Working through Church records

So far we have considered the requirements and advantages of beginning with your own family’s knowledge, memories and traditions. Last week’s topic was the very accessible state records of birth, death and marriages. Plain sailing so far! This week we discuss the slightly less ‘cut and dried’ approach needed to successfully locate some of the church records and related sources we next need to examine.

So far we have considered the requirements and advantages of beginning with your own family’s knowledge, memories and traditions. Last week’s topic was the very accessible state records of birth, death and marriages. Plain sailing so far! This week we discuss the slightly less ‘cut and dried’ approach needed to successfully locate some of the church records and related sources we next need to examine.

The Catholic Church’s baptism and marriage records in Ireland are rightly seen as a primary and fruitful source of information by genealogists. What may not be known is the story of how these two sets of records came to be. The forces in favour of their introduction – and those opposed to their introduction – have woven a tale at least as convoluted as any family history.

State registration did not commence in Ireland until 1864 (with a few exceptions). Prior to that, record keeping of these marriage events was a matter exclusively for the ecclesiastical authorities of whichever church to which the person was attached. From the earliest beginnings in Christian society the marriage of its members was looked upon as a public religious act, subject to ecclesiastical control. With the beginnings of a parish structure in the fifth century, the parish priests “with the aid of reputable parishioners” were given responsibility to prevent informal, invalid or illicit unions, often termed by the church “clandestine marriages”. The church’s concern was that of ensuring the morals of the participants were protected. Civil and later state concerns were more firmly grounded in the property implications, both for the bride, groom and their respective families.

The definitive law was propagated at the Council of Trent on November 11, 1563. It enacted dogmatic and disciplinary decrees on marriage. Among a number of these it also determined, “the fact of the marriage is to be entered in a register to be kept maintained and preserved by the officiating clergyman”. However then as now, passing a law did not necessarily bring about early or widespread change. One hundred eight years were to pass before the first Irish church register was started in Wexford in 1671. Some 19 years later the second was established in Galway. Dublin came next in 1725 and then Waterford. The reason for this seemingly extraordinary delay is not difficult to find.

Penal Laws

A reading of Irish Catholic Church history of the late 16th, 17th and mid-18th centuries makes very plain the immense difficulties under which it lived. The Penal Laws were at their height; frequently bishops did not and could not live within their dioceses. Gradually, however, through the staging of a significant number of general meetings and synods the decisions taken at Trent gained traction and further adherence. The Munster Bishops in 1775 resolved to receive and implement the Law of Trent.

With the welcome abatement in the constraints of the Penal Laws the arrival of the 19th century saw no let-up in the tempo of synods being staged. In 1808 the bishops of Dublin resolved that the bishops enforce the decree of the Council of Trent regarding the keeping of an accurate registry of baptisms and marriages. In reality the position on the ground was that many examples exist where the arrival of a new curate or parish priest was the catalyst that started the keeping of a register. There are a few examples where the commencer of a register records the start of it in a formalised way within the book itself.

An entry in Kilkenny reads “Reverent Richard O’Donnell came to live in Maudlin Street, St James Day, the 13th September 1789 and from that time the following baptisms are registered”.

Church registers came in all shapes and sizes with various bindings. It is clear that they were not in any sense “central office issue.” The evidence suggests registers were started by individual clergymen utilising a locally available book which in their judgement was appropriate to their needs.

Church records are not public records but canonical records; accordingly the opportunity to inspect them is a question of “grace and favour” of the local parish priest and not a right as such. In Kilkenny most of the church records have been indexed by the Genealogical Service based in Rothe House and this should be your first port of call. “Best practice” recommends that, having located the parish in question, you visit it and inspect the original document.

City parish records

The dates in which the various parishes began their records vary widely; in the south of the county Mooncoin and Slieverue commenced in 1779 and 1786 respectively. In the city St Mary’s dates from 1754 followed by St Canice’s 1765, St Patrick’s began in 1800 and St John’s in 1809.

Having located the church register in question, your approach should be that of a serious researcher. For best results, approach the task in a professional manner. Remember that the books in question come in all shapes and sizes and very often the same book was used for both baptisms and marriages, with baptisms to the front and marriages beginning at the back of the book. It was not unusual for the book to be turned over so it has ‘two fronts’, with both sets of records – baptisms and marriage – working towards the centre. But do not assume all baptisms are in one section and all marriages in the other; sometimes they are found mixed in together. Other times there is a stray page or two of one activity mislocated and inserted with the other while on other occasions even more difficult to spot, there are just one or two stray entries to be found, usually marriages among baptisms rather that the other way round. Keep alert at all times is most definitely the rule.

In noting what it says, copy everything on the line of any relevant entry even if some words do not make sense or seem to fit in. Confirm the language is English or Latin. If there are letters you cannot make out or decipher then place a dash ( – ), allowing one such symbol for each suspense letter. Were there multiple baptisms or marriages on the same day? If yes, record the details in full of all the events that took place; if none, record the fact that there were no other baptisms or marriages on that date. Check and record whether the clergyman officiating is the same or different to who was involved in the sacrament above your entry. If the name is different, then perhaps that person was a family member, maybe an uncle or cousin. Especially note the sponsors or witnesses names and both their addresses.

Letters of Freedom

Is there any reference to Letters of Freedom requests having been received or marriage noted on the baptism pages? Record yes or no. Check the amount of the offerings recorded; tot up the offerings for the whole page, calculate the average. Is your offering larger or less than that amount? Above all, record the parish and town in which you found this record, date and put your name on this report even if it is intended for your eyes only. In the nature of family research others will follow and appreciate your work.

One tip if you have to write to some distant parish seeking a copy of an entry which may or may not be in their register. I have found it always a good idea to send a stamped addressed envelope in addition to a modest offering. There seems to be something in the psyche of a clergyman which makes him reluctant to discard an envelope which is already stamped and not usable for any other purpose than to respond to your request. This little trick has enhanced the probability of getting a reply.


In addition to written registers of marriage and baptisms in churches, the whole question of gravestones and the information to be gleaned from them is worth consideration. Sadly stone is not the permanent record it was once thought to be. It is subject to considerable damage from chemical action, frost, rain, vegetation and wind. Rainwater, albeit diluted, contains a form of carbonic acid and this is very detrimental, particularly to limestone. Accordingly older headstones are difficult to read.

Remember that headstones typically have their backs to the west and accordingly towards the prevailing wind and rain. This means that they need to be read in the morning sunlight when the sun is in the east and so shining full face on to the east side which contains the writing. Attempting to read headstones while shading your eyes from the glare of the setting sun in the western skies is a frustrating exercise.

Pointing a mirror to direct bright morning sunlight across the face of the gravestone is often a help. By using a camera or the camera facility on your phone, photograph not full frontal but from an oblique angle – and always use the flash – even in daylight. This will accentuate whatever writing is there. Wetting the stone with water will also enhance the visibility of any writing which remains. A good tip is to bring some white chalk with you on these outings. Make it part of your ‘kit.’ Lightly rub the chalk across the writing from left to right, gently blowing away the excess. This will help you in reading the incised writing considerable.

Headstones from the late 18th century onwards are fairly numerous, reaching down a distance in the social scale. By way of definition, when speaking of headstones in this context we are referring exclusively to what we all understand as such, i.e. a physical piece of stone, standing upright, in a cemetery on which is carved details of the person or people buried under it.

A number of table tombs within churches are substantially older, for example the wonderful carved tombs of the O’Tunny family who were active in the 16th century or the headstone within St Canice’s Cathedral to Joseph De Keteller which appears to date to 1285, more than 700 years old.

Skilled carvings

A number of headstone feature splendid carvings. Mostly these relate to the passion of Christ but sometimes feature the tools of the person buried there. Your writer has harboured for many years an ambition to locate the earliest headstone in Ireland. For quite some time the title rested with a headstone in Tomard cemetery near Leighinbridge, County Carlow to one Michael Ryan who died in 1685. That is, until very recently when he unearthed the ‘current record holder,’ which is a headstone in The Demesne Graveyard, within the Creamery complex in Mitchelstown, Cork which dates back to 1629. As can be imagined it is almost impossible to read in full while the year is very plain to read most likely because it has spent much of the last almost 400 years underground.

An often overlooked church source is the Ossory Marriage Licence Bonds; these date from 1669 up to 1845 and later. They give the name of the bride and groom and the year of marriage. They are held in a number of locations but the most convenient is probable the manuscripts in the Genealogical Office of Ireland (MS612-617).

Wills and estates

Prior to the passing to the Disestablishment Act, the established church (Anglican) was responsible for the administration of all wills. The Consistorial Court (or Diocesan Court) charged with this duty among many others operated at individual diocesan level.

In larger estates or those involving assets of more than £5 in a second or different dioceses meant administration was conducted by the higher court – termed the Prerogative Court of Armagh. Most if not all of the wills which were sent to the public record office for “safe keeping” were destroyed in the Four Courts bombing in 1921. However, a number of books (Betram, et al) listing very limited detail of the Prerogative Courts wills in question had been published before this disastrous fire. However, if the deceased person had any estate in England; then a copy of their will was also lodged with the Prerogative Court in Canterbury whose records continue to be available.

When about to complete your examination of a marriage or baptism register(s) in the company of the parish priest or curate, I sometimes found it quite useful to enquire, in all innocence, “Is there anything else Father worth looking at?” This is nothing more than a trawling exercise but can occasionally be fruitful. Once in response to this query for example I was offered a small booklet which recorded the contributions made by the parishioners to the major refurbishing of the parish church in the middle years of the 19th century. Fortunately it did include some details and the address of an ancestor of mine.

Always ask – it may or may not be worthwhile. What is certain is that if you do not ask you will never know!


Glad to hear from Christy Toomey of Newmarket, who reminded me that when taping a conversation with a source, there is a legal requirement to ask their permission first!