"...to seek and to find the past, a lineage, a history, a family built on a flesh and bone foundation."

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

‘Nomina defunctorum’: Irish Catholic records of the dead

A beautifully marked interment at Mount Jerome
Cemetery, Harold's Cross, Dublin City.
For those who access Irish Catholic parish registers on the National Library of Ireland Parish Register website, or elsewhere online, one element which may have sprung very quickly to the researcher's eye is the lack of records of death. Catholic burial registers are like hens' teeth, blue moons and pigs in flight, a rare sight indeed. 

For those searching for death records, in Latin ‘Nomina defunctorum’ — The Names of the Dead —  you will find burial registers for very few of the parishes included in the NLI collection. For example, if you are searching in the parishes of County Clare you will find only one register, that of the parish of Kilmurry McMahon, which notes burials. For County Longford you will find burial registers for 20 parishes, as well as one for a parish which crosses into Westmeath (see my listing below in endnotes for parishes with burial registers).1

The burial registers that do appear on the NLI site date from as early as 1782 (Granard parish, County Longford), but most start in the early to mid 1800s. Burial entries are typically limited in scope, usually with only the name and date of death included, along with his/her last place of residence. In the most complete death records for women you will find maiden names, appearing as ‘alias surname', included in the register, but sometimes only a woman's married name is recorded.

A grandaunt of mine used to jokingly say 'we Irish Catholics' didn't keep burial records because we believe we will live forever, and burial records are an uncomfortable reminder of the inevitable. However, the truth is somewhat more complex than my grandaunt might have wanted to admit.

First, while baptism and marriage, along with the anointing of the sick, are sacraments in the Catholic church, interment is not, so there would have been no imperative for keeping burial registers. This might lead you to wonder why some churches kept registers while others did not.
Second, following the Cromwellian period of invasion in Ireland (1649-53), a decree issued at the 1670 National Catholic Synod required priests to keep registers in which they recorded the particulars of the sacraments of baptism and marriage as they occurred in their respective congregations. Given that there was no specific order issued for the recording of burials, keeping records of ‘nomina defunctorum’ appears to have been left to the inclination of the parish priest.
Third, the absence of Catholic interment records may be accounted for because of the stringent restrictions placed on Catholic practices from the mid-sixteenth century. With the suppression of Catholicism it is no wonder burial registers kept by Catholic parishes are rare. Keeping parish registers of any kind during the period of Catholic suppression was an act of defiance.

Further, from the time of the Reformation in Ireland (c.1541) until full Catholic Emancipation in 1829, Catholic cemeteries were given over to Protestant control. As William Fitzpatrick writes,

"From the Reformation, Roman Catholics [legally] possessed no cemeteries for their dead, and burials could alone take place in Protestant churchyards." 2

To Fitzpatrick's words I have added the term 'legally', because some Catholics managed to inter their dead in consecrated ground, despite legal impediments. For example in Dublin, Catholic deceased were surreptitiously conveyed to, and quickly interred in, the cemeteries of St. James and St. Kevin, with the prayers for the dead having already been said in the house of mourning before removal. Also, recent scholarship by Clodagh Tait makes note of the fact of "continued Catholic burial in sacred space that was technically Protestant" during the period of Catholic suppression. 3

The movement for religious freedom for Catholics, which began in earnest in the late 18th century, meant an easing of restrictions; however, it was not until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, championed by Daniel O'Connell, that the door was opened to the legal re-establishment of old Catholic burial grounds and the foundation of new ones.

So, what are we to do if our Catholic ancestors are among those whose interments have no record? Other than capitulating, and having a family tree chock-a-block with seemingly immortal ancestors, we have to be more creative in our search for dates of death. Here are seven suggestions for narrowing down a date of death and for finding Irish Catholic records of death.

1. Church of Ireland Parish Registers:

The upside of burial grounds being overseen by the Established Church, i.e. the Church of Ireland, is there are some extant COI parish registers in which the burials of Roman Catholics are entered. If you are in search of a burial record for a Catholic ancestor, be sure to visit the Representative Church Body of Ireland website. Members of the church are currently engaged in The Anglican Record Project, an ongoing programme to transcribe and digitise extant COI parish registers. A number of transcriptions of registers are already available online, not only for viewing but for downloading too.

For example, in the registers for the Cloghran Parish, Diocese of Dublin, County Dublin, there are some Roman Catholic burials recorded — denoted by the 'RC' in the entry. The transcription of the Cloghran parish registers has burial records dating from 1732 to 1864.

2. Cemetery records:

Rev. James Fay,
Founder & Guardian of the Orphanage of
St. Catherine's Parish, Dublin
Died 30 January 1861, aged 41 years.
Glasnevin Cemetery.
This may seem like an obvious source since ancestors ideally end up interred; however, occasionally what is self-evident is overlooked. There are a number of options in this category for ancestors buried in Ireland. Be aware the date of burial and the date of death are rarely the same, usually differing by one to three days.

Cemeteries such as The Prospect Cemetery at Glasnevin have their online database available. Conducting a search is free of charge; however, accessing the record is pay-per-view. There are a three options here. For €3 you can get the grave number of the deceased; for €8 you get the grave number and details of the interred for whom you have searched, as well as details for all others buried in same grave. For an additional €2 you can view the original entry in the cemetery register. 

The Irish Genealogy Projects Archives Headstone pages are excellent, and boast a collection now standing at over 82,000 headstones. There are transcriptions of the stones available, and the search function works beautifully. All material is free to access, although donations to maintain the site are graciously accepted.

IrishGraveyards.ie has a significant number of graveyard images and transcriptions, currently with a focus on cemeteries in the west and north counties of Ireland, but with plans for many more to be added from around the island of Ireland. Access is currently free.

Find a Grave and Interment.net each have a number of gravestones from Ireland. 

The Ulster Historical Foundation at http://www.ancestryireland.com has over 173,000 records of death for Counties Antrim and Down. Access is either by Guild membership or 'pay-as-you-go'.

Grave of Mary Browne, died 15 July 1881,
Murrisk Abbey, Murrisk, County Mayo.
Over thy dead body: A Cemetery Blog is my cemetery blog and has gravestones principally from cemeteries in Ireland. It is fully searchable by surname. Where possible I have included details of those interred within the graves which appear in my photographs.

My sincere thanks to John Tierney (see comments below) for sending along the link to his site historicgraves.com. As John describes it, this site features more than 700 Irish graveyards, with approximately 400 complete surveys, geolocated headstone photos with inscriptions and person database, and about two graveyards added each week.

If your ancestor died in Dublin you can find a directory for all Dublin cemeteries on the Dublin Heritage website. This listing includes all cemeteries in Dublin City, as well as those in Fingal (North County Dublin), South County Dublin, and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. It features location and contact details and offers the titles of published gravestone transcripts. Some entries include links to online transcriptions and the location of surviving burial records.

If you have ancestors who lived outside of Dublin during the period of An Gorta Mór, The Great Famine of 1845-52, and you are unable to find a burial record or site for them, you may want to check the records of Dublin cemeteries since a significant number of persons migrated to the capital in search of relief, only to die there.

The Long Walk, Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin.
Originally a Protestant cemetery, Catholics were allowed interments
beginning in 1920.
3. Obituaries and Newspaper reports:

Although newspaper obituaries are most often limited to those who could afford them, you may be able to uncover the death of an ancestor by searching for stories of murder and mayhem, accidents and illness. Newspaper stories about an event such as An Gorta Mór, The Great Famine of 1845-52, may aid you in narrowing down the date of death of an ancestor. In April of 1848 the Freeman's Journal newspaper published a listing of some 3000 persons who had been evicted from lands in and around Strokestown, County Roscommon.

Given that eviction made persons even more vulnerable, it is not unreasonable to imagine an ancestor whose name appears on that list may have died shortly thereafter, giving you at the very least at starting point in your search for date of death. Also, some 1491 evicted from Strokestown immigrated to Canada, and the Library & Archives Canada site has information about them, including some who died. (See '...really and truly suffering...': The National Famine Museum Strokestown)

4. Civil registration records:

If your ancestor died after 1864, then chances are there may exist a civil registration record of death.4 Go to irishgenealogy.ie to access civil registration records that are posted online. Full details about exactly what is available are on the site.

If such a record is not extant, you may still be able to narrow down the date by comparing the civil registration records of birth and/or marriage for his children. It is not unknown for a pregnant woman to have been widowed, so while her husband's name appears on the birth registration of his first child, he may have died before the second was born. Also, a father who was alive for the wedding of one child may have died before the wedding of another, and may be recorded as deceased on the second child's marriage record. Obviously, a comparison is not a record, but at least by comparing the two you may be able to narrow down the date of death for the parent in question.

5. Parish register entries of marriage:

Some parish register entries for marriages sometimes indicate whether or not one or both of the parents of the bride and the groom were deceased at the time of the marriage between their children. As is the case with civil registration records of marriage, if you look at the parish records of marriage for all of the children in a family, you may discover a parent was alive to witness the marriage of one child and then deceased at the time of the marriage of another. Again, not a record, but comparing the two may help you to narrow down the date of death for the parent in question.

6. Irish County Library & Archive Websites:

Online you may find death, burial and transcription records on some county websites. One site which is invaluable for researchers with ancestors in County Clare is the website of the Clare County Library. Although no match for the Clare library, you can connect to sources for death records and gravestone transcriptions via the Mayo County Library. Also, be sure to consult the Irish Archives Resource website, a portal which will link you to archival collections throughout the island of Ireland.

7. Contact the parish or cemetery directly:

In the post entitled 'A secret stash of Irish Roman Catholic parish registers?', I outline the fact that not all Catholic parish registers are online. This holds true for Irish parish registers of death as well, so you may want to contact a parish directly in order to obtain a transcription of a record of death — if one is extant — for your ancestor or relative. Contacting a parish is no guarantee you will be able to retrieve such a record, but it is certainly worth the effort.

For cemeteries that do not have an online presence it may be possible to gain access to information about your ancestor's burial by contacting the cemetery office by phone, or by making a written request to the sexton or caretaker at the cemetery office.

What tips do you have for finding Irish Catholic Records of death, 
or for narrowing down dates of death?



1. The following burial registers available on the NLI site: Be aware of variations — which are not included here — in the naming of parishes.

A. County Longford, Diocese of Armagh:

Parish of Templemichael: Deaths: 30 January 1802 to 19 February 1829 and 1 March 1829 to 30 October 1865.
Parish of Ardagh and Moydow: Deaths: 16 Nov. 1822 to 24 Oct. 1842 and 1 Nov 1842 to 13 Mar. 1876.
Parish of Abbeylara: Deaths: 9 August 1854 to 1 July 1882.
Parish of Clonbroney: Deaths: 8 Jan 1854 to 27 Feb 1862 and 5 March 1862 to 10 January 1878.
Parish of Carrickedmond: Deaths: 28 Jan. 1835 to 17 Nov. 1842 and 26 May 1848 to 2 Jan 1869.
Parish of Colmcille: Deaths: 22 July 1845 to 21 Dec. 1858.
Parish of Cashel: Deaths: 11 Feb. 1839 to 19 Mar. 1868.
Parish of Drumlish: Deaths: 2 Jan 1834 to 13 Mar 1868, 16 Feb 1870 to 10 July 1872, and 13 Aug 1876 to 27 Aug 1881.
Parish of Clongish: Deaths: 22 Aug 1829 to 6 Oct 1881.
Parish of Granard: Deaths: 18 Dec 1782 to 8 Aug 1816, 29 April 1818 to 18 April 1820, 16 Sep 1816 to 27 Dec 1847, 3 Jan 1848 to 24 May 1865.
Parish of Dromard: Deaths: 11 Dec 1853 to 15 Oct 1868, 26 July 1874 to 20 May 1881.
Parish of Killashee: Deaths: 15 Nov 1826 to 3 Aug 1843, 20 Nov 1858 to 11 May 1868.
Parish of Kilcomoge: Deaths: 13 Nov 1859 to 18 Nov 1880.
Parish of Legan: Deaths: 20 Jan 1855 to 15 Mar 1881.
Parish of Killoe: Deaths: 14 Feb 1827 to 10 June 1853, 23 Aug 1853 to 29 Dec 1868, 20 Jan 1869 to 25 June 1881.
Parish of Rathcline: Deaths: 10 Dec 1839 to 17 March 1899.
Parish of Mostrim: Deaths: 23 May 1838 to 15 May 1882.
Parish of Shrule: Deaths: 4 Aug 1829 to 30 Apr 1830.
Parish of Mohill: Deaths: 3 July 1836 to 9 May 1854, 2 Oct 1850 to March 1882.
Parish of Scrabby: Deaths: 9 Sep 1835 to March 1854, 7 Apr 1856 to 20 Aug 1860.

B. Counties of Westmeath and Longford, Diocese of Armagh: 

Parish of Streete: Deaths: 27 Sept 1823 to 13 Aug 1829, and 19 July 1842 to 19 Oct 1882.

C. County Clare, Diocese of Killable:

Parish of Kilmurry McMahon: Deaths: 5 Nov 1844 to April 1848

2. Fitzpatrick, William J., L.L.D.. History of the Dublin Catholic Cemeteries, Catholic Cemeteries Committee Board, Dublin, 1900.

3. Tait, Clodagh. Death, Burial and Commemoration in Ireland, 1550–1650, Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2003.

4. Copies of civil registration records can be purchased online; however, currently the available dates for deaths include only those deaths registered in the Republic of Ireland from 1921 to the present day. See http://www.hse.ie/eng/services/list/1/bdm/Certificates/faq/#question1



  1. Jennifer, a wealth of excellent information here, and lots of links to visit. Thanks for sharing it. I especially like the history you always add to your posts.

    1. Charlotte, thanks for your comments; they are always much appreciated. Glad you enjoy the history side of things and I hope you find something good in your search.


  2. Wonderful article - lots of detail.
    You might like to add www.historicgraves.com - a crowdsourced survey of historic graveyards in Ireland >700 graveyards with approx 400 complete surveys - geolocated headstone photos with inscriptions and person database. Growing about 2 graveyards per week.

    1. John, thanks very much for your comments. It's lovely to hear from you. I will definitely add historicgraves.com to the mix. Sounds wonderful. Thanks so much for sending it along.


  3. Thanks, Jennifer. Excellent as always.

    1. Hello DannieB, thanks very much for your comment.


  4. Lots of food for thought Jennifer. Sadly no COI registers exist for "my" area of Ireland. I like your explanation that interment/burial is a sacrament ( as those who are born into Catholicism understand) but I do wonder why there are so few records of Communion, Confirmation or extreme unction,

    1. Pauleen, thanks for your comments; they are always much appreciated.

      There appears to be a sometimes wobbly connection between canon law and record keeping. Given the very complex nature of the history of the Catholic church and the challenges it faced in Ireland in the period between the Reformation and Catholic Emancipation, and well beyond into the years of An Gorta Mór, what we find most consistent is inconsistency. As you know, it seems record keeping often fell at the feet of more pressing matters.

      Following the Cromwellian period the requirement for registers recording baptisms and marriages can be traced to a decree issued at the 1670 National Synod, requiring Catholic priests to keep registers in which were recorded these two sacraments specifically. Even in the recording of baptisms and marriages compliance was not always possible, given the tremendous pressure priests were under simply to maintain a congregation. In many cases the recording of any sacraments beyond the ‘big two’ of baptism and marriage appears to have been left to the inclinations of the parish priest. This may account for the lack of records of communion, confirmation and extreme unction.


  5. I have included your blog in Interesting Blogs in Friday Fossicking at


    Thank you, Chris

    1. Chris, thanks very much for sharing my post. I hope that your readers find it useful.

      Jennifer :-)


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Cheers, Jennifer

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