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Unpuzzling Ireland's Church Records

St. Nicholas Church in Dundalk (Church of Ireland).  This church is also known as the “green church” because of the color of its copper steeple.  My great grandfather, James Sprague was a stonemason and worked on this church.

   If they exist, Church records may be the only record our Irish ancestors left prior to civil registration in 1864.  Finding and accessing them, however,  sometimes presents a challenge. 

   The first thing you need to decide is what denomination you are looking for.  Since Ireland is now and always has been primarily Roman Catholic you may think that’s an easy question, but it may not be…

    Take me for example.    I was baptized Methodist, but raised in the Congregational a matter of fact, I remember coming home from Sunday School at the Congregational Church to pick up my younger sister and take her to the Methodist Church to be baptized.  I also frequently attended the Presbyterian Church with my grandmother.  In high school I decided to join the Episcopal Church and was confirmed there.  I also married my Roman Catholic husband there.  Two of my daughters were baptized in the Catholic Church and one in the Episcopal Church.  They were all, however, confirmed Episcopalian.  I recently requested a copy of my husband’s Catholic baptismal certificate and discovered the record of our marriage was noted on the back (since he required a dispensation to be married in the Episcopal church).  Good luck to anyone in the future who tries to find my religious records…and I’m not all that unusual, especially when looking for  protestant records.   We tend to shop more for our churches either as a matter of convenience - what’s the closest church, or who’s got the best preacher.

   The point here...You need to be open minded when researching religious records.

   So where do you start?  In order to find church records in Ireland (or just about any other record) you need to know the townland.  Once you know the townland you can determine the civil parish (which would be the Church of Ireland parish) and from that determine the Roman Catholic Parish.

   Check all records your ancestors left, and not just their records, but those of their siblings or other family members, witnesses, neighbors, etc.  Frequently someone other than your direct ancestor left the important information as to their townland in Ireland.

  One excellent source can be church records in the United States…but make certain you are very clear about what you are looking for.  The Catholic church considers their records private and will normally not let you view them, so you need to make a request.    What you end up with is a copy of a certificate, filled out by the parish secretary from the original registers and signed by the current priest.  There are blanks on the form for them to fill out, and if there is information in the record that doesn’t have a blank on the form, you typically won’t get it.  Ask for everything in the record because sometimes the priest made notes…some priests would not marry a couple until they had proof of their baptism.  One of my exciting finds was the inclusion of a letter in the register from the parish priest in Ireland which read...

Elisha Martin, daughter of Patrick Martin and Catherine of Dooah parish of Maghercloone was baptized on the 9th of July 1882. Sponsors: Michael Lennon and Elizabeth Shannon

    Had I not asked, I never would have received this!  Prior to this I had only know that Anne Martin had come from Carrickmacross (the closest large town).  Although Dooah is only a few miles away, it is in another civil parish which is why I could never find any records.  With a name as common as Martin it is very important to make sure you’re searching in the correct location.

   It’s also very important to understand that religion in Ireland was a political issue as well as a spiritual one.  Understanding the history of Ireland will help put religious records (or lack of them) in context and may explain why records are not where you expect them to be.  Next week I’ll cover some of the history.  Below are a some of the resources I use to determine what religious records exist.  Most of these books can be found in a library which has a good genealogical collection that includes Ireland.

    Happy Hunting!

The General Alphabetical Index To the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland, Dublin, 1861; Reprinted by Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Baltimore 1984.

Grenham, John. Tracing Your Irish Ancestors: The Complete Guide, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Baltimore, 2006, Third Edition.

Mitchell, Brian.  A Guide to Irish Parish Registers, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Baltimore, 2001.

Ryan, James G. Ph.D. Irish Church Records, Their history, availability and use in family and local history research, Flyleaf Press, Dublin, 2001.

Grenham’s Irish Surnames, a CD that can be ordered from Eneclann at:

Unpuzzling Ireland's Church Records - Part II

© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2018