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Genealogical Records :: notes

Genealogy :: the  search for you ancestors
Records of many kinds have been kept in Ireland since the Middle Ages. Unfortunately fire, carelessness and theft have caused the loss and destruction of much of this material.

Many records of the Court of Chancery were lost by fire in 1304. In the mid 1530s, records maintained in Dublin Castle became so subject to pilfering that they were moved to the more secure Bermingham Tower, which then became the main repository of Irish records; unfortunately it burned down in 1758 with the loss of many documents. Other records had already been lost in 1711 when another fire, this time in the Customs House, destroyed books belonging to the Surveyor General.

The creation of the Commission of Public Records in 1810 made provision for the systematic collation and archiving of national records.

The Public Record Office was opened in 1867 and from then until around 1922, the Office was the centre for the collection and cataloguing of national records. Unfortunately, this building suffered devastating damage during the Civil War in 1922 and many records were destroyed, in particular the nineteenth century census returns, Church of Ireland parish records and the enormous collection of original wills. In the years following this loss, great efforts were made to unearth substitutes and many of the gaps can now be filled through the use of secondary material collections – partial transcripts or abstracts, researchers’ notes, census substitutes etc. In 1988, the Public Record Office was amalgamated with the State Paper Office and renamed the National Archives of Ireland. In 1992, it moved from its old home in the grounds of the Four Courts to new custom-bulit premises in Bishop Street

One further factor also needs to be borne in mind by any genealogical researcher. Northern Ireland was established in 1921 and the Irish Free State in 1922. Some of the records concerning the six counties, which were previously held in Dublin, were moved to the North – so a researcher may have to follow such records, although copies of most of the records moved can still be found in Dublin. Some anomalies do still exist, such as the fact that the Census Records covering the six counties for 1911 are still covered by the 100 year rule North of the border but these census records including the six counties are freely available in the South.

Records of births, deaths and marriages from the 20th century

Records of births, deaths and marriages are held in the General Register Office of Ireland. Please see for further information on the records it holds, how to access them and the charges that apply.

In the North of Ireland civil records of births, deaths and marriages are held by the General Register Office of Northern Ireland. Please see for further information on its service.

Books of Survey and Distribution

The Acts of Settlement, passed in 1662, and the Act of Explanation, passed in 1665, made provisions for confiscated lands to be administered by the Court of Claims.

The Decrees of Innocence issued by this court were recorded in abstract form in the Books of Survey and Distribution. These were a record of landowners and their respective estates and were used to impose the Quit Rent, an annual acreable rent paid on land granted under the Acts of Settlement and Explanation.

The information in these books is complemented by the Lodge Transcripts of Records of the Rolls, available in the National Archives. Volumes XI, XII, AND XIII give the names of the new owners, the townland and barony, AND the number of acres and rental imposed on the grantees under the terms of the Act

Local Newspapers

These can be a useful source for birth, marriage and obituary notices, as well as court cases, details of auctions of property etc. Sometimes you may be luck enough to find details of an ancestor’s involved in local organizations or politics. Check with the county library local studies department in each county to see what is available.

Incumbered Estates Records/Landed Estates Court Rentals

Estates in Debt

Due to a fall in rent revenues during the Famine of 1840s many estates went into debt. Emigration and the deaths of large numbers of tenants left landlords without an important source of income. In order to deal with the huge number of foreclosures that resulted, an act was passed in 1849 to facilitate the setting up of the Incumbered Estates Court.

The Work of the Courts

It undertook the sale of bankrupt estates and prepared a detailed account of them, including drawings, rents and tenants, in order to facilitate prospective buyers. From 1850 to 1858, approximately 8,000 estates changed hands, and, in 1858 another court was set up, the Landed Estates Court, to deal with unencumbered as well as incumbered estates.

The Records

These records are an important source for genealogical purposes as they give details of the names of tenants on each estate, their rents and tenure. These people were not usually documented in such detail. The National Archives has more than 75,000 such rentals covering sales of property in the Incumbered and Landed Estates Courts between 1850 and 1885.

Land Survey 1876

This survey, published in 1876, is a record of all landowners in Ireland in possession of one acre and upwards at that time. It was commissioned by the Lord Lieutenant at the suggestion of the Earl of Derby in 1872, and took three and a half years to compile. It lists owners in alphabetical order, giving the amount of land held, its rateable value and the address of the owner as far as could be ascertained. It includes statistics on population and on the number of inhabited dwellings for each county.


Directories are useful in that they provide names and, in some cases, occupations of individuals, e.g. Thom’s Commercial Directory. Others, such as Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary give information on a locality, its markets, towns, churches, arranged on a county and parish basis. Check with the county library local studies department in each county to see what is available.

Alphabetical Index of Townlands

This index is a useful starting point in genealogical research. It is an alphabetical list of townlands giving the barony, civil parish, rural district and electoral division in which each townland is located.

The Civil Survey 1654

The Civil Survey was undertaken by the Cromwellian government in Ireland to secure information on the location and type of confiscated lands and to survey these lands in order to honour agreements entered into with English adventurers who had financed the Cromwellian war in Ireland, and with soldiers who had fought in it with the guarantee of payment in land in lieu of money.

The survey was carried out under the aegis of the Courts of Survey, who in turn delegated the implementation of it to local juries who had extensive knowledge of their own localities.

The survey, initiated in 1654, begins with a detailed account of landowners and their estates, and a valuation of the land, while also recording additional information such as the type of soil and the physical features of a locality.

In total twenty-seven counties were surveyed, including all those in the province of Leinster. Although copies were destroyed in the fire at the Surveyor General’s office in 1711 and the original set was lost in the fire of 1922, parts of it are still extant as copies had been deposited in the Quit Rent office.

Census of 1659

Seamus Pender (ed.), published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission.

This Census includes details of population in several counties. Counties were subdivided into baronies and the statistical information was summarized on a barony basis. Information was entered under the following headings:

  • Parishes,
  • Townlands,
  • Number of People,
  • Tituladoes’ names and
  • Whether English, Scots, or Irish.
  • Tituladoes refers to the principal persons of standing in a particular locality.

Five counties are not covered: Cavan, Galway, Mayo, Tyrone and Wicklow.

Wills 1661–1826

Wills are an important source of genealogical information, containing, in addition to the name of the testators, those of witnesses and executors. They usually also give names of spouse and children and any other party standing to gain from the provisions of the will.

Wills can be examined at the National Archives of Ireland where there is an index based on name to all wills prior to 1857.

From 1858 onwards there is an alphabetically arranged yearly calendar to wills. It includes name, address, occupation and place and date of death of the deceased.

These documents are particularly useful when researching the middle and upper classes. Many original wills were lost in the fire of 1922 but abstracts and copies exist. Sir William Betham extracted genealogical details from almost 37,000 prerogative will up to 1800.

The Commissioners of Inland Revenue have also compiled abstracts of both prerogative and diocesan wills. These are printed in 22 volumes, covering the period 1828–1839, and are available at the National Archives.

Finally, the Irish Manuscripts Commission has published two volumes of will abstracts, taken from originals in the Registry of Deeds and edited by P. Beryl Eustace

Hearth Money Rolls 1662

Introduced in 1662, when, under the Hearth Money Act of that year, a tax of two shillings was imposed on each hearth, i.e. fireplace. The rolls contain the names of householders, arranged by county and subdivided by parish and townland. None of the originals survive but copies exist for some counties.

Religious Census 1766

In 1766 Parliament undertook a census to determine the religious affiliations of the population. This census was carried out by the clergy and contains information under the following headings:

  • Head of household
  • religion
  • number of children

It is useful for genealogical research though it is not a comprehensive record of all the population as those not eligible for payment of tithes were excluded. Original copies of this census were destroyed in the fire at the Public Record Office in 1922 but partial transcripts had been made by Tenison Groves AND these are now housed in the National Archives.

The Landowners of Ireland, by V. H. Hussey de Burgh

This is an alphabetical list of owners of estates of 500 acres and upwards, with a minimum valuation of £500.

It also includes acreage and valuation of such estates, and gives details of the education and official appointments of the owners. Town and country addresses and membership of clubs are also given.

This list provides a valuable companion to Griffith’s Valuation as it gives details of land ownership between the completion of Griffith’s Valuation and the redistribution of land under the Land Acts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Estate Records

Estate papers contain several different types of records;

  • records of rentals, i.e. accounts of rent paid by tenants on an estate
  • maps
  • deeds
  • assorted legal documents
  • letters and diaries
  • land agents’ letters and notebooks

The National Archives has a small collection of estate papers, while the National Library has a larger collection, many of which are listed in Hayes’ Manuscripts Sources for the History of Irish Civilization, which also refers to papers retained in private collections. Some county libraries would have estate records and maps. The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland also has some holdings.

The Down Survey 1654

This survey, carried out by Sir William Petty, is important in that the land was measured by trained surveyors and the results were reproduced in map form.

It provides a mapped record of confiscated lands after the Cromwellian war. The divisions used in the survey were the barony, parish and townland, and it is useful in determining land ownership for the period.

The survey was practically destroyed by fire in 1711 and the remainder in the fire of 1922. However, copies survive under the following classifications:

Copies of parish maps made in 1787 by the Hon. R. Rochfort, Surveyor-General, which are now included in the Reeves Collection in the National Library

A series of barony maps, entitled “Hibernia Regnum”, compiled from the Down Survey parish maps

The Quit Rent Office maps and tracings.

Registry of Deeds

The Registry of Deeds was established under an Act of Parliament in 1708. It holds the following types of deeds;

  • conveyances of freehold property
  • assignment of leases
  • mortgages
  • marriage settlements
  • wills

The passing of an act in 1832 sought to limit registration to deeds affecting land only.

The Registry of Deeds is located in the King’s Inns, Henrietta St., Dublin, and holds records from 1708 onwards.

The Land Commission

The Land League, formed in 1879, sought to ensure fair rents and security of tenure for Irish tenants. As pressure for land reform grew, a number of Land Acts were passed, including the Ashbourne and Wyndham acts.

The Land Commission, set up in 1881, was to oversee the sale and transfer of land.

The records of the Land Commission are not freely available, but a catalogue to documents, arranged on a barony basis by estate, is available in the National Library.

Crime and Outrage

The Chief Secretary’s Office, in the State Paper Office, Dublin Castle, contained a large and varied collection of records relating to the upholding of law and order in nineteenth century Ireland, and these are now housed in the National Archives, Bishop St.

The history of political and agrarian unrest and crime is contained in three separate collections:

  • The Rebellion Papers, 1796-1807
  • The State of the Country Papers, 1790-1831
  • The Outrage Papers, 1832-1852

In addition there are the following: Prisoners’ Petitions, 1777-1836; appeals from convicted criminals for pardons or a reduction in their sentence.

Of particular importance for genealogy are the Transportation Registers, 1836-1857, which list persons under sentence of transportation, along with the crimes of which they were convicted and the length of their sentence.

After 1852, records relating to crime and outrage were amalgamated with the general series of Registered Papers kept by the Chief Secretary’s Office.

Other collections of interest include:

  • The Fenian Papers, 1857-83
  • The Irish Land League and National League Papers, 1887-1917
  • The papers of the Crime Branch Special, 1887-1917

Original information published on rootsirelands website

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