Interwoven in the Irish subconscious is this strong attachment to one's ancestral land. So it's no surprise that the quest to find one's way home is at the heart of what makes genealogy so addictive. For uprooted family history researchers, this is expressed in hours upon hours of painstaking research into an emigrating or migrating ancestor. The joy of finding them is so special, but soon we realise that an ancestor's name and some vital details are only the beginning of the journey!
Getting familiar with a parish, and the history attached to it, reveals how an ancestor lived, with whom they associated, and provides context to their story. Whatever placename we have as a lead or starting point, it helps to get familiar with its aliases, and other places of the same name that may lead us astray. Logainm.ie is a really handy database for working through tricky placenames, because clicking on "Archive" reveals other possible spelling variations, historical names and aliases.
The parish crossroads
The word "parish" turns up as a search option in many online Irish archives, and this is the basis for much confusion. Essentially, there are two kinds of Irish parish; the "civil " and the "ecclesiastical " (and never the twain shall meet when it comes to boundaries). As soon as Church and State began to separate, the word parish began to evolve.
For family historians, the initial parish confusion arises due to the mismatch between the parish names used for civil and church records. The good news is, for genealogy research purposes, the boundaries of Ireland's civil parishes, as set in the early 19th-century, remain unchanged. Understandably, ecclesiastical parish boundaries have continuously adjusted and amalgamated to meet the needs of its parishioners and changes in populations centres, be it positive (e.g. Catholic Emancipation) or negative (e.g. emigration).
Some points to remember:
- Ancestors may have used their civil and church parish names interchangeably depending on the document (the main archives are listed below).
- Parish names are not unique to one place. An Díseart aka Dysert or Dysart (lit. the wilderness) is a parish name in several counties. Multiple parishes of the same name can also occur within one county (e.g. Killukin and Kilmurry).
- A Catholic church parish may match a civil parish in name but not location.
- Bear in mind that a parish name may have been spelled in variant forms.
- Parish boundaries are not used for census returns or civil registration.
So when researching an archive that leaves "parish" unspecified, the first step is to understand that there's a fork in the road and that knowing where both roads lead to is the only way to avoid getting lost. In a nutshell, the signpost you should follow for placename, land and tax records is the civil parish. For religious, sacramental or church records, take the ecclesiastical or church parish route. To make the best of what you may find, get to know your way around first. And for that, you need a map...
Parish mapping toolkit
To get started, you will need a map of the parish you are researching. Fortunately, some helpful cross-reference indexes are available free online:
- Shane Wilson's Civil and Church Parish Database to identify the correct parish (civil or religious) and eliminate records that may turn up for parish name matches in other baronies or counties.
- Logainm.ie is your GO TO website for confirming the correct spelling, the original Irish language version, and local pronunciation. It's also handy for mapping a civil parish to its nearest market towns. (Not all civil parishes contain a town or village).
- MAPS: Townlands.ie shows full boundary outline of a civil parish and also lists those adjoining (a must for places that sit close to a civil parish boundary).
- John Grenham's Placename Index to learn what records have survived for a specific civil parish, for which period, and where to find them. Interactive civil and parish maps can also be viewed here.
These tools can help you get familiar with the parish location, and its proximity to towns, villages and other parishes. HINT: Don't disregard a parish in an adjoining county, if it happens to be the next parish over. If still stuck at a crossroad, post your query to our Message Board for local volunteer advice. (Be sure to link your post to a county, or possible counties).
We tend to think of Parish records as baptism, marriages and burials, but they are so much more than that...
The Irish Civil Parish
The civil parish is the most important boundary for land and taxation purposes before the 20th century. It was the basic geographical unit for Griffith’s Valuation above townland level. Many emigrants recorded the civil parish as a place of origin in official documents. (Church records or tombstone inscriptions are more likely to have used the ecclesiastical parish name). The civil parish is a vital signpost for selecting the correct townland, many of which share the same name.
With a civil parish to hand, here are some of the great resources that can be explored:
- Down Survey of 1656-58: The world's first national land survey, ordered by Cromwell in the 17th-century, saw the civil parish formalised. As it retained the civil structure of Ireland's crushed medieval parishes, the civil parish names often echo the name of the monastery or cill (church) founded by St. Patrick there. For example, check out this list of civil parishes containing the prefix or suffix "kill~". For this reason, one will often find that a civil parish contains a matching townland of the same name. This can also cause some confusion, especially when an ancestor left a placename clue that could mean parish or townland.
- Flax-growers List of 1796: One 18th-century resource that is civil-parish dependant is a list of nearly 60,000 individuals published by the Irish Linen Board in 1796. If your ancestor had a spinning wheel, their ancestor was likely on this list. Note that any leads discovered here will only go as far as the civil parish as an address. So this is one resource that can only be effectively navigated by knowing one's ancestral civil parish.
- Tithe Applotments 1823-37: In this important pre-famine census substitute, a search by "Parish" means Civil Parish. It helps to browse by county to identify the civil parish spelling of the time (which had yet to be standardised).
- Lewis Topographical Dictionary of Ireland is recorded by civil parish.
- British Newspaper Archives is a fantastic resource for turning up an address where only a name and civil parish is known. A search under "Freehold Applications Register" from 1829 will reveal full lists for some counties.
- Valuation Field Books 1824-46 Boundaries were mapped and spellings standardised by Ordnance Survey of Ireland, and the spellings of civil parishes in these records will match records in...
- Griffith's Valuation 1848-64: which can be searched by placename and map.
Irish Church Records: Look both ways!
For the early 19th century (pre-civil registration) church records are a must. The Census of Ireland in 1861 recorded 78% of the population was Catholic, and the remaining 12% was Church of Ireland and others (e.g. Quakers). As Catholic parishes were larger and broader, the goal is to narrow down a pace of origin to a civil parish where possible. To be sure you don't miss a record, it is advisable to check the parish records of other denominations too. Why?
- Catholics and Protestants were buried in the same graveyard in some parishes.
- Converting was a strategy used by 18th-century Catholics to retain property (their descendants converting back again as Penal Laws relaxed). For propertied ancestors, the Catholic Qualification and Convert Rolls (1700-1845) are worth checking out.
- Methodist marriage records list all the guests present as witnesses.
- Some Catholic marriage records may give info about where the child was christened or notes if the marriage took place in a different country.
- Parishes sent transcripts to their Diocesan bishop who may just have a transcript copy of registers that did not survive in the parish.
- Mixed marriages were registered with the Church of Ireland from 1845.
The Church of Ireland Parish
The Church of Ireland (CofI) part of the Anglican Communion, was the "Established Church" in Ireland from 1801-1869. It used the structure and name of the civil parishes (and very often the sites and of old churches for which the parish was named). Family historians researching ancestors from this period in Cof I Records have a better chance of expecting the parish names for both church and civil records to match, but this is not an exact science. In areas where the Anglican congregation was small, the established church often combined several civil parishes into a Union [see Lewis 1837]. While there has been some shifting of boundaries and some renaming of parishes, for most genealogical purposes, there has been little or no change.
A vicar kept the records of his parish in a parish chest. Included in that treasure trove were more than just sacramental records:
- Parish records (baptisms, marriages and burials);
- Marriage licence indexes, and some marriage records, licences for mixed marriages or military marriages (if married by banns the names were read out over a number of weeks then a couple could marry);
- Banns records (the first step in the marriage process) are often overlooked and yet are very informative.
- Vestry (CofI) or Session (Methodist) minutes – meetings by men who helped take care of the parish. These minutes could include the names of donors, details about the relief of poor people or women who had a child out of wedlock. Most vestry records were kept locally and survived.
- Census and visitation books.
- Financial account books
- Published biographies, parish histories, bulletins and newsletters, monumental tombstone inscriptions and other resources.
More than half of all Church of Ireland registers were destroyed by fire at the Public Records Office in Dublin in 1922. In terms of records that are accessible online for free, check out the Anglican Record Project. See also the PRONI Guide to Church Records. Irish newspaper archives were particularly good for Protestant life event announcements, and the British Newspaper Archive is free to search (small fee to view).
The Roman Catholic Parish
With the suppression of the Catholic clergy, the dis-established Roman Catholic Church (RC) had to do some shape-shifting. The consequences of this upheaval for those of the Roman Catholic faith endures in the laments of every genealogist researching them today. As the Penal Laws relaxed, RC parishes re-invented themselves to adapt to change in population centres (and still do so today). To add to the confusion some Catholic parishes share the same name in different parts of Ireland.
Check the British News Archives for the local history of a spilt parish in Ireland.
The Catholic Parish Records Collection is the most valuable resource we can use when researching Irish family history. In the 1860s, 80% of Ireland's population was Catholic, and by 1890 this number had grown to 90%. (Note that Catholic Emancipation only came into Ireland in 1829 and therefore the majority of the records only date from the 1820s up until the 1900s). As the Roman Catholic Church re-emerged from persecution the Catholic parish system rapidly expanded. Many new Catholic parishes were established, often centred on new, growing population centres. Many Catholic parishes thus include parts of more than one civil parishes. The Catholic and civil parish names may or may not be the same.
Take care, not to confuse 'Civil' or 'State' records with the notion of the civil parish. Civil Registration began in Ireland in 1864, requiring that births, marriages and death events (BMD) to be recorded by all citizens on the island of Ireland. These civil records were collected according to the registration district and not the civil parish. Unless your ancestor was from a town which matched the name of the civil registration district aka Registrar's District, their BMD record would appear under a district name that bears no resemblance to the civil parish. Bear in mind, that death records could have been registered in the district of a hospital or workhouse where an elderly ancestor may have died. Civil records for the Church of Ireland go back further to 1845.
Parish boundaries and adjoining parishes
In the 1830s, Irish parishes were combined into Poor Law Unions (PLU) because they were generally too small to each have a parish workhouse. Parish and county boundaries were not always respected by the Poor Law Commission and some parishes were split between two PLUs for a period of time. Poor Law Union boundaries were redrawn after the Great Famine (Medical Charities Act of 1851). Again, civil parish boundaries were not always respected (but Catholic parish boundaries were sometimes taken into account).
For census returns or civil registration, the map of each Poor Law Union was typically wiped clean. The new boundaries drawn for dispensary districts and the District Electoral Divisions (DED) within them, did not respect parish boundaries. Parish names, but not parish boundaries, were often used for dispensary districts or DEDs or both. Even dispensary district boundaries do not always respect DED boundaries.
A confirmed civil parish of origin is key to researching later records so that you can confidently explore the wonderful records available online, such as:
- Townland Population & Households: Census 1891 (shows the population changes per decade, from 1841 onwards per townland, civil parish and county)
- Census of Ireland 1901/1911 (the earliest surviving complete set)
- JOIN your Civil Parish(es) on Ireland Reaching Out HERE
- Can't find your parish? Post your query to our Message Board
- Confident about navigating records for a specific civil parish? Please SHARE your wisdom by posting to our LOCAL GUIDE.
Don't forget to BOOKMARK this page for future reference!