Sometimes a simple piece of paper can unlock a deep and tragic story about your ancestors. That’s what happened for Molly Shannon, who went on an emotional journey to trace her 2x great-grandparents, Hugh Cattigan and Bridget Farry. Molly’s adventure led her to Ireland, where she discovered their 1851 marriage certificate. That simple piece of paper unlocked a deep story of suffering for her ancestors on the Island of Achill, off the coast of Ireland.
Marriage records are frequently important in Irish genealogy, usually because they provide names of family members (the bride and groom, their fathers, witnesses who were likely close relatives, etc). In the case of Molly Shannon’s ancestors, however, their marriage record revealed a desperate tale of survival. The marriage was performed in a Protestant Church of Ireland ceremony, despite Hugh and Bridget (and their families) being Catholic. This happened during the Irish Potato Famine, when food was scarce and survival was a desperate, day-to-day struggle. Edward Nangle, a Church of Ireland priest, brought food and supplies for the starving Catholic population of Achill, but gave preferential treatment, food, and resources to families that converted to the Protestant Church of Ireland. Many refused, and the cost of that refusal was often starvation. For others like Hugh and Bridget, they resolved to do whatever it took to survive. So they were married by Edward Nangle in a Church of Ireland parish on 22 February 1851, indicating that they had decided to convert.
Though we don’t know for certain whether Hugh and Bridget had other family who converted, we know the witnesses to their marriage were donors to the Church of Ireland mission. Marriage-witnesses were traditionally close relatives; the absence of relatives here possibly suggests Hugh and Bridget’s families did not support their decision to marry in the Church of Ireland and become Protestant. Many who converted to escape hunger reverted back to Catholicism, and the same was the case for Hugh and Bridget once the Famine was over.
Marriage records in Ireland can bring a wealth of information for people researching their Irish ancestry. From religious denomination to names of witnesses, you can find many details that can help paint a picture of your ancestors’ lives.
Tips from AncestryProGenealogists: what to know when looking for marriage records in Ireland
- Church registers are very significant in Irish research for a number of reasons. Civil registration only began in Ireland for all births, marriages, and deaths in 1864 (and for Non-Catholic marriages starting in 1845). As such, church registers may be the only direct evidence available of a parent and child relationship or a maiden name. Witnesses on marriage records are particularly important. Traditionally, the witnesses were often close family members, which can be a rich source of finding potential relatives. However, as we learned in researching the Cattigan family, the witnesses on the 1851 marriage record were Protestant donors to the mission. This provided clues as to the circumstances of the marriage.
- Most Catholic registers in Ireland do not start until the mid-1800s, with registers in the north and west of Ireland starting the latest. It is important to recognize that Roman Catholic parish boundaries were different from civil parish boundaries, which typically followed the boundaries of the Church of Ireland parish. More than 3,500 Catholic registers are held by the National Library of Ireland and are searchable at various websites, including
- Church of Ireland registers typically begin earlier than Catholic registers in Ireland. However, estimates indicate that approximately 50% of the Church of Ireland records (over 1,000 original registers) were destroyed in the Public Record Office explosion and fire in 1922. Fortunately, some registers were copied or remained in local custody. The Representative Church Body Library website has a color-coded list of all Church of Ireland records and where they are located.
Apply these tips the next time you’re researching your Irish ancestors. You could find relatives who witnessed your ancestor’s marriage, or discover the name of the townland where they lived. Or, like Molly Shannon, you could unlock a long-buried tale in your family history.
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