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The Diocesan Archive of Tuam, Killala and Achonry

The Diocesan Archive of Tuam, Killala and Achonry

by Dr Susan Hood

The extensive diocesan archive of the Church of Ireland’s most westerly diocesethat of Tuam, Killala and Achonry has been listed and catalogued at the RCB Library. The detailed catalogue list amounting to some 66 pages is now available online at this link.

When the Library reopens to the public, the collection will become available for researchers, and is likely to be of considerable interest. In the meantime, the purpose of this online presentation is to highlight some of this content and provide the research community with much to consider.

The project to complete the list marks the culmination of a long process to make accessible the collection as a whole. Going back to mid 1980s, papers and volumes from the united diocese were gradually transferred from local diocesan custody into the Library which is the Church’s record repository. Many will be aware that along with most of the records of the Irish dioceses up to and including the 1860s, the bulk of the collection which had been transferred to the Public Records Office of Ireland, was subsequently and tragically destroyed by fire during the civil war of 1922. Thus, what survives is largely from the middle of the 19th century onwards, but with important 1860s survivals providing a new and valuable body of evidence about how diocesan registries and their registrars conducted their business during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today the united diocese of Tuam, Killala & Achonry or TKA, as it is known within the Church community, covers all of county Mayo, much of the counties of Galway and Sligo and a small portion of county Roscommon. During the Reformation, the bishopric of Mayo was annexed to the province or archbishopric of Tuam from 1569. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Tuam was further united at various times to other smaller dioceses to Kilfenora from 1661 to 1742, Ardagh from 1742 to 1839, and Killala and Achonry from 1834. Small quantities of records representing Tuams association with Kilfenora and Ardagh which were uncovered during the process of sorting the materials listed here, have been set aside for cataloguing at a later stage.


In the case of the bishoprics of Killala and Achonry (united as one since 1622) the relationship with Tuam has been a more sustained one. Under the Church Temporalities (Ireland) Act 1833, Killala and Achonry were united to the archbishopric of Tuam from 1834, and five years later following the death of the Most Revd Hon. Power Le Poer Trench (1782–1839), who had served as archbishop since 1819, the dioceses were united as one to that of Tuam, Killala and Achonry in the province of Armagh. Trench’s successors were thus bishops, not archbishops, and from this date Tuam lost its metropolitan status as a province in its own right. In spite of the merger, Killala and Achonry continued to operate its own diocesan registry as a distinct and independent entity for a further 25 years until the unification of the two diocesan registries under the terms of the Ecclesiastical Courts and Registries (Ireland) Act 1864. And even when the registries were united thereafter the papers reveal how both Tuam and Killala and Achonry maintained various levels of autonomy and independent decision making, each with its own separate synods, councils and education structures, as well as printing separate annual reports until the latter half of the 20th century. These distinct arrangements have been adhered to in the archival arrangement of the papers, and as far as possible papers obviously created and maintained by the Killala and Achonry registry are listed together as D5A/.

The D5/ Tuam part of the collection has been organised into 21 record groups, as the Table below shows.

The first nine of these are mostly volumes of the pre and post Disestablishment provincial registry, commencing with a set of title books, the earliest of which is dated 1665; followed by a good run of subscription rolls of clergy from 1781 onwards, and a solid run of visitations, which like the title books and rolls before them bring researchers back into the 18th century. The earliest visitation returns were ordered to be returned by the Most Revd Joseph Dean Bourke, the archbishop of Tuam 1782–94, who presumably commissioned these to get an early picture of parishes, churches and glebe houses making up his province at the commencement his appointment in 1782. (D5/3/1/1).

Also found among the early run of volumes, in section 4 are the records of the diocesan synod of Tuam, Killala & Achonry, the very first of which was held on 30 August 1870, assembled in Tuam, as the first Synod Minute book reveals (D5/4/1).

The real meat of the D5/ Tuam section is the run of papers relating to specific parishes, district churches and unions catalogued as /10. Adhering to the united post 1864 registry arrangement with all the places in the three dioceses together, these papers have been maintained in alphabetical order, and give a good flavour of diocesan administration of individual parish units including documents relating to clergy (nominations, installations and retirements) and those relating to property (consecrations of churches, formations of curacies and parochial districts, glebe inspection reports, and property rentals and sales).

Given the arrangement by place, this section is likely to prove very useful to local historians but it should also be consulted by others wishing to get a sense of diocesan oversight of local clergy, property, financial matters and a host of other issue. In most cases, there is a box for each individual place covered, and collectively the section covers the period from 1684 to 1980. The data available for the parish of Dunmore for example gives a flavour of the richness, , including the presentation of the Revd Francis Browne (1758–1796) to the rectory of same, and an extensive set of accounts some detailing tithe payments made by individual named tenants, giving the townlands and payments involved in the transactions, c. 1790.

The parish section is followed by similar depth in the next section /11 covering each of the three diocesan cathedrals of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, from 1770 onwards, and also includes coverage of the Synod Hall, and Henry Library, Tuam, both located at Tuam. The local historical value of of both sections 10/ and /11 is then further fleshed out by the extensive maps and plans, including glebe maps and related papers to be found later in the collection as section /17, the example below showing detail from the map of the glebe land at Belcarra, surveyed for the Reverend R.W. Maxwell in June 1856.

The Killala and Achonry specific materials are grouped at the end of the List, as D5A/, and consist of a further 13 record groups which are broken down as shown in the table below.


Significantly, it is the Killala and Achonry part of the collection that is by far the oldest including the earliest document of the entire run being a case presented by the Most Revd Miler McGrath (1552–1622), Bishop of Killala, 1607–22 and of Achonry, 1613–22, & Archbishop of Cashel, relating to a diocesan claim on lands, c. 1613, and additionally several other documents relating specifically to lands, benefices, rentals and income of the diocese, 1658–1901, that may have been assembled as evidence of the extent of the dioceses in preparation for either the uniting of the bishoprics of Tuam, Killala and Achonry in 1834, or the later unification of the two diocesan registries in 1864 (section D5A/2).

The Killala and Achonry section is further enhanced by a most revealing run of returns made to government from 1797 onwards that includes invaluable records documenting the diocesan response to the famine that afflicted many parts of north Connaught, especially Mayo, in the early 1820s. Here we see the petition of James O’Donnell on behalf of the inhabitants of Kilcommon Erris for relief, and an account of men working on the Moyne Road, Killala, July 1822, in a famine relief works project (D5A/7/7 and /8).

There are also several returns revealing the rate of church building and repairs undertaken by the reforming and innovative Bishop James Verschoyle (1749/50–1834) the last bishop of the diocese in its own right from 1811 until his death in 1834, who was renowned as a good administrator, as the multitude of returns of made during his episcopacy capture. Here is a sample from the detailed lists of named English schoolmasters and churchwardens appointed for the parishes of Killmoremoy and Crossmolina, in 1816 (D5A/7/1).

Regrettably a feature of the Archive that is shared by many other diocesan collections is the absence of much episcopal correspondence or other personal papers created during the course of the careers of bishops and archbishops. However, the TKA collection has nevertheless thrown up the odd gems the items of Archbishop McGrath and Bishop Vershoyle above being cases in point, while a letter signed Thos. Tuam, being the Rt Revd Thomas Span Plunket (1792–1866), Bishop of Tuam 1839–1866 to “My dear Clarke”, the Revd Benjamin James Clarke (1815–1871) Deputy Registrar of Tuam during the 1840s, is most revealing. Writing from the Hotel Byron, Villeneuve, Canton de Vaud, the renowned Swiss health resort, where Plunket was on tour with his wife and daughters, on 2 Sept. 1842, we learn much about the bishop’s travels and how he managed the diocese from afar, relying on his trusted registry staff. We hope to return to the content of this letter in a future Archive of the Month (D5/12/3).

By contrast to the limits of episcopal gems, a striking value of the collections from both Tuam and Killala & Achonry registries are the abundant early returns on schools and schoolmasters. Those for Tuam date back to 1774, including a file of licences of masters for various English Schools in the diocese (see D5/19) while those for Killala and Achonry some lists naming the students of both Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations in various parishes, c. 1810 (D5A/5/2).

The story of the transfer of the archive to the RCB Library has been, as with many diocesan collections, an evolutionary and drawn out one, and much has been learned from the process of arranging and cataloguing this collection. With such vast quantities of records and an abundance of local officers responsible for same, there has been an inevitable haphazard pattern in relating to record–keeping with successive appointments of senior diocesan officials, not least the registrars, but also archdeacons, secretaries and others, records changing from one generation to the next, and with papers being moved from deaneries, rectories and elsewhere accompanying the relevant office–holders. During the 1960s the Very Revd Joseph Jackson (1884–1970), diocesan registrar for over 40 years from 1921 to 1965, who was also a keen local historian (as revealed in his personal papers which make up a section in the collection, D5/21) became so concerned that he took it upon himself to transfer some materials to the Public Records Office of Ireland, during the 1960s.

However, following the appointment of Dr Raymond Refauss as the Church’s first archivist in 1984, he arranged for many of these items to be transferred to the RCB Library where they could be assimilated into the first large tranche of diocesan registry materials transferred to the Library at that time, as authorised by the Diocesan Council on the recommendation of the Very Revd W.J. Grant (1929–2009) who was dean of Tuam and rector of Cong 1981–1993, and also served as archdeacon of the diocese from 1980. Dean Grant was encouraged and assisted by Mrs Brigid Clesham, a professional archivist based in Cong, whose interventions at local level helped to put some shape on a large and by then unwieldly accumulation of records and for making early lists and overseeing the safe transfer of several collections of the diocesan records between 1985 and 2000.

Early and invaluable attempts to group and list the growing and organic collection of diocesan records were made both by Mrs Clesham and Dr Refausse, however with intermittent new caches of papers from different locations, the job became more complicated and needed focused archival attention. Arising from ongoing discussions about a records management programme for the Church as a whole, and using the Archive as a pilot project, the Library was allocated a specific fund by the central Church to engage the services of Arcline to systematically arrange the collection, building up a comprehensive picture of the record–keeping and archiving requirements of the diocese as they worked. Two archivists Alicia Cooney followed by Ciara Daly carried out this work from June 2019 and again in early 2020, supervised by the Librarian and Archivist, who also completed the work on the Killala and Achonry part of the collection. This was further enhanced by a specific project to catalogue the maps and plans (D5/17) undertaken by Bryan Whelan, Assistant Librarian.

Thus spanning the course of 35 years, and involving several generations of professional archivists and librarians, it has truly been a team effort to at last share the detailed catalogue list that has been long–awaited by the wider research community.

To view the Tuam, Killala and Achonry Archive Catalogue please click here.

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