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Irish family history expert Fiona Fitzsimons explains some more of the myriad of names associated with Irish administrative districts, essential for tracing your Irish ancestors.

For part 1 of this article click here.

Poor Law Unions

In 1838 the English parliament passed an act to create the legal framework to establish a system of poor relief across the island of Ireland. Poor relief, which had previously been the responsibility of the Established Church, would from this point forward be delivered through a 'work-house' system. These workhouses were organised within administrative districts known as Poor Law Unions.

Between 1838 and 1841 Ireland was divided into 130 Poor Law Unions - each union originally comprising an average of 15 electoral divisions (2,049 in total).

Each Poor Law Union was financed by the local taxes (known in Ireland as 'rates') based on the productive capacity of property held in the district. Between 1847 and 1864 a comprehensive land survey – Griffith's Valuation - was carried out to calculate the precise amount of local taxes that each householder should pay towards the Poor Law system, regardless of whether they owned the land/ property.

Each Poor Law Union was administered by a local Board of Guardians, a mix of local magistrates sitting ex officio (usually the local big landowner or grandee) and others elected by the local rate-payers (usually representing the interests of strong farmers and merchants in the area). According to the 1838 Act, the Irish poor, unlike their English counterpart, did not have a legal right to assistance. Consequently, the Board of Guardians could literally hold the power of life or death in their districts.

Initially these local Boards of Guardians were responsible to the Poor Law Commissioners in England. In 1847 an amendment to the earlier (1838) act established Irish Poor Law Commissioners in Dublin.

In 1851 the Poor Law Unions were sub-divided into 6 or 7 smaller Dispensary Districts under the Medical Charities Act. There were approximately 798 Dispensary Districts in total.

C. 1850-51, in the wake of the Medical Charities Act and following the Famine – the worst natural disaster ever in Ireland - the Irish Poor Law Commissioners introduced boundary changes to the Poor Law Union system across Ireland. They created an additional 33 Poor Law Unions in Ireland – bringing the total to 163.

The territorial boundaries of the PLUs remained in place for the remainder of the 19th Century, with a few exceptions. (The most comprehensive study of the geographical extent of the individual Poor Law Unions is George Handran's Townlands in Poor Law Unions published by Eneclann).

In the later 19th century the role of the local Boards of Guardians changed, as Poor Law Boards assumed greater responsibility for local government, particularly around issues of sanitation and public health. In 1872 the Poor Law Commission was abolished, and replaced by the newly established local Government Board. The Local government Board retained its authority even after the 1898 Local Government Act, although it could no longer levy local rates for poor relief.

In 1925 the Irish Free State formally abolished the Boards of Guardians, and replaced them with county boards of health and public assistance. The poor law remained operational in Northern Ireland until 1946.

Dispensary districts

In 1851 the Poor Law Unions were sub-divided into 6 or 7 smaller Dispensary Districts under the Medical Charities Act. The Dispensary District was headed by a medical officer paid for by the Poor Rates. There were approximately 798 Dispensary Districts in total.

Registrars' Districts

Registrar's Districts were first introduced into Ireland in 1844, and Superintendent Registrar's Districts in 1863. Although they have survived in some form down to the present day, legislative changes introduced in 1863 and 1972 have significantly changed the extent of these administrative districts.

1844 to 1863

Registration of civil births, marriages and deaths was only introduced into Ireland in January 1864, nearly a generation after the introduction of civil registration into England and Wales. The reason for this delay was not lack of interest, but because the government wanted to take into account the declared sensitivities of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which opposed the introduction of civil registration. The very fact that other churches did not voice the same level of opposition, allowed the English Parliament in 1844 to enact the Marriage Act. This 1844 Act provided the legal framework to appoint a body of Registrars to create a civil register of all non-Catholic marriages in their district.

On 1st April 1845, civil registration of non-catholic marriages in Ireland began. Between 1844 and 1863, the existing Poor Law Unions were adopted as the boundaries for the Registrar's Districts.

Between 1844 and 1851 there were 130 Registrar's Districts in Ireland. In 1851 reforms introduced by the Irish Poor Law Commissioners, brought the total number of Registrar's Districts in Ireland to 163.

1864 to 1971 Registrar's Districts and Superintendent Registrar's Districts

In 1863 the English Parliament enacted a law to provide the legal framework to introduce civil registration of births, marriages and deaths into Ireland.

By this act, civil registration would be administered within the existing administrative framework of Poor Law Unions, and Dispensary Districts. However, the existing administrative framework had to be modified to accommodate the requirements of the new civil registration system.

Between 1844 and 1863 Registrars' districts had corresponded to the Poor Law Unions. From 1864 onwards these administrative units were now re-named 'Superintendent Registrar's Districts.'

The 'Dispensary Districts' introduced in 1851, which had sub-divided each Poor Law Union into smaller administrative units, were now re-named 'Registrar's Districts.

The medical officer of the dispensary district now assumed the responsibility for civil registration in his catchment area.

After 1972

The Births, Deaths & Marriages Act of 1972, changed the framework of local administration for civil registration.

Henceforward, officers appointed by the eight new Health Boards acted as Superintendent Registrars in the Republic of Ireland, for births, deaths and RC marriages. There are now 32 Superintendent Registrars in the Republic of Ireland

- each county has 1 Superintendent Registrar

- Donegal, Limerick, Tipperary & Waterford have 2 each

- Cork has 3

Since 1972 registration of non-catholic marriages is not conducted by the Health Boards, but by one of 35 new districts, each of which has a Registrar.

Northern Ireland has maintained a civil register since January 1, 1922.

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