The Registry of Deeds was established by an act of parliament in 1708. The aim of the act was to provide one central office in Dublin 'for the public registering of all deeds, conveyances and wills, that shall be made of any honours, manors, lands, tenements or hereditaments'. The Registry of Deeds is located in a large Georgian building in Henrietta Street, Dublin. A small fee is charged for accessing the records.
To begin with registration was not compulsory, and the number of deeds registered varied from place to place. The deeds registered include leases, mortgages, marriage settlements and wills. This can provide the researcher with names, addresses and occupations of the parties involved as well as the names of those who acted as witness. During registration, which often took place years after the original transaction, a copy of the deed called a memorial was made. The details of the memorial were then copied into a large bound volume. It is these transcript volumes that are available for public inspection. A popular misconception of the Registry of Deeds is that it is of little value for those searching for Presbyterian ancestors. However, intensive research into the deeds has shown that, right from the beginnings of registration, a significant number do refer to Presbyterian tenant farmers and merchants. Furthermore, these deeds comprise a broad range of document types.
Each registered deed was given its own unique reference number. In the indexes to the deeds the volume and the page are also given. This referencing system was used until 1832. After that the reference number includes the year in which the deed was registered. Two indexes are available to the researcher: the Index of Grantors and a Lands Index. The Index of Grantors gives the surname and the Christian name of the grantor, the surname of the grantee and the reference number (after 1832 the index includes the name of the county). The Lands Index is arranged by county, with one or more counties per volume. The entries are arranged alphabetically, but only with regard to initial letter. Each entry gives the surnames of the parties, the name of the denomination of land, and the reference number (after 1828 the Lands Index is subdivided by barony). The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has microfilms of both the indexes and the deeds (MIC/7 and MIC/311).
WILLS AND TESTAMENTARY RECORDS
Wills are among the most important sources for the genealogist. A single will can provide the names of the testator's wife, children, grandchildren, siblings, cousins, friends and neighbours. Details on the testator's possessions, both personal belongings and land can be recorded. Family members living abroad, for example, in America, might be mentioned. For these reasons, it is worth paying careful attention to all the information contained in a will.
The information in a will
Wills generally followed a standard format. The testator usually began by committing his soul to God. The preferred place of burial was often stated. Some form of provision would usually be made for the testator's wife. If the testator was on good terms with his children all of them could expect to receive a bequest from him, unless they had already been provided for. If the testator was a farmer he would usually leave the farm to his eldest son. It must be remembered that only a fraction of the population left wills. In some families the question of inheritance was settled without the need to make a will. Many people, of course, possessed so little that there was little point in making a will. On other occasions death came so suddenly that there was no time to make a will.
How to find a will
Prior to 1858 the Church of Ireland was responsible for administering all testamentary affairs. Ecclesiastical or Consistorial Courts in each diocese were responsible for granting probate and conferring on the executors the power to administer the estate. Each court was responsible for wills and administrations in its own diocese. However, when the estate included property worth more than £5 in another diocese, responsibility for the will or administration passed to the Prerogative Court under the authority of the Archbishop of Armagh. It must not be thought that just because the Church of Ireland was responsible for administering wills that only persons who belonged to that particular denomination left wills. Presbyterians and Roman Catholics also left wills.
Unfortunately, nearly all original wills probated before 1858 were destroyed in Dublin in 1922. However, indexes to these destroyed wills do exist and are available on the shelves of the Library at PRONI. Because the Church of Ireland was responsible for administering wills, the indexes are arranged by diocese, not by county. An index for pre-1858 surviving wills and will abstracts is available in the Public Search Room at PRONI. Altogether PRONI has over 13,000 copies and abstracts of pre-1858 wills.