Church Records

Current Campaigns - Church Records


While of course the vast majority of people living on the island of Ireland are Roman Catholic, there is a significant Protestant minority. When one takes the border into account, then in Northern Ireland this island-wide minority becomes the clear majority. This Protestant grouping can be broken down into various denominations, chiefly the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Congregational churches. These last four denominations can be further sub-divided into smaller sects, generally caused through doctrinal schism.

The history in Ireland of record keeping at 'parish' level is yet another sad story of neglect, not in a small part exacerbated by civil hostility to congregations other than Anglican. However, such hostility must be set in its historical context as it cannot have been the only cause that restrained many rural Catholics from maintaining congregational records until the 1820s and 1830s, since some of their urban counterparts had commenced the keeping of a church register as early as the mid-18th century and in some instances even earlier. For instance, the Roman Catholic parish of St.Paul, Arran Quay, in Dublin first opened a register in 1731 and the register for St. Nicholas' in Galway was opened as early as 1690. For the Presbyterians, some of the earliest registers relate to the Co. Londonderry congregations of Ballykelly, first opened in 1699, and for Magherafelt, opened in 1703.

In Ireland, the first large scale attempt to gather church records together was made at the time of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland when its pre-1870 parish records of baptism, marriage & burial were declared public records and placed under the authority of the Master of the Rolls. It was decided that they should be collected together and housed in the Public Record Office of Ireland (PROI), established only a few years earlier in 1867. Although a derogation to this rule was eventually applied, which allowed parishes with an adequate safe to recall their records from the PROI, this did not stop the destruction of over two thirds of the Church of Ireland's parish registers in 1922, when the Public Record Office was consumed by fire during the Irish Civil War.

Recent Times

In the 1950s, the National Library of Ireland began to microfilm all the pre-1880 records of Roman Catholic parishes on the island of Ireland and although some were missed or badly filmed and few post-1880 records have ever been microfilmed, this project, coupled with the later indexing of the Tithe Books and Griffith's Primary Valuation, revolutionised genealogical research in Ireland.

During the 1980s, in almost every county there sprang up a centre (which became known as Heritage Centres) to index the older records (usually pre-1900) of the local churches in an effort to create training for unemployed young people and to encourage the 'overseas' Irish to visit the local area their ancestors hailed from. From the onset, the scheme was beset with bickering and infighting caused by the lack of any real centralised authority or oversight. In more recent times there has been the problem of centres closing due to the lack of funding of once vibrant county centres, such as that in Co. Kerry. However, setting all that aside, in very many counties, right across the island, access to church records can now be made through computerised indexes in addition to making searches in the original records.

However, in Ireland policy relating to the preservation of original records lags way behind other countries with similar cultures and backgrounds. Even Northern Ireland is little better. It has generally been accepted that the National Archives' (formerly the Public Record Office) responsibility for Church of Ireland records is now exercised on its behalf by the Representative Church Body (RCB) Library (the library of the Church of Ireland), based in Dublin. But, the RCB does not appear to have the clout to compulsorily call in records from local parishes, where many are kept in far from ideal conditions. The idea of archives in the Roman Catholic tradition is so new in Ireland that those that have been established have got little further than the collecting of records relating to administration at diocesan level. While both the Presbyterians and the Methodists have archives based in Belfast, neither has very many holdings from local congregations. Although the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) has an enviable collection of microfilmed copies of church records from across all the main Christian denominations, its policy remains to leave original material in local custody (even pre-1870 'public record' Church of Ireland registers) .

While one must keep in mind the terrible fate that befell the Church of Ireland records which were destroyed in the great conflagration of 1922, it needs to be remembered that such an event is unlikely to occur again and in reality far more damage is occurring on a daily basis because valuable original records are being retained in local custody and in conditions that fall far short of accepted international archival standards.

During the so-called Celtic Tiger era, the Irish government quickly lost interest in the vast database of information gathered together by the various county-based Heritage Centres. Having invested huge sums of taxpayers' money in this scheme, the government did little or nothing for many years to make the database available to the taxpayers who had funded it.

Since October 2006, the Irish Family History Foundation (IFHF), the all Ireland not-for-profit organisation which is the representative body for most of the Centres, has provided an Internet-based pay-per-view scheme through which records from some of the counties are available.

For a small number of other counties, a far superior and completely free service has been available at since November 2009.

There remains a number of counties, such as Clare, for which no online access at all, either free or pay-per-view, is available to the database of church records compiled largely at taxpayers' expense.

CIGO Policy

At every opportunity CIGO actively encourages the various church authorities to protect the manuscript heritage of which they are the custodians by formulating policy which will protect this heritage for future generations. In practical terms this means placing such material in safe hands, whether it be a church controlled archive or one run by a local authority or national institution.

CIGO regrets that access to the data compiled by the County Heritage Centres is so limited and so prohibitively expensive. There is no justification for charging more for automated online access to a possibly inaccurate transcript of a civil record than the GRO charges for manual provision of a paper photocopy of the original record. The actual cost of providing online access to transcriptions of church records is no different to the that for civil records, and far less than the actual cost of providing physical access in repositories such as the GRO.

CIGO contends that the preferred solution to this problem should be a carefully costed package, funded by the State, which would see each Centre become attached the their relevant county library and that access to the data should either be free via the Internet (which of course really would encourage 'genealogy tourism') or at least set at a very moderate cost which would encourage the fullest possible exploitation of this database created through public funding.

CIGO strongly objects to the IFHF terms and conditions, in particular the policy that ``access will be limited at the discretion of the IFHF and its member centres. A high volume of searches without the purchase of any records will lead to disabling of your account.'' This policy is doing untold damage to the international reputation of the Irish genealogy sector.