All you need to know about Irish civil records
Genealogist Nicola Morris of Timeline Research shares her expert tips on how to find Irish birth, marriage and death records
Only a few collections of Irish ancestry records are entirely intact and were not affected by the devastating fire at the Public Record Office in Dublin in 1922 during the Civil War. By far the most important of these are the civil registrations of births, marriages and deaths.
Free access means that a search for an event under a common name, such as the birth of ‘Michael Byrne’ in Dublin between 1882 and 1886, of which there are about 61 entries in the index, might take an hour or so to click through and review each record, but will save you the €244 (about £220) it would cost to purchase 61 hard copies from the GRO.
Although the database at IrishGenealogy does take into account some variant spellings of a surname, it is not as broad as the search engine on FamilySearch’s site. So if you cannot find the record that you are seeking at IrishGenealogy, search the index at FamilySearch to pick up the variant spellings then return to IrishGenealogy for a copy of the original registration.
When did civil registration start in Ireland?
There are two key dates for the commencement of civil registration in Ireland. In April 1845 the registration of non-Catholic marriages, including marriages in registry offices, started. Since the majority of Irish people belonged to the Roman Catholic church, this collection represents only a small portion of the population, although it can include Catholics who married outside of their faith. Civil registration proper began in 1864 when it became compulsory to register all births, marriages and deaths, irrespective of the religious denomination.
Civil registration districts in Ireland
In order to search Irish civil records, it is important to be familiar with the districts in which your ancestor’s birth, marriage or death might have been registered. At the start of civil registration in Ireland, the country was organised into Superintendent Registrar’s Districts (SRDs), which had exactly the same boundaries as the Poor Law unions established in the 1830s to administer poor relief. Some SRDs, like Cork and Limerick, share the same name as the county in which they are found, but only represent part of the county. Most counties have at least four or five SRDs, many of which cross county borders such as Roscrea, which covers parts of Tipperary and Offaly (King’s County).
Claire Santry has helpfully listed the SRDs for each county, along with a map, on Irish Genealogy Toolkit. The Enumerator’s Abstract for the 1901 and 1911 census, which you will find on the National Archives of Ireland website, will also list the union in which your ancestor’s townland address is located.
Within each SRD were local Registrar’s Districts, which were usually connected with the local medical dispensary. A birth, marriage or death was reported to the local registrar, often the dispensary doctor, who created the original record of registration. The local dispensary registers were gathered by the SRD and then sent to the General Register Office (GRO) in Dublin where they were copied, although not always accurately or completely, before being returned. The Irish civil records that are available to researchers today are the Dublin copies of the original registers.
The records of civil registration for Ireland cover the entire island from 1864 (or 1845) up until partition in 1922, when births, marriages and deaths for Northern Ireland were registered separately with the General Register Office of Northern Ireland (GRONI).
Why can't I find an Irish birth record?
There are a number of reasons why you may not be able to find an Irish birth, marriage or death record. Although civil registration in Ireland was compulsory and the entire record collection survives, there were births, marriages and deaths that went unregistered. For example, it was not uncommon for a family to fail to notify the dispensary doctor of a birth or death. When a child was born, the priority for most Roman Catholic families was to have the child baptised quickly. Registering the birth with the civil authorities was sometimes a secondary concern, and in remote rural areas the journey to the registrar or dispensary may have been long and arduous, and thus avoided.
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Other anomalies or omissions also occur in the records. For example, parents were fined if they registered a birth later than three months. Some parents avoided the fine by altering the child’s date of birth so that it fell within the previous three months. You might find the baptism of a child in March but a registration for the same child with a date of birth in August. The date of birth on the civil record was probably altered, and the baptism record will offer a more accurate date of birth.
Children born in hospitals or institutions were sometimes registered immediately by the staff, but without a first name. If you cannot find your ancestor under their first name, particularly in urban areas with maternity hospitals, try searching for unnamed, unknown male or female children under the family surname.
Why can't I find an Irish marriage record?
It was the responsibility of the parish priest or minister to register marriages, and some marriages were not registered. However, if a civil marriage record cannot be found then there should still be a church record.
The second marriage of a widow might be registered under her maiden name or first married name, or both.
Irish civil registration index books
When the records of civil registration were copied in Dublin they were indexed. There was a national index for births (red books), marriages (green books) and deaths (black books), created each year from 1864 (1845 for non-Catholic marriages) up to 1994 when the system was computerised.
The index books are arranged alphabetically by surname and then first name, and record the registration district, the volume and page of the register where the event was recorded, and, after 1877, the quarter: January–March, April–June, July–September or October–December.
If you find an event in the indexes, make a note of these details or the more recently introduced Group ID number. The index books are available for research in the GRO’s research room on Werburgh Street in Dublin.
There are also two distinct online indexes for Irish civil registration records. The indexes for all Ireland up to 1922 and for the Republic of Ireland up to 1958 have been transcribed by volunteers at the free website FamilySearch, and can be found there in the collection ‘Ireland Civil Registration Indexes, 1845–1958’.
This index, along with its errors and omissions, has also been copied at Findmypast and Ancestry. However, the search engine on FamilySearch usually picks up a wide range of first and surname variants, making it a useful source for obtaining the broadest range of results. These are index references only – always get a copy of the original registration from the GRO or via IrishGenealogy.
What information is included on Irish civil records?
Birth registrations recorded the date and place of birth; the name of the child and its parents; the father’s occupation; and the name of the informant, who can sometimes be a grandmother, aunt or other relative of the child.
Marriage registrations include the names of the bride and groom, their ages (often just written as 'Full' or 'Of full age' meaning over 21), their condition (i.e. bachelor, spinster, widow or widower), occupation (the bride's occupation is often not included), address at time of marriage (this may just be a village or parish), details of the fathers of the bride and groom, plus the church in which the marriage took place as well as witnesses.
Death registrations will provide the age, occupation, marital status and address of the deceased, and the informant will sometimes be a family member. If you are looking for a death record, especially of a more prosperous family member, it is worth also checking to see if they left a will.
The Irish Family History Centre has a useful guide on its website to Irish civil records.