Posted by Laura Gibson on April 1, 2021 in Uncategorized

This month, we have launched more than 5.6 million new Irish records to our collection. To help you explore some of these new historical collections Content Specialist Rhona Murray shares insight and tips to help you understand the importance of the newly added Church of Ireland Parish Search Forms collection.


The history of the search forms in Ireland:

The Old Age Pension Act came into effect in Ireland on the 1st of January 1909, for those over the age of 70, making those born before the year 1839 potentially eligible for a pension. Civil Registration of births did not begin in Ireland until the year 1864, meaning that anyone eligible for a pension would not have a birth certificate to prove their age. As a result, a system was established whereby people could pay to search the original 1841 and 1851 Census Returns, as well as the Church of Ireland Parish Registers – both of which were largely held in the Public Record Office. Many people would send off forms to the Public Record Office which held the 1841 and 1851 census records with names and dates for them to confirm so that they could be entitled to the pension. As a result, a system was established whereby people could pay to search the original 1841 and 1851 Census Returns, as well as the Church of Ireland Parish Registers – the records supporting such searches were largely held in the Public Record Office

Sadly, many years later the 1841 and 1851 Census Returns were destroyed in the fire at the Public Record Office (PRO) in 1922, as were the Church of Ireland Parish Registers that were held in the PRO at the time.

But, for those records that perished in the fire, Ireland, Census Search Forms, 1841-1851 and Ireland, Church of Ireland Search Forms for Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1731-1870 offer a valuable substitute resource for family historians, albeit one to be used with a degree of caution.


Can we trust that the information in a search form is accurate?

The search forms are secondary sources that were written several years after the event supposedly took place and may in some instances be bending the truth. The information in the search forms was provided by the applicant themselves some 60 years later with the end goal of securing a pension for themselves. Given that you had to be of a certain age to receive the pension, there is evidence that some people exaggerated their age and their family circumstance in the search forms.

Take this Census Search Form for John Mullen from County Galway as an example:

On the 30th of August of 1920, John Mullen applied to search the 1851 Census Returns, claiming to have lived in County Galway with his parents Peter and Honor Mullen.

The first search, carried out one day after his application, showed that no such record existed, and John was asked to provide additional information:

  • He then provided his grandfather’s name, John Kelly.
  • He also provided a list of his siblings’ first names, in order of birth.

From this we learn several new pieces of information about the family:

  • Honor Mullens’ maiden name is Kelly
  • The circumstances at the time were such that the family were possibly living with their grandparents or grandfather at the least
  • And we also have the names of Johns siblings.

Unfortunately for John, his search application did not return any viable results in the 1851 Census Returns, so he likely did not receive a pension at this point in time, pointing to the likelihood that some of the information in his search form is inaccurate.


Why should we still use the search forms in our research?

By using census search forms, we can discover more about individuals and their family dynamic. My advice would be to arm yourself with the new information learned (such as mother’s maiden name, and siblings names) to then search primary records – such as the surviving parish registers or later census records, or land records such as the Griffiths Valuation– and use these to plot a more accurate timeline of the family.

Using the indexes to the 1901 Census from the National Archives of Ireland I appear to have found John Mullen and some members of his family still living together in County Galway. John was listed as being aged 40 in 1901, placing his birth year as 1861 – so it is little wonder that he couldn’t be found in the 1851 census.

A lesson well learnt

The Census Search Forms and Church of Ireland Search Forms are incredibly important record sets and are useful in lieu of a specific census record itself. They also serve as a reminder to encourage us, where possible, to triangulate our research to build up multiple sources about our family wherever we can to get the most accurate picture of our ancestors.

They also make us see that looking at the wider historical context of what was going on in society at any given time can further help us in understanding our ancestors – learning about the Old Age Pension Act means that we know why some of our ancestors happily aged ten years all of a sudden, whilst many of us in modern society are focussed on discovering anti-ageing techniques!