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How to find Irish wills

Irish ancestry research experts Paul Blake and Maggie Loughran explain how to find Irish wills

Irish wills. A wake in Ireland, 19th century

Why are Irish wills important?

In family history, finding your ancestor’s will has many uses, including confirming their date of death, helping you trace their other relatives, and revealing more about their life and personality. Tracing Irish ancestry is particularly difficult because many crucial records were destroyed when the Public Record Office of Ireland burned down in 1922. Finding your Irish ancestor’s will can therefore be crucial in breaking down a brick wall.

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What records of Irish wills survive?

Before 1857, Irish wills were administered by the courts of the Church of Ireland. The 1857 Probate Act gave responsibility for Irish wills to the state. The right to grant probate and issue letters of administration was assigned to a Principal Registry in Dublin and 11 District Registries.

From 1858 a single calendar of all Irish wills and administrations was compiled annually by the Principal Probate Registry from information sent to it by the District Registries. These have all survived. Officially known as Calendars of Wills and Administrations, the names within each of these annual indexes are arranged in strict alphabetical order by name of the testator. The information includes: the name, address and occupation of the deceased person; the place and date of death; the date and place of grant of probate or administration; the value of the estate; and the name(s) and address(es) of the executors or administrators and their relationship to the deceased if relevant.

After 20 years, the original Irish wills were transferred to the Public Record Office in Dublin. Irish wills from the Principal Registry up to 1904 and from the District Registries up to 1899 were destroyed in the fire. However, copies of Irish wills made by the District Registries survive.

Where are Irish wills kept?

Irish wills records are kept at the National Archives of Ireland (NAI), or the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) for the districts that are now in Northern Ireland.

The surviving Irish will records at NAI are for Ballina from 1865 and Cavan, Cork, Kilkenny, Limerick, Mullingar, Tuam and Waterford from 1858. They can be searched through the Calendars of Wills and Administrations 1858-1920 on NAI’s website, which are also available for free on Ancestry. The Irish will records are also available on Findmypast up to 1901.

You can also search Calendars of Irish wills from 1923-1982 on NAI’s website. NAI also has a useful guide to Irish wills and other testamentary records. This features several links, including how to obtain copies of Irish wills from the archives.

The Inland Revenue in London compiled indexes to the Irish Will and Administration Registers, 1828–1879. These have survived and are at NAI. NAI also holds original Irish wills from before 1992 for the District Registries now within the Irish Republic from 1900, and those for the Principal Registry (Dublin) from 1904, and can supply copies which cost €30.

The Probate Register Online has details of Grants of Representation (ie Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration) which have been issued in the Republic since 1992. Copies of the wills can be obtained from the Probate Office in Dublin or the appropriate District Probate Registry. For Grants before 1992, contact NAI.

Where to find Irish wills for Northern Ireland

Will Books for the District Registries of Armagh, Belfast and Londonderry are held by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, which has helpfully compiled a searchable Will Calendar Database for these registries covering 1858–1968 (excluding 1920–1921). The database includes the facility to view the entire calendar entry for each successful search and digital images of copy Irish wills for Armagh (1858–1918), Belfast (1858–1909) and Londonderry (1858–1899), and is also searchable on Ancestry. Up to 1921, the database includes parts of Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal District Registries that later became within the Irish Republic. The Armagh registry was abolished in 1921. Note that this database of Irish wills does not include any grants issued by the Principal Registry in Dublin before 1922 for testators who resided in Northern Ireland.

In 1922, a new Principal Registry was established in Belfast and the Will Calendar Database includes the six counties of Northern Ireland (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone) for 1922–1965. From September 2015 the Principal Registry in Belfast has managed all of the probate applications in Northern Ireland.

PRONI holds bound annual indexes to all Irish wills and administrations, 1858–2009, which are updated annually, plus a union index, 1858–1877, as well as original wills and letters of administration for Northern Ireland from 1900 to 2004. They have not been digitised.

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Paul Blake and Maggie Loughran are the authors of Discover Your Roots: 52 Brilliant Ideas for Exploring Your Family and Local History