granddaughter of the legator, Audley Calhoun, of Strahulter townland , and the daughter of John Johnson, of Crow Hill. The client had given Calhoun as Katie’s surname and was therefore unaware of the Calhoun/Johnston marriage.

The information in the memorial enabled a more precise location to be made for one of the families. Crow Hill was a sub denomination name for a part of Liscabble townland and the location of a small cluster of houses in the early 1st edition Ordnance Survey map of c.1834. It is possible that this was the location of the Johnston household. The adjoining townlands of Liscabble and Droit are situated in Bodoney Lower parish just a short distance away from Strahulter townland which is in the neighbouring Ardstraw parish.

Two further memorials of deeds made by the McFarland family were found in the search. One deed, dated 2 April 1784, of a conveyance by Joseph McFarland of ‘all his lands and appurtenances in Droyt’ [sic] to Andrew and James McFarland did not add any genealogical information about the family as no family relationships were stated. One of the lives on which the land would be held was William Fulton who may have been related to Margaret Jane Fulton.

The other memorial, dated 29 December 1793, confirmed the marriage of Joseph and Katie had taken place by naming their eldest son who was thus an older sibling of the client’s ancestor, Samuel. This deed conveyed land, situated in Droit, and appurtenances of ‘Audley McFarland, eldest son and heir at Law of Joseph McFarland, decd [i.e. deceased], and Catherine McFarland, nee Johnston’, to other McFarlands but again no family relationships were stated. It was made around the same period when, according to the client’s family tradition, his younger brother emigrated so it is possible that Audley was conveying his land in order to accompany him to North America. This opens up another line of research.

The Irish Registry of Deeds, which was established in 1708, included a broad range of documents relating to land title. Wills, especially those which might be contested, were registered on a fairly regular basis. A written record, called a memorial, which was often a full copy or a very full abstract, was made of each deed brought for registration. A transcript of each memorial was written into a large manuscript volume.

There are some limitations in accessing the records because of the information contained in the indexes of surnames and locations in the deeds but with a little practice searching becomes much easier. The index of names, which is the more useful for genealogists, lists grantors – but not grantees – alphabetically and, until 1833, it does not provide information about the names of places listed in the deed. A further limitation is that the date of registration may be several years after the date on which the deed was originally made. The index of lands is initially subdivided by county and then, unfortunately, only by the initial letter of the townland name. From 1833 both indexes provide more useful information and thus it is consequently easier to find transcripts.

There appears to be a view among some family historians and genealogical writers that, apart from those seeking information about prosperous property owning Church of Ireland ancestors, it is not worth searching the records of the Irish Registry of Deeds because they are laborious and time consuming to access and of limited value. My experience over a number of years suggests that the value of the Irish Registry of Deeds for genealogists is underestimated especially for those seeking information in the eighteenth century for which there are very few extant church registers and other records. The property being conveyed in these memorials of deeds made by the Calhoun and McFarland families was not extensive. Thus these searches, which took around one hour to complete, highlight the value of examining those memorials even for families of the dissenting tradition with relatively small farms.

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