Move on parish records ends discrimination


Two Catholic bishops are angry that the National Library is giving unrestricted access to historical parish registers, but what moral right do they have to object? writes Paul Gorry

THREE MONTHS ago the National Library of Ireland removed access restrictions to its microfilm copies of Catholic parish registers. These restrictions had applied only to records from three dioceses - Cashel & Emly, Cloyne and Kerry - while those of all 23 other dioceses had been on unrestricted access for several years. The library's action was praised by organisations representing genealogists.

Predictably it drew negative responses from the people who had imposed the restrictions - the church authorities in the three dioceses.

The restrictions were well known to family historians worldwide. They contributed to a growing resentment among the diaspora about what was seen as Ireland's ugly desire to profit from heritage.

These records consist of baptismal and marriage records pre-dating 1881 and, therefore, are historical records compiled well over a century ago. There is nothing sensitive or confidential about them. Combined with civil records (of birth, marriage and death) and surviving census returns, they are the fundamental building blocks for genealogical research.

In many cases a baptismal register entry is the only record of an individual's existence. Though these records concern the lives of long-dead Irish people, they are not public records. The original registers are church records, created by priests obliged to maintain accounts of these sacraments. With the march of time the records acquired an historical dimension. They now provide invaluable material for demographic, genealogical and local history research.

In 1922 during the Civil War, the bulk of our public records were turned to ashes in a matter of minutes. Since then our archivists and librarians have been painfully aware of the vulnerability of original documents.

In the 1950s and 1960s the National Library microfilmed almost all Catholic parish registers throughout Ireland down to 1880. At that time, as they contained baptismal records of living people, it was agreed that researchers must obtain permission to view them. By the early 1980s the issue of confidentiality was negligible and some bishops give blanket permission for access to the microfilms. The chief herald of Ireland requested the other bishops to do likewise and by the early 1990s the registers from all but five dioceses were on open access in the library.

One of those five was Kerry. Its records remained restricted until this year, but the diocesan office faxed permission directly to the library for anyone who requested it.

In 1991 Archbishop Dermot Clifford of Cashel wrote to the National Library reversing the decision of his predecessor, Dr Morris. He claimed ownership of the parish registers within Cashel & Emly. He further declared the diocese's copyright in the registers, and gave exclusive rights to the Tipperary Heritage Unit (a diocesan indexing centre) to provide information from them. As the archbishop threatened legal action, the National Library closed the microfilms to the general public.

One might agree with the archbishop's perception and consider it reasonable in the circumstance to pay an indexing centre for information. But historical research requires the examination of primary sources. It may be difficult for those unfamiliar with such research to grasp the difference between examining an actual record (a primary source) and looking at a mere transcript or index (a secondary source). Professional genealogists as well as individuals tracing their own ancestry engage the services of indexing centres when necessary, but must subsequently refer to the actual record to verify that all details were correctly transcribed. When the primary source is closed off the secondary source loses much of its worth.

The National Library obtained a legal opinion in 1994 discounting the notion of copyright in a document of record and advising that even in the circumstance of copyright being upheld, there would be nothing to stop the library giving access to the microfilms (the library's property) for research purposes.

Two further legal opinions were obtained by the library, both apparently giving advice along the same lines. Despite this, and pressure from such organisations as the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (APGI), the library declined to act.

By 2004 the microfilm for all but two dioceses (Cashel & Emly and Kerry) were on open access. In 2005 the National Library received instructions from Cloyne diocese that permission would in future be required for the microfilms of its parish registers. Though most visitors managed to obtain permission, a diocesan representative made it clear in the press and in correspondence with APGI that the reintroduction of the restriction was aimed at professional genealogists, who were regarded as damaging the revenue of Mallow Heritage Centre, an indexing business connected to the diocese.

Professional genealogists receive commissions for two main reasons. Firstly, they can conduct research on behalf of people who do not have the necessary skills and/or cannot visit the location where the records are held. Secondly, they have expertise in the specialist use of research sources. Ireland's record repositories were being used by professional genealogists long before the 1922 disaster.

Since the 1980s professional genealogists have had to work alongside county-based indexing businesses, such as Mallow Heritage Centre. These received heavy long-term government funding to create indexes to genealogical records, from which they now sell information. Indexing centres and professional genealogists provide complementary services and there is generally a high degree of co-operation between the two groups. There are indexing centres in all counties.

Other than those in Tipperary town and Mallow, they manage to operate their business without the commercial protection of the Catholic hierarchy.

The imposition of discriminatory access to the Cloyne microfilms forced APGI to approach the National Library, again calling for general public access to the microfilms from all dioceses, as suggested in the 1994 legal opinion. This time the library took decisive action and on May 27th, 2008, removed all restrictions.

It remains to be seen whether this move will be challenged. For family historians the legal niceties are of little relevance. The issue for them is whether church authorities have the moral right to deny them access to historical records of their ancestors.

Paul Gorry is president of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland