Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Reading Irish parish registers

Have you got Irish people in your family tree?

If you have, and they were Catholics, you may have been spending the last few days the same way as I have, scrolling through the newly-released images of parish registers from the National Library of Ireland.

And going cross-eyed deciphering the handwriting, the abbreviated first names and the just plain odd-looking ones.

National Library of Ireland, CC by YvonneM
These records are pure gold dust for those of us with Irish ancestors. And they’re free to view, print and download. I’m very grateful to the NLI for putting them online for those of us who can’t visit their (wonderful) building in Dublin to look through the microfiches there. It would be petty to grumble about the fact that they’re not indexed. But just to make the job of scrolling through all those pages easier, I thought I’d pass on some tips I’ve found useful during my search for my ancestors, the Delanys or Delaneys in the parish of Tomacork (also called Carnew), on the border of counties Wicklow and Wexford.

I’m going to use these Tomacork documents to illustrate my points, because I’ve become familiar with many of their quirks. I hope this will be a helpful starting point for your reading of similar resources.

The first tip is – keep going. I found that, as my eyes got used to the handwriting of the various priests and the names which came up again and again, reading the records grew easier. So don’t give up. Like so many worthwhile things, reading these records can get easier when you practise.

Patt (Patrick) Rossiter, with a long s
If you’re new to reading old documents, you might be confused by the unusual shapes of many letters. The records I’ve been looking at date from 1785 onwards, so they’re not from too long ago, but they’re still old enough to take some deciphering if you don’t know how to mentally transcribe them. Long or ‘leading’ s, for example – the one that looks like an f without a cross-bar.

Or the very curly capital letters that don’t look at all like print ones. Here are a few:
Two examples of Anne (top L, bottom R)
A curly H in Hugh
Two examples of capital K in Kelly
A capital B that looks like an M in Brislawn
The capital A in Anne, with no cross-bar, takes a bit of getting used to, and capital H and K look similar. In fact the second Kelly takes some deciphering.

There are a few websites with old handwriting alphabets which can help with reading records. This one is a good place to start, and I've listed more at the end of this post.

Luckily, when we read old records we’re not just reading a sequence of letters. Though that is often the best way of deciphering words. It takes me back to school... C, A, T, cat...

You may need to just write down the letters you’re sure of and go back later once you’re more used to the writer’s hand or have identified the letter somewhere else in the document. That's how I was sure of the examples above.

Repeated words or phrases can be helpful here, because we know what the letters are and can work out quirky variations from them. And you can often work out what a letter is by its context.

What's Judy's surname here? Byron? I happen to know, and reading these parish registers confirms, that Byrne was a very widespread name in Tomacork. In fact it's in the old clan territory of the O'Byrnes. So I can work out that she's most likely a Byrne by comparing this word with many others on the same pages, written by the same person.

But beware of doing what we all do – reading what we think, or hope,
we see, and not what’s actually there. It’s important to check against other examples of the (supposed) letter written by the same person.
Is this crossed out sponsor a new relative, James Delany? I'd love to think so. But there's a Darcy on the same page.
And the descender from Lucy on the line above in the first image may or may not have merged with the l of Delany. In addition, the registers are full of people called Demsey (a variation on Dempsey), another local name. Though this priest usually writes it Dempsey.

 I can't just assume the name here is what I'd like it to be.

What do you think? Delany, Darcy, Demsey or... impossible to decide?

And then there’s image quality.The NLI registers are images from microfiche, so some pen strokes are hard to read or invisible. These entries look like a bad photocopy.

You can find some good tips on reading photocopied records here.

Sometimes you’ll have all the letters worked out, but they don’t look like any name you’ve heard of. There are two possible solutions: the name could be an abbreviation, or it could be written as it sounded to the scribe.

Abbreviations first. In these Catholic parish registers they’re only used for first names and a few stock phrases. There are lists of name abbreviations on the web and I’ve put links at the bottom, but here are a few of the most common found in genealogy records. A good rule of thumb is that the last letter of the abbreviation is the last letter of the name. Except for Jno.

Edwd = Edward
Elizth = Elizabeth
Jno = John (not Jonathan)
Margt = Margaret 
Thos - Thomas
Wm = William

And some from the Tomacork records which may be helpful to Irish research:

Anty = Anthony
Batt = Bartholomew
Catt = Catherine
Lau - Laurence
Mattw = Matthew
Michl = Michael
Patt - Patrick

I've used a smaller font to show letters which are usually written superscript (above the base line).

There are some other abbreviations in these registers, like SS for Sponsors (godparents), and Latin ones like Ills or Illa for Illegitimus/a (illegitimate), usually followed by (ut dixit), or 'it is said', referring to the father.

Plenty of names in these registers are written as they sounded to the priest. That can be confusing. Some are easier to read, like Onor for Hono[u]r, Annistice for Anastasia, Kavinaugh for Kavanagh.

Then there are ones which ask more from us. One of my Delanys, Daniel, was married to Mary Costolough.
That’s a fun one, with a long s and no cross to the t. I only found two other Costoloughs after a lot of genea-searching, and it seemed to be a variant of Costello. Then the light bulb came on. Reading it out loud, remembering that Irish names tend to be stressed on the first syllable, and knowing that the priest used a silent gh in several names, it became clear that, yes, /’kɒstələʊ/ (using the IPA transcription) worked for Costolough and Costello.

I'll be posting about my Delaney/Delany finds over on A Rebel Hand soon. In the meantime, good luck with your old records! And finally – the genealogist’s mantra – don’t assume. But you know that already...

Further online resources

Useful sites for reading old handwriting:


Reading bad scans/photocopies:

Name abbreviations:

Irish surnames:


  1. I don't have any Irish ancestors, but you have given a very detailed analysis of the challenges plus tips on reading the entries that I am sure your experience will be a huge help to anyone using them. Good Luck with your own searches in what sounds a valuable set of records - and free too!

    Family History Fun

  2. Thank you, Sue!
    For me this record set is invaluable as my 3x great grandfather was transported in 1802 and the Delanys/Delaneys don't seem to be in later records.
    I hope some of the tips are useful to anyone reading old documents.

  3. Well done. No Irish, but, let me thank you anyway, for the other researchers that are diving into those records.

  4. Thanks, Carol! I hope it's helpful.

  5. Who knows? Maybe some Irish will turn up among my ancestors one day and I will refer back to your guide.

  6. That would be great, Kristin!


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