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Guide to Genealogical Research

Divisions of Ecclesiastical Units of Administration

The Diocese

Roman Catholic

Prior to the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111 the Irish ecclesiastical system was organised on a monastic basis. This synod established the two ecclesiastical provinces of Armagh and Cashel while the Synod of Kells, in 1152, introduced two further ecclesiastical provinces, those of Tuam and Dublin. Today, there are twenty-six Roman Catholic dioceses and they remain unaffected by the political division of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, with the four dioceses of Derry, Armagh, Clogher and Kilmore having parishes in both jurisdictions.

Church of Ireland

The Church of Ireland has two Archbishoprics; the Archbishopric of Armagh, in the northern province, which is divided into eight dioceses covering Northern Ireland and the counties north of a line from Dublin to Galway, and the Archbishopric of Dublin, consisting of six dioceses in the southern province.

The Parish

This is the smallest division in the administration of the Catholic Church. Parishes evolved around the old monastic centres, but formal parish organisation dates from the eleventh and twelfth centuries when, in 1106, Gilbert, Bishop of Limerick, devised a new system of diocesan and parochial organisation.

Territorially Roman Catholic parishes are, in the main, amalgamations of two or more pre-Reformation ones. In some instances the centre of settlement in the parish became the name of the parish with the old names dropped. The Reformation saw the dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of Church lands and property. Subsequently, the Catholic and Protestant Churches adopted separate parochial systems, the latter maintaining the old system, and the former establishing larger parishes, some of which were later subdivided following increases in population in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the seventeenth century the suppression of the Catholic Church by the Penal laws resulted in upheaval, destroying the Church structure as it had survived since medieval times.

However, the RC parish had no administrative status but is important as records were kept of parishioners’ baptisms & marriages &, occasionally, burials. The commencement date of these records varies from parish to parish. These records were not kept for historical purposes & so the information contained in the registers is not consistent from parish to parish or within a parish, e.g. some parishes contain no townland or street addresses while others might include the address plus the father’s occupations.

The parochial structures of today have little in common with those of the Middle Ages. The majority of parish churches date from the early nineteenth century and were located in villages and towns, illustrating that Catholic parishes were bases at centres of rural and urban population.

After the Reformation the original parish unit & name continued to be used by the Anglican Church which in Ireland became known as the Church of Ireland (Protestant Church). Some of the C of I parishes were united by the mid-seventeenth century. Today, because of diminishing numbers, they have been formed into Unions but the original parish names are still retained within the Unions.

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