Parish v. Civil Records

One of the projects I’m working on at the moment is transcribing and digitising the records for Fanlobbus Parish in Dunmanway Co. Cork.  Today I was working on the burial registers and I found myself drifting and wondering about the people who were named in them.  There was an appalling level of infant mortality in the 19th century.  Epidemics almost completely wiped out some families. Many young men who should have been in the prime of their life succumbed to TB in their 20s and 30s.  Young women died in childbirth.  Not to mention accidents, murders and homocides.

A couple of entries in the parish register were difficult to decipher so I decided to go to and compare the church burial record to the civil death record.  Church registers deal with the burial of the deceased and contain basic information such as name, address and date of burial.  The civil  death registers contain more details, such as the cause and place of death, as well as marital status, occupations and the name of the person reporting the death.  I expected that the information on the church record I was struggling with, would be exactly the same as the civil record.  Wrong.  On many of the samples that I checked the details differed.

Here’s one example. The Church record shows that Melian X of Kenrath, was buried on 6th August, 1923, Aged 70.  Z.W. Miller and Arthur Wilson were the clergy who officiated.


The Civil record (below) reports her date of death as 5th August, 1923.  It gives more information than the Church record, telling us where she died and that she was female, a widow to a farmer and states her cause of death as gastritis and heart failure.  It also names her son-in-law, who was the informant.


The huge discrepancy in this case is her age.  The age is displayed very clearly on both registers.  According to the church she was 70, but according to the state she was 76.  The ages varied on many of the samples of death/burial records I checked between these two sets of records –  most were out only by a year or two, but some had larger discrepancies.

In 1864 the state started to register deaths and from then onwards, it’s possible to check both sets of records to get a more complete record of the person.  However, pre-1864 we have to rely solely on the burial records.  What I learnt today is that the records are not necessarily 100% accurate.  In many cases they are the only information that is available on our ancestors and we are very grateful to have them, but we need to keep an open mind regarding the exact dates and information provided.  Don’t immediately rule potential relatives in or out solely on that one piece of information.  Sometimes its peoples ages that are a little  bit out, other times it’s the spelling of names, or variants of addresses.

Keeping in mind these (usually minor) inaccuracies, parish registers are a hugely important primary source of information used to trace our ancestors and I for one am extremely grateful to the scribes who created these amazing records.




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