Why the bishops were afraid of the parish registers

About six years ago  I was involved in validating the first transcriptions of Catholic parish registers being made from National Library microfilms for IrishGenealogy.ie.  The process required detailed scrutiny of the original image for every transcript that didn’t match my list of standard names, or that just looked fishy. So I had to scrutinise records I wasn’t actually searching for. In the baptismal register for Skibbereen, I came across this:

“23 November 1827 Catharine of Richd Leonard and Mary Regan, New Bridge, Sponsors: John Glosson Cate Sullivan”

I’m not sure why I thought it looked fishy, but when I went to the image, I found a very good reason for always checking the original:

Click here for the original (in case you think I made it up)

It reads: “Nov. 23 1827 Catharine a bastard reputed daughter of Rich’d Leonard a soldier and Mary Regan wife of Tim Lordan late of New Bridge now living in Crookhaven. The mother of this infant is not only a public adulteress but also connected with a gang of coiners or makers of false money. Sponsors: John Glasson Cate Quinlivan by Rev P. Sheehy”.

A worried bishop

One of the reasons, the Church was so squeamish for a long time about access to its historic records was fear that they might be full of stuff like this, PPs foaming at the mouth with steam coming out their ears, spouting material ripe for a good long libel case up in the Four Courts. It’s certainly true that the Rev P. Sheehy sounds apoplectic: he goes out of his way to make clear that the strumpet is not living in his parish, Skibbereen, but away beyond in that notorious den of iniquity, Crookhaven.

But Catharine, Richard, Mary and Tim are all long dead, as is the Rev P. Sheehy. And what they’ve left behind here are the bones of a Victorian three-decker melodrama, the most wonderful skeleton-in-the-closet you could possibly imagine.

And just to show that Church indignation was highly selective, here’s another baptism from that same batch, from Bantry, also in West Cork,  on June 24 1825:

“John of Rich’d Earl of Bantry & Cath Sullivan Sp Mich’l Lenihan & Julia Bourk (spurious)”.

How very discreet.

[A version of this post first appeared as the December Document of the Month on the site of Accredited Genealogists Ireland. ‘Tis the season to be lazy.]

17 thoughts on “Why the bishops were afraid of the parish registers”

  1. It is a good story but I appreciate the sensitivity of the bishops whose interest was in protecting the feelings of people living today. Surely you have encountered people embarrassed about the scandals of long-dead ancestors–or who themselves continue century-old feuds. I have and needless to say I’m not in your league. ‘Great-Grandpa liked your grandfather better.’ Seriously. And this from septuagenarians.

    There was a legitimate argument on the side of privacy but I do agree with the decision that was made to open the records.

  2. There are skeletons in my family closet that will never be known. My mother came across my grandmother burning the contents of a trunk full of records while muttering “no one will ever know”. I appreciate having kind thoughts about my ancestors, but I find the gritty truth at times is what endears me to them. For most they were just people driven to do scandalous things in hard times just to survive. Now there are three generations of people wondering what she burned and what stories we might have learned about our family. Names and dates are fine, but is their stories that “bring them to life”.

  3. The facts just the facts; glad to have the details from the adulteress’ activities. The hierarchy might be squeamish but in today’s PC world no such differences would be allowed distinguishing what side of the sheets a child arrives on. From a genealogy point of view notes as detailed in your column and the similar details kept in the Kirk in Scotland’s session minutes, might be the only clues left to identify an illegitimate child’s biological father.

  4. Very informative. It is good to learn what these records can contain. As far as I am concerned, the more information the better.

  5. Eons ago, a subscriber to the Tipperary Co list serve offered a prayer to the Bishop of Cashel & Emly:

    “Dear God, we beseech you open the eyes of your Bishop imploring he open the parish registry.
    When we pray for our ancestors, we wish to at least know their names!”

    1. Cashel & Emly is where most of my ancestors originated from would love to hear all. Still trying to access my ggrandmothers birth hidden in the closet as suppose her family did not want all to come out public.

  6. I grew up with the belief my mother’s family was very religious without sin. Started doing a family tree when I found out my Grandfather was born 2 months after his parents married. It was a relief to know they like the rest of us aren’t without sin!

  7. And might not the actual information potentially help some poor male descendant who did advanced Ydna testing and is just not tracking with cousins or others in the family he should be similar to. Might be gratefully received.

    1. Oh yes, that would be my case. I have no matches at my37 nor 67 level of matching, yet I have other evidence that I belong to a family line in Cork. Have the marriage of my ancestor in 1815 in Cork. No matches with any of the males in Cork. Must have been a sister of them who had a baby out of wedlock, and raised him with her surname. That is the only break in my tree right down to my grandchildren.
      Jack.

  8. Hi John, I have been searching for myself for years now. I was born in a Mother and Babies Home as far as I know, and taken to England where I grew up with an old German couple until I was 5 years old, then this family moved into the house where I was, and this was supposed to be my Dad who I had seen before at Christmas.
    My Birth Certificate is English, and during the 1980s, went to birth registers (or what ever you call it over there), my birth certificate is not a legal document, It has Mara O’Hara listed as my Mother, and I was born 02/02/1959. I found a Mary O’Hara in Mooncoin Kilkenny, who denies she is my Mother, Mary is about 80 years old. I have “a half Brother” who has his Fathers name. Mary was never Married. I contacted some of the Family, and only one person in Cork stays in touch, and we look like twins. I cannot find any record of me being born. Parish Registers are too hard and too many, and I may not be listed. The O’Hara family to which I believe I belong has been in Mooncoin since 15th/16th Century, own a lot of property, and I have been warned off by my half brothers wife.
    I could really use some help.
    however there is a Mary O’Hara in Kildare that has friended me. She was born 29th October, 1957 according to her profile. She has private messaged me on facebook, and said she will call me Jaes O’Hara. Since then she calls me Sheamus. Any help would help. I was with my Ancestry a few years back, that how I found Gerald, who looks like me. He lives in Cork, but belongs to Mooncoin family.

  9. thanks for your work John. I am so pleased to see that some parish records have been opened as that may be the only way I may find some of my ancestoral background from the 17 and 18 hundreds. Keep up the good work.
    Irene

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