The two largest Christian denominations in Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church of Ireland, both base their records on the parish, the smallest geographical unit of ecclesiastical administration. After the coming of the Reformation to Ireland in the sixteenth century, the parish structures of the two churches diverged. The Church of Ireland retained the medieval parochial divisions and became the state church, in effect an arm of the government. Its parish framework then came to be used for administrative purposes by the secular authorities. Therefore civil parishes - the geographical basis of early censuses, tax records and land surveys - are almost identical to Church of Ireland parishes. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand was weakened by the confiscation of its assets and restrictions on its clergy and had to create larger and less convenient parishes. In some ways, this weakness produced more flexibility, allowing parishes to be centred on new, growing population centres and, in the nineteenth century, permitting the creation of new parishes to accommodate this growth in population.
The differences in the parish structures of the two churches are reflected in their records. Even allowing for the fact that members of the Church of Ireland were almost always a minority of the total population, the records of each parish are proportionately less extensive than Roman Catholic records, and cover a smaller area, and so are relatively easy to search in detail. Catholic records, by contrast, cover the majority of the population and a much larger geographical area and as a result can be very time-consuming to search in detail by hand. The creation of new Catholic parishes in the nineteenth century can also mean that the registers relevant to a particular area may be split between two parishes.
Both Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland parishes are organised on the diocesan basis first laid out in the Synod of Kells in the Middle Ages, and the dioceses remain almost identical, although the Catholic system has amalgamated some of the smaller medieval dioceses and the decline in Church of Ireland membership in twentieth century Ireland has led to administrative mergers between some dioceses.
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