Roman Catholic parish registers constitute by far the most important set of records for nineteenth-century Irish local and family history. And, in the furore over access, one vital point is constantly missed. The original records are still sitting in the sacristies and presbyteries around the country where they have been for the past two centuries. No organization on the island is concerned with preserving them: there is no archival programme to ensure their survival.
Why should this matter? Aren’t they’re all copied online anyway? Or in the National Library microfilm collection?
Here are some facts about the collections of copies. The National Library microfilm project, heroic as it was, has serious flaws, apart from the cut-off of 1880. A few parishes were missed entirely – Rathlin Island, for example – and some films are so out of focus as to be illegible, the main reason for the flaws in the transcripts done by Ancestry and FindMyPast.
Comparing the years covered by the heritage centres’ transcriptions with the years held on Library microfilm also reveals that dozens of parishes have records earlier than those filmed by the Library: Aghada in east Cork, for example, has marriage records going back 40 years before the NLI microfilm. Roscommon and Sligo towns both have full early baptismal registers going back decades before the NLI copies. And for Carrick-on-Shannon, NLI appears to have missed nearly all the records of one of the two chapels in the parish, Kiltoghart-Murhane, meaning only half the Catholic records are on microfilm.
The mismatch also works in the other direction. More than 100 parishes (many in Wexford) have earlier years on microfilm than in heritage centre transcript. Adamstown, Aghaderg, Ahoghill, Ballinascreen, Cappoquin … all have microfilm records earlier than the rootsireland transcripts. Were these earlier registers somehow lost or destroyed between the NLI microfilm in the 1970s and the transcription project in the 1990s? How many other registers have also since disappeared?
No copy can take the place of the original. The registers themselves are the property of the Catholic Church, and also the Church’s responsibility. If the Hierarchy wants to keep them private, by all means let them be locked away in acid-free boxes in diocesan archives for a century or more. But something has to be done to stop them from rotting away.