Irish death records are seen to lack integrity

Current Campaigns – General Register Office

From The Irish Times , 26 January 2004

Irish death records are seen to lack integrity

The Dáil on Wednesday debates new provisions for registering deaths butgenealogists need more detail, writes Steven ffeary-Smyrl

In the last decade genealogy has become a mainstream hobby. What the Irish, both at home and abroad, share in their quest for family connections is the sense of frustration at the paucity of material available to genealogists.

The destruction of the Public Record Office by fire in 1922 dealt a huge blow to Irish genealogical research.

What has survived might seem precious, but is in reality a poor substitute for what has been destroyed. However, contrary to common belief, Ireland’s civil records, dating from 1845, were not damaged in the Public Record Office fire. Notwithstanding the number of registrations that have slipped through the net, as a surviving source for genealogy Irish civil registration records are unrivalled.

It was in April 1845 that registration of non-Catholic marriages began, on foot of a decision in 1842 by the Law Lords in London who had found that all marriages celebrated in Ireland by Protestant non-conformist clergy were invalid. The thought that they might be deemed in law to be living in sin caused Ulster’s Presbyterians much consternation, and after some negotiation with the government a registration act was passed. It was not until 1864 that legislation came into force compelling the registration in Ireland of all births, deaths, and marriages.

Data in death registrations has remained unchanged since 1864. Currently recording nothing about date or place of birth, or parents’ names, it is by far the weakest civil record. In marriage registrations since 1956, both parties’ dates of birth are recorded as well as their parents’ names. Before that only the parties’ ages and fathers’ names were given, leaving room for doubts about identity. The 1996 Births Act modified birth registrations very slightly, but the new Civil Registration Bill proposes to include each parent’s date of birth and in turn their mother’s maiden surnames.

For too long Irish death certificates have been recognised internationally as lacking in integrity, a statement I do not make lightly. Irish death registrations record so little information that for those bearing prolific names, identity is too often a contentious issue.

Take the case of a John Murphy who died in Dublin in April 1989, aged 70. Is he the same man whose birth was registered in Co Leitrim in February 1919, or is he the one born in Galway town in August of the same year? Then again, perhaps he is the one born in Coleraine in October 1918? Who knows? Ireland’s death registrations are treated with extreme caution, particularly in the US. Far from giving the deceased dignity in death, too often they are seen as a lucky dip, where any number of records might fit given criteria.

The new Bill includes provision to record deceased persons’ dates of birth. This is of course a welcome move, one which has been supported and lobbied for by numerous organisations, including, amongst others, the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland, the Irish Family History Society, the Irish Genealogical Research Society, the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations, the North of Ireland Family History Society, and – significantly – the Law Society of Ireland.

Unfortunately, accurate recollection of dates of birth is far from universal amongst the older generation in Ireland. It is only in recent times that need has arisen to recite one’s date of birth to public officials.

Much stronger across all sections of Irish society is the knowledge of where one’s family hails from. In probably no other European country is the link to the land as strong as it is in Ireland. If asked for your father’s date and place of birth, while the place might be forthcoming without hesitation, the date would need to be considered.

The General Register Office (GRO) holds the opinion that no extra detail is required in Irish death registrations because in future its new computerised system will be capable of making links between all civil records by use of the Personal Public Service Number (PPSN). However, this argument is flawed as only future registrations will include the PPSN. Therefore only future registrations can be linked. It will be 60 or 70 years into the future before those who die will have a birth record on the GRO system that shows a PPSN and can therefore be “linked”, one record to another.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Bill’s sponsor, believes that including the place of birth as well as the date of birth in future death registrations would be “outside the requirements of civil registration”.

This is certainly not a view held by the United Nations (UN), which includes such data in its “Model Civil Registration Law”. This law was published in the 1990s to assist developing countries in creating modern civil registration systems. A 1970s UN survey found that of the countries studied, approximately 50 per cent recorded a deceased person’s date and place of birth in death registrations.

A recent UN survey (more than 25 years later) found that this figure had grown to approximately 85 per cent.

The Irish Government’s Inter-departmental Committee on Marriage Reform’s recent report recommends that Ireland should ratify the UN’s Convention of Marriage. Given this, it is strange that there is no corresponding will to heed the death data provisions in the UN’s “Model Civil Registration Law”.

Furthermore, within the European Union, Ireland is out of line with all current member-states (except Greece) in not recording the date and place of birth of the dead. (Greece records both parents’ names instead.)

Around the time that the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002 was being debated in the Oireachtas, officials suggested that data about a deceased person’s place of birth could not be recorded because too many people would not know such information.

Devoid of any factual basis, this claim has been repeated again recently and can only be described as a terrible indictment of the people of Ireland!

In truth, as our cousins in Northern Ireland have successfully undertaken accurate registration of deceased people’s dates and places of birth since 1973, then doubtless we can too.

Steven C. ffeary-Smyrl is a professional genealogist and chairman of the Irish Genealogical Research Society.