Before the start of civil registration for all in 1864, virtually
the only direct sources of family information for the vast majority
of the population are the local parish records. However, because of the disadvantages suffered by the Catholic Church from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, record-keeping was understandably difficult, and very few registers survive from before the latter half of the eighteenth century. The earliest
Catholic Church parish records in the country appear to be the
fragments for Waterford and Galway cities, dating from the 1680s, and for Wexford town, dating from 1671.
Generally speaking, early records tend to come from the more
prosperous and Anglicized areas, in particular the towns and
cities of the eastern half of the island. In the poorest and
most densely populated rural parishes of the West and North,
those which saw most emigration, the parish registers very often
do not start until the mid or late nineteenth century. However,
the majority of Catholic registers begin in the first decades
of the nineteenth century, and even in poor areas, records were
often kept from an earlier date.
The only way to be sure of the extent of surviving records is to check the individual parish. The National Library catalogue, available at the counter in the main reading room, is the only printed, comprehensive, country-wide account of Catholic registers, and records in detail the period covered by each set of registers, including gaps, up to 1880.
Fully comprehensive listings of the dates and locations of all known copies of church records, cross-linked to the areas they cover, can be found through the Ancestor Search or the Subscription section.
Roman Catholic registers consist mostly of baptismal and marriage records. The keeping of burial records was much less thorough than in the Church of Ireland, with fewer than half the parishes in the country having a register of burials before 1900; even where they do exist, these records are generally intermittent and patchy. For some reason, almost all Catholic burial registers are for the northern half of the island.
Baptisms and marriages are recorded in either Latin or English, never in Irish. Generally, parishes in the more prosperous areas, where English was more common, tended to use English, while in Irish-speaking parishes Latin was used; there is no absolute consistency, however. The Latin presents very few problems, since only first names were translated, not surnames or placenames, and the English equivalents are almost always self-evident. The only difficulties or ambiguities are the following:
Apart from names, the only other Latin needing explanation is that used in recording marriage dispensations. These were necessary when the two people marrying were related, consanguinati, and the relationship was given in terms of degrees, with siblings first degree, first cousins second degree, and second cousins third degree, Thus a couple recorded as consanguinati in tertio grado are second cousins, information which can be of value in disentangling earlier generations. A less frequent Latin comment, affinitatus, records an earlier relationship by marriage between the families of the two parties.
Catholic baptismal registers almost invariably contain the following information:
Other information which may be supplied includes:
In some rare cases the relationships of the witnesses to the people marrying is also specified.
Marriage dispensations were necessary when the two people marrying were related, consanguinati, and the relationship was given in terms of degrees, with siblings first degree, first cousins second degree, and second cousins third degree.
Thus a couple recorded as consanguinati in tertio grado are second cousins, information which can be of value in disentangling earlier generations. A less frequent Latin comment, affinitatus, records an earlier relationship by marriage between the families of the two parties.
A typical Latin entry would read:
In matrimonium coniunxi sunt Danielum McCarthy et Brigidam Kelliher, de Ballyboher.
Testimonii: Cornelius Buckley, Margarita Hennessy.
Abbreviated, the entry reads:
Mat. con. Danielum McCarthy et Brigidam Kelliher, Ballyboher. Test. Cornelius Buckley, Margarita Hennessy.
Meaning, simply, "Daniel McCarthy and Brigid Kelliher, of Ballyboher, are joined in matrimony; witnesses, Cornelius Buckley, Margaret Hennessy."
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the National Library of Ireland carried out a project to microfilm the surviving Catholic parish registers of the entire island. Out of 1153 sets of registers, this project covered 1066. Among the parishes whose records it does not include are: Rathlin Island (Co. Antrim), Crossgar (Co. Down); Clonfert, Fahy, Clonbern (Co. Galway); Killorglin (Co. Kerry); Kilmeena (Co. Mayo); Rathcore & Rathmolyon (Co, Meath); and the Dublin city and county parishes of Clontarf, Naul, Sandyford, and Santry. Almost all of these appear to have registers earlier than 1880 in local custody. In addition, the parishes of St John's (Sligo town), Cappawhite (Co. Tipperary) and Waterford city have registers held locally which are fuller than those microfilmed by the Library.
Not all of the microfilmed registers in the Library are available to the public; permission for public research has not been granted by the bishop of Kerry. In the case of parishes in this diocese, it is necessary to obtain written permission from the local parish priest before the Library can allow access to the records. In addition, at the time of writing no records for the diocese of Cashel and Emly are available for research, the Archbishop having closed them in order to oblige researchers to go through the Tipperary Heritage Unit, who carry out commissioned research on indexes created in the 1970s and 1980s.
A separate microfilming project was carried out by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland for the six counties under its jurisdiction. The results are generally identical to the National Library copies, although in some cases PRONI has used a later cut-off date.
The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints also has an extensive collection of Catholic parish register microfilms, made up partly of copies of some of the National Library films and partly of material microfilmed by the Church itself. Of the 1153 parishes in the country, the LDS library has records of 398.
Apart from research in the original records, or microfilm copies, one other access route exists to the information recorded in parish registers. This is through the network of local heritage centres which has come into being throughout the country since c. 1980. These are engaged, as part of the Irish Genealogical Project, in indexing and computerising all of the surviving parish records for the country. At the moment c. 75% of all Catholic records are indexed. These records are not directly accessible to the public, but the centres do carry out commissioned research.
Fully comprehensive listings of the dates and locations of all
known copies of Church records, cross-linked to the areas they
cover, can be found through the Ancestor
Search or the Subscription section.