Guide to General Register Office of Ireland
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The three principal repositories where genealogical research is conducted in the Republic of Ireland are the National Archives of Ireland, the National Library of Ireland, and the General Register Office (of Ireland) which holds records of births, marriages and death. The present Guide to the General Register Office of Ireland is part of the ongoing Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies programme of free Internet publications.
The General Register Office is located in Lombard Street East in Dublin, and its opening hours are 9.30am-12.30pm, 2.15-4.30pm Monday to Friday. While research in the National Archives and National Library is free, fees are charged by the General Register Office. There is scope for improvements in facilities in all three repositories, but conditions for research in the General Register Office have always been particularly difficult. The problem is that there have been increasing numbers of users in recent years, mostly genealogists, but staff and resources simply have not kept pace with the increased demand, with the result that quality of service has suffered. The fact that patrons have to pay official fees to use the place makes its inadequacies all the more difficult to understand.
The General Register Office is an agency of the Department of Health, and for some years Irish genealogists have been lobbying that division for improvements in research facilities, not always in a united or sensible way it must be said. Thus a campaign to flood the Department of Health with protest e-mails on a given day in March 2000 seemed to the present writer and some others to be unwise and counterproductive. Despite occasional log-jams, the General Register Office staff were until relatively recently able to offer a service which enabled users paying a general search fee to access indexes on a self-service basis, and to provide applicants with copy registrations of births, marriages and deaths within ten or twenty minutes of order.
A recent phase of reconstruction of the Search Room was followed not by an improvement in service, as might have been expected, but by what can only be termed a catastrophic decline. Suddenly gone were the self-service access to indexes and the same day provision of copy registrations, so that it is now not unusual to have to queue for up to 15 minutes just to obtain a single 5-year set of indexes. As the writer has endeavoured to explain to the Minister for Health, Micheál Martin TD, in a letter dated 26 July 2000, genealogists routinely have to check and recheck indexes and purchase multiple copy registrations of entries of possible relevance, and they can now only perform a fraction of the work which formerly could be carried out on each visit to the General Register Office.
In a move which has taken the Irish genealogical community by surprise, the Irish Government has succeeded in having an act passed which includes significant amendments to legislation governing registration of births, marriages and deaths. This is the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002, which indeed is a strange vehicle for reforms to registration of vital events, an area which surely deserves specialised legislation. The amending legislation does nothing to deal with the GRO problem outlined elsewhere on this site, and shows that the 'consulation process' of last year was somewhat lacking in sincerity, to say the least.
While access to original or even microfilm copies of registers of births, marriages and deaths has always been denied in the GRO, Lombard Street East, Dublin, it has hitherto been possible to search the registers in the local offices. However, this right had in practice been eroded over the years, and now appears to have been removed by the new legislation. It has been pointed out that Section 25 of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1880 permitted access to indexes and register books at local level, but the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act replaces this section with one permitting access to the indexes only (posting to soc.genealogy.ireland 22 April 2002).
In relation to additional registration legislation currently planned, it has to be said that the complexities involved may deter many genealogists from continuing to make submissions. It is recommended that three issues should be kept in mind when lobbying relevant bodies and politicians: (1) Make copies of at least birth, marriage and death indexes widely available throughout the country, north and south. (2) Endeavour to place on the agenda the matter of allowing access to copies of birth, marriage and death registers, in microform initially at least. (3) Ensure that the computerisation of records to suit the needs of researchers and accessibility via the Internet are specifically provided for in new legislation.
Like many other individuals and groups, the writer has been corrresponding with Ministers for Health on the subject of deteriorating GRO research conditions since 1992, but found letters either merely acknowledged or ignored. It was decided in late 2001 to avail of the Freedom of Information Act to endeavour to establish just what was happening in relation to ongoing changes in the administration of civil registration. The initial application was ignored, but upon threatening to send an appeal to the Freedom of Information Commissioner there was some movement. In September 2002 I had an interesting meeting with a senior Department of Health official. He denied that there were any serious problems of access to records of births, marriages and deaths, and stated that such issues as existed were in the process of being dealt with. He rejected the suggestion that copies of indexes at least might be made more widely available as they are in other countries, and indicated that permission would not be given to allow purchase of microfilm copies in the possession of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It appears to me that the option of enabling Internet searches of Irish vital records is still at the consideration stage only, and that the current computerisation programme is geared primarily towards the needs of administrators (those who opposed computerisation a decade ago must accept their portion of blame for the marginalisation of genealogists in this regard). Information released to date in relation to the Roscommon Modernisation Project indicates that the imaging of historical data does not yet precede 1887, and indexing dates from 1900 only, which is frankly disappointing. Further FOI releases are awaited, particularly with regard to concrete plans to improve research facilities.
Despite the period of plenty which 'Celtic Tiger' Ireland has experienced in recent years, there have nonetheless been severe problems in our health services, with patient overcrowding and staff shortages in many hospitals. The General Register Office problems are thus part of a pattern, but it should be noted they are not of a life and death nature. This of course begs the question as to why, whatever about the function of registering and certifying current births, marriages and deaths, the older portions of the archive of vital records continue to be in the custody of the Department of Health and the regional Health Boards. Old documents need the attention of qualified professional archivists if they are to be properly conserved, but it is not clear if state archivists have reported on or inventoried the registers of vital events in the various locations where they are held. Furthermore, if the Department retains custody of this important element of our national archival heritage, it should without delay make it more accessible and give better value for money to customers by fully computerising the records and enabling searches to be conducted via the Internet. Scottish vital and other records can now be searched via the Internet on payment by credit card, and if introduced in Ireland, such a service would cover its costs and would be a boon not only to Irish residents but also to those of Irish descent abroad.
I conclude by recommending again, as an interim solution, the Genealogical Society of Ireland's proposal to make available copies of indexes of births, marriages and deaths in selected repositories in Dublin and other locations in Ireland, both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland. But for the present we will all have to make do with the system as it stands, and it is hoped that by navigating around the various sections of this site, genealogists in Ireland and abroad will obtain a better understanding of Ireland's vital records and thus improve their chances of locating the information they need.