The Quagmire of Administrative Districts

Successful research hinges on being able to access records that are relevant to your ancestors.   But there are no such things as purely ‘genealogical’ records, with a few notable exceptions (In Ireland we have the Gaelic genealogies, and from the 16th Century when the Ulster King of Arms was first appointed, pedigrees prepared by a herald). Instead, researchers have to create their own patch-work of evidence, drawn from records which were made and kept, because they served the administrative purpose of the civil or church authority, or of an individual (usually a landlord). In this instance, by civil government we mean central and local government. Church authority encompasses both the Established Church which was an arm of central government up to 1869, but also the individual denominational churches and congregations.

Consequently, to be able to identify what records are relevant to your research, you need to know how, why and when different records sets were made, revised, and stored down to the present day.  You will also need to know the basic unit of survey for any records source that you use.

But even the experienced researcher can get bogged down in trying to identify a particular place-name or locality, because territorial frameworks and administrative districts have developed in Ireland during two millennia.  Consequently smaller territorial units such as townlands and civil parishes, don’t fit neatly within the boundaries of baronies or counties, as all of these defined geographic areas came into being at different times in our history.

When using the Irish records, you need to know the difference between a townland, civil parish, barony and county, and also to know what records correspond to each of these different geographic/ administrative areas.

In the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries, administrative districts in Ireland were frequently revised.  The researcher needs to understand where and when this happened, to avoid searching for their ancestors in the wrong place.

Townlands– The townland is the smallest administrative division used.  Many historians think that the origin of townland names is topographical, and that many of the names originated from between the 2nd and the 8th/9th Century.  The name ‘townland’ comes from the Saxon ‘toon’ the basic farmed unit.  In Ireland, a farmstead, usually with a rath in the middle.  These were known in Irish as ‘baile’s. The Irish townlands were first comprehensively recorded between 1824 and 1842 by the Ordnance Survey to facilitate a uniform valuation for local taxation.

Civil parish – derived from the pre-Reformation church parishes.  Following the Reformation, the Anglican Church of Ireland was the Established Church supported by tithes.  As such it had basic civic responsibilities including poor relief, until its dis-establishment ca. 1869.  Civil parishes rarely follow county or barony borders, in part because they often predate both.  Likewise civil parish boundaries rarely if ever correspond to RC parish boundaries, as RC parish boundaries were redrawn in the 17th and 19th Centuries.  There are 2,508 civil parishes.

Barony – A territorial division of a county composed of a number of townlands.  The origin of the term, and of its boundaries are obscure, although the barony as an administrative district, was in use by the 16th Century.  Some historians have argued that the barony was the territorial division of former Gaelic lordships.  In the 19th Century, baronies were used as administrative units for taxation, law enforcement and general administration, until the local government acts of the mid century made them largely redundant.  The 1891 census was the last to be taken on a barony basis.  There are approximately 270 baronies in Ireland.

Grand Jury records refer to the county-at-large or the barony.

County – Counties are the most important unit of local government in Ireland.  The county or shire system was implemented in Ireland between the 12th Century and 1606.   The process of shiring involved the crown’s appointment of a sheriff in whom legal, military and administrative authority for the county was vested.  However as late as the 17thcentury, some regions of Ireland were independent of crown authority, either as independent liberties recognized by the common law system, or as autonomous Gaelic lordships.  The flight of the earls in 1604 enabled the crown government to shire Ulster, and Wicklow county was established in 1606.  County identities were reinforced in 1846 by mapping county boundaries.  In 1898 the Local Government Act first established County Councils.  Prior to partition, there were 32 counties in Ireland.  Partition saw the creation of Northern Ireland, from 6 of the 9 former counties of Ulster.  In 1993 the county of Fingal was created as an administrative district, from land formerly in north county Dublin.

Poor Law Unions – In 1838 the English parliament passed an act to create the legal framework to establish a  system of poor relief across the island of Ireland (1838 Act ‘for the more effectual relief of the destitute poor in Ireland’).  Poor relief, which had previously been the responsibility of the Established Church, would from this point forward be delivered through a ‘work-house’ system.  These workhouses were organised within administrative districts known as Poor Law Unions.

Between 1838 and 1841 Ireland was divided into 130 Poor Law Unions – each union originally comprising an average of 15 electoral divisions (2,049 in total).

Each Poor Law Union was financed by the local taxes (known in Ireland as ‘rates’) based on the productive capacity of property held in the district.  Between 1847 and 1864 a comprehensive land survey – Griffith’s Valuation – was carried out to calculate the precise amount of local taxes that each householder should pay towards the Poor Law system, regardless of whether they owned the land/ property.

Each Poor Law Union was administered by a local Board of Guardians, a mix of local magistrates sitting ex officio (usually the local big landowner or grandee), and others elected by the local rate-payers (usually representing the interests of strong farmers and merchants in the area).  According to the 1838 Act, the Irish poor, unlike their English counterpart, did not have a legal right to assistance.  Consequently, the Board of Guardians could literally hold the power of life or death in their districts.

Initially these local Boards of Guardians were responsible to the Poor Law Commissioners in England.  In 1847 an amendment to the earlier (1838) act established Irish Poor Law Commissioners in Dublin.

In 1851 the Poor Law Unions were sub-divided into 6 or 7 smaller Dispensary Districts under the Medical Charities Act.  There were approximately 798 Dispensary Districts in total.

C. 1850-51, in the wake of the Medical Charities Act and following the Famine – the worst natural disaster ever in Ireland – the Irish Poor Law Commissioners introduced boundary changes to the Poor Law Union system across Ireland.  They created an additional 33 Poor Law Unions in Ireland – bringing the total to 163.

The territorial boundaries of the PLUs remained in place for the remainder of the 19th Century, with a few exceptions.  (The most comprehensive study of the geographical extent of the individual Poor Law Unions is George Handran’s Townlands in Poor Law Unions published by Archive CD Books Ireland).

In the later 19th century the role of the local Boards of Guardians changed, as Poor Law Boards assumed greater responsibility for local government, particularly around issues of sanitation and public health.  In 1872 the Poor Law Commission was abolished, and replaced by the newly established local Government Board.  The Local government Board retained its authority even after the 1898 Local Government Act, although it could no longer levy local rates for poor relief.

In 1925 the Irish Free State formally abolished the Boards of Guardians, and replaced them with county boards of health and public assistance.  The poor law remained operational in Northern Ireland until 1946.

Dispensary districts – In 1851 the Poor Law Unions were sub-divided into 6 or 7 smaller Dispensary Districts under the Medical Charities Act.  The Dispensary District was headed by a medical officer paid for by the Poor Rates.  There were approximately 798 Dispensary Districts in total.

Registrars’ Districts – Registrar’s Districts were first introduced into Ireland in 1844, and Superintendent Registrar’s Districts in 1863.  Although they have survived in some form down to the present day, legislative changes introduced in 1863 and 1972 have significantly changed the extent of these administrative districts.

1844 to 1863 – Registration of civil births, marriages and deaths was only introduced into Ireland in January 1864, nearly a generation after the introduction of civil registration into England and Wales.  The reason for this delay was not lack of interest, but because the government wanted to take into account the declared sensitivities of the catholic church in Ireland, which opposed the introduction of civil registration.  The very fact that other churches did not voice the same level of opposition, allowed the English Parliament in 1844 to enact the Marriage Act.  This 1844 Act provided the legal framework to appoint a body of Registrars to create a civil register of all non-Catholic marriages in their district.

On 1st April 1845, civil registration of non-catholic marriages in Ireland began.  Between 1844 and 1863, the existing Poor Law Unions were adopted as the boundaries for the Registrar’s Districts.

Between 1844 and 1851 there were 130 Registrar’s Districts in Ireland.  In 1851 reforms introduced by the Irish Poor Law Commissioners, brought the total number of Registrar’s Districts in Ireland to 163.

1864 to 1971 – Registrar’s Districts and Superintendent Registrar’s Districts.  In 1863 the English Parliament enacted a law to provide the legal framework to introduce civil registration of births, marriages and deaths into Ireland.

By this act, civil registration would be administered within the existing administrative framework of Poor Law Unions, and Dispensary Districts.  However, the existing administrative framework had to be modified to accommodate the requirements of the new civil registration system.

Between 1844 and 1863 Registrars’ districts had corresponded to the Poor Law Unions.  From 1864 onwards these administrative units were now re-named ‘Superintendent Registrar’s Districts.’

The ‘Dispensary Districts’ introduced in 1851, which had sub-divided each Poor Law Union into smaller administrative  units, were now re-named ‘Registrar’s Districts.

The medical officer of the dispensary district now assumed the responsibility for civil registration in his catchment area.

After 1972 – The Births, Deaths & Marriages Act of 1972, changed the framework of local administration for civil registration.

Henceforward, officers appointed by the eight new Health Boards acted as Superintendent Registrars in the Republic of Ireland, for births, deaths and RC marriages.  There are now 32 Superintendent Registrars in the Republic of Ireland

–         each county has 1 Superintendent Registrar

–         Donegal, Limerick, Tipperary & Waterford have 2 each, and

–         Cork has 3.

Since 1972 registration of non-catholic  marriages is not conducted by the Health Boards, but by one of 35 new districts, each of which has a Registrar.

Northern Ireland has maintained a civil register since 1 Jan. 1922.



This entry was posted in Research Tips.