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Article Published July 31, 2001

Irish Land Records- Part 1
By Kyle J. Betit, ProGenealogists

Landholding in Ireland

Many of our Irish ancestors were tenant farmers who leased or rented their land directly from a landowner or indirectly from a "middleman." Only a small percentage of people in Ireland owned their land outright (this was called holding your land "in fee.").

There could be several layers of subleasing between the actual landowner and your ancestor. Changes over time in the nature of tenants' arrangements with their landlords were vitally important features of the lives of Irish tenant farmers. Land holding arrangements affected economic well being, the nature of their farming, inheritance and emigration patterns. One common type of lease with great potential for genealogical information was the "lease for lives." A "lease for lives" is in effect as long as the person(s) named in the lease are still living. As soon as all of the "lives" named in the lease have died, the lease ceases to be in effect. A lease could alternatively be granted for a set number of years, or a tenant could rent from year to year without holding a lease of any kind. A tenant could occupy land completely at the landlord's discretion. This was called holding land "at will."

The Penal Laws

1695 Anti-Catholic legislation began in Ireland.

1704 The Irish Parliament, exclusively Protestant, enacted a Bill "To Prevent the Further Growth of Popery" (2 Anne c. 6) which placed many restrictions on Catholics. It excluded them from Parliament, from the local government corporations, from the learned professions, from civil and military offices, and from being executors, or administrators, or guardians of property. It prevented Catholics from buying land and from leasing land for more than thirty-one years.

The act required the estate of a Catholic to be "gavelled" at his death, meaning divided among all his sons rather than inherited by one son (unless one son was a Protestant). The act allowed a son in a Catholic family to convert to Protestantism (the Established Church, called the Church of Ireland) and thereby take over the whole family property. Some of the Penal Laws such as those governing property holding were carefully followed by some people in some time periods and places in Ireland. However, many of the laws were largely ignored or circumvented.

1709 Another anti-popery Bill was enacted (8 Anne c. 3) which tightened the restrictions on property and other penalties against Catholics. Protestant "discoverers" were also allowed to obtain possession of Catholics' land if the law had been evaded.

1772 An Act of emancipation (11 & 12 Geo. III c. 21) allowed Catholics to reclaim and hold under lease for 61 years fifty acres of bog but it should not be within a mile of any city or market town.

1774 An Act (13 & 14 George III c. 35) was passed to permit the King's subjects of whatever religion to take an oath to testify their loyalty and allegiance to him to promote peace and industry in the kingdom.

1778 An Act (17 & 18 Geo. III c. 49) was passed repealing the provision in the 1704 Act (2 Anne c. 6) whereby a son could convert to the Church of Ireland and take over the family property. The 1778 Act relieved those Catholics who took the oath prescribed under the 1774 Act from certain restrictions contained in the 1704 and 1709 Acts. Catholics who took the oath were no longer limited to 31-year leases; they could hold leases for up to 999 years or five lives. A Catholic also no longer had to divide his estate among all his sons at his death.

1782 The Relief Act of 1782 (21 & 22 Geo. III c. 24) allowed Catholics who took the 1774 oath to purchase lands in fee, that is, outright ownership.

1793 A Relief Act (33 Geo. III c. 21) was passed giving Catholics the parliamentary and municipal franchise (vote) on the same basis as Protestants and admitting them to the university and to government offices. They were still excluded from sitting in Parliament and from the higher offices, but in other respects they were placed on a level with Protestants.

1829 The Catholic Relief Bill was passed. Catholics were admitted to Parliament and local government corporations; but they were still excluded from some of the higher offices. Further, the franchise was raised to ten pounds, so the forty-shilling freeholders were disfranchised (no longer allowed to vote).

Registry of Deeds

Beginning in 1708 land transactions in Ireland were registered with the Registry of Deeds in Dublin. Because registration was not mandatory, not every land transaction was registered. In the Registry of Deeds you can find deeds of sale, lease agreements, marriage settlements and wills. When a deed was registered in the Registry of Deeds it was not filed there; rather, it was returned to the party who delivered it for registration. What was filed in the Registry of Deeds was a "memorial" which is a synopsis of the deed.

Don't assume that just because your ancestor was not rich and prominent, no information about him or her can be found in the Registry of Deeds. One of the most valuable finds you can make is a deed with a list of the tenants on the land being sold or leased. It's just unfortunate that there aren't more such deeds. The Registry of Deeds was mainly a Protestant source during the eighteenth century. However, there were some Catholics in the deed books also. The Penal Laws did not prevent Catholics from retaining land they already owned, so some Catholics owned land all throughout the period of the eighteenth-century Penal Laws.

By the nineteenth century with religious freedom guaranteed in Ireland, records of persons of all religions are included as lessors and owners. However, even with emancipation, the majority of the population, Catholic and Protestant, was still landless. They were renting or leasing. That was all to change by the turn of the twentieth century when the government helped many tenant farmers purchase their farms from their landlords. The Land Purchase Acts set up a Land Commission to carry out this transfer.

You will find that there are actually two useful indexes to the Registry of Deeds in manuscript form, the Surname Index to grantors and the Lands Index arranged geographically. The Lands Index is an important source because all registered transactions for a particular townland can be accessed.

The huge collection of records of the Registry of Deeds from 1708-1929, and the corresponding Surname Index and Lands Index, are available on microfilm from the FHL. The Registry of Deeds on Henrietta Street in Dublin has books of memorials dating 1708 to present and microfilm copies dating 1930 to present.

Freeholders Records

A freeholder was a man who held his property either "in fee," which means outright ownership, or by a lease for one or more lives (such as the term of his life or the term of three lives named in the lease). A tenant who held land for a definite period such as 31 years or 300 years did not qualify as a freeholder. A person with a freehold of sufficient value, depending on the law at the time, could register to vote. Books recording freeholders who had registered to vote are known as freeholders registers, and they were generally arranged by the county and sometimes the barony. A freeholders register may list some or all of the following information about the freeholders:
  1. the name of the freeholder
  2. the abode of the freeholder
  3. the location of the freehold
  4. the value of the freehold
  5. the lives named in the lease or other tenure
  6. and the date and place the freeholder registered
  7. the name of landlord
  8. the occupation of tenant
A freeholders register is a valuable substitute for a census. It can help pinpoint where your ancestor was living within a county, which is particularly helpful if the relevant church records have been destroyed. The people named as "lives" in leases were often related to the leaseholder, so family relationships may be suggested by the freeholders list. With the name of a landlord, you can turn to estate papers to find copies of the actual leases.

Unfortunately, many original manuscript freeholders registers for the Irish counties were destroyed in the Public Record Office fire of 1922. However, some freeholders registers were published prior to the fire, such as in newspapers. The County Roscommon Family History Society has, for example, published some County Roscommon freeholders lists found in newspapers of the 1830s. Copies of the destroyed records did exist in some cases. In other cases, freeholders registers had been kept by private individuals, such as landowners. The NAI, the NLI, and the PRONI each have significant collections of freeholders records which they have built up over the years from the surviving material.

Kyle J. Betit's article "Freeholders, Freemen and Voting Registers" in The Irish At Home and Abroad lists known surviving freeholders records for every county in Ireland Other freeholders records not listed in this article may be found in some other inventories, such as (1) John Grenham's book Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, which lists many records at the NLI; (2) James G. Ryan's book Irish Records; and (3) the card catalogue in the Manuscript Reading Room of the NLI which lists the library's latest manuscript acquisitions.

Some common places to find surviving freeholders lists include landed estate papers and newspapers. Because landowners had an interest in knowing what voting freeholders lived on their estates, copies of freeholders lists are often found among the papers of landed estate owners.

Land Commission

If you want to find out how the family property in Ireland came into the ownership of a family member, you may need to consult records of the Land Commission. The Land Commission was responsible for making loans from public funds to tenants so they could buy their farms from their landlords. The commission operated according to the various Land Purchase Acts, 1881 to 1923. "LAP" in the Griffith's Valuation revision lists for your townland refers to the transfer of ownership to the tenant by "Land Purchase Act."

The NLI holds two card indexes to the Land Commission records, a "Topographical Index" arranged by county, barony, and landowner, and a "Names Index" arranged alphabetically by landowner. Each card in the "Names Index" gives the baronies in which the estate lay and the estate number. Using the estate number, you can consult bound volumes which give a summary description of the estate's documents.

The Land Commission is now located in the same building as the NAI on Bishop Street, Dublin. It has the records for the counties that are now in the Republic of Ireland. Its holdings are vast but difficult to access. You must call ahead for permission to access any of their records. In preparation for land being transferred to tenants, the commission created documents listing the tenants and their acreage and prepared maps showing the boundaries of farms in each townland in the estate. Once the land had been processed by the Land Commission, the tenant's deed and subsequent transactions relating to the property became the concern of the Land Registry.

The Land Commission records for the Northern Ireland counties were sent from the Land Commission to the PRONI after the political division of Ireland. You can access Land Commission records at the PRONI by using the Land Registry Archive inventory in the PRONI's Guide to Landed Estate Records. You may consult Ian Maxwell's book Tracing Your Ancestors in Northern Ireland for further discussion of the PRONI's Land Registry Archive.

Land Registry (Republic of Ireland)
The Land Registry was established in 1892 to provide a system of compulsory registration of land titles. When a title is registered in the Land Registry, the deeds are filed in the Registry and all relevant particulars concerning the property and its ownership are entered on registers called folios maintained in the Land Registry. Once under the jurisdiction of the Land Registry, records of a plot of land are no longer found in the Registry of Deeds. The Land Registry has maps that go with the folios. The Registration of Title Act, 1891, made registration of title compulsory in the case of all land bought under the Land Purchase Acts. This meant that all subsequent transactions affecting the land would have to be registered. The Land Registry is split into offices covering different counties:
  • Cavan, Louth, Monaghan, Donegal, Leitrim, Meath & Westmeath: Central Office, Chancery Street, Dublin 7, Ireland; Tel: (01) 6707500.
  • Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Waterford, Carlow, Kilkenny, Wexford & Laois: New Government Buildings, Cork Road, Waterford City, Ireland; Tel: (051) 303001.
  • Dublin & Counties West of the Shannon: Setanta House, Nassau St, Dublin 2, Ireland; Tel: (01) 6707500.
  • Kildare & Wicklow: Block 1, Irish Life Centre, Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1, Ireland; Tel: (01) 6707500.

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