Northern Ireland Genealogy

A Look at Northern Ireland Genealogy – Part II

Editor’s Note: The following is a continuation of our earlier discussion on research related to Northern Ireland genealogy, an adaptation of a post by the late Carolyn L. Barkley. Please read A Look at Northern Ireland Genealogy – Part I to read a brief history of Northern Ireland. Part III will contain resources to help you as you reconstruct your ancestry of Northern Ireland.

Ireland – 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 appropriate records. As much of our research of Northern Ireland genealogy 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. Creating confusion is the fact that townlands do not contain towns and might not even 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 again, 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). This can be quite confusing. Hang in there!

A source that will significantly help you in sorting out these civil divisions is the General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland. If, for example, you look up the townland known as Drumbeecross, you will 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 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 of 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. Information useful in determining extant parish registers is available in Mitchell’s A Guide to Irish Parish Registers. If, for example, you look up the civil parish of Mullaghbrack in County Armagh, you will 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 Northern Ireland genealogy research to warrant at least brief mention:

  • 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.
  • 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 1848-1864) from Genealogical Publishing Company. Another helpful source is James R. Reilly’s Richard Griffith and His Valuations of Ireland.
  • 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.

Image Credit: Ballintoy Harbour, Northern Ireland. Image belongs to and accessed from

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