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Dublin: 3 °C Tuesday 12 November, 2019
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Want to trace your Irish family tree? It just got easier...

Catholic parish registers – rich resources for those tracing tracing Irish ancestors – are now available for free online.

Ciara Kerrigan

INTEREST IN IRISH family history is huge. More than 27,000 people visited the National Library of Ireland last year with the sole purpose of looking up the parish registers. Because of this growing level of interest, we decided to invest in community and diaspora-engagement by making the records available for free online at Catholic Parish Registers at the NLI.

Dating from the 1740s to the 1880s, the parish registers are considered to be the single most important source of information on Irish family history prior to the 1901 Census.  And indeed, in many cases, they are the only records of Irish citizens from these times.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the majority of the Irish population were small farmers, labourers or servants. These people didn’t own their own land, they didn’t sign deeds or belong to a guild or a trade so in many cases there is no other record of their existence.

They tell the stories of communities

The registers cover 1,086 parishes throughout the island of Ireland, and consist primarily of baptismal and marriage records. However, you’d be wrong to think that they are just dry documents about births, deaths and marriages – they also tell the stories of communities and give a sense of the people who lived in a particular place at a particular time.

They are brilliant for people interested in local history and in tracing their family tree as they are a more complete source of information than indexes. Baptismal information typically includes the godparents’ names as well as that of the baby and the parents. Similarly, marriage records typically show the names of the witnesses, as well as of the bride and groom. So from this information we also get a sense of the relationships between family members, friends and the communities in which they lived.

These parish registers are the records of the Catholic Church and really, given that the time period coincides with the Penal Laws, it’s amazing that they managed to keep such a good account. Some of these registers also date from the Famine era and provide a unique resource for a time when there was huge emigration from Ireland.

In terms of historical figures, people logging onto the site will be able to look at the original baptism records of 1916 leaders Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Sean Mac Diarmada, as well as of Kerry-based author Peig Sayers. The marriage record of Irish republican, and housekeeper to Robert Emmet, Anne Devlin is also available to view.

A wonderful resource for people tracing their family history

The National Library of Ireland initially began making microfilm copies of the parish registers in the 1950s and the NLI holds microfilm copies of more than 3,550 registers from the vast majority of Catholic parishes in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The registers start from the 1740/50s in some city parishes in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford, to the 1780/90s in Kildare, Kilkenny, Wexford and Waterford. Registers for parishes along the western seaboard generally do not begin until the 1850/1860s.

Originally, because of confidentiality issues, the microfilm records could only be consulted by NLI staff in the course of their work. All other researchers needed the written permission of the relevant parish priest before being allowed to view the register. However, members of the public have had access to the records by visiting the library since the 1970s.

The parish registers are hugely popular with people tracing their family history. Last year alone, 27,500 people visited the Library to view them, both from Ireland and overseas. That’s a slight increase on 2013 figures.

While microfilm was the gold standard of its time, for the modern user it’s a long and cumbersome process. Up until this week, anyone who wanted to view the records had to come into the Library armed with the name of the relevant Catholic parish and the relevant year. They then had to look through a list of microfilms to find the one that related to their parish, select the relevant microfilm, load it into the machine (generally requiring the help of a staff member) and then scroll through the film to find their register. There could also be multiple registers on a reel.

Now a much more user-friendly experience

While the quality of microfilm doesn’t deteriorate, there are viewing issues as magnification, brightness and contrast adjustment are limited.

It is now a much more user-friendly experience. However, as the parish registers will not be indexed, people interested in checking the register online will still need to know the name of the Catholic parish and the relevant year. Local family history resources hold the indexes and transcripts of parish registers in their local areas so we recommend that members of the public get in touch with these to help them find these details before going online.

The NLI has been working to digitise the microfilms for more than three years and 390,000 digital images of the microfilm reels on which the parish registers are recorded are now available to view.

This web-repository of parish records should transform and greatly enhance genealogy services in Ireland as it means that anyone in any part of Ireland, or the world, can download the register for free and uncover links with their ancestors.

Ciara Kerrigan is the Assistant Keeper at the Office of the Chief Herald and Genealogy, National Library of Ireland. She managed the digitisation of the parish registers.

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Ciara Kerrigan

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