Civil Records of Births, Deaths and Marriages

Compulsory civil or state registration of all births, deaths and marriages began in Ireland on 1st January 1864. Non-Catholic marriages, including Protestant and Jewish marriages as well as those conducted in a government registry office, were required in law to be registered from the 1st April 1845.

In overall charge of registration was the Registrar-General in Dublin. In the early days of registration, when only non-Catholic marriages were registered, the organisation of the service at local level was based on the Poor Law Unions set up under the Poor Law (Ireland) Act of 1838.  These unions formed the registration districts (for Protestant and civil marriages) with the Clerk of the Union usually the registrar.

After the compulsory registration of all births, deaths and marriages from 1864 the Poor Law Union became the Superintendent Registrar's District responsible for the collation of all marriages, births and deaths registered at the Local Registrars' Districts within the Union. The Local Registrars' Districts corresponded to the Dispensary Districts that had been created as a result of the 1851 Medical Charities Act - see Map of North Antrim and Map of Co. Londonderry.

Each Poor Law Union had about six Dispensary Districts, each in the charge of a Medical Officer. In most cases [but not all] the Medical Officer took on the job of the registrar as well. Instructions were issued regarding the persons required to register births, deaths and marriages and the information they were required to supply. Although local registrars were responsible for the registers themselves, the legal obligation to register births, deaths and marriages actually rested with the public. Births were normally registered by the father or mother or a nurse or someone present at the birth. Deaths could be registered by a husband or wife, father or mother, brother or sister, son or daughter or anyone present at the death. Whilst the responsibility for the registration of a marriage rested with the parties marrying, marriages were usually registered as a result of the churches forwarding books containing certificates that had been signed and witnessed at the marriage ceremony. This was a practice well established for Protestant marriages since 1845. I think that the registration of Catholic marriages was somewhat different.

There was a continuing need to design a procedure to ensure that all births and deaths were recorded accurately and in a timely manner. Some people remained unregistered due to the failure of their parents to register them at birth and others who nominally complied with the law made incorrect entries. Fines for late registration of a birth, etc. were often counter-productive. Much of the work necessary to ensure more complete coverage was completed during the period 1879-1900 when Thomas Grimshaw was Registrar-General. A number of acts were passed during this period which tightened up the system and ensured that fewer people went unregistered. The date c.1880 is significant because you will often find that in the decades before 1880 the percentage of non-registered events is much higher than in the years after it. This is particularly the case with births. If you want to read more about the history of civil registration in Ireland - click here for a pdf file on the HISTORY OF REGISTRATION IN IRELAND..


The entries in the marriage registers normally give fuller information than birth and death entries, and are the most useful of civil records. Information on the individuals getting married includes their name, age, status, and occupation. The names and occupations of their fathers are also given. The church, the officiating minister and the witnesses to the ceremony are named. In most cases the exact age of the parties is not given, and the entry will simply read ‘full age’ (i.e. over 21) or ‘minor’ (i.e. under 21). If the father of one of the parties was no longer living, this may be indicated in the marriage certificate, but in many cases it is not.

Below is a copy of the marriage certificate of my great grandfather. This is a certified copy which I obtained in 2010 from the GRO in Belfast. To obtain this copy I had to supply them with the names of the bride and groom; the year when the marriage took place; and where the marriage took place - i.e. the name of church. I had already obtained all of this information from online searches of indexes.

The copy of William and Elizabeth's marriage that appears in the Marriage Register of St. James' Church in Ballymoney is exactly the same as the one above. Below is a copy of the civil marriage of John O'Kane and Bridget O'Connell which I obtained from GROI, Dublin. It is more or less the same as the one above. The only noticeable difference between the two photocopies is the "Marriage solemnized" ........ in the County of --------- part at the top of each copy. John and Bridget were married in St. Columba's, Roman Catholic Church, Ballerin [Boleran], near Ringsend. The entry in the Church Marriage Register is very different from this entry in the Civil Marriage Register. It simply states [content to follow].

The entries in the birth registers record the date and place of birth of the child. Normally the name of the child is also given, but in some cases only the sex is given, i.e. the child had not been given a name by the time the birth was registered. The name and residence of the father is given. Usually this will be the same as the place of birth of the child, but in some cases it will show that the father was working abroad or in another part of Ireland when the child was born. The father’s occupation is also given. The mother’s maiden name is provided as well as her first name. Finally, the name and address of the informant is given, together with his or her qualification to sign. This will usually be the father or mother or someone present at the birth, such as a midwife or even the child’s grandmother. Below is a copy of the birth certificate of John Pollock who was one of the sons of Robert Pollock of Moyletra Toy near Garvagh who is the subject of one of the case studies of families. As you can see at the time of John's birth Robert was living in the townland of Killyvalley which is much closer to the town of Garvagh. This copy was obtained from the GROI at Abbey Street in Dublin.

The entries in the death registers in Ireland are rather uninformative. The name of the deceased is given together with the date, place and cause of death, marital status, the age at death, and occupation. The name and address of the informant is also given. Usually this is the person present at the time of the death; this may be a close family member. Note that the place given for the death may not be the same as the graveyard in which the person was buried. Below is a copy of the death certificate for Robert Pollock who lived in Moyletra Toy, near Garvagh and is the subject of one of the case studies of families.



There are links to both of these sites on my Birth, Deaths & Marriages webpage. Simply follow the current procedures online.

Copyright 2016 W. Macafee.