There is a wide variation both between and within the different Churches as to starting dates, information given and the actual physical condition and legibility of the registers.
Roman Catholic Records.
The Penal Laws were viciously enforced against the Catholic Church and resulted in a reluctance by the Catholic clergy to keep records for fear of compromising members of their flock, particularly in the early years, and for this reason, Catholic records generally start much later than Protestant records. They mostly start around the 1820s and, by and large, consist of baptism and marriage records, though a few burial records do occasionally occur, giving the name of the deceased and the date of burial, and sometimes a townland address. Often entries in Catholic registers are very tightly written and are hard to read, plus the fact that many are in Latin, does not make the task any easier. Baptism registers normally give the date of baptism, child's name, father and mother's names, sponsors names and in some cases townland or street address. Marriage registers give date of marriage, names of bride and groom and the names of the witnesses. Occasionally the bride and groom's parents names and townland or street addresses will be given.
Church of Ireland Records.
Until 1871 the Church of Ireland was the State or Established Church in Ireland. After it was disestablished, an 1875 Act of Parliament declared that all baptism and burial registers prior to 1871 and all marriage registers prior to 1845, to be public records, and as such, should be lodged in the Public Records Office of Ireland in Dublin, for safe keeping. There was widespread opposition to this and another Act of Parliament the following year permitted local Churches to hold on to their registers provided that they had adequate provision for their safe-keeping. By 1922, of the 1,643 Church of Ireland Parishes in Ireland, 1006 had unfortunately, lodged their records in the P.R.O. in Dublin, where they were destroyed in a fire during the Irish Civil War in 1922. Fortunately, 637 Parishes retained their records in local custody and only the records of 4 parishes survived the fire, giving a total of 641 Church of Ireland Parishes whose records survive intact. This tragedy was and is, an absolute disaster, not only for those descendants whose ancestors were of the Church of Ireland persuasion, but also for those of Catholic and Presbyterian background, because during the Penal Laws, the Church of Ireland had exclusive rights to administer baptism, marriage and burial ceremonies. Registers of baptisms, marriages and burials in the Church of Ireland date from the late seventeenth century but most of these records start between 1770 and 1820. Marriage License Bonds were issued by the Bishops of the Church of Ireland, and some date from the mid 1590s to 1857, however, the original Bonds were destroyed in Dublin during the Irish Civil War in 1922, but the indices for the Bonds survive, and give the bride and groom's names and the date of the Bond.
Presbyterianism came to Ireland from Scotland in the 17th century but, like the Catholics, were discriminated against, by the Penal Laws. It was illegal for a Presbyterian Minister to marry two members of his flock until 1782, and not until 1845 was he permitted to perform a mixed marriage between a Presbyterian and a member of the Church of Ireland. There were very few Presbyterian burial grounds and therefore there are few Presbyterian burial records. There are a few Presbyterian registers that start in the seventeenth century, but most are after that. There were frequent disputes in the Presbyterian Church and we often get two or three Churches in the same area which are referred to as 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Many of these churches began as seceding congregations which broke away from the original Synod of Ulster in 1733. The Seceders took a strong evangelical stand and objected to an Act of Parliament in 1712 which accepted patronage as an accepted method of appointing ministers. Over time however, the Synod of Ulster and the Secession Synod, resolved their differences and reunited in 1840. Besides baptism and marriage records, Presbyterians have other records that can be very important to genealogy, including, session minutes, communicant rolls, transgression hearings, transfer certificates, subscription lists, stipend books and pew rentals.
Non-Subscribing Presbyterian (Unitarians) Records.
The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church has its origins back in 1725 when a number of congregations refused to subscribe to the Westminister Confession of Faith and formed themselves into a separate Presbytery of Antrim. It retained links with the General Synod of Ulster until the 1820s when the issue of subscription came to a head and the Non-Subscribers were forced out of the Synod of Ulster and formed the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster. Some of the early Non-Subscribing Presbyterian records that were recorded before the split are in fact Presbyterian records.
Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanters) Records.
The Reform Presbyterian Church has its origins in the 17th century, when a minority of Presbyterians wished to adhere more strictly to the Covenants of 1638 and 1642, but it was not until the mid-18th century that congregations were formed with their own ordained ministers. In 1763, the first Irish Reformed Presbytery was set up. By 1800 it had 28 congregations in Counties Antrim, Armagh, Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan. Their earliest records begin in the mid-19th century.
The Methodist Church grew out of the Established Church, or Church of Ireland. John Wesley came to Ireland in the mid 1700s, and people joined the Wesleyan Methodists from all denominations, but were encouraged to remain members of their own Church. In 1804, the Methodist Church ruled that no Methodist preacher in Ireland should perform the office of baptism. Methodists went to their own Church to be baptized and it is for this reason that many Methodists find their baptisms in the Church of Ireland records. In 1816 the Methodist Church split in to the ''Primitive Methodists'' who retained their connection with the Church of Ireland, and the ''Wesleyan Methodists'', who allowed their preachers to administer baptism. These two branches of Methodism reunited in 1878. Another splinter of the Methodist Church in Ireland was the Methodist New Connection whose attitude to the Church of Ireland was even more extreme than that of the Wesleyan Methodists. They had Churches in Zion at Newtownards and Priesthill in Co Down and Broomhedge in Co Antrim. They united with the Irish Methodist Conference in 1905. Most Methodist baptism records do not start until 1830 and their marriage records in 1845. There are very few Methodist burial records because most Methodist Churches did not have burial grounds.
The Quakers or The Religious Society of Friends, as they were known, came to Ireland in the mid 1600s and settled mostly in the Lisburn and Lurgan areas. George Fox, the founder of the Society, emphasized the importance of good record-keeping and at each meeting they meticulously recorded their business, including all births, marriages and burials. Their records are almost complete from the time that they first came to Ireland. It is worth noting that Quarkers do not practice baptism.
The Moravian Church was formed in what used to be the Czech Republic in the 1700s and was introduced into Ireland by John Cennick, who arrived in Dublin in 1746 and founded the first Moravian Church there. By 1748 there were Churches in Counties Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Derry, Down and Monaghan. These congregations made up the Moravian Church in Ireland: Ballinderry, Cliftonville Road, Belfast, Dublin, Gracefield, Gracehill, Kilwarlin and University Road Belfast. The Moravians were also excellent record-keepers, and some of their records continue from the time of their origin. They also keep lists of members, including their date of birth, previous denomination and date of death.
The Congregationalists Church was set up in Ireland in the 17th century but didn't make much headway until the early 19th century. After the establishment of the Irish Evangelical Society in 1814, a lot of new Churches were built. There are some baptism and marriage records from this time but most are from the 1880s.
The Baptists came to Ireland in the mid 17th century but it was the early 19th century before they made their mark. There are about 55 Baptist Churches in Ireland but only 10 have records that pre date 1900. The earliest Baptist records start in 1862 and contain marriages in the minute book. The Baptists do not practice baptism so there are no baptism records, nor do they have burial grounds, and so, no burial records.