Visit to the Representative Church Body Library

Representative Church Body Library

Last week I made my first visit out to the Representative Church Body Library, the Church of Ireland archives. Based in Churchtown, Co. Dublin (near Dundrum) the RCBL is the repository for many of the surviving Church of Ireland parish registers and other records. It was founded in 1931 and has been at it’s present location near the Church of Ireland theological institute since 1969.

It is impossible to overstate just how valuable the collections in the library are. A law passed in 1875 declared that marriage registers dated pre-1845, and baptismal and burial records pre-1871 were public records and should be deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland in Dublin. Some parishes opposed this decision and there was a further Act passed in 1876 which allowed records to remain in local custody, provided there was provision made for their safe keeping in the form of a fire-proof safe. This typically meant the larger churches that could afford such a measure. By 1922, the records of 1,006 Church of Ireland parishes had been deposited in the Public Record Office, while a further 637 parishes kept their records in local custody. When the Public Record Office was destoryed by fire during the Irish civil war in 1922, all but four sets of registers were completely destroyed. Those in local custody which survived comprise roughly a third of the records.

But given that the Church of Ireland was never the majority faith in Ireland, with most Irish people remaining Roman Catholic, why should you need to be aware of their records? Up until 1869 the Church of Ireland was the Established Church. This meant that it was the official state church. Many of the Civil Parishes (as opposed to the more modern Roman Catholic Parishes) correspond with the Church of Ireland parishes who inherited the medieval parish system. Before the creation of county councils, most local civic services (even the fire brigade) were administered by the Church of Ireland. This is also where the phrase ‘parish pump politics’ comes from, referring to the old fire pump kept by the local Anglican churches. Tithes were paid by the populace, regardless of denomination, for the administration of these services. By the early 19th century this was a cause of much resentment among the non Church of Ireland populace but that’s a story for another time. Because these churches were so central their records may contain references to events in the local parish, which is important for understanding the social context in which our ancestors lived. Since record keeping in Catholic churches before the 1800s was so patchy there might be no other surviving church records for that area.

It is also quite feasible that your ancestors had Church of Ireland ancestry. When consulting the parish register for Holy Trinity, Cork (now the Triskel Christchurch) for the early 1800s I was surprised at the amount of typical Irish surnames in the register. We tend to assume that Irish society of this period was fixed. That it was only the descendants of British settlers who were members of the Church of Ireland, with no mixing between them and the ‘poor’ Irish Catholics. However this is an overly simplistic view of Irish history. Both groups lived side by side and membership of the Church of Ireland did not necessarily imply wealth and position. Inter marriage did occur between Catholics and Protestants, as did conversion (sometimes on more than one occasion). There were also quite a number of other small Protestant dissenter denominations that your ancestors might have been part of. We should always be careful not to make too many assumptions when examining the past. Our ancestors were real people with complicated and sometimes baffling lives. This especially applies to the issue of faith and belief.

For the purposes of this visit I was consulting the Parish register for Holy Trinity along with the Vestry Minute Books. The early part of the Parish register was very well laid out with details on baptisms, burials, marriages and churchings. However by the 1820s it was evident that a new Parish clerk had taken over the record keeping, and it became much more difficult to read. The Vestry Minute Books detailed the day to day running of the church. While these may not contain as much genealogical information, they are still very informative for learning what was happening behind the scenes of the church. The names of prominent parishioners occur often, along with details on changes made to the fabric of the church, including the commissioning of memorials and stained glass windows.

If visiting the RCBL it is advisable to allow yourself plenty of time, like with any archive visit. Churchtown is accessible by the no. 14 bus from D’olier St and the Luas Green Line from St Stephens Green. When you enter you will be advised to leave your belongings in one of the lockers provided. This includes anything electronic such as laptops, phones and cameras. The archivists are very strict about the photography of records. The only things you are allowed bring with you is pencil and paper. When you go upstairs to the office you are provided with a handy list of available records, which is especially helpful on a first visit. Once you fill out the request form you are directed to the reading room where the materials are brought to you. If visiting for the whole day be aware the library closes for lunch from 1-2pm. Being out in the suburbs there isn’t a huge amount of places to eat nearby, aside from a local Spar. Bringing a packed lunch is advisable.

More details on the RCBL and it’s collections can be found here: http://library.ireland.anglican.org/index.php?id=42

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