top of page


Updated: Jan 15, 2021


Genealogy has its own similar version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The four pillars of genealogy are Census Records 1901 and 1911, Civil Registration, Church Records and Land Records. However, unlike Maslow’s hierarchy, any pillar of the genealogical sphere becomes a basic need dependent on the premise that ‘the only absolute rule in family history research is that you should start from what you know, and use that to find out more.’[1]

Whilst a full government census was taken every ten years from 1821, the only surviving Irish census records which are available for research purposes are for the years 1901 and 1911. The records for 1821 to 1851 were destroyed by fire at the Public Records Office in 1922 and those for 1861 to 1891 were destroyed prior to 1922 by order of the government. Land records are useful as a census substitute; however, they in essence only provide a guide to the residence of the head of family, the property occupied and property owner. Civil Registration began in 1845 with the registration of non-Roman Catholic marriages only. In 1864, all births, deaths and marriages were registered. Prior to this period, parish registers may provide the key to unlocking the genealogical past.


Church Records - In Context

In 1536, the Irish Parliament declared King Henry VIII head of the Church of Ireland. Consequently, the parish landscape changed, whilst the Church of Ireland became the state church, and retained the existing parish structures, the Roman Catholic Church created larger parishes due to the constrictions imposed on it as result of the reformation and because of population change. In County Wicklow, there are twenty-one Roman Catholic parishes compared to fifty-seven Civil Parishes (Fig.1 & 2). ‘Therefore civil parishes – the geographical basis of early censuses, tax records and land surveys – are almost identical to Church of Ireland parishes.’[2]

Byzantine mosaic at the Chora Church, Constantinople

Figure 1: County Wicklow Roman Catholic Parishes.

Wicklow Civil/Church of Ireland Parishes

Figure 2: County Wicklow Civil/Church of Ireland Parishes.

Although the parish structures were different, both Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland dioceses were quite similar in the past as both were derived from the Synod of Ráith Breasail in 1111, whereby ‘a scheme was introduced dividing the country into two ecclesiastical provinces, Armagh and Cashel, each with twelve suffragan sees.’[3] The Synod of Kells, 1152 divided the two provinces to become four, whilst retaining the existing dioceses. In 2016, the Roman Catholic Church retains the principles of the synod, in that it comprises of four archdioceses and twenty-two dioceses (Fig. 3).

Current Roman Catholic Diocese structure

Figure 3: Current Roman Catholic Diocese Structure.

The Synod of Drogheda in 1614 recommended that parish clergy have a baptismal font and a book to record baptismal and marriage entries, however no registers survive. In 1670, the Synod of Irish Bishops went one-step forward and ordered clergy to keep baptism and marriage registers. Only registers for Wexford town and St. Nicholas, Galway survive. In 1697, the banishment of Roman Catholic bishops and clergy meant record keeping dissipated. During the first decade of the eighteenth century, religious persecution intensified. ‘In 1703 the Penal Laws, forbidding Catholics to keep registers, were enacted.’[4] In addition, the registration of Catholic priests were ordered and decreed that ‘only one priest could be registered for each civil parish; all others were obliged to leave the country.’[5]

Penal Laws relaxed in the first half of the eighteenth century and due to growing tolerance, record keeping began again, principally in urban areas, more so in the Munster and Leinster. The reason for this province variation is that many of the priests trained in continental seminaries were based in Leinster and Munster and had been trained extensively including record keeping. The Roman Catholic Church became relatively stable when Catholic Emancipation began in 1829 repealing Penal Laws.

Roman Catholics made up the majority of the population in Ireland, in 1841; they constituted 80.9% of the population. The established church accounted for 10.7%, whilst the remaining, Presbyterians and other Protestant Dissenters made up the remaining 8.4%. By 1871, Roman Catholics remained the largest denomination although numbers had fallen according to the census of that year; this is probably because of the famine. As expected the majority of the established church lived in Ulster in 1871 at 58.4% whilst only 5.3% living in Connaught.


Roman Catholic Parish Baptismal Registers

The parish priest is the custodian of his parish records and nearly all registers are held in the parishes of their origin. Entries in registers are generally in chronological order by date. This may not be the case if the parish had more than one priest. The commencement of Roman Catholic baptismal registers varies wildly in the four provinces. Of all baptismal records, '30% of those in the province of Leinster, and 11% of those in Munster, began baptismal record keeping before 1800. The comparable figure is only 3% in Connaught and Ulster’.[6] Baptismal registers in most cases contain the following information:

  • Date of baptism

  • Child’s name

  • Father’s name

  • Mother’s name

  • Names of sponsors

  • Name of priest

In some cases, the townland of the family is also recorded. Baptisms are recorded in ‘either Latin or English – never in Irish’. Baptisms took place within days of the child’s birth, and up to the mid-nineteenth century were held in private residences. After the Synod of Thurles 1850, ‘the celebration of the sacraments of marriage and baptism in private residences was forbidden and was normally restricted to churches. Marriage and baptismal registers were mandated for every parish.’[7] By the early 1900s, many ‘Catholic priests made marginal notes next to specific baptismal records, to make a note where someone born in the parish married outside of the home diocese, usually overseas’ and in addition on occasion the subsequent marriage of a child is noted.[8] (Fig. 4)

Baptismal Register, Catherine Hennigan, 1876, noting date of marriage, Dunmanway Baptismal Register

Figure 4: Baptismal Register, Catherine Hennigan, 1876, noting date of marriage, Dunmanway Baptismal Register.

The baptism of Peig Sayers (Fig. 5) shows the Latin version of Margaret, Margareta, her parents, godparents, the townland in which the family reside, Vicarstown, as well as the name of the priest who carried out the baptism.

Peig Sayers Baptism Record

Figure 5: Baptism of Peig Sayers, Ballyferriter Parish, 29 March 1873.

In the 1860s customised books with printed column headings were commonly used. My great-grand aunt’s baptismal record in 1871 (Fig. 6) is a dramatic improvement when contrasted with my great-great-grandfather’s entry fifty years earlier in 1821 (Fig. 7).

Kate Kelly, 21 May 1871 Bantry Baptismal Register.

Figure 6: Kate Kelly, 21 May 1871 Bantry Baptismal Register.

John Connell, 20 September 1821 Glanmire Baptismal Register

Figure 7: John Connell, 20 September 1821 Glanmire Baptismal Register.


Roman Catholic Parish Marriage Registers

Catholic marriages were not permitted to take place during the forty days prior to Easter (Lent) nor during the four weeks preceding Christmas (Advent) unless a dispensation was granted. Dispensations were also required when blood relations married. My maternal ancestor Michael White married Mary Murray and got special dispensa