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Irish Administrative Divisions: Parishes

Mitchell, Brian, A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland, 
(Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1986), 115.

   Once you have identified the townland where your ancestor lived in Ireland, and have referred to the Alphabetical Index to the Townland and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland, or The Townland Index the next level of administrative division is the parish.The parish is a group of townlands which may overlap boundaries of the counties.The parish we are discussing is the civil parish, not the ecclesiastical (religious) parish.Here it’s important to understand the history of Ireland. 

   The inhabitants of Ireland have been primarily Roman Catholic from the time of St. Patrick in the fifth century through today. In 1537, Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England (Anglican), and in 1541 became the King of Ireland as well. During the reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I, in 1560, the Church of Ireland (Anglican) became the State Church of Ireland and remained so until it was disestablished in 1869. As the State Church, the Church of Ireland had civil as well as religious functions. At the time of its establishment, the Church of Ireland took over not only the former Roman Catholic churches, but also their parish designations. If you had Church of Ireland ancestors, the civil parish and the ecclesiastical parish will most likely have the same name. For most however, at the end of the penal laws when Roman Catholic churches were again being built, the name of the ecclesiastic parish might have been changed. 

   When you look at a parish map such as the ones in Brian Mitchell’s A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland, you are looking at maps of civil parishes.There are about 2500 civil parishes in Ireland, and alas, they are not all uniquely named. There is an Ardagh parish in the counties of Cork, Limerick, Longford, Mayo and Meath so as with the townlands, you may need to know more information to correctly place your ancestors.

   Once you know the civil parish, it will allow you to search for any surviving church records. Using a resource such as James Ryan’s Irish Records: Sources for Family and Local History, and looking under the county for the civil parish, you will find the name of the correct Roman Catholic parish, along with information on what records survive and their location.The following is an example from Dr. Ryan’s book from County Westmeath:

Civil Parish: Templepatrick

Map Grid: 35 

RC Parish: Moyvore 

Diocese: ME [Meath] 

Earliest Records: b. 9.1831; m. 2.1832; d.8.1831 Missing Dates: d. 4.1852-5.1863; ends 9.1865 Status: LC, NLI (mf); Indexed by Dun an Si HC (b/m. to 1900; d. to 1865)

Another place to check is IrishAncestors, the website of John Grenham, author of Tracing Your Irish Ancestors.  Go to “Places” and either type in the name of the parish and county, or click on “Civil Parishes Map” on the left and select the county and civil parish.  From the Civil Parish select the Townland and to the right click on “Church Records.”  This will give you the name of all of the churches in the area and the status of their records.

Happy Hunting!


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