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This is a general question. I have been looking through the marriage & baptism records now online at the National Library of Ireland.

I am wondering if there were any conventions regarding who became a god parent/sponsor at a baptism and also who was chosen to be a witness at a wedding? For example, are the witnesses at weddings always related?

Growing up a catholic in Australia in the 1950s and 60s I remember that the understanding was that if something happened to the parents the godparents would look after the child. So the godparents were usually the same age as the parents and always a male & female.

Any light anyone can throw on this will be much appreciated.

Let me know if there is a better place to post a general question such as this one, as I have a few more.


Kathleen Fanning



Kathleen Fanning

Wednesday 21st Dec 2016, 09:55PM

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  • In my experience it could be anyone. There should be 2 sponsors for any baptism (save for adults) but sometimes you see just one. They are supposed to be someone able to exert a supporting influence on the child. Not necessarily of different sexes, but they often were. A relative or family friend would fit the bill. With marriages, canon law requires 2 witnesses.  Anyone really. Siblings, parents and friends all fill the slot. So does the sexton/caretaker if they were short of a witness. No fixed rules that you could rely on, in my opinion.

    A friend of mine got married in a Registry Office in the 1970s, in a bit of a hurry, and the witnesses were 2 mechanics from the garage next door.

    Elwyn, IrelandXO Volunteer ☘

    Wednesday 21st Dec 2016, 10:08PM
  • Thanks for your thoughts Elwyn.

    I have been looking at the records I have of marriages and nearly of the witnesses were relatives.  I have found that sometimes the female witness was a married sister, which can unlock new lines.

    I think it is worth looking at the witnesses as possible or probable relatives.

    But as you say unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule to rely on.



    Kathleen Fanning

    Friday 30th Dec 2016, 02:45AM
  • For the most part of 19th Century Parish Records in Ireland (this tradition changed in the 20th Century, when the examples above begin to apply) your starting point should always be to test the following hypothesis...

    Witnesses to a marriage:

    Remember that they had to be a peer and a close friend, but as much as we would like to imagine they might siblings, it turns out... 9 times out fo 10 they were first cousins. (It is also possible that one or both witnesses had a hand in introducing the couple, e.g. they were related to one party and lived near the other party, knowing this can help you lock down possible townlands of origin). Also remember, in the case of Catholic marriages, the bride had to marry in her home parish. When the groom was from another parish, the priest simply recorded the name of the parish he was from but not the name of the townland (beware, as parishes often contain a townland of the same name). There will be exceptions to this rule, but it is a helpful starting point. Knowing a possible cousin's name, allows you run a search for their own birth/baptism record. If it turns out this "cousin's" mother is a surname match, you've struck Irish genealogy gold. It's painstaking, but so worth the effort. 

    Sponsors to baptisms: 

    Keep your eye peeled for the record of 'stipend' paid to the priest for the baptism. If you see £1.10 think "wealty grazier / strong farmer". If you see 2/6, think small farmer / cottier. For these less affluent, couples (often not named on land records, yet living in a townland) followed the following Catholic godparent selection tradition to the letter. Consider every sponsor/ godparent to be a sibling or a sibling in-law of either the child's mother or father. It's that simple. The surnames that do not match the parents' surnames are in-laws and key to knocking down brick walls.

    First, run searches for that unusual surname paired with the surname of the mother and then the father, to determine which side it belongs to. (

    Then, gather the baptismal records for that new couple, noting their godparenting choices ( Look out for a godparenting invitation being reciprocated e.g. your original father's name sponsoring one baptism and the mother another. You can then be pretty confident you have discovered another family in your tree, who may just give you the lead back to a townland or earlier generation, that you were looking for!


    I have found the above traditions to certainly ring true for counties west of the River Shannon. I would be interested to hear feedback if this also applies in Co Tipp!


    Rua, IrelandXO Volunteer ☘︎

    Tuesday 21st Mar 2017, 01:52AM
  • One more important note about 19th Century Cathoic Parish records (that can throw you if you aren't aware of it)

    Surnames of female sponsors and witnesses names were always recorded as their maiden name (even when they are married.

    First names for all parties were recorded in Latin. As many Gaelic names didn't have a Latin equivalent, each priest had his own creative way of addressing that challenge.

    For example, my ancestor, Bryan McDermott (as appears in Griffith's Valuation) could not be found on any parish records. I was totally stumped. I knew he had lots of family, and the parish records for his area were excellent. He was there alright, but I couldn't see him because a selection of priests had got creative with Latinizing his name. Each recorded him in a different way... as a "Barnabus" on some occasions and "Bernardus" on others. Then in came the online search engines (unaware that we ever had Gaelic names) that automated it to "Barnaby" or "Bernard". 

    So, bear this in mind when scanning for reciprocating godparents, they may well be there (under another Latin guise) and easily missed!

    A must read...

    Rose by Any Other Name: A Guide to Irish Christian Names, by Judith Eccles Wight

    A list of common Latin names is available in A rose by any other name: a guide to Irish christian names by Judith Eccles Wight. Surnames were never translated.

    Rua, IrelandXO Volunteer ☘︎

    Tuesday 21st Mar 2017, 02:48AM
  • Hi Tom,

    Thanks for your helpful answer to my query about witnesses and godparents.

    You have given me some things to consider re life in Ireland in the19th century. 



    Kathleen Fanning

    Wednesday 22nd Mar 2017, 02:18AM
  • Hi Rua,

    Your answer is great and you have given me info I was not aware of especially the stipends and the use of the maiden name for female sponsors. I will take another look at the entries for my ancestors.

    Fortunatyl the Co Tipperary priests in the parishes around Thurles rarely used latin.

    specially. I like your forensic approach to genealogy. Many thanks.

    ps one of my grgrgrandfathers was a Bryan Burns from the now infamous Tuam in Co Galway. He emigrated to Australia but his name is sometimes recorded as Bryan Burns and other time like on his gravestone as Bernard Burns?? Makes me think Bryan and Bernard were interchangeable like Sarah and Sally and Johanna and Judy?



    Kathleen Fanning

    Wednesday 22nd Mar 2017, 02:49AM
  • Rua,

    Regarding your post of 21 March 2017, how do we know that maiden names were always used for female sponsors and witnesses?  For some while now, I've been asking researchers and historians and getting conflicting answers on this.  Do you have personal experience that lead to your conclusion?  Is there some study out there that others can look at?

    I'm referring to Catholic parish registers, particularily those of the 18th century.





    D. Twohy

    Sunday 8th Oct 2017, 04:46AM
  • Dear Rua:

    Thanks very much for your very informative post about the sponsors for weddings and for baptisms.  The first cousin rule is not something that I have come across at as high a rate as you have for County Clare, but it is an interesting option to keep in mind as there are names that show up that I can't figure out who they are or how/if they were related!

    From my own experience with baptism registers in County Clare and in particular, Tulla:  pre-famine it would appear that most of the time the baptismal sponsors were related.  However, after the Famine and in particular emigration had started, sponsors were often neighbours --(who might also have been related or close friends). 

    The question of sponsors and their connection to families is a good one to ask and thanks to all who have contributed to this thread. 

    All the best,



    Jane Halloran Ryan

    Monday 9th Oct 2017, 08:54AM
  • Tom- Thank you for your explanation.  It reminds me that JOE in Rossmore might have a family history/link with my Leahy and Kelleher relatives from the area.  Has he responded to your inquiries?

    Still exploring that book with Fourmilewater information.....and found another online book about the Leahy history in Ireland.  If you do not mind spelling and grammar that follows it's own path, the readings are interesting!  :-)

    All my best,

    Ann Marie

    Ann Marie

    Monday 9th Oct 2017, 12:53PM

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