John Grenham writes in The Irish Times that many of the original records contained in Roman Catholic parish registers are rotting away:

Roman Catholic parish registers constitute by far the most important set of records for 19th-century Irish local and family history. And, in the furore over access, one vital point is constantly missed. The original records are still sitting in the sacristies and presbyteries around the country where they have been for the past two centuries. No organization on the island is concerned with preserving them: there is no archival programme to ensure their survival."

Read the Grenham's full piece here.

What's your take on this?  Can anything be done to save these important and irreplaceable records?

Tags: Ancestry, Genealogy, Heritage, Preservation

Views: 624

Replies to This Discussion

Not an issue I've followed, but aren't these records being digitized by Find My Past and perhaps other firms, who in turn recoup their investment by making these digital copies available to the public, typically for fees?

The value of the original records is great, all the same. The Roman Catholic Church is obligated to maintain church records, no, if not in original format on some legible medium?

I agree that the Roman Catholic Church should be responsible for maintaining these records, and I would further suggest that they should be responsible for digitizing them and making them available to the public at an affordable rate (or free with donations suggested). Our ancestors built these churches, sometimes in the literal sense, but more often with whatever money they could spare in times when they could barely afford to feed themselves. Without parishioners, the institution could not exist. Is it too much to ask that its leaders do what it takes to preserve their memories for their kin?

I've only contacted one Irish RC parish before with a record request and the priest who responded was very kind and searched for me without requesting a dime. I've also been in touch with a few in New York City; it certainly varies from one parish to the next how they respond. A number of them demand $25-30 per record just to search, even if they find nothing, while some will look for free and politely suggest a contribution. I have no idea how the records are cataloged or organized, or whether there is any current churchwide policy regarding how to preserve old documents. In addition to the costs involved, I suspect some parishes are concerned about the way the LDS Church (the Mormons) have used RC records to posthumously "baptize" people into their faith. But I think the RC Church's responsibility to preserving the past should outweigh any fear of Mormon sorcery. If they do it right, it might even be a means of raising money in the long run, as well as bringing some stray sheep back to the flock through the connection to their Catholic ancestors.

I agree with Brendan. I have made several visits to the Public Records Office in Belfast and was able to find my Protestant ancestor's parish records there quite easily but of the Catholic church records I sought PRONI had no copies.

Another 'beef' I have is with the National Archive of Ireland in Dublin. I e mailed them twice over a 12 month period (they can take up to 6 months to respond, even if you make your request under the Freedom of Information Act) asking for details from a prison register. Twice they replied they did not hold that register. I then paid out for a subscription to FindMyPast and found the desired image from that register. The record with FMP was marked 'original is held at The National Archive in Dublin'!!  

By the way, if anyone searching for the birth record of an ancestor they know to have been born in Dublin  gets a 'no trace' response from Dublin's General Records Office, it may be that their ancestor was born in The Rotunda, which was  Dublin's main maternity hospital throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. I have found that The Rotunda had a system of registering a great many births without giving the infant's first name.

Even if you have the child's parents' details and the exact date of birth, when the GRO find the right record but there's no first name, they always give a 'no trace' response. You have to insist on being given details of all births with the searched for surname during the relevant period.

The CC should create some jobs for people to transcribe these archives onto computer before they are lost forever. I'd do it! For free room and board in Ireland, no problem ; )

This article by John Grenham highlights the need for some immediate decisions taken on an irreplaceable aspect of our history. So much has been 'lost' to date. These losses include the fire in the Bedford Tower in Dublin Castle, The Four Courts at the beginnings of the Civil War, the attack on the Customs House during the War of Independence 1919 to 1922, the huge loss of Irish Census records from 1841 to 1891 ordered to be pulped at the instructions of the British Government. In 'The Land for the People' by Terence Dooley reference is made to the appalling destruction of millions of letters of complaint from farmers about other farmers in the context of the operations of the Land Commission. There were up to 400,000 letters annually being sent to Dept of Agriculture and Land Commission all of which were ordered to be destroyed by the Irish government. This act of historical sabotage denied future historians an invaluable source of information about a critical part of our heritage. It may have been seen as a painful reminder that mans love of the land was stronger than his hatred of informers. The activities of the Land Commission have now ceased and records are protected by a 100 year moratorium expiring circa 2090. A worrying thought is that these and other records would meet a similar fate of destruction begging the question does government policy seek ways of destroying public records given the frequency of the occurrence and the ways in which they are protected and secreted away? 

Genealogists and historians are at a loss trying to fill in the gaps of a critical part of our nations fledgling origins. As the last census for research was British in 1911 so much happened in the intervening 15 years when the first Irish Census took place in 1926. This census is also under the 100 year moratorium and obstructs research on historical events like the 1913 Lockout, The Great War 1914/18, the 1916 Rebellion, The War of Independence and the sad Civil War. Perhaps government policies were influenced by peoples political views and the allocations of parcels of land reflected these sentiments. But the greatest loss has to be of the countless poor living in the towns and cities of Ireland in grim unsanitary conditions and little prospects of employment except for emigration. Today with all our swagger of how well we have fared, there is a homeless crisis and we talk about the problem but nothing happens. In the hard times of the 1940's local government with far fewer resources undertook a massive house building campaign. Resources were very limited but they achieved al ot more than what is happening here today where wealth accumulates and men decay.

I would have to disagree with D.J. Kelly regarding the National Archives. I have always found them extremely helpful and professional in my dealings with them. I also notice the high level of appreciation of the visiting public to this free service. There may be limits in the service they provide due to constraints of whats practical. Responding to each email that might necessitate doing a partial or detailed search might be seen as beyond what can be done. 

Despite the uncanny various destructions of Irish records by fair means or foul, quite an amount of information is now freely available on line thanks to the National Archives the National Library and especially the various ministers for the Arts Sports and Tourism who ordered these records be made available. Unfortunately the current Irish had its excellent work halted when money dried up after the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. By then, only counties Dublin, Cork, Kerry and Carlow had been completed giving researchers the opportunity of digitally researching surnames for birth and marriages for both Roman Catholic and COI denominations from 1900 back to 1700.

This initiative came about as a result of constant political pressure from relatives encountering delays and obstructions in their efforts to do their own research or in the expensive process of employing a 'professional' genealogist. At one point I think certain categories of prisoners were deployed in this cataloging or records. It may have also been the case that this information once completed was being hoarded by vested interests, even though the work being done by these prisoners was at taxpayers expense.

The good news is that much of what was apparently or allegedly lost/ destroyed has been researched and today we have a pretty good amount of sources  freely available on line. Just go on line and explore the Government site of National Archives Bishop Street Dublin.

Michael Dunne, I'm not sure how you can disagree with me unless you were the archivist who dealt so unhelpfully with my enquiries. I think what you mean to say is that your experience has been different from mine, but that doesn't mean what I have written is untrue.

I am very glad to hear you have had a better experience with the NA.  In 2010 I made enquiries of them regarding a particular file on an ancestor of mine and was told (6 months after my initial e mail to them) that I needed to make an appointment to see one of their archivists to discuss access to the file. I made an 11 am appointment on a specified date and  flew into Dublin the previous day. I arrived 15 minutes early for my appointment and found the gentleman with the 1030 appointment still waiting to be seen. We were told the archivist had 'gone to lunch'. He returned at 2pm and I was seen at around 2.30. The interview consisted simply of his handing me the file to read.

I asked at their enquiry desk if it would be possible to have copies of some photos of my ancestor which were on the file and, to be fair, another archivist appeared and was extremely helpful. He scanned and downloaded the images onto my own flash drive. All in all, therefore, the NA is something of a curate's egg. How you fare may depend upon who you see on the day or who deals with your correspondence. Things should improve as more information is digitised and made available online.

Well D.J., it would appear you were unfortunate in your experience, which is regrettable and uncharacteristic of the staff at the National Archives. I have no doubt what you have written is true and would aggravate any person given the expense and arrangements you went to.

As a nine year old I took on the Herculean task of clearing our family back garden of thirty years rubbish. While resources were scarce, good will was in abundance. My older cousin helped with this heavy workload in which we discovered a large triangle of hens eggs- about fifty or so among the briars, brambles and nettles. I was happy to divide these eggs which had been secretly laid by a neighbours hen, with my cousin. Unfortunately, not part of one not even a 'curates egg' was good. All were rotten and quite smelly when broken. In hindsight the act of giving was no less diminished as I done so in good faith. 

An old Irish blessing is to wish as follows..."May your hens never lay out", meaning may you always be fortunate. (Secret layers deprive their owners of badly needed family nourishment as was the case.) Hopefully the next time you have dealings with the National Archives you will be more fortunate. I have not been there for some time and ~I know there has been a cut back in staffing and resources there. One casualty was the deletion of the excellent resident genealogist.



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