For dates before the start of civil registration for all in 1864, virtually the only direct sources of family information for the great majority of the population are the local parish records. The intense hostility shown by the state to the Roman Catholic Church from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries made efficient record-keeping an understandably low priority, and very few registers survive from before the latter half of the eighteenth century. The earliest Roman Catholic parish records in the country appear to be the fragments for the towns of Waterford and Galway, dating from the 1680s, and for Wexford, dating from 1671. Generally speaking, early records tend to come from the more prosperous and anglicised areas, in particular from the towns and cities of the eastern half of the island. In the poorest and most densely populated rural parishes of the west and north, which saw most emigration, the parish registers very often do not start until after the middle of the nineteenth century. However, the majority of Catholic registers begin in the first decades of the nineteenth century, and even in poor areas, if a local tradition of Gaelic scholarship survived, records were often kept from an earlier date.
The listings in the source lists and the maps reflect the state of knowledge of the dates of Roman Catholic registers at the time of writing (March 2020). No listing can ever be absolutely definitive, however. The number of parishes covered by the local heritage centres will continue to grow, online transcripts will continue to appear and almost certainly there are still some unrecorded registers awaiting discovery in sacristies around the country.
Roman Catholic registers consist mostly of baptismal and marriage records. The keeping of burial records was much less thorough than in the Church of Ireland, with fewer than half the parishes in the country having a register of burials before 1900; even where they do exist, these records are generally intermittent and patchy. For some reason, almost all Catholic burial registers are for the northern half of the island.
Baptisms and marriages are recorded in either Latin or English - never in Irish. Generally, parishes in the more prosperous areas, where English was more common, tended to use English, while in Irish-speaking parishes Latin was used. There is no absolute consistency, however. The Latin presents very few problems, as only first names were Latinised, not surnames or placenames, and the English equivalents are almost always self-evident. A good listing of Latin and English forename variants found in parish registers is at rootsireland.ie/help/first-names/. The only real difficulties or ambiguities are:
Apart from names, the only other Latin needing explanation is that used in recording marriage dispensations. These were necessary when the two people marrying were related, consanguinati, and the relationship was given in terms of degrees, with siblings first degree, first cousins second degree, and second cousins third degree, Thus a couple recorded as consanguinati in tertio grado are second cousins, information which can be of value in disentangling earlier generations. A less frequent Latin comment, affinitatus, records an earlier relationship, but only by marriage, between the two parties, which could create an impediment to the marriage.
Catholic baptismal registers almost invariably contain the following information:
The information given in marriage records is variable, but always includes at least the following:
Other information which may be supplied includes:
In some rare cases the relationships of the witnesses to the people marrying is also specified. Some Dublin city and Kerry registers from the middle of the nineteenth century record the full names and addresses of the parents of both bride and groom - a wonderful innovation (see the illustration).
Marriage dispensations were necessary when the two people marrying were related, consanguinati, and the relationship was given in terms of degrees, with siblings first degree, first cousins second degree, and second cousins third degree.
Thus a couple recorded as consanguinati in tertio grado are second cousins, information which can be of value in disentangling earlier generations. A less frequent Latin comment, affinitatus, records an earlier relationship by marriage between the families of the two parties.
A typical Latin entry would read:
In matrimonium coniunxi sunt Danielum McCarthy et Brigidam Kelliher, de Ballyboher.
Testimonii: Cornelius Buckley, Margarita Hennessy.
Abbreviated, the entry reads:
Mat. Con. Danielum McCarthy et Brigidam Kelliher, Ballyboher. Test. Cornelius Buckley, Margarita Hennessy.
Meaning, simply, "Daniel McCarthy and Brigid Kelliher, of Ballyboher, are joined in matrimony; witnesses, Cornelius Buckley, Margaret Hennessy."
In the 1950s and early 60s the National Library of Ireland carried out a project to microfilm the surviving Roman Catholic parish registers of the entire island up to 1880. Microfilming of the few parishes missed by this project took place again in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the cut-off year for these registers was set at 1900. Among the very few parishes still not covered are Rathllin Island (Co. Antrim), Killorglin (Co. Kerry), Kilmeena (Co. Mayo), Rathcore and Rathmolyon (Co. Meath) and the Dublin city and county parishes of Clontarf, Naul and Santry. All of these have registers earlier than 1880 in local custody. The parishes of St John's (Sligo town), Cappawhite (Co. Tipperary), Kiltoghart (Carrick-on-Shannon), Roscommon town and the city of Waterford are among those with reigsters held locally that are fuller than those microfilmed by the library. Comparative listings of years covered are in the map listings and county source lists. All the NLI microfilms are now available for public research at the NLI sub-site registers.nli.ie. The information they record has been transcribed by Ancestry.com and FindMyPast. On FindMyPast research is free after registration.
A separate microfilming project was carried out by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland for the six counties under its jurisdiction. The results are generally identical to the National Library copies, although in some cases PRONI has used a later cut-off date.
The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints also has an extensive collection of Catholic parish register microfilms, made up partly of copies of some of the National Library films and partly of material microfilmed by the Church itself. Of the 1153 parishes in the country, the LDS library has records of 398. The NLI copies are now also available to view on the LDS site FamilySearch.org, along with any abstracts that have been created. Any volunteer transcripts and extracts appearing on the Internet are usually from these LDS microfilms.
Other access routes also exist to the information recorded in parish registers. The network of local heritage centres that came into being throughout the country from about 1980 used state-funded community employment schemes, or retraining programmes for the unemployed, to undertake the transcription (initially to card index, then to database) of the Catholic Church records in their districts. The project eventually spread to other genealogical records, with the centres grouping together as 'The Irish Family History Foundation'. The Catholic registers were the starting point, however, and they are the area in which the centres made most progress. Since 2007 the centres have been making their records searchable online via the IFHF subscription website, www.rootsireland.ie. There are now some records for all 32 counties on this site, though not all records for all 32 counties are there. A separate site funded by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, www.IrishGenealogy.ie, has covered areas not included on rootsireland specifically West Cork, Dublin city and Kerry. See 'What's online?' for more detail.