This week was a happy dance week for those of us with Irish roots. Ancestry.com has posted indexes to Irish Civil Registrations which began in 1864 for births, marriages, and deaths (1845 for non-Catholic marriages). In addition there is an index to births and baptisms that dates back to 1620, extracted from a variety of records.
Three other collections that were also posted caught my eye–Catholic baptisms, marriages, and deaths (the latter being the smallest). Although these collections are works-in-progress that are smaller in size and not all-inclusive, they are significant because some of the records pre-date civil registration. Since Irish emigration peaked during the famine and post-famine years prior to when most civil registration began, these records an important resource for many Irish-Catholic ancestors who left during that period.
These indexes were created from some of the parish registers that have been microfilmed and are held in the National Library of Ireland (NLI). A plurality of the records currently available on Ancestry.com are from County Meath, but there is also significant representation from other parts of the country. (See the list of counties at the end of this article.) The indexes include names, event dates and places, parents’ names (in the case of baptisms), as well as sponsor and witness names.
This collection does not include all of the Catholic parish records that are available at the NLI. Also keep in mind that the way the place name is listed may not be the way you expect, since they are using Catholic rather than civil jurisdictions. Begin by searching for your ancestor’s surname and a county name in the event place field since many of the dioceses shared the name of the county. (Use the place type-ahead and select from the list for best results.) This will tell you whether there are any records available for the county where your ancestor lived. Then you can explore the parishes that are represented and you’ll get a better feel for how they are listed in the index.
Since Catholic parishes and dioceses do not typically share the same boundaries as civil parishes and counties (although they may share the same name), it’s important to familiarize yourself with the Catholic jurisdictions. For example, The Parish of Meath includes records from most of Counties Meath (all but two parishes), and Westmeath (all but five parishes), as well as three parishes in County Cavan, two from County Longford, one from County Louth, and seven from County Offaly. Most of these counties adjoin County Meath, so it would be a good idea to change the place field setting to restrict to County/Adjacent Counties.
A fantastic resource for becoming acquainted with Catholic parishes is John Grenham’s “Tracing Your Irish Ancestors.” Third Edition (2006). Chapter 14 includes maps with names of each parish and the dioceses they fall within. (It’s chapter 13 if you have the second edition like I do.) Much of his work can now be found on the “Irish Times” website. Start with the county browse page and select the county where your family lived. Then from the page for that county, select Catholic Records from the left sidebar. From there you'll see a map of that county with all the parishes, which can in turn be clicked on to reveal what years are available.
Bear in mind that following the Catholic Relief Act of 1829 and other measures in the 1830s, new parishes formed over time, so look at all the parishes around where your ancestor lived to see if perhaps your ancestor was baptized or married in an older nearby parish prior to the establishment of the parish nearest where they lived.
Another good source for geographical information around this period is the Ireland Topographical Dictionary, 1837 (Original data: Lewis, Samuel. “A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland.” Vol. I. London, England: S. Lewis and Co., 1837.)
For example, I found a relative of my Huggins family in Griffith’s Valuation, 1848-1864 living in the civil parish of Rathconrath, Westmeath.
The entry above from Lewis' “Topographical Dictionary” goes on to give me information on the Roman Catholic parish there.
Catholic parish records were kept in both English and in Latin, depending on the time and place. Irish-speaking rural areas often used Latin, so if you’re having no luck finding your ancestor using his or her English given name, look up the Latin version of it. The companion site to the Old English mailing list on RootsWeb has a good list of Latin given names.
The baptisms in this collection typically list both parents’ names. Try searching by place and surname alone to see all of the children born to a set of parents. When I searched for Howleys in County Mayo, I found a number of them in the parish of Kilgarvan, so I restricted my search to that place, and to see all the children born to a particular family I included the father’s name of Pat with the asterisk wildcard (Pat*) so that it would pick up entries where the name was listed as Patrick, Patk, Patt, or Pat. Now I see a list of children born to Pat and Alice (or Allice) Howley grouped together, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that listing for Ellen was actually for Alice as well. Knowing extended family structure is incredibly helpful in definitively identifying your family in these records and in others.
Our Irish ancestors typically weren’t very careful with the spelling of either their first or last name. I have found that my Huggins family looked at vowels as largely interchangeable. Their surname has been spelled Huggins, Huggans, Higgins, Higgans, Hugans, and a number of other ways. I can overcome this too with the use of wildcards. If I use H*g*ns in the surname field, I can pick up all these variants and more.
* matches zero or more characters (Ann* matches Ann, Anne, Anna, Annabelle, etc.)
? matches one character (Ann? matches Anne, Anna)
First letter or last letter can be a wildcard, but one of them must be a non-wildcard character
Names must contain at least three non-wildcard characters
Ages and Dates
Our Irish forebears weren’t really concerned with their ages on records, so give them a little wiggle room when you’re specifying a birth (baptism) date or a marriage date. (Death dates are a little more firm, but keep in mind that there are fewer burial records for Catholics as compared to the Church of Ireland, which was a bit more consistent in recording burials.
While not all-inclusive, these three collections include more than 433,000 records, and while they can be challenging to work with, the rewards are certainly worth a little happy dance—or perhaps an Irish jig would be more appropriate.
Note: The microfilms at the National Library of Ireland are available for on-site research, but they don’t offer research services. Their website does include a list of professional researchers with contact information.
The actual parish registers are typically kept at the parish level.
Counties with representation in these three collections include: Antrim, Cavan, Cork, Fermanagh, Galway (marriages only), Kerry, Kildare, Laois, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Offaly, Roscommon, Sligo, Tipperary (marriages only), Tyrone, Westmeath, and Wexford.
Juliana has been writing for and editing Ancestry.com newsletters for more than thirteen years and wrote the “Computers and Technology” chapter in ‘The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy.’