Behind The Scenes at the National Library of Ireland


One recent visitor to the Library was all keen to get started on searching the newly released parish registers… The baptism he wished to view was…..his own! Alas we had to disappoint him, as parish registers for the 1930s are not included in the registers which have been made available online.  The National Library’s collection of parish registers generally – and there are exceptions – go up to about 1880.   Many of you will know of dates later than this, and that is great for anyone searching, but in general, little is included dating to the twentieth century.


I met James and Maryann Wilson in the Library one afternoon in August.  They were visiting Dublin by cruise-ship.  The next stop on the itinerary was Scotland.

They had decided to take the afternoon to search for James’s direct Wilson ancestor.

Ralph Wilson was born in the early 1700s in Midlothian, Scotland.  His father Peter Wilson, was an Elder in his Church.  In 1731 Ralph Wilson travelled to Ireland, and married Mary [maiden-name unknown].  The next spring the young married couple sailed for America.  In April 1732 they arrived in the colony of Pennsylvania.  Mary Wilson must have been heavily pregnant on the journey, because their first child, David, was born in Pennsylvanian in April 1732.  Ralph bought land, he equipped and gradually developed a farm.  The family could trace all successive generations of descendants from this point.

The question was, would it be possible to trace the family in Ireland without a wife’s maiden name, and without knowing her county of origin, presumably where the marriage took place?

The Established Church in Scotland is the Presbyterian Church, and we knew that Peter Wilson was an Elder: although not conclusive, it would tend to indicate that the family were probably Presbyterian.  We also knew that Ralph & Mary must have had some substance.  They paid their own fare across the Atlantic, and had enough money on arrival to equip a farm.

By the 1700s, ‘Marriage’ for the middle-classes was well defined in Ireland and the British Isles.  There were a number of steps to getting married, one of which required the bride and groom to publicly proclaim their intent to marry.  They could do this by ‘reading the banns’ in church, or by taking out a marriage license in their Diocesan court.

The public proclamation tells us that at this time, all individuals were rooted in their own communities, and social control could be exercised through the local community.

The purpose of publicly proclaiming a marriage, was to prevent invalid marriages taking place.  A marriage was deemed invalid if the bride or groom were too closely related (consanguinity), were already engaged, or even married.

A marriage license was a popular alternative to ‘reading the banns’, it had social ‘cachet’ and allowed more privacy to the bride and groom. To apply for a license to marry, the couple had to swear a solemn oath that there was no impediment to their marriage.  Bondsmen representing the bride and groom’s own family and community, attended the court to witness the oaths.

In this instance as the marriage took place in Ireland, I searched for an Irish marriage license bond. In 1729 in the Diocese of Cloyne, there was a Ralph Wilson marrying a Thomasin Bower.  It was unfortunately a case of close, but no cigar.

I reconsidered the banns. The Wilsons knew the church in Midlothian, Scotland where Peter Wilson was an Elder.  Although the marriage took place in Ireland not Scotland, the marriage would have been proclaimed in the bride and groom’s own parishes. Ralph Wilson would have had to inform his own community that he intended to marry.

In order to trace a record of the marriage, the Wilsons now had the option of going online to search for the Banns Records,

Or, of getting back on their cruise-ship – next stop Scotland

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