A Look at Northern Ireland Research

By Carolyn L. Barkley

I have to admit that I find Irish research more difficult than other immigrant-related genealogy. It is not enough to know the unique record categories of Irish genealogy – Title Applotments, Griffith’s Valuation, and the Spinning Wheel Premium Bounty List–to name only a few. Instead, to do Irish research well requires an understanding of its history and jurisdictions as well as its records. This week’s article takes a brief look at the history of the Northern Ireland and at the various jurisdictional divisions effecting Irish records, considers a few of the more unique record types, and introduces two new publications from the Clearfield Company.

A brief look at the historical perspective. Ireland’s history is characterized by invasion: the earliest arrivals in 6500 B.C., the Danes and the Vikings in the eighth and ninth centuries, the Normans in the twelfth century, and the mid-sixteenth century “reconquest” begun by England’s Henry VIII. As might be expected, these invasions ran into severe resistance and the subsequent uprisings seem continual. In Ulster, the O’Neills and the O’Donnells fought back unsuccessfully during the Nine Years War (1594-1603), resulting in the “flight of the Earls” in 1607. Their defeat opened the door for the settlement of English and Scottish families in the northern counties. Further rebellion occurred in 1641, but was finally extinguished in 1649 following Cromwell’s victory in the English Civil War. Much of the land was then removed from the indigenous Catholic ownership and redistributed to individuals in favor with the new government in London. Following the return of the Stuarts to the throne, James II invited many settlers into Ireland, particularly Protestants, in an attempt to stifle rebellion and to gain firmer control over the island.  When James was himself defeated in Ireland by William of Orange in 1690, the resulting rent increases, wide-spread emigration of Catholics, and imposition of the Penal Laws not only restricted Catholic rights, but often applied to Presbyterians as well, prompting their emigration to North American and Canada. Despite the peaceful beauty of the countryside, Ireland was not a comfortable place to live during these several centuries of conflict. Such upheaval did not end there, however.

While all of Ireland fell under the United Kingdom of Great Britain beginning as early as 1171 when the Irish kings submitted to Henry II, major “risings” occurred around the time of World War I,  resulting in twenty-six counties choosing independence and eventually becoming the Republic of Ireland in 1921. Six counties, however, – Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Derry, and Tyrone, chose to remain within the United Kingdom and became known as “Northern Ireland.” Modern history attests to the fact that struggle, often violent, remains a part of life in Northern Ireland. Sectarian feelings remain strong and a fragile co-existence has only been achieved within the past decade.

A brief look at civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions. Records are usually created in response to a particular historical, political, religious or socioeconomic event or trend. In considering Irish records, it is important to understand the several types of boundaries within which individuals lived in order to locate the appropriate records. As most of our research probably falls into the pre-1921 era, the following information applies to all counties.

First, there are civil jurisdictions. Beginning with the smallest civil division, an individual fell within the jurisdiction of a townland, a rather amorphous entity varying in size from ten to several thousand acres. Townlands do not contain towns and might not contain any inhabitants, but are part of the address of many individuals, particularly those in rural areas. There are approximately 64,000 townlands. They are normally organized into civil parishes, which can contain as many as twenty-five to thirty townlands as well as actual towns and villages. There are approximately 2,500 civil parishes. The next type of jurisdiction, baronies, are groups of civil parishes. However, just to complicate things, barony boundaries may not always conform to the boundaries of the civil parishes they contain. There are 273 baronies. The Irish county is the most constant type of organization.  There are thirty-two counties and they are, in turn, organized into provinces (Connaught, Leinster, Munster, and Ulster). Should the progression of townland, civil parish, barony, county, province not be enough for you to master, there are also cities, towns, boroughs, poor law unions (established in 1838 and named after a local large town), and general registrar districts (areas within which birth, marriage, and death records are collected, but which do not match county boundaries). Confused? I’m not surprised.

A source that will significantly help you in sorting out these civil divisions is General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2006). If, for example, I look up the townland known as Drumbeecross, I find that it is situated in County Armagh, the Barony of Fews Lower, the Parish of Mullaghbrack, and the Poor Law Union (in 1857) of Armagh. The Index to the Townlands also provides a citation to the townland census of 1851 and the number of the sheet on which Drumbeecross appears in the Ordnance Survey Maps.

To further compound the records complexity, there are ecclesiastical divisions, including church parishes, presided over by a priest or minister. Church of Ireland (Protestant) parishes usually encompass the same area as the civil parish, but Catholic parishes do not. Parishes are grouped into dioceses, presided over by a bishop. These dioceses again do not conform to county boundaries, nor do Church or Ireland parishes encompass the same localities as Catholic parishes.

Finally, there are General Registrar’s Districts, usually named for a large town falling within their boundaries, which are responsible for the civil registration of birth, marriage and death records that are not maintained on a county basis. More complications: Centralized registration for the Church of Ireland began in 1845, but universal civil registration did not occur until 1864.

Maps of ecclesiastical divisions can be found in the second edition of Brian Mitchell’s New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008). Information useful in determining extant parish registers is available in Mitchell’s A Guide to Irish Parish Registers (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009). If, for example, I look up the civil parish of Mullaghbrack in County Armagh, I find that its Church of Ireland parish of the same name was established in 1787, that its Roman Catholic parishes are Ballymore and Mullaghbrack, and that its Presbyterian parishes included Markethill, Drumminis, and Redrock, with some mergers throughout the years. In addition, there was a Methodist Parish of Markethill, established in 1830.

A brief look at uniquely Irish records. Space does not allow an in-depth discussion of Irish record types. A few, however, are important enough to warrant at least brief mention here.

  • Tithe Applotment Survey. The Church of Ireland became the established church in 1867. Tithes were levied to provide for the maintenance of the Church. Valuations, conducted between 1823 and 1837, determined the tithe payable by each landowner. This list is not comprehensive as only certain types of land were taxable and urban residents were not included. Tithe Applotment Survey information for the six counties of modern-day Northern Ireland is available on a CD entitled Tithe Applotment Books, 1823-1838 from the Genealogical Publishing Company.
  • Griffith’s Valuation Survey. All lands in Ireland were surveyed between 1848 and 1864 in order to establish the levy rate for local taxes payable by each land or leaseholder. This survey lists each landholder or householder and provides the name of the townland, a description of the property, the name of the landlord, and the annual valuation. An index of the names in the Title Applotment and Griffith’s Valuation Surveys is available on microfilm from the National Library of Ireland as well as on CD (An Index to Griffith’s Valuation) from Genealogical Publishing Company. Another helpful source is James R. Reilly’s Richard Griffith and His Valuations of Ireland (Clearfield Company, 2008).
  • Spinning Wheel Premium Bounty List. This list, sometimes referred to as the Flax Growers List, was published in 1796 by the Irish Linen Board and includes the names of almost 60,000 individuals who received awards for planting a specified acreage of flax. The information includes the name of the grower, the civil parish and county where the flax was grown.
  • Rate Books. The Poor Law Relief Act was enacted in 1838. Under this welfare law, landholders were required to contribute to programs to help the poor in their area. As if there were not already enough jurisdictions, new divisions called Poor Law Unions were established in order to collect and distribute the contributions, known as rates. The Rate Books list payers by area, holding and valuation.

Two new resources will add to your understanding of Irish records and enhance your research into Northern Ireland families.

  • Brian Mitchell’s The Surnames of North West Ireland (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2010) provides “concise histories of the major surnames of Gaelic and planter origin.” North West Ireland encompasses the counties of Derry, Donegal and Tyrone. This region is of significant importance in tracing Irish ancestral origins as not only was it the last Gaelic stronghold, but it was also the location to which many settlers from England and Scotland came during the “planting” of Ulster in the seventeenth century. A significant number of these settlers later emigrated to the United States and Canada, as well as to Australia. Mitchell’s work includes 324 single-page histories of surnames (including variant spellings) that were either native to North West Ireland or became prominent there as settlers arrived. In content, it is similar to Black’s Surnames of Scotland, and researchers into Scottish families will find many familiar names throughout the book. For example, Graham is a name quite prominent in Scottish history. Surnames of North West Ireland notes that it is “among the twenty most numerous names in Ulster, and in Counties Down and Fermanagh, it is among the ten most common names.” The Graham entry continues with information about its ultimate derivation from Grantham in Linconlnshire, and various and important personages and historical events associated with the surname. Another entry, for the surname Hamill, notes that this name is most common in Ulster, particularly in Counties Antrim and Armagh, and traces its lineage back to Eogan, son of the fifth century High King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages. If you are unsure where your ancestor came from in Ireland, this book may prove useful in highlighting counties in which the surname is most prominent, thus providing some direction for a preliminary search.
  • Defenders of the Plantation of Ulster, 1641-1691, also by Brian Mitchell (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2010), helps mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of Ulster. (The Province of Ulster includes the counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone in Northern Ireland, and the counties of Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland.) This book includes the names of about 2,500 planters who participated in the defense and security of the Plantation of Ulster during the 1641 rebellion and the William of Orange/James II war of 1688-1691. It includes the “Muster Roll of the Garrison of Londonderry during the Rebellion of 1642-1643” and “Defenders of Ireland during the Williamite War of 1689-1691.”

The first list identifies 905 men in nine companies of foot who defended the walls of Derry. These combatants, who were drawn from the estates throughout County Londonderry and its neighboring counties, provides surname, given name, rank, and foot company. For example, James Nixon, soldier, served in Sir Thomas Staples’ Foot Company; John More was a drummer in John Kilner’s Foot Company. Such information offers an opportunity to continue research in military records if extant.

The second list provides the names of Ulstermen who defended Londonderry against the Jacobite opposition to William of Orange. The list identifies major planter families in the province of Ulster and identifies their connection to the original planters from England, Wales, and Scotland. The roster also denotes an ID number taken from William R. Young’s Fighters of Derry – Their Deeds and Descendants, 1688-1691 (a major source  for Mitchell’s work), surname, first name, residence and remarks. These remarks may contain information about planter origins in England, Wales or Scotland, as well as references to next-of-kin, military campaigns, and emigration. For example, John Blackwood of Bangor, County Down, was the son of John Blackwood; married Ursula, daughter of Robert Hamilton of Killyleagh Castle; and his descendants were the Viscounts of Clandeboye and the Earls and Marquesses of Dufferin and Ava. Rev. Thomas Boyd was the Presbyterian minister of Aghadowey. George Buchanan of Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, was the first of the family in Ireland, settling at Omagh in 1674. He descended from the Buchanans of Carbeth, Scotland. By using the Young ID numbers provided for each entry, additional information may be found in Fighters of Derry.

Other titles useful for Irish research, particularly in Northern Ireland, include:

  • A Short History of Ulster by Sean McMahon (Mercier Press, 2000).
  • The Surnames of Derry by Brian Mitchell (Genealogy Centre, Derry, 1992).
  • Irish Records: Sources for Family & Local History by James G. Ryan (Ancestry, 1988).

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