Irish Parishes & Their Shifting Boundaries

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10:45am Friday 22 August 2014

STRAND HOTEL - Shannon Suite

by Paddy Waldron

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An example: where are we?

Here in the townland of Stonetown in the civil parish of St. Nicholas in the Municipal Borough of Limerick in the county of Limerick in the province of Munster.

We are in the Catholic parish of Our Lady Of The Rosary in the Catholic diocese of Limerick.

We are in the Church of Ireland Limerick City Parish in the United Dioceses of Limerick & Killaloe, Ardfert, Aghadoe, Kilfenora, Clonfert, Kilmacduagh and Emly.

Julius Caesar: Divide and conquer - divide et impera

Types of parishes

The separation of Church and State, the Reformation, and later splits within churches, have all been responsible for the shifting of boundaries and the evolution of up to four different usages of the word "parish":

Old or historic or mediaeval parishes
As far as nationwide maps and documentation are concerned, these commonly used terms are effectively pre-historic. They are of early Christian origin.
Civil parishes
Boundaries were mapped and spellings standardised by Ordnance Survey of Ireland, Est. 1824, completed 1846. Spellings still vary greatly in everyday usage.
Catholic parishes
Tweaked continually in accordance with shifting populations of priests and people, at best maps of Catholic parish boundaries can be found at diocesan level.
Parishes of the Established Church
The established church was called the United Church of England and Ireland (at least on marriage certificates) from the Acts of Union of 1801 (implemented 1 Jan 1801) to the Irish Church Act of 1869 (implemented 1 Jan 1871). In principle, it used civil parishes. In practice, in areas of small Anglican population, the established church often combined several civil parishes into a Union. Lewis's Topography (1837) provides details. For example, from 1777 up to at least 1837 the civil parishes of Kilballyowen, Kilfearagh and Moyarta, all formed part of the union of Kilrush. Baptisms, marriages and burials from all four civil parishes are found in the Kilrush registers. The oldest Kilrush registers (up to 1842) are in the Representative Church Body Library in Dublin. The newer registers (1842 to closure) are in the custody of the Incumbent of Drumcliffe in Ennis. Shortly after Lewis's Topography was published, the town of Kilkee in the parish of Kilfearagh developed into `the Brighton of the West', with a new parish church, and regained its independence.

In the 19th century in the different countries of the (not-so-)United Kingdom, systems of administrative divisions varied widely.

In England, the smallest unit was the parish, which evolved from the mediaeval feudal manor. Civil and ecclesiastical parishes there began to diverge in the 19th century. Under Poor Law (in England), care of the poor was traditionally based on parishes.

In Ireland, parishes were further subdivided into one or more townlands, generally with pre-Norman origins. In the 1830s, Irish parishes were combined into Poor Law Unions by the Poor Law Boundary Commission, as they were generally too small to each have a parish workhouse, like parishes in England. Parish and county boundaries were not always respected by the Commission. For example, in county Clare, Kilfinaghta parish was initially split between Limerick and Ennis PLUs, with the latter part in Ennis to 1850, in Tulla from 1850 to 1907, and in Scariff after 1907!

Parish boundaries are not used for either census returns or civil registration. For these purposes, the map of each Poor Law Union was typically wiped clean and new boundaries drawn (dispensary districts and within them district electoral divisions), not respecting parish boundaries. Parish names, but not parish boundaries, were often used for dispensary districts or DEDs or both.

Even dispensary district boundaries do not always respect DED boundaries, e.g. Fontstown/Monasterevin/Athy.

When Poor Law Union boundaries were redrawn after the Great Famine and in connection with the Medical Charities Act of 1851, civil parish boundaries were generally not respected, but Catholic parish boundaries were sometimes taken into account (e.g. the boundary between Mullagh and Miltown Malbay Catholic parishes in county Clare - see below).

Pre-Famine Poor Law Unions in County Clare Post-Famine Poor Law Unions in County Clare

Source of images: The Poor Law Records of Counties Limerick, Clare and Tipperary by S.C. O’Mahony. Supplement to North Munster Antiquarian Journal vol. XXI 1979 via

Civil Parishes

Catholic Parishes

Dioceses or Areas (at

Irish Family History Foundation (IFHF) Centres (at

Catholic Provinces

Anglican Provinces