Registration of non-Roman Catholic marriages began in Ireland in 1845, but the full registration system only came into operation in 1864, when all births, marriages and deaths began to be registered. These dates are relatively late, at least when compared with the starting years of the civil registration systems in other parts of what was then the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Full registration was introduced in 1837 in England and Wales and in 1855 in Scotland.
To appreciate the nature of the records it created it is necessary to have some idea of how registration began. It was an offshoot of the Victorian public health system in Ireland, in turn based on the Poor Law, an attempt to provide some measure of publicly funded relief for the most destitute. Between 1838 and 1852, 163 workhouses were built throughout Ireland, each at the centre of an area known as a Poor Law Union. The workhouses were commonly situated in a large market town, and the Poor Law Union comprised the town and its catchment area, with the result that in many cases the Unions ignored many existing parish and county boundaries. This had consequences for research, as we will see below.
In the 1850s a large-scale public health system was created, based on the areas covered by the Poor Law Unions. Each Union was divided into Dispensary Districts, with an average of six to seven Districts per Union. A Medical Officer, normally a doctor, was given responsibility for public health in each District. With the introduction of the registration of all births, deaths and marriages in 1864, these Dispensary Districts did double duty as Registrar's Districts, with a Registrar responsible for collecting the registrations within this District. In most cases, the Medical Officer for the Dispensary District now also acted as the Registrar for the same area. The superior of the Registrar was the Superintendent Registrar, responsible for all the Registrars within the old Poor Law Union. Click here for an interactive map, showing all placenames contained in each Poor Law Union.
The day-to-day system worked as follows: when a local Registrar had filled a registration volume it was forwarded to the Superintendent Registrar, who made a copy of this register and forwarded the copy to the GRO in Dublin; these copies were then used to create centralised all-Ireland indexes; and these indexes and their corresponding copy registers then formed the basis for research in the records, by both GRO staff and the public.
Because of its origins, responsibility for registration in the Republic rested with the Department of Health until 2004. The Civil Registration Act (2004) then transferred responsibility for the GRO to the Department of Social Protection, with local Registrars in each Health Service Executive Area still part of the Department of Health. Although the current registration system is completely digitised, the historical local registers are still held by the Superintendent Registrars. The GRO public research facility, at 8-11 Lombard Street East, Dublin 2, has the master indexes to all 32 counties up to 1921 and to the 26 counties of the Republic after 1921, as well as digital copies of the centrally copied historical registers. The administrative headquarters of the GRO is now at Convent Road, Roscommon.