Searching land based records for your family history

In this short series we examined how to use various ‘people based’ records to advance awareness of your family. It is worthwhile being aware of why and by whom any records which you are consulting were compiled. This will help to assess any bias they may contain. Especially be aware of the total circumstances in which they were created. Any given record is based on what one person said to another, who otherwise has no knowledge of the event in question. This second person then wrote down what was told to him. Did either – or both – have an interest in “adjusting” the truth, for whatever reason?

In this short series we examined how to use various ‘people based’ records to advance awareness of your family. It is worthwhile being aware of why and by whom any records which you are consulting were compiled. This will help to assess any bias they may contain. Especially be aware of the total circumstances in which they were created. Any given record is based on what one person said to another, who otherwise has no knowledge of the event in question. This second person then wrote down what was told to him. Did either – or both – have an interest in “adjusting” the truth, for whatever reason?

Consider an encounter between a 15 year old youth and a recruiting sergeant. To be accepted he must be 17. But when the youth, responding to the query “Age?” proclaims “17” both he and the sergeant go along with the obvious lie. The sergeant needs recruits. The youth wants to join the army. And so the official record is wrong with the connivance of both. The rule is, keep in mind the total circumstances in which any record was generated and you will not go too far wrong.

Divisions of land

To utilise land-based records it is first necessary to have an awareness of how land in Ireland is delineated. There are 32 counties but sub-county divisions also come into play. The largest of these are Baronies - Kilkenny has a total of 11. These ancient divisions were originally that area of ground granted to a baron by the king. Boundaries seem to have been remarkably stable since their creation in the late 12th and 13th centuries. Prior to County Councils being established in 1899, and their forerunner, the Grand Juries, the unit of local administration was the Civil Parish. Such services as were provided – far less than today – were funded by a parish tax known as Parish Cess. This was charged on an estimate of the wealth deemed to arise from the payer’s lands and property. The method of assessment was, to say the least, very arbitrary; hence the expression we still hear today “bad cess to you!”

The smallest unit of land to take note of is the Townland, an expression and area unique to Ireland. Visitors, perhaps not unreasonably, assume there must have been a town or at least a village in each, if not now then in the past. Such is not the case. Townlands are by far the most numerous unit of recorded land, at some 62,400 in total in Ireland, 1,617 for County Kilkenny alone.

Most people who have spent even a little time in family research are aware of the absence of census records for the 19th century. Through a series of blunders and decisions which it is claimed ‘made sense at the time’ the sizeable paper mountain that were the nations census records was destroyed. Some were pulped, more were recycled during WW1’s paper shortage; others burnt in the Four Courts in 1922.

Griffiths census substitute

The one, wonderful exception to the general statement ‘there are no census records surviving from the 19th century in Ireland’ is the series of documents known as Griffith’s Primary Valuation. Sir Richard Griffith was a colossus of civil administration, the 19th century’s T.K. Whitaker. He was entrusted in the 1840’s with the mammoth task of determining the ‘Annual Value’ of each field, house, shop, mill and factory. Aiding him and his staff of 1,000 trained surveyors in this task were his exceptional administration skills and his training and background as a geologist with a deep seated awareness of different land types. He identified 17 different qualities of farmland, each with a different valuation per acre. He was equally exacting in determining the details of houses and mills. Houses were to be described as thatched or slated, old, medium or new and their accurate measurements – length, width and height - were meticulously recorded. He took in each and every factor likely to impact on the amount at which a given property could be rented annually. Little wonder that his concept of ‘annual value’ has stood the test of time to this day.

For family historians, Griffith’s Valuations of 1850 are of immense value. It is a mid 19th century ‘census substitute’ recording the Christian and surname of each ‘head of the household’ in the country. The essential difference between Griffith and other records of land is that he recorded actual occupiers, not owners. As only one in 500 owned the house or land they occupied ( the vast majority were merely tenants at the whim of their landlord) the importance of this decision cannot be over stated.

Griffith is the starting point for the Records in the Valuation Office (VA). As each property changes hands, succeeding occupiers are faithfully recorded in VA records– in different colour ink - a quaint but effective method which continued until the soulless computer took over in recent times. Their records recording the occupiers of each parcel of land and house from 1850’ to date enable you to locate the property of your ancestor and establish the names of the current occupier. The Valuation Office is ‘user friendly’ once you have taken the time to ascertain the Barony, Civil Parish and Townland involved, hence the need to have a working knowledge of land units.

Another valuable source are the records of the large landed estates of the 19th century and earlier. For over 50 years the National Library has been acquiring the manuscript documents which were written in the ‘Big House’ or which accumulated there over the centuries. Papers of the Landed Gentry fall into two broad classes – those relating to the members of the family and those arising from the business administration of the estate. The latter includes maps, rentals, with name of tenants, notes of rent paid, arrears, abatements and ejectments.

Kilkenny Landed Estates

The estates in County Kilkenny whose records are now preserved in the National Library include Bakers of Ballytobin; Clifton of Gowran Castle; Fownes of Woodstock; Prior Wandesforde of Castlecomer and the voluminous records compiled by the all embracing estates of the Butlers Family. Many of these documents are not easy to read, let alone decipher and it requires time to adapt to their layout and idiosyncrasies. Do not anticipate finding the reference you are seeking quickly. The good news is that they will sometimes contain additional details of the holding of individual tenants. In the case of the Prior Wandesforde papers they can stray into recording little gems of information not immediately associated with estate management.

Prior to the scientific approach of Griffith in 1850 other, less precise and narrower focused land records were compiled. One of the more extensive of these is the Tithe Composition Applotment Books of a generation earlier. In the late 1820’s these records set out the extent of and grade of an individual’s land, so as to arrive at the value of crops grown on it. Tithes – meaning one tenth – were levied on this notational income. The sums were payable to the Church of Ireland minister. Then as now no one liked paying taxes but for some time the people paid, albeit with varying degrees of grace!

Tithe Wars

During the 1820’s there was a fall in demand for Irish food in England. This led to a sharp decline in prices, leading to great distress and in turn great difficulty in collecting tithes. There were repeated and justifiable complaints of totally arbitrary, over-the-top assessments of the value of individual crops. In an attempt to quell this disquiet the Tithe Composition Applotment system was devised to arrive at a fair valuation, not on individual crops but on a faired, annual basis. It did not succeed, agitation and civil disorder escalated, culminating in the South Kilkenny Battle of Carrickshock. Following this episode, attempts at tithe collection were gradually discontinued and had disappeared altogether by the late 1830s. But the Tithes did generate a list of those ‘eligible’ to pay them and this list gives us a useful pre-famine record of small holders and farmers.

As we work back through the 19th century, the reality is that all records are specific to people confined by location, their trade or occupation. One such source are the annual Presentment Papers – in effect the annual budget of expenditure by the Grand Jury - the forerunner of today’s County Council. Roads were maintained by a series of agreements or contracts between this body and farmers who lived beside the road which they contracted to keep in repair. Each contract specified the length of road to be maintained and in most cases (there are exceptions) they are good pointers to the extent of the contracting farmer’s holding.

Registry of Deeds

The longest established state archive in Ireland, dealing almost exclusively with sales of land, security for mortgages and other transactions in which a charge on lands arose, is the Registry of Deeds, Dublin. It first opened its doors in 1709. The purpose behind the establishment is that deeds shall be registered there, recording transactions where land is transferred by sale, devolved by a will, becomes the security for a mortgage or loan or is subject to any form of charge. The finding aids for deeds allow a search by name of the person drawing up the agreement. But this will not provide the name of the borrower. The second and in my view more useful finding aid is via the townland index – once again requiring you do your homework before travelling. Purpose built and imposing, the Registry of Deeds exudes a palpable air of antiquity but may appear a little daunting on first encounter.

We always include a visit there during our all day field trip to Dublin each year. This visit and day is part of the ten week course which Irish Origins Research Agency runs each autumn in association with Kilkenny VEC. We also visit the National Library, National Archives and the Office of the Registrar General, Births, Deaths and Marriages. The purpose of the Dublin field trip is to break down the mystique that may surround these venerable institutions and remove any ‘threshold pressure’ they may generate for first-time visitors.

Getting Started

To conclude how does one begin to compile one’s own family history? Begin with you, with yourself. Record your date and place of birth. For women always record your birth name not your marriage name. Next record the name of your father, again with date and place of birth, date, place of marriage and, as necessary, date of death and where buried. Third, the same details for your mother. Repeat the same exercise for the previous generation. By convention begin with your paternal grandfather, then his wife before noting your maternal grandfather and his wife, recording in each case as much detail as previously.

Very soon you will find that this amount of information is cumbersome to display in a clear manner. That is why we suggest you use the family chart we have devised and which is available in Rothe House and elsewhere. In case of difficulty, it is also available via our website ( It should help you get started as it includes instructions on how to begin your ‘voyage of discovery.

In this short series of articles it has not been possible to touch on all records which may contain information of interest to the family historian. We have drawn attention to the main sources and suggested some of the tips and pitfalls to be aware of during your quest. For those who wish to go farther, they are invited to enrol in our autumn course, details of which are on our website or available from the VEC, Adult Education office on Waterford Road. Wishing you every success in your hunt which, above all, I hope you enjoy.