13 Aug 2022

Investigating state records – the pitfalls

In a previous article we have outlined the benefits and some pitfalls of ‘person to person’ living relative research. Facts and insights arising from that research should inform your later research as you progress your journey of discovery. Working backwards from living memory and information will next bring us to the most useful of the states records, those listing Births, Death and Marriages.

In a previous article we have outlined the benefits and some pitfalls of ‘person to person’ living relative research. Facts and insights arising from that research should inform your later research as you progress your journey of discovery. Working backwards from living memory and information will next bring us to the most useful of the states records, those listing Births, Death and Marriages.

There is a widespread myth that these documents were a victim of the conflagration at the Four Courts in 1922. Happily I can confirm that there is no base in fact for this assertion. The reality is that records for births, deaths and marriages in Ireland have survived complete from the time they were commenced. Prior to their introduction, the recording of marriages and baptisms was exclusively a matter for the churches. Indeed this is one of the difficulties when the idea of state registration was first suggested in the 1830’s in the then British Isles. There was widespread disquiet in England and very forceful objections from both the Established Church and the Catholic Church in Ireland. Depending on who you talk to, the reasons for this opposition varied. Some suggest it was entirely religious - concern that if a state alternative were available people might be less inclined to bring their children to be baptised with the possible danger to their immortal soul. Others imply it was entirely monitory – the loss of baptism and marriage offerings on which many parishes and their priests depended.

The suggestion of a civil system in addition to church based procedures which many perceived as ‘competition’ to the churches prior monopoly - gave rise to similar feelings of anti-government emotions at the time of the tithe wars and other civil unrest. It was deemed prudent simply to drop the proposal for that time. The civil registration system did go ahead in England in 1837. Here we have to wait until 1864 before the compulsory registration of Births and Deaths was introduced.

The State did “dip its toe in the water” as far as civil registration was concerned. It introduced the registration of Church of Ireland only marriages (not birth or deaths) in 1845. Accordingly members of the Anglican faith in Ireland have an advantage of some 19 years on their Catholic fellow countrymen in terms of their marriage records.

State records for birth and death for all persons date from 1864. They are, prudently having regard to the 1922 disaster, held at two geographically distinct locations. The original records for each county will be found in that county. In addition copies for all 32 counties are stored and searchable in the Irish Life Centre, Dublin. Records for these events taking place in the Six Counties after 1922 are held in Belfast.

Recording of births records did not achieve 100% coverage immediately. In the first 20 years (1864-1884) a limited number of births perhaps 10% to14% did escape the net. This shouldn’t surprise us in an age when home births were the norm. It wasn’t until 1940 in Ireland that the pendulum swung from the majority of births (51.4%) took place in institutions, (hospital or near equivalent), as apposed to home births.

Birth certificates for County Kilkenny are to be found in the County Clinic on Fair Green, Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. One early task we suggest to those taking our course each Autumn is to obtain your own birth certificate in order that you become familiar with their layout and what they contain. In fact no less than 17 separate items of information are to be found on an Irish birth certificate .

The birth certificate is one of the great “stepping stones” as you work back. It will give you the name of the father and the full maiden name of the mother.

Armed with this information it is a simple matter to acquire their marriage certificate which is the next link in the paper chain you are establishing. With growing computerisation it is possible to input the names of the father and mother and that will generate any records for other children born to the same union. In respect of your own brothers and sisters obviously this information would be know to you. The same may not apply to your grand-uncles, as you work back through the generations.

Marriage Certificate

Unquestionably in family research the most valuable single document is the Irish Wedding Certificate. It contains a total of 26 separate items of information all of which can in different contexts be valuable in terms of fleshing out the family story. Significantly the document is also trans-generational in that in addition to the details of the couple getting married it gives the names and occupations of their respective fathers.

As we will see later this is increasingly valuable as we work our way backwards.

19th and earlier 20th century wedding certificates often used the option if both were over 21 years of inserting “ Of full age” for the age of the bride and groom rather than the current requirement, stating their date of birth. Not too much can be inferred from this practice of concealing the age of the bride or groom - and it is usually both rather than one or the other. However, some times it can disguise a substantial difference between the ages of the bride and the groom or where the bride was even a few years older that her husband. In my own researches over the years the widest difference I have discovered was where the bride was 17 and the groom a spritely 78!

While the marriage certificate always had a column to record the trade or profession of the bride all too often this was simply recorded as a stroke or mark indicating that no particular profession was involved. These comments are particularly true in respect of middle class and upper class marriages.

As such they can be a pointer to the social status of the contracting couple. In other cases the profession of the bride is not very revealing as it may be simply ‘Servant’. Naturally things have changed significantly since the 1950’s.

There are a total of 26 items to be examined and each of them, may repay considerable analyse. There is an old adage “don’t show me what’s written, tell me what it says”. This applies in full when examining any wedding certificate. Of the three certificates Birth death and marriage, (BDM) the most valuable is certainly the marriage certificate. As noted already, it gives you the trans-generational link that you require. Armed with the name of the bride and groom and hopefully their age and their father’s names, it is a relatively simple matter to secure their birth certificate also. This in turn will facilitate the securing of their parents marriage certificate and so the whole sequence is repeated back through to 1864. Typically, this will enable you to complete 4 or in some cases 5 generations.

Information on an Irish death certificate – a total of 18 items

Always be alert to and aware of the probable circumstances in which the information was secured and offered

In recent years there is a heightened appreciation of the significance and importance of such primary documents. Today a death certificate is recorded conscientiously, listings the facts of the matter. In previous times the same degree of precision may not always have been brought to bear on their completion. Keep in mind that all such documents were written by an official based on the information he was given, typically by a near relative of the deceased. Imagine the circumstance of this interview;, the relative is distressed, upset and maybe in shock at the recent death in the family. The official, while conscientious, is also anxious not to over burden the obviously distressed relative with too exacting an inquisition.

Accordingly, if the actual age of the deceased is not known very often there will be tacit albeit unspoken agreement to put down a “reasonable estimate”. In this context I have found that recorded ages which end in a zero, 50, 60 and 70 for example, can sometimes bear close scrutiny.

Detailed examination of the totality of the certificate’s 18 items will sometimes point to useful lines of enquiry. Who provided the information, described as the “informant”? Always check when the death was registered; if it was within say a month of the sad event that is fair enough.

But occasionally you will find a death being registered several years later and this can often be worth noting for future reference. Remember as in history itself, nothing happens without a reason and any anomalies, anything out of the expected should always be the subject of prudent inquiries.

One annoying defect on death certificates in these islands is their silence as to the place of burial. This lack can often make it difficult to find their burial place, particularly where the death has taken place say in Kilkenny but the deceased originally hailed from, for example, Castlebar and was returned to “his own people” post-mortem. More difficult is the case where a person dies when on holiday in France or where ever. In that case there will be no death certificate in Ireland- for the very good reason that the death did not take place here - and in the case of our ‘man from Castlebar’ no headstone locally either. In that eventuality the person simply ‘disappears’ from Irish records.

Census Records

Having completed the BDM element of your family research, now is the time to approach and get the best benefit from the splendid census records that are available. As we write, these are limited to 1901 and 1911 returns, with a growing case being made for the 1926 records to be made available which may happen shortly. Due to the disturbed state of Ireland in 1921 no census was taken that year. The good news is that the census records in Ireland are accessible free of charge for these two years. The bad news is that none of the 19th century census records survive, falling victim to either deliberate pulping or the 1922 fire in the Four Courts where they were housed at the time of the Civil War.

The golden rule of family research is that it is absolutely imperative to work backwards! Beginning with yourself, then back through your parents and their parents and so on as set out above. Why? Imagine you uncover some person in a record which you feel may relate to your family in a register or document of say 1820 and seek to tie it up with your family. You must understand that if the person who married in 1820 had 7 children (a modest sized family at that time) and they in turn had 7 children born around 1850 and they in turn had a further 7 children born by 1890. If each of those 1890 children again had just 5 children each by say 1920 and a final issue of again 5 children each all born by the 1950’s. You are now talking about 8,575 direct descendants of our 120 man. All of this complicated maths mean that 8,574 of these descendants in respect of yourself are going to be “dead ends”. Nothing makes the case stronger, in my view, then that mathematical exercise. So hence the golden rule – work from yourself backwards and never the other way.

This can be one of the hidden dangers of a quick and unconsidered use of the 1901 and 1911 census documentation. They are certainly a major and most valuable resource but to use them to best advantage it is necessary have done some primarily work as set out above.

With our examination of the BDM and census records we bring to an end the available civil based records in Ireland.

The next article will discuss the very valuable church records that are of importance in our on going family research story.

To continue reading this article for FREE,
please kindly register and/or log in.

Registration is absolutely 100% FREE and will help us personalise your experience on our sites. You can also sign up to our carefully curated newsletter(s) to keep up to date with your latest local news!

Register / Login

Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.

Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.