Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland: a look at the 1766 Religious Census of Ireland


02 September 2022
Following the launch of Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland, Chris Paton takes a look at an 18th-century Irish census based on material thought to have been lost forever.

The new Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland website has now been launched, a valiant attempt to try to reconstruct and retrieve much of the material lost in the devastating fire at the Public Record Office (PRO) in Dublin in 1922, during the opening salvos of the Irish Civil War. 

The real strength of the Virtual Records Treasury is in delivering what we did not expect to see, and there is plenty on that front to keep us busy, with substantially more material yet to be added.

The project has teamed up with institutions across Ireland (north and south), Britain, and from around the world to try to find surrogate materials for the records that were lost, by way of publications, transcriptions, and even original historic materials removed from Ireland by members of its diaspora.

Amongst the bodies participating are the National Archives in Dublin, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), the UK National Archives, the Irish Manuscripts Commission, the Library at Trinity College Dublin, and a further 59 institutions, all listed here.

Some of the most impressive work produced by the team has been in the reconstruction of its 'gold seams', searchable reconstructions of entire record series thought to have been lost forever. One of the most important of these is the 1766 Religious Census of Ireland.

This was an exercise on the authority of the Irish House of Lords to create a census of all families in Ireland with their known religious adherence. Being from Northern Ireland, I was already aware of the Name Search database on the PRONI platform, which has indexed the names for much of this census as transcribed by genealogist Tenison Groves prior to 1922, but the Virtual Records Treasury presentation provides a massive evolution beyond this.

It includes digitised copies of original records which survived the fire from 59 parishes in Armagh, Cork, Derry, Limerick, Louth, Tipperary, Tyrone and Waterford (about 7% of the original census), the transcriptions collated from Groves as held at PRONI, the Church of Ireland's Representative Church Body Library in Dublin, and other sources.

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In total, more than half of the 1766 census has been recovered and made available, with many parishes including detailed lists of individuals, in some cases in extraordinary detail.

For the parish of Newchapel in the diocese of Cashel and Emily, for example, there are:

  • the names of male parishioners
  • whether they were married
  • separate columns for the numbers of sons and daughters aged under and over 14
  • the numbers of men servants and maidservants
  • whether certain individuals were relations, friends or lodgers
  • the numbers of Protestants and 'Papists'
  • the numbers of souls in total per household
  • and the numbers of the houses.

At the other extreme, however, you may simply find for some parishes that submissions have been made providing little more than statistical returns on the numbers of individuals and their religion. 

Text extracted from an in-depth article on the Virtual Record Treasure of Ireland by Chris Paton in the October 2022 issue of Family Tree. Download your copy here.

About the author

Chris Paton runs the Scotland’s Greatest Story research service and teaches online courses through Pharos Tutors.

Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry Through Church and State Records is available from Pen & Sword.

Read Chris’s Scottish GENES blog.