Searching for Your Irish Ancestors, Part 5 – Estate Records

Administration of the estates of the landed gentry in Ireland during the Victorian era was meticulous.  Large estates employed agents, accountants, solicitors, valuators and cartographers, all of whom created detailed records.  These collections, if they survive, can be a treasure trove for researchers.

At the beginning of the 19th century the majority of the island of Ireland was in the possession of about 5,000 families.  The other 5.2 million of the population were tenants.  While many families were tenants of middlemen, you may be lucky enough to find an ancestor who was residing on a large and well administered estate for which there are surviving records.

In order to identify the owner of the property where your ancestor resided, you should start by consulting the Primary Valuation of Ireland, otherwise known as Griffith’s Valuation.  As well as recording the occupier of a property, Griffith’s also recorded the ‘immediate lessor’.  This is the person to whom the rent was paid.  If your ancestor paid their rent directly to one of the landed gentry, it might be sensible to search for evidence of surviving estate records for this family.  Once you have identified the name of the landlord there are a number of resources that should help you to locate surviving estate records: This is a database created by NUI Galway that details estates across Ireland, although its primary focus was on estates in Connacht.  This website will provide you with details about the extent of the estate, the families in possession of property and sources for surviving records.  This is not a comprehensive listing of estate records, so should not be your only destination when searching for such records. This is the online version of ‘Hayes Manuscript Sources for the History of Irish Civilization’ a catalogue created by the Director of the National Library of Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s and is probably the most useful means of locating estate records.  The catalogue identifies collections not just in the National Library of Ireland but also the National Archives, the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) and repositories around the world. : Records for estates in the Republic of Ireland can also be held in PRONI in Belfast.  Families who had estates in Ulster in the 19th century may also have had estates in other parts of the country.    You might find that their papers are in Dublin, Belfast or even in an English repository.

Using these various sources you should be able to establish whether or not there are surviving papers that might prove relevant to your family.

So what can you expect to find in a collection of estate papers?  While recently researching the Loughlin family from County Kilkenny, I discovered that their landlord was Charles B. Wandesford.   The Sources catalogue on the website of the National Library of Ireland pointed to an extensive collection of Wandesford papers held by the library.  The collection list for these papers ran to several hundred pages, I had stumbled upon a treasure trove of records.  In the 1830s, when Charles Wandesford inherited the estate from his mother, he commissioned a survey of the estate.  The surveyors report, which was found in the estate papers, provided a detailed description of each townland, including the townland where my Loughlin family were living.  The surveyor described the houses of the tenants as nothing more than windowless cabins dug into the ground with sods of earth for roofing.  The townland had been persistently subdivided and contained over 200 families living in the most dire circumstances.

At his own expense, Wandesford paid for many of these tenants to emigrate and within the collection of his estate papers is a record of this programme, including lists of the tenants who emigrated.  Wandesford also headed the relief committee for his district during the famine.  The estate papers include records of relief granted to tenants on the estate, naming the head of the household and their circumstances as well as how much relief they were granted.

ike many landlords in 19th century Ireland, Wandesford was in receipt of applications for assistance from his tenants, particularly during the period of the famine.  These letters represent the voices of some of the most distressed and destitute families.  John Loughlin, the head of the family that I was researching had submitted a request to Wandesford, which read as follows:

“I humbly beg to make known my sad and painful distress. I have three in family starving with hunger and cold. I maid applications to the clough committee and the[y] gave me nothing to help me. I therefore most humbly beg and beseech  of your Honr to order me some relief and beg so doing your  [charity] will save the lifes of me and my family. I remain your humble most distressed applicant etc.

January 29th, 1847 John Loughlin Cloneen”

At the height of the famine, John Loughlin was pleading with his landlord for assistance.  There are hundreds of similar letters in this collection, including from women who wrote to Wandesford’s wife, requesting clothing or blankets to see them through the winter.

The "bread and butter" of estate records are rentals, a record of the rents received from the tenant.  The Wandesford papers also included rent rolls that provided evidence of the tenure of the Loughlin family at Cloneen back to the 1830s.  In some cases rentals can date back to the late 18th century and can illustrate a land holding passing from one generation to the next, identifying fathers and grandfathers of a family.  Estate records can also include leases, although the majority of tenants in Ireland rarely had a lease with their landlord.  However, leases for those that did can often be made for a number of lives and in some cases the lives recorded in the lease were the sons or nephews of the tenant.  A lease from the 1790s that names the head of the family and three sons might be the only record of these individuals and their relationship that you will find if the parish registers don’t survive for the same period.

Estate records can contain valuable genealogical information but are also a doorway to investigating the social history of the period, starkly illustrating the relationship between the landlord and tenant.

Read parts 1-4 of Nicola's "Searching for Your Irish Ancestors" series here.

Visit our "Irish Ancestry" Members Group

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, Genealogy, Preservation

Comment by Jean Sullivan Cardinal on September 28, 2014 at 3:09pm

Thank you so much for these helpful hints.


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