Case Studies of Presbyterian Research in Ireland

By Alita Dusek

(This article was first published in the Ulster Historical Foundation’s Guild Newsletter in 1983.)

Throughout much of their early history in Ireland Scots Presbyterians encountered religious intolerance in varying degrees. This circumstance accounts for their siding with royalists against Cromwell in the mid-seventeenth century, joining Catholics in the Rebellion of 1798 against the government and on occasions fighting among themselves over the finer points of religious doctrine. Whatever the cause, their vital independent voice finds expression in a variety of records which have come down to us from the past three or four centuries.

Geographically Presbyterians are concentrated in the present Northern Ireland where they settled after emigration from Scotland beginning in the early seventeenth century. They came mainly as tenants of proprietors who were granted land in Ulster by James 1. Records of these grants can be found in the Calendar of Patent Rolls, James 1.

Presbyterians may be found in registers of their own church or in parish records of the Church of Ireland. Itinerant ministers often did not keep registers or if they did these have not survived. Presbyterians also performed ceremonies in the home which may not have been recorded. Because of religious persecution, their registers normally date form the mid-nineteenth century with some very early exceptions. Civil registration of Presbyterian marriages dates from 1845 along with the Church of Ireland. Compulsory civil registration of births and deaths for all religions began in 1864. It must be kept in mind that civil registration in Ireland is incomplete, with marriages the most regularly registered.

Scots Presbyterians embraced all classes – landed gentry, strong farmers, the professions, merchants and tradesmen, tenant farmers, industrial and agricultural workers and, of course, migrant labourers who were forced to follow work. The direction a particular search should take as well as the choice of records to be examined will naturally be determined by the economic circumstances of the ancestor as the following samples of research are intended to show.

Although in these case histories we were unable to trace the ancestor back to the earliest times in many instances, some success was had with all of them. And this is by no means exceptional. In some quarters there is too much emphasis on the fire of 1922 and the so call ‘poverty’ of Irish records. The United States, it will be recalled, also had a civil war in its comparatively short history, the Chicago fire and the San Francisco earthquake when many records were lost. Loss or damage is inevitable throughout history and is certainly not confined to Ireland. Further, some Irish archives, such as the Registry of Deeds, which have survived are unique in Europe. Considering the centuries of religious persecution of both Catholics and Presbyterians, chronic political upheaval and economic distress, it is remarkable what has survived.

Grateful acknowledgement is due to Gerard Slevin and Donal Begley for their generous assistance.