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Religion in Ireland - A Historical Perspective


St. Patrick’s Cathedral - Dublin
(Church of ireland)

   As I mentioned last week, it’s important to understand that religion in Ireland is a political issue as well as a spiritual one.  Therefore a brief look at the history of Ireland may help you understand their church records.

    •1537 - Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the Church of England

      •1541 - Henry VIII became King of Ireland

      •1560 - Church of Ireland became the State Church under Elizabeth I

      •1605-1609 - Plantation of Ulster began

      •1634 - Law passed requiring Church of Ireland registers to be kept

      •1637 - Presbyterian worship was suppressed by the Church of Ireland

      •1695 - Laws for the Suppression of Popery (the Penal Laws)

      •1719 - Toleration Act protected Protestant dissenters

      •1772-1795 - Catholic Relief Acts began to restore rights taken away under the Penal Laws

      •1782 - Act validating marriages performed by Presbyterian ministers

      •1819 - Presbyterian ministers required to keep records

      •1829 - Catholic Emancipation

      •1869 - Church of Ireland disestablished as the State Church

      •1876 - Law required Church of Ireland registers to be stored at the Public Records Office in Dublin

      •1878 - Storage law amended to churches with suitable storage facilities to keep their registers

      •1922 - Fire at the Public Records Office destroys records stored there

   So that in a nutshell, is the history of the religious and political strife that continues in some areas up to today in Ireland.  By studying religious history in general, and denominations in particular you will learn about the conditions that affected your ancestors lives, as well as the possibility of finding church records.

   Because of the Penal Laws, religious registers, other than the Church of Ireland were not kept until the latter part of the 18th Century when the Catholic Relief Acts were passed.  Most registers for rural areas, however, and especially for the west of Ireland don’t begin until well into the 19th Century.  No matter what you believe is your ancestors religious affiliation, it’s important to check any Church of Ireland registers that survive in the areas where your ancestors lived for marriages and deaths.  Prior to the 1780s, the only legal marriages in Ireland were performed by Church of Ireland clergy. Because “dissenters” didn’t have burial grounds, some were buried from the Church of Ireland.  This is true especially if the family was well off.  You also might also find the oldest son of a Catholic family joining the Church of Ireland in order to be able to inherit the land.

   In the 1861 census (which was destroyed in the fire) statistics show that Irish religious affiliation was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic…77% and this was 8 years prior to the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland.  The Church of Ireland was next, coming in a distant second at just under 12% of the population; then Presbyterians at 9% primarily located in the north in Ulster.  Methodists represented less than 1% and others also at less than 1%, included Quakers, Baptists and Jews.

   Next week I’ll look denominational records...what they are and where the surviving records can be found.

    Happy Hunting!

Check out my Quick Reference Guide on Irish Civil Registration and Church Records.

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© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2018