Archive of the Month
Earliest Parish Register in Ireland 400 Years Old This Month
By Bryan Whelan
The Representative Church Body (RCB) Library currently holds 1,155 collections of parish records, these records being unique documents charting the lives of the people of Ireland, and the history of their parishes for the previous centuries. For this Archive of the Month, the focus is on the earliest register surviving in Ireland – that of the first combined register of the parish of St John, in Dublin’s inner–city. 400 years ago this month, on 7 February 1619, this register was commenced, giving a fascinating insight into the life of one of Dublin’s earliest parishes.
During her recent visit to the RCB Library Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan TD viewed the St John’s register, along with several others. See: https://www.ireland.anglican.org/news/8247/100000-grant-supports-digitisation-of
The parish of St John the Evangelist, founded in the 12th century (perhaps in 1168 by Giolla Michell) was situated immediately to the north of Skinner Row (now known as Christchurch Place), and would eventually form a union with the more northerly parish of St Olave’s (or Olaf’s) in 1558. At its greatest extent, St John’s stretched from as far west as the old Custom House (near present–day Parliament Street) and east to Winetavern Street. The boundary to the north is somewhat harder to determine, but many references state that St John’s Lane was the boundary, although others extend this boundary southwards to the aforementioned Skinner Row and to the north by the river Liffey. The parish church was located on the west side of Fishamble Street, although when it was founded this part of the street was known as Bothe Street. Indeed, St John’s was often known as St John de Bothestret before Fishamble Street was extended from the quays to Skinner Row. Much of the surviving information about St John’s during the 17th–century, including De Gomme’s map of 1673 (held in the National Maritime Museum in London), suggests that Bothe Street had since ceased to exist as a street name. The first vestry book that is in existence for St John’s (RCB Library P328.05.1) contains a cess list for 1622 for the ‘parishioners of St Johns Evang[elist]’ and there is no mention of this street.
The early 17th–century saw an attempt to introduce a system of public registration in Ireland, similar to that in Scotland in 1616. Although adherence to this was not necessarily followed by all Irish parishes immediately, the first combined register of St John’s (P328.01.1), was a forerunner of what would become the accepted norm in the established Church throughout the island of Ireland in the following years. Later instructions regarding parish registers, particularly the 26th Canon of the Irish Church of 1634, sought to instruct churches on exactly what type and how this material was recorded. It is interesting to note that it is not until 1638 before these recommendations are followed in the combined register.
The pages found in this register, dating from 1619 to 1658, are all in immaculate condition. These pages are made of vellum, probably sheep–hide, and would originally have been loose–leaf but were subsequently bound in ornate brown leather, with gold lettering denoting the parish details and the years contained within. This hard cover was essential for preserving the pages ensuring the register’s survival to the present day. It is perhaps a testament to register’s importance, even during the 17th–century, that a second copy (P328.01.2), featuring many of the entries found in the original document, was kept simultaneously. While some entries in this copy are omitted, in those that are replicated, occasionally there is a spelling change of name, reflecting the spelling idiosyncrasy of the clerk responsible for copying them.
The earliest register, housed with a host of other records from this parish in the RCB Library, was begun by the clerk Bartholomew Jordane on 7 February 1619, and records a number of christenings and marriages, organising them by month. The first inscribed record (an attempt to record a burial was subsequently erased) is that of the marriage of Richard Browne and Mary Woott, recorded on 27 February 1619. The earliest actual record is immediately after this, noting the christening of Christopher Hoord, named after his father, on 16 February. There are three other marriages that are recorded as having occurred during this month: Nathaniell Hamon and Susan Prudfott on 26 February 1619; Rouland Price and Elizabeth Jeinkin the following day; and John Sanders and Jane Cantwell on 28 February 1619.
Tantalising glimpses of life in this parish are clearly evident when comparing the above records with names listed in St John’s Vestry book mentioned above. There is a reference to a Richard Browne as a churchwarden in a note made on 9 November 1606, as well as a reference to a Richard Browne living on Fishamble Street in February 1622. We also see a record of Richard Proutford, perhaps a variant spelling and some relation of Susan Prudfott, as living on Cooke Street with an occupation of ‘marshall’. None of the other names appear in this Cess List, perhaps suggesting that the married couples moved to places outside of the parish.
Bartholomew Jordane (sometimes spelled Jordaine or Jurden) is mentioned throughout the corresponding vestry book, evidentially having a long personal and working association with the parish. There is an entry for the marriage of a Bartholomew Jordan and Jane Formbee on 19 October 1637. In a ‘Cesse on the parishioners of St. John Evangelist’ we see that Mr Jordane is listed as a resident on ‘Ffishamble Streete’ in 1638. The last entry for ‘Barthol Jordan’ is recorded in a Vestry Book entry for Easter 1644, for an ‘Item payd’. May 1644 saw another ‘Cesse of the parishioners of the parish of St Johns the Evangelist Dublyn’ with no mention of a Bartholomew Jordane, although there is a reference to the ‘Widdowe Jordanie’ living on ‘Ffishamble Streete’.
The period covered by the register (1619–1658) was a turbulent time in the history of Ireland, and the end of the book contains a remarkable amount of burial entries, far in excess of what we might expect (and what we see) for months prior to this. These pages are titled ‘The Names of ye poore English who having fled to this Citie for refuge and Dyed in ye parish of St. John’s, were buried since 30 Decemb. 1641’. A page following this is titled ‘A Catalogue of ye poore soldiers who were buried in St. Johns since 24th Apr. 1642’. Indeed, from November 1641 onwards, we see a noticeable increase in the recording of burials in the register. Some of these months record only a long list of burials, reflecting the political crisis during this time and the fragility of life in 17th–century Ireland.
The book itself was ‘gifted’ in June 1630 by John Hubbords, who is presumed to be the same as the John Hobarte who is listed as church–warden in 1623. The record of the burial of John Hubbords is recorded in the register on 12 June 1630.
The RCB Library contains a wealth of material relating to the parish of St John. A previous Archive of the Month, from April 2012, details the earliest policing records in Ireland which are found in the RCB Library’s parish material for St John’s. You can read this online exhibition here: https://www.ireland.anglican.org/news/6350/the-earliest-policing-records-in
Other early 17th–century parish registers do survive from various parts of Ireland, such as St Catherine’s parish, Dublin (commencing in 1636), Lisburn Cathedral, co Antrim (commencing in 1637), Holy Trinity parish in Cork city (commencing in 1641) and Derry Cathedral (commencing in 1642) for example, but the start date of 1619 for St John’s makes it the oldest by 17 years. As with other early 17th–century registers which have been transcribed, indexed and published as part of the Library’s publication series, printed copies of this extraordinary volume are available for sale from the Church of Ireland online store: https://store.ireland.anglican.org/store/all?categories=11
From a more detailed list of the parish record collection, see here: http://ireland.anglican.org/cmsfiles/pdf/AboutUs/library/registers/ParishRegisters/DEF/DublinStJohnParishRegisterList.pdf