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Administrative Divisions: Poor Law Unions

  I just realized (as I was about to start discussing records in Ireland) that I was so excited to start the information on finding a locality in Ireland, I neglected to cover Poor Law Unions.  

Irish Civil Registration Districts 
(formerly Poor Law Unions)

   In 1838, under the Poor Law Relief Act, Poor Law Unions  were set up for the maintenance of the local poor. Initially there were 130 Unions set up with a workhouse in a market town. The system was meant to handle up to 1% of the population, however it became overtaxed by the famine.  By 1850 there were 163 Poor Law Unions, the borders of which often overlapped other civil boundaries, including counties. This represented a move to a public health system with the Poor Law Unions being divided into (sub) Dispensary Districts.  It was logical then, for these to become the Registration Districts for civil registration when that came into effect.  So the Poor Law Unions became the Registration Districts for recording births, deaths and marriages. The head of the Dispensary Districts became the local registrar, and upon recording the events, passed the information to the Superintendent Registrar in the Poor Law Union. It was the job of the Superintendent Registrar to make a copy and send the combined registers to the General Register Office in Dublin.  These are the indexes that were digitized by the LDS  about 2008.  These were copies and the original registers remained in the possession of the Superintendent Registrar Office.

   Civil Registration for all births, deaths and marriages began in Ireland in 1864, although Protestant marriages were recorded from 1845. The information recorded in the indexes includes the surname, given name, the registration district the page and volume number. I can tell you that looking for Michael Daly was a lost cause for me without knowing where he was from. There is an index of civil registrations for each year (and after 1877 for each quarter of each year) and they all included dozens of Michael Dalys. Once I finally identified the townland (civil parish, barony and poor law union) I was able to quickly find his birth record. In fact, I was able to look at all the Dalys from Claremorris and reconstruct the families, discovering that Michael Daly’s father had been married three times and had nine surviving children from the three marriages!

   So the key to finding civil records in Ireland is knowing the name of the Poor Law Union/Registration District.  Once you know the townland or parish and county,  you can use a number of different resources to find the Poor Law Union. provides the information under Places, or search the Townland Index.  I still will frequently go back to the General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland  as I sometimes have trouble with spellings for the online indexes.  If your library has an Irish collection, they likely have a copy.   

   I’ll talk about civil registration in more detail in the future, but to emphasize the issue mentioned above regarding overlapping boundaries, here’s a few examples. Ballyshannon Registration District encompasses parts of Leitrim, Donegal and Fermanagh. Ballymahon includes parts of Longford and Westmeath and Enniskillen covers parts of Cavan, Fermanagh and Tyrone. Here is a list of the registration districts and the counties they cover.  A map of the districts can be found here.

   Happy Hunting!

I’ll be at the Fairfax Genealogial Society for their Spring Conference on March 31 and April 1.  If you’re in the area I hope I’ll see you there.

© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2018