The Catholic registers are rotting

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.

Mitchelstown baptisms on microfilm. Not exactly a substitute for the original.

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.

32 thoughts on “The Catholic registers are rotting”

  1. Before the records were online, I read the microfilm for one of my ancestral parishes. When I visited the Westmeath parish, the pastor allowed me to look at the actual book, which had been archivally preserved. The handwriting was much clearer and easier to read than the microfilm or the subsequent digitized version, not that I’m not immensely grateful for the latter. Visiting another ancestral parish in Offaly, I was told that the parish records went much further back in time than the microfilm. Again, I’m glad to have anything to look at so conveniently tho I am very eager to see any earlier records.

    You are so right that all these registers need preservation but keeping them at the parish level is what saved them in the first place. We don’t need another 1922–man-made or natural disaster.

  2. Contact FamilySearch.org and report this. They will send out people to capture these records, take photos, etc., and then index them so they become digitized so everyone can see them on the internet. When I worked at the Salt Lake City Family History Library, I ran into some Catholic ladies from Manhattan, N.Y., who were complaining about this
    same thing: records in their cathedrals rotting. I sent them to the folks at FamilySearch who acquire records and they started the capture asap. Sometimes the local Catholic priests are suspicious of those from FamilySearch and won’t let them in. So spread the word that this capturing is a good thing, and should be encouraged.

    1. Cathy – unfortunately, the Catholic Church no longer cooperates with FamilySearch filming or photographing processes. The RC hierarchy has mandated that the process not be allowed.

    2. The Catholic church in Ireland would have to give permission for that, and I don’t think they would. In 2008 the Vatican ordered that parishes and dioceses must not give their records to FamilySearch or individual members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, because they disagree with the Mormon practice of “proxy baptism”.

  3. I agree with your comments, John. I might add that many of our local parishes have seen the Importance of the registers and have spent money preserving them by binding them and storing them carefully. However, sadly not all registers are treated equally. It is a conversation that needs to happen within each Diocese. Thank you for highlighting this.

  4. I recently wanted to see the earliest (pre-1841) volume for Sandyford/Glencullen in county Dublin. The transcription is on IrishGenealogy.ie but there are no images. The NLI microfilm does not begin until 1841. They were were helpful in Sandyford parish office, didn’t have the earliest volume, and in fact knew nothing about it. All that they could suggest was that I get in touch with the Dublin Diocesan Archive, which I’m in the process of doing, though not very hopeful about the outcome.
    It’s very worrying to think that the volume has apparently gone missing since it was transcribed for the collection that ultimately ended up on IrishGenealogy.ie. I wonder, John, do you know anything of that transcription exercise? I have a very faint recollection of hearing that it was done by, or with the collaboration of the Gilbert Library?
    Ironically, thanks to a cousin in the US, I have the scan of a baptismal certificate, copied from the missing volume, that was issued in 1909.

  5. I contacted the RC parish in Co Wicklow where my ancestors lived and offered to have the records professionally digitised by a company or body of their choice. The priest was, at first, supportive: but later declined my offer. I contacted the Dublin Diocesan archivist who was very supportive. However, she advised me to write to the Archbishop for permission. The Archbishop wrote back declining my offer.

  6. My hope is that FindMyPast would be allowed to take on this urgent project in Ireland. They are doing a great job with some major US archdioceses, a monumental task. I have struck gold in the NY records. FamilySearch is part of the Mormon/Latter Day Saints church with specific theological reasons for doing genealogy. I think it unlikely that the Catholic church, or many other faiths, would be comfortable with its sacramental records being included in FS.

    1. Agree, a neutral 3rd party would be more palatable to many Catholic dioceses. Even Findmypast has had trouble getting their message across, but if they can make inroads with the New York and Boston dioceses, there should be hope. It may take some time, but convincing them that the descendants want access to the records of their ancestors is the battleground. Maybe we as descendants can put pressure on the diocese’s as well (both in the USA and Eire).

  7. This has concerned me greatly over the last 30 years. Regardless of how they came about, the images in Ancestry have shown the difference between trying to read details from a fuzzy microfilm version and the amazing full colour images that are available there. It is not just making them available for researchers, this may be the only record of a person’s existence in the world and I would imagine that even the church could appreciate that and do them the service of preserving that tiny but important little bit of the person that was entrusted to the church over the years. The main problem that would be encountered is finding a way of doing this rescue considering that the registers are in presbyteries all over the country. The rationalisation of parishes due to a lack of priests poses more problems. I hope that there would be someone who will be able to persuade the church of the importance of these records.

  8. Only a few days ago I was fortunate enough to have a chat with the genealogist in the North Cathedral in Cork and to get a look at their collection of parish registers. They have them stored carefully in a large safe. However I don’t know what has been done in the other city parishes. I know my own parish, just outside the city, was not included in the NLI microfilms, and I don’t know what condition their books are in.

  9. The difference between the legibility of the NAI digitized microfilm and the original handwritten registers is striking. What is totally unreadable over the internet comes to life when viewing and photographing them in person. I for one would certainly sign up to help preserve these precious records.

  10. 5 years ago, I visited St John the Baptist in Carrigart, Donegal, where some of my ancestors worshipped. I explained to the parish priest that my visit was genealogical. He disappeared briefly and returned with a stack of brown, rotting leaves of paper that he had recently found “in the attic.” He was relatively new to the parish. I impressed on him as diplomatically as I could the imperative of getting them to someone who would preserve them. After I left, I Wrote an email to a Donegal genealogical research centre that Lorna Maloney recommended to me, and urged them to reach out to the parish. But I never received a reply and have no idea if anyone ever got a hold of them.

    1. This story leaves me nauseous… One of the most important registers for a large section of my family is not on microfilm in the National Library and in a book of local history it was described as burnt. Luckily we have other sources. I think only something like an Irish government body could coordinate the saving of these records maybe in conjuction with local history societies. I can partly understand individual priests being reluctant to give access to the registers when it comes to commercial bodies and proxy baptism freaks. My home parish priest won’t let me have a peak, I have to request by email; the reason why is I would be finding out about illegitimate children of local respectable farmers!

    2. Ahh!!! This is my ancestors’ parish!!! The Donegal registers for this region are online at NLI, I’m wondering how closely they match up, and if the copy you saw had additional information (relationship of parents etc.). Do you know how far they went back?

      1. The priest told me he had only recently taken over the parish. He’d found them in the rectory’s attic. The condition of the paper – very few intact sheets with legible writing — led him to infer they had just been sitting there for the past century. I doubt they had ever left the attic, let alone been microfilmed and returned.

  11. Yes, indeed. For no apparent reason, my ancestral parish is oneline, but the first 10 years are not. It is just good fortume that I asked the family history center to research for me, just a few years beofre they went online. If I had waited just a few years to start my research, I would have gone online, looked, and found nothing regarding my ancestors – because they all appear in those first ten years.

  12. I think this is a very important point that has been raised. The 1922 destruction of archives was a massive disaster for Ireland’s cultural heritage, and now the degradation of the RC parish records is causing further losses of evidence. Many individuals mentioned in the parish registers are known to prosperity only through these records.
    I believe the best outcome would be for all the originals to be tracked down and stored properly, followed by digitization to replace the low quality NLI microfilms- perhaps a company like FindMyPast would be willing to do this. As already discussed digitization by FS is impossible as it would be inconsisent with Catholic policy on proxy baptisms. Perhaps a grant similar to the one given recently for Church of Ireland records could be given if needed.

    Personally, I am inspired to write to Catholic church in Ireland, as a Catholic genealogist with many Catholic ancestors, to urge them to better preserve these records. Maybe this is an opportunity for Irish genealogists to start a petition.

    1. I think the poor auld Catholic Church in Ireland needs a carrot rather than a stick here. Everything and anything can be blamed on them, some of it justified of course but another campaign demanding that they hand over their documents could easily backfire. What is the most important thing required here? These registers need to be conserved and then preserved; repaired to the best conservation standards and then put into secure storage like safes. I presume a lot of registers are stored in safes already but they would still need to be be looked at by professional conservators. We are coming to a dangerous time for these documents; the parish priest in my home parish in North Kilkenny will probably be the last one solely dedicated to that parish, from now on priests will administer three to four together, registers could fall between the cracks with all this change. Most registers are probably safe enough but the loss of any more would be a disaster. A careful, respectful, approach when dealing with the Church in this matter is the best way. Conservation of these primary sources would be a better use of resources than a lot of money currently spent on arts or culture by the government.

      1. I agree. Lots of gentle encouragement needed…and perhaps including some financial resources. It’s clear that many if not most of the parishes themselves lack the human & fiscal resources to do the conservation. Perhaps a movement among genealogically-oriented folk might be started both to build support for national government funding for grants, supplemented by a privately-raised fund, both to be made available to either the Catholic Church in Ireland or to individual dioceses & parishes committing to preservation & archival.

  13. Surely they should fall under some national heritage act that dictates how they are to be preserved and protected. The church must recognise the significance of them and at least engage with the government regarding their preservation. Does the church work with goverment to preserve buildings of significance? Is there not a similar government body that makes decisions about documents of national significance?

  14. In December 2019 I wrote to the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, encouraging them to preserve their church registers better, and to permit digitally scanning them and making these images available online.

    I have also started a petition that, while respecting that the records are the private property of the Catholic Church, urges them to take better care of the physical records and permit scans of them to be placed online.
    http://chng.it/nkct7N2WMQ

  15. Posted this on my FB page this morning, I think it garnered you about 60 shared or signed results.
    Sugggest that posting it on the many Irish FB Genealogy groups might be the fastest way to gain momentum.

    Good luck.

      1. Thank you for starting the petition, Alec. Someone posted a link on one of the fb Irish genie groups earlier today (1 March, NZ time) and I re-posted in another four Irish groups. It’s had an tremendous response in the groups, which I hope is reflected in signatures. Cheers, Fern

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