Searching for Your Irish Ancestors, Part 3 – The Roman Catholic Parish Registers

This is part four in a series of articles on "Searching for Your Irish Ancestors" written by Ireland-based professional genealogist Nicola Morris of Timeline Genealogy. You can find the other installments of this series here.

If your ancestor was born in Ireland prior to 1864, when compulsory civil registration of births, deaths and marriages was introduced, the only source for birth and marriage records are parish registers.

The majority of the Irish population was Roman Catholic, so Roman Catholic parish registers are a vital source for anyone searching for their Irish ancestors. Parish registers usually record baptisms and marriages. It is rare to find 19th century Roman Catholic parish burial records.

The original parish registers are usually still held by the parish priest. But before you go rushing off to knock on the door of the parochial house or write to the priest of the parish in which your ancestors originated, you should be aware that the parish is under no obligation to let you look at these registers and in many cases the parish priest will be too busy to trawl through the registers on your behalf.

However, all is not lost, the National Library of Ireland hold microfilm copies of nearly all surviving parish registers for Ireland (including Northern Ireland). If you can make it to Dublin, you can search these records at your leisure and you can access much more than just the records for one parish.

Many of the surviving parish registers have now also been digitised and are available online, although not all on the one website. Before you sign up to search any website for parish baptism or marriage records, make sure that they have the records that you need.

If your ancestor was born in Ireland, there should be a baptismal record for them. However, not all parish registers survive for early periods. In fact, for counties like Mayo and Donegal, many of the records don’t commence until the 1850s or 1860s. This means that there is a possibility that your ancestor was baptised in a parish for which the records no longer survive.

Early parish registers are not always entirely complete. There are often missing pages, pages that are so faded as to be illegible and even missing registers. Large parishes often had more than one chapel in which baptisms took place. Each chapel may have maintained its own register. The current surviving collection may not include all registers for the parish. This means that if you don’t find evidence of your ancestor in a specific parish, it may be because of missing records. If you cannot find evidence of your ancestor, try searching for evidence of their siblings. This will at least confirm that the family were residing in the parish you are investigating.

Many Roman Catholic parish registers were written in Latin, while this does not usually affect the spelling of surnames, it can mean that Christian names will be written in Latin, so bear this in mind. James can be recorded as Jacob, Mary as Maria and William as Guillium and other such variants.

You are also relying on the penmanship and accuracy of the parish priest who created the record. This was not always reliable. I have often stumbled across a set of baptismal records for known children of a family, however, in several cases the parish priest has incorrectly recorded the mother’s first name or even her maiden name. Remember, your ancestors may not have been literate and may not have recognised an error and even if they had, they certainly would not have corrected the parish priest. In cases where a baptism took place at home, the parish priest may have just made a note of the details on a scrap of paper for entry in the register at a later date – this leaves plenty of room for error.

So, before you start searching parish registers, in person or online, it is important to be aware of some of the limitations of these records such as gaps in the registers, faded pages, Latin first names and inaccurate recording.

The majority of parish registers for Ireland are available online at www.RootsIreland.ie . This is a pay per view website, which can be searched using parents’ names as well as the name of the individual who was baptised. This is helpful for locating siblings or all the children born to one family, particularly if your own ancestor's baptismal record cannot be found. When using this website bear in mind that the search engine requires an exact spelling for the first name field, for this reason, I usually only use the first letter of the first name, P for Patrick and M for Mary or Margaret. This is because some names may be recorded as Pat, Pk, Ptk, Patt or Mary, Maria, Maryann. By just using the first initial, I will avoid missing a potentially vital records. The search engine does, however, undertake a broad search for surnames, so it doesn’t matter if the surname spelling is not exactly as it was recorded in the register. However, if you are aware of the different variant spellings of your surname, you should always check the database under each variation.

Before you use the records on RootsIreland.ie, you should always check their source list – this will tell you what parish registers they have online. Many counties may be missing one or two registers or you may find registers that don’t survive for the period you are researching. If this is the case, you will not find relevant records, no matter how many times you try.

The second website for Irish parish registers is www.IrishGenealogy.ie where you will find the records for Dublin City, Kerry, parts of Cork and the Church of Ireland records for Carlow. This is a free website and easy to use. If your ancestors hailed from Cork, Kerry or Dublin City, this will be a very valuable resource for your research. There is no source list on the website that identifies the earliest surviving date for each register that they hold, so it can be difficult to determine the extent of the records available in this online collection.

You can now also find a very small collection of Roman Catholic parish registers on www.Ancestry.com for various parts of the country, but this is by no means a complete collection.

In order to get a sense of the extent of parish registers that survive for Ireland, I would recommend that you visit John Grenham’s excellent website: www.IrishTimes.com/ancestor and use the ‘Placename’ section to review the maps of Roman Catholic parishes for each county. By clicking on the link for each Roman Catholic parish you will be brought to a table that identifies the earliest surviving record as well as the online location of that register and the call number for microfilm copy of the register in the National Library of Ireland. This will help you to determine whether the records for the area in which you are interested survive for the period your ancestor was born, or married and where you will find online and microfilm copies of the records.

If you are using land records to identify where your family originated in Ireland, bear in mind that land records refer to the civil parish in which your ancestor was living. Catholic parishes differ from civil parishes. A Catholic parish may contain one or more civil parishes. The boundaries are often different as are the names of the parish.

If your ancestor stated on his emigration records or a newspaper obituary that he came from Kilfeacle in Co. Tipperary, you will discover that Kilfeacle is a civil parish which actually corresponds with the Roman Catholic parish of Golden. However, the Roman Catholic parish of Golden also contains all or part of the civil parishes of Boytonrath, Dangandargan, Dogstown, Killeenasteena and relickmurry and Athassel. This can get very confusing. To make matters worse, some Roman Catholic parishes went by different names in the various calendars and indexes where they have been listed for genealogists. John Grenham’s website should help you to identify all potential names under which the parish will be listed.

It is quite common for an emigrant to name the Roman Catholic parish in which they originated, rather than the civil parish. This means that in order to locate land records for your family, you will have to identify the civil parishes within that Roman Catholic parish.

Research of parish registers requires patience, but can be ultimately rewarding, especially when you decipher that 1807 baptismal record that gives the address of your great, great, great grandfather or the baptismal record where the parish priest has also noted the marriage details of the child. I have even found references to marriages that took place in the US, Canada and England, recorded beside the baptism of the child in an Irish parish register. For children born outside of marriage, you can sometimes find comments by the parish priest written in the margin and on rare cases the father of the child may be named, if his identify was known to the parish priest.

When using online databases for Irish parish registers, always try to track down a copy of the original register. There microfilm copies that can be found in the National Library of Ireland can also be ordered through most Family History Centre Libraries. By checking an image of the original register, you can make sure that there have not been any mistakes in transcription and it is illuminating to see the handwritten record that may be over 150 years old.

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Nicola Morris is a consultant genealogist for the Irish Ancestry Group at The Wild Geese. She has a degree in History from Trinity College Dublin. She has worked in genealogy since 1999 and in 2007 set up Timeline Irish Research, offering professional genealogical research services to clients at home and abroad. As well as offering a professional genealogical research service, Nicola also works on house and building histories and histories of institutions and organisations and wrote a history of the Fulbright Commission in Ireland in 2008. Read more about Nicola.

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Tags: Ancestry, Faith, Genealogy, Preservation


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Comment by Fran Reddy on July 23, 2014 at 9:16am

Great information Nicola! This is very relevant to my search.

Comment by Patrick Murphy on July 23, 2014 at 7:11pm

Thanks, Nicola - lots of great detail and insight.  I have a note to add regarding the www.Rootsireland.ie databases.  I agree 100% with your tip about using only the first initial of first names to be sure that you do not miss spelling variations.  Here is another tip:  you can use the character "zero" (0) instead and it functions as a "wild card."  This is very useful for two kinds of searches:  Any time you want to narrow a search by Parish you have to have a first name.  If you don't know the first name try using a "zero" instead.  Why would you not know the first name?  If you are looking for unknown children of a pair of known parents, for instance.  Once I have come to know something about a couple I always do a "wild card" search for their children using the "zero" in place of first name.  You can very quickly get as complete a list as possible of all children born to a given couple and baptized in that given parish.  The other benefit to the "wild card" approach is this:  I have used it to get a quick overview of all people of a given surname baptized in a given Parish.  I sometimes find this useful and you avoid missing people altogether because it never occurred to you that some of your ancestors might have the first name Austin or Cornelius or what have you, not to mention the Latin spellings you referenced in your article.  There may be other ways to capitalize on the "wild card" approach but these are the ways I use it most frequently.

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