How to use Irish civil registration indices

If you use Ancestry.com to research your Irish ancestors, you’ve probably encountered civil registration records that list three-month or one-year time-spans for an event such as birth, marriage or death. Believe or not, that date doesn’t show when your ancestor was born, married or died.

For example, I found an Irish Civil Registration Births Index record for Sabina Gallagher, which noted show was born in April, May or June of 1884, but she was actually born on 4 March 1884. The thing I skipped over when I first encountered this source is the data label “Date of Registration.” Believe it or not, that date is when Sabina’s birth was registered with the state, not when she was born.

So why did it take so long for her birth to get registered?

In 1864, England passed a law requiring that all births, marriages and deaths be reported to a local registrar, typically for the local Poor Law Union—a geographic division within Ireland. If the event wasn’t registered, you would be fined.

Put yourself back in 1865: you’re a poor Irish farmer, subsisting off a tiny parcel of land in a rural townland when your wife gives birth to a baby. Assuming you even know about the new law—which you probably don’t, because news is spread only through word of mouth—the Poor Law Union register is ten miles away by a dirt road. It’s a day’s journey roundtrip when the roads are dry, but spring rains have turned that road into mud a foot deep. You’re busy planting crops for the next few weeks, so you put it off. Then maybe you get sick and put off the trip again. It might be months before you make the journey to register the birth of your child.
Or maybe you’re a midwife in 1880 who delivers a dozen or more babies a month, and you make the trip once a month, rather than every time a baby was born.

On top of that, you’re Roman Catholic, and you’ve been treated little better than a serf for hundreds of years, so you really don’t want to cooperate with the English anyway. Maybe you delay reporting it for as long as you can without risking the fine.
Back to you and me and today. So… what do you do with the index? If you haven’t watched my first video on Irish Catholic genealogy, you have to assume that there are multiple people with the same name, and if you’re trying to match your ancestor’s birth date recorded on a U.S. document with an Irish document, the index isn’t going to cut it. You have to see the full document.
Now, just a few years ago, this meant filling out a form and mailing it in to the General Register’s Office in County Roscommon. Sometimes the folks at the GRO would catch your mistakes. There were two Sabina Gallaghers born in County Mayo in 1884. I ordered the wrong one, but the GRO noted my error and sent me the right one. But generally, you pay for your mistakes, receiving documents you don’t want.

Now, if you’re looking for records from the Republic of Ireland, it’s all digitized at irishgenealogy.ie.

If you’re looking for Northern Ireland, though, you still need to order the originals.

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