Susan Hood – Representative Church Body Library records

Records for Genealogical Research at the Representative Church Body Library, Dublin

Dr Susan Hood

Representative Church Body

Summer Lunchtime Lecture Series

National Library of Ireland, 13th August 2012

View the slideshow

1.            Overview of collections relevant to genealogical research

[SLIDE 1] The Representative Church Body (RCB) Library in Braemor Park, Churchtown, Dublin, is the Church of Ireland’s archival repository, where a substantial quantity of the Church’s written heritage is preserved and made available to the public. The RCB is the charitable trust that manages the Church of Ireland that has been in existence since the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1870. The Library was originally situated at the RCB headquarters in Stephen’s Green, but after the creation of the Church of Ireland Theological College (now Institute) in 1968, it moved to the College grounds in Churchtown to facilitate the study needs of ordinands – students in training for the ministry.

Any doubt of the vital importance of Church of Ireland records should be dispelled by the impact of US President Barack Obama’s visit to Ireland last year – [SLIDE 2] a visit underpinned by the survival and accessibility of Church of Ireland parish records which proved his Irish ancestry. A similar experience is available to millions of others who may have had roots in Ireland and some connection with the Church of Ireland.

[SLIDE 3] Genealogically speaking, the most important of these are the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials from different parishes, and collections of archive and printed materials relating to people and the places where they lived.

Some 1027 collections of records from churches, chapels of ease and chaplaincies (predominately but not exclusively from the Republic of Ireland) have now been transferred from the parishes where they were created to safe custody of the Library.

As the Church ‘by law established’, the official church of the state from the Reformation until 1870, the Church of Ireland has the oldest and most extensive collection of parish registers on the island. The earliest extant of these is the combined register of baptisms, marriages and burials for the parish of St John’s Dublin, dating from 1619. [SLIDE 4] Registers of baptisms, marriages and burials survive for a further 637 parishes throughout the country.  In addition, although registers from some 1,006 parishes were destroyed during the fire at the PRO in 1922, much more of the information from these records has survived in copy form than is generally supposed.

By arrangement with the National Archives of Ireland, the RCB Library has, on behalf of the state, become the place of deposit for all pre-1870 baptisms and burials, and all pre-1845 marriages. Because many of these records are not readily available in any other format other than the originals the RCB Library is the first place of resort for ancestry research – not just about members of the Church of Ireland, but hundreds of thousands, if not millions of other Irish citizens who were married or were buried in churches and burial grounds throughout the country.

Among these entries are records of the lives of those who would become [SLIDE 5] famous – Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wilde, whose wealthy and educated parents lived on Westland Row, and attended St Mark’s parish church on Pearce Street Dublin – where they baptised their son in 1854, and by contrast John Casey, alias Sean O’Casey who grew up in the poverty of tenement Dublin in the parish of St Mary, where his Church of Ireland parents had him baptised in July 1880. In addition to the famous, millions of other Irish citizens are also documented.

[SLIDE 6] Early Church of Ireland burial records provide information about the death and burial of many more people than just members of the Church of Ireland because before 1870 Church of Ireland burial grounds serviced all living within the boundaries of a particular parish. Sometimes these sources provide amazing detail such as the cause of death, as in this example from St Werbugh’s parish, Dublin.

A variety of other church records provide additional information about people too. In particular, the records of the vestries – the committees responsible for the upkeep of churches and welfare of all the people within the parish boundaries irrespective of religion, provide a bounty of detail of who lived where and how they might have lived their lives.

Provision of poor relief, street cleaning, public light, local security in the form of the parish watch, as well as fire protection, was all financed by a parish cess levied on a house by house and street by street basis.  In the next example, [SLIDE 7] the monies levied for poor relief from householders on a street-by-street basis in the parish of St Werburgh, Dublin, in 1641 are shown – listing the householders in Skinner Row and Castle Street south and their payments. This next example shows a typical entry from a parish watch register in the parish of St John’s Dublin [SLIDE 8] – this gives the watch schedule for the night of the 5th March 1767. The hour of the watch, the names of the watchmen on duty and where they were stationed – at the top John MacDonnell on Winetavern Street, John Richey at the Church – St John’s lane off Fishamble Street. The text below the table gives a brief summary of the night’s activities. I’ll say a little more about an initiative to digitize this particular collection of watch books later on.

In addition to the archives of the parishes, almost 1000 collections of ecclesiastical manuscripts relating to individual members of the clergy and laity of the Church are also available in the RCB Library.

[SLIDE 9] The clerical succession lists in both manuscript and printed formats represent the largest body of information on Church of Ireland clergy available anywhere in the world, and the richness of data – including the career and family details of thousands of individuals have facilitated many families to re-connect with their clerical ancestors.

The early work on compiling the clerical succession lists was initiated by the Revd William Reynell, 1836-1906 [SLIDE 10] who served much of his career in Derry diocese before coming to St Michan’s in Dublin (near the PRO) in 1878, where he devoted much time to extracting genealogical information from parish registers (many of them later destroyed) and sharing it with his clerical colleagues.

Reynell’s pioneering role in sourcing clerical information was continued by other notable clergy including Canon James B. Leslie, [SLIDE 11] who served most of his clerical career as rector of Kilsaran, county Louth between 1899 and retirement in 1951 – just a year before his death.  The relatively light-duty parish in rural Louth freed up much of Leslie’s time to pursue his passion for genealogy, and he appears to have spent much of his time in Dublin at the Public Records Office from that time onwards collating information from parish registers.

Another pioneer was the Very Revd Henry Swanzy, Dean of Dromore, [SLIDE 12] who shared Leslie’s passion for history and genealogy and was proactive in sourcing copies of materials otherwise lost in 1922.

As a result of the work of the Ecclesiastical Records Committee and in particular the work of Leslie and Swanzy – who were also influential in the establishment of the Church’s Library – other sources, such as copy typescripts of materials were obtained and made safe in the RCB Library from 1931 onwards.

An array of manuscripts relating to educational, charitable and philanthropic, medical, orphan and missionary outreach carried out under the auspices of the Church of Ireland are also to be found in the RCB Library. Many contain important personal information [SLIDE 13] For example, the Charitable Musical Society records document the money loaned to indigent and industrious tradesmen, who they were, where they lived and the work they carried out to pay back their loans.

Whilst normally our records are subject to 40-year closure rule, we are careful to control access of information relating to living people, and for some charitable and educational materials such as school registers, longer closure rules apply to protect personal information about living people.

The considerable and wide-ranging archival and manuscript material in the Library is complimented by a substantial collection of printed material, [SLIDE 14] including a large quantity of local parish histories and related literature,  much of which was printed locally and not available in larger research libraries. Again, all of this material is relevant to people and places throughout the island.

The Church of Ireland Gazette is the longest-running Church of Ireland serial, [SLIDE 15] printed weekly since 1856, and has an amazing range of personal and social information. We hold a complete bound set, while our in-house index – not available anywhere else – makes the rich detail in this newspaper accessible.

2. I’ll now say a little about the provision of Genealogical Services at the RCB Library…

All of these Church of Ireland records are available to all bona fide researchers in the library’s reading rooms, [SLIDE 16] open Monday to Friday throughout the year, 9.30-1.00 and 2.00-5.00pm. In addition, the library stays open on approximately ten Friday evenings throughout the year to accommodate visiting researchers.

Most archival orders are delivered by one of our 3.5 staff members in under five minutes of arrival by a member of the public to the Library. This service is all provided free, at the expense of the Church of Ireland. The library receives no state funding, apart from a few small government-sponsored grants for specific publication projects.

We emphasise to the public that we don’t have the resources to undertake genealogical research, but staff are always available to guide and direct members of the public [SLIDE 17] who can, and do, absorb a great deal of time on a daily basis.

We are trying to reduce this time and expertise expended on “genie”-demands by:

  • Encouraging people to come and visit to conduct their own research and to prepare in advance by using the increasing range of material including catalogue lists on our website [SLIDE 18]
  • We have had a publications programme in place for over a decade, editing and indexing a register or vestry minute book every year and producing in printed format, thereby making the contents of specific records widely accessible and reducing the need to refer to the originals. [SLIDE 19]
  • We have positively and proactively engaged with the Department in the first stage of digitizing parish registers for the website. – to date the city parishes in Dublin city, Carlow and Kerry registers available in the RCB Library have all been digitized, and the project launched in 2010 in St Werburgh’s Church, Dublin. [SLIDE 20].
  • This year we have also started a new initiative called Archive of the Month which aims to showcase some of the Library’s collections by digitizing them and making them available online on the Church of Ireland website. Some of the materials featured have been genealogically-relevant. [SLIDE 21]In April, for example, we featured the complete set of watch books available from the parish of St John’s in Dublin– the watch being the forerunner of the modern police and the material providing the earliest archival evidence of this system of local security available anywhere in Ireland. In a collaborative project with An Garda Síochána some nine volumes– two account books 1724–85 and seven registers 1765–80 were digitized and made freely available on website. The impact of this was tangible – on one day we had more hits on the Church of Ireland website than it would normally get in a month, such was the response of the genealogical fraternity to the publicity about it.

To repeat the experience, the RCB Library is keen to explore other avenues for making digitization of more parish records possible into the future.