If we still had the early nineteenth-century Irish census returns – 1821, 1831, 1841, 1851 – then the Tithe Applotment Books would be an obscure backwater for researchers, of interest only as an afterthought. Thanks to the catastrophic destruction of 99% of these census returns in 1922, however, the Tithe records have acquired an unnatural importance. Quite simply, they are the only surviving island-wide survey of who was living where in the 1820s and 1830s.
The Books were created between 1823 and 1838 as a result of The Composition Act (1823) which required that tithes due to the Church of Ireland, hitherto payable as a portion of agricultural yield, should now be paid in money. As a result, it was necessary to put a monetary value on the potential output of every eligible land-holding and the Books are the parish-by-parish record of this valuation.
These are exclusively rural records. Anyone not involved in agriculture was omitted, and even within agriculture there were exclusions: most pasturage was exempt, for example. On the other hand, as ever, the tax fell most heavily on those who could resist it least, poor tenant farmers for whom few other records survive. At a (wildish) guess, perhaps 40% of households are recorded here in some form.
And because the Church of Ireland was the State (“Established”) Church, everyone, including Dissenters and Catholics, were required to pay these tithes. If you think the Household Charge is unpopular today, imagine the fury 180 years ago. The resulting “Tithe Wars” raged through the early 1830s until finally, in 1838, direct tithe payments by tenants were abolished.
The Tithe Books have long been widely available on microfilm but, because they are handwritten and had such a peculiar genesis, they have been under-appreciated. No longer. The National Archives, in cooperation with the Mormon Church, has digitised their entire 26-county collection and made it available free at titheapplotmentbooks.nationalarchives.ie. Happy hunting.
['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/magazine/column]