Guide to General Register Office of Ireland
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Development of Civil Registration


The registration by the state of vital events, births, marriages and deaths, has come to be a necessary part of modern government, and in time these records of course also become essential genealogical sources. While civil registration commenced in England in 1837, it was not until 1844 that steps were taken to introduce a measure of registration in Ireland. An Act of 1844 determined that there should be official registration of all non-Catholic marriages only, so that the majority Catholic element of the population was not included. The 1844 Act provided for the appointment of a Registrar General, and registration of marriages began on 1 April 1845. For those with non-Catholic ancestors therefore, these civil records of marriage from 1845 are of the greatest importance.

Roman Catholic fears concerning state interference with that Church's religious marriage ceremonies lay at the heart of the failure to achieve a full measure of civil registration in 1844. However, over time there developed a widespread acceptance of the value of registration, and in 1863 a further Act was passed providing for general registration in Ireland. People of all religions, Catholic as well as Protestant and others, now had to register vital events under the Act, which took effect from 1 January 1864.

Civil registration developed as an element of the rudimentary nineteenth-century Poor Law or public health system, and indeed this is the historical reason why the Department of Health continues today to oversee the process and keep custody of the older archives. Counties were divided into Poor Law Unions, usually based on a larger town, and it was found convenient to use these administrative divisions as Registration Districts for purposes of civil registration. It should be noted that Poor Law Unions/Registration Districts could occasionally cross county boundaries. Each Registration District was under the supervision of a Superintendent Registrar, and the General Register Office in Dublin, directed by the Registrar General, oversaw the whole process of registration of births, marriages and deaths and prepared master indexes. One of the most active of Registrars General was Sir Robert E Matheson, who issued between 1890 and 1901 reports on Irish surnames and their variations which are still of value today, and which have been republished by the Genealogical Publishing Company under the title Surnames in Ireland.

In the earlier years of registration, it is likely that significant numbers of births, marriages and deaths were not recorded, but by 1880 it can be taken that the system of registration was reasonably comprehensive, though omissions continued to occur. For all ancestors who were born, married or died after 1864, it should therefore be the genealogist's aim to secure copies of the registrations of these vital events, and transfer the information therein to pedigree and family group sheets.