by James R. Reilly

To build Roman Catholic family relationships in Ireland during the period prior to the 1863 Civil Registration Act (Ireland) the researcher must rely heavily, if not entirely, on the sacramental registers of baptism and marriage for this critical information. But this source itself is fraught with problems created by neglect, accidental destruction, or government repression.

The keeping of sacramental registers in the Roman Catholic Church was decreed by the Council of Trent, a meeting of bishops convened by several popes between 1545 and 1563. Promulgation of the decree throughout Europe and the British Isles was slow, and compliance varied from diocese to diocese. The efforts of the parliaments of Ireland and England to spread the doctrines of the Reformation in Ireland hampered the efforts of Roman Catholic bishops to implement the decrees of the Council of Trent. As a result many of the registers commence only in the early 1800's.

Sacramental registers in Ireland were prohibited by the penal law of 1703 that forbade priests to record the reception of baptism and marriage. Fortunately for the family historian the law was not enforced uniformly in the cities and across the rural country-side; and despite the ravages of climate, time, and improper storage, a number of sacramental registers commence about 1830 when the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 repealed the penal laws. It is interesting to note that six of the twenty six dioceses of Ireland (Achrony, Clogher, Drumore, Killala, and Raphoe) have no registers dating before 1800.

The sight of an elderly register is intimidating if not discouraging. Three factors combine to make the registers difficult to read. Their physical condition is often quite deteriorated - poor quality paper combined with faded and smeared ink, frayed edges and torn pages that led to details being lost forever.

Handwriting is often illegible - and the abbreviations often make sense only to the priest who wrote them. Some entries are written in Latin of different standards. Family historians are thankful that none were written in Irish!

As descendants of nineteenth century Irish men and women, we will generally find that the starting date of the local parish register defines the earliest extant record of our ancestor, for it would be unusual for the records of their families to go back much earlier than 1800. And for most of us, the early 1800's is likely to be the limit.

The purpose of this presentation is three-fold. It will analyze a number of formats within which the Church required elements of baptism and marriage information are to be found; these will include both Latin and English entries taken from registers in various geographical areas. Secondly, it will examine social customs surrounding the administration of the sacraments, and finally it will offer some cautions to be exercised during register research.

A few cautions when reading a sacramental register...

  1. Uniformity in spelling surnames is really a phenomenon of the 20th Century. The clergy often wrote names based on pronunciation since many people could not write or spell their names - and the priest spelled the name his way. And we dare to presume that he knew the correct spelling!
  2. A Catholic parish can be known by more than one name, such as a historical name and the locality name. My grandfather's parish church is called Mullahoran church, Drumloman church, Drumloman North, Our Lady of Lourdes.
  3. Different parishes in different parts of Ireland have the same name, so be sure of the diocese a parish is in.
  4. Catholic parishes frequently cross county boundaries. A search for an ancestor who lived on or close to a county boundary should never stop at the boundary of the county in which he lived. Castlemore and Kilcoleman parish in the Diocese of Achrony straddles three counties - Mayo, Sligo and Roscommon.
  5. Some parishes were formed out of portions of older ones beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. The parish of Spa (Co. Kings) whose records commence in 1866 was formed from parts of Ardfert (1819) and Tralee (1772). When records of a parish are listed as beginning at an unusually late period, check to see if the parish was a part of an adjoining older parish or a composite of several older parishes.
  6. Many families have children baptized in more than one parish.
    1. The practice of having the first born at the home of the wife's parents was not uncommon. Although some experts question this theory, it is worth following especially if her parents and the expectant mother lived in different church parishes.
    2. A family, although resident in one parish, may have been geographically nearer to a chapel or "station" in a neighboring parish.
    3. A person's trade or profession could result in his having to move among several parishes taking his family with him, e.g. a labourer or herdsman moving to a different location within his employer's property might attend one or more church parishes; some landlord estates covered many thousands of acres, crossed parish and even county lines. On the other hand, the head of a household as a skilled tradesman, a constable, a government employee, an itinerant worker - yes, even a vagrant - would take the family over a wide geographical area.
    4. And don't forget to check the records of the local Workhouse. Your ancestor may have been a temporary resident before emigrating to America.
  7. Read the whole register not just the year of your ancestor's birth or marriage.
    1. More than a single priest made entries in the register so all entries are not in one chronological order, look for a change in handwriting and entry format.
    2. When microfilmed loose pages of a register were sometimes filmed out of order.
    3. Every entry of your surname is a probable relative, copy them all to define our direct and collateral lines, not just your single ancestor.
  8. The LDS Church as filmed about 33% of the Irish Catholic sacramental registers, and these are accessible in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or at an LDS Family History Center near your home.

A Sampler of Latin Terms, Given Names and Abbreviations Found in Sacramental Registers

filius = son patrinus = godfather
filia = daughter patrinia = godmother
illegitimus = illegitimate patrini = godparents
thorus = legitimate birth parentes = parents
ex illegitimo thoro = illegitimate birth sponsores**godparents
natus = born SS = godparents
baptismus = baptism PP = godparents
baptizatus = baptized

Marriage Death
testes = witnesses vidua = widow
conjuncti sunt = they were married sepultus = buried
consanguinitatis = of blood relationship defunctus = dead
disponsus = dispensed

John = Joannes, Jno. Charles = Carolus, Chas.
James = Jacobus, Jas. Honor = Honoria, Nora, Nancy
Mary = Maria Ellen = Elena, Nellie
Michael = Michaelus, Michl. M'l. Margaret = Margretta, Margt.
Bridget = Bridida, Brid, Delia, Bt. Eliza = Elizabeth
Anne = Anna, Nan, Nancy


Selected Bibliography

Ardolina, Rosemary Muscarella. What's In A Name? A List of Christian names, and their Irish Nicknames, Variants, Irish & Latin Equivalents. Delia Publications, LLC., 2001.

DeBreffny, Brian. "Christian Names in Ireland." The Irish Ancestor 1:1 (1969) 34-40.

Family History Department. Latin Genealogical Word List. Salt Lake City: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1990.

ffolliott, Rosemary. "Irish Social Customs of Genealogical Importance. "The Irish Ancestor X:1 (1978) 18-23.

__________. "Irish Naming Practices before the Famine." The Irish Ancestor XVIII:1 (1986) 1-4.

Grenham, John. Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, Revised Edition. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1994. (Excellent Catholic parish maps).

Irish Family History Society. Directory of Parish Registers Indexed in Ireland. Naas, Ireland: The Society, 1994.

Leader, Michael. "Irish Parish Registers." The Irish Genealogist 3:2 (1957) 60-63.

MacCaffrey, James. "Inventory of Catholic Parochial Registers in Ireland." Archivum Hibernicum (Irish Historical Records) 3 (1914) 366-406.

Mitchell, Brian. A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1998.

___________. A Guide to Irish Parish Registers. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1995.

National Library of Ireland. "List of Irish Catholic Church Records Filmed in the National Library of Ireland." LDS Family History Library film #0990442, Item 12.

O'Riordain, John J. Irish Catholics: Tradition and Transition. Dublin: Veritas Publications, 1980.

Ryan James G., Ed., 2nd Edition. Irish Church Records. Dublin: Flyleaf Press, 1997.

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