‘A most valuable storehouse of history’

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), Penal Laws, Volume 17

The Registry has been in the impressive James Gandon-designed King’s Inns since 1831, sharing the premises with the Honourable Society of King’s Inns. (Michael Craig)

The Registry has been in the impressive James Gandon-designed King’s Inns since 1831, sharing the premises with the Honourable Society of King’s Inns. (Michael Craig)

The Registry of Deeds, located in the King’s Inns building in the north-west quarter of Dublin city, is one of Ireland’s most remarkable archives, described by one commentator as ‘a most valuable storehouse of history’. The Registry is at once a still-functioning public office for registering property transactions and a repository of centuries-old records of great importance to historical researchers. The year just ended saw the tercentenary of the Registry of Deeds, which opened for business in Dublin Castle in March 1708. The Registry is thus one of the oldest continually functioning Irish state offices, being surpassed in age perhaps only by such ancient legal offices as the attorney general and solicitor general. The Registry has been in the impressive James Gandon-designed King’s Inns since 1831, sharing the premises with the Honourable Society of King’s Inns (barristers’ association).

New Property Registration Authority

The survival of the Registry of Deeds into the early 21st century in such a setting and so little changed is undoubtedly a wonder.

The late T. P. O’Neill, an expert on ‘discovery’, with President Eamon de Valera, whose signature features in the Registry.

The late T. P. O’Neill, an expert on ‘discovery’, with President Eamon de Valera, whose signature features in the Registry.

Of course, so archaic an institution can no longer be entirely suitable for the needs of a modern economy with an active—indeed, until recently a hyperactive—property sector. The Registry of Deeds is therefore currently in the process of being subsumed, together with the younger Land Registry, established in 1892, into a new Property Registration Authority, which is headquartered in Chancery Street. Of most concern to the legal searchers, genealogists and historians who are the principal users of the Registry will be the question of continued, and indeed enhanced, access to the repository’s older records.
These records are distinguished by the fact that they are substantially intact and have never suffered the damage or destruction that has befallen so many Irish archives, most notably the Public Record Office in the Four Courts in 1922. While the more recent records of the Registry are computerised (‘e-conveyancing’ is now close to reality), digitisation of the older deeds is still under consideration by the Department of Justice, which oversees the Property Registration Authority. A report by PA Management Consultants presented to the minister for justice in 2006 noted that current record storage arrangements in the Registry are not suitable for long-term archival preservation, going on to suggest that disposal of the state’s interest in the King’s Inns building could ‘offset the considerable costs of a scanning and relocation project’.

Set up in the context of the Penal Laws

The Registry of Deeds, administered by a registrar, was established under an act of parliament passed in 1707, 6 Anne, chapter 2, the full title being ‘An Act for the public registering of all deeds, conveyances and wills that shall be made of any honours, manors, lands, tenements or hereditaments’. While the general utility of the act is clear, the unpleasant penalisation of Catholics, which was an unfortunate feature of so much legislation of the period, is also evident in the preamble:

‘For securing purchasers, preventing forgeries and fraudulent gifts and conveyances of lands, tenements and hereditaments, which have been frequently practised in this kingdom, especially by Papists, to the great prejudice of the Protestant interest thereof, and for settling and establishing a certain method, with proper rules and directions, for registering a memorial of all deeds and conveyances.’

The registration procedure was that, following the drawing up, signing and witnessing of a deed, one of the contracting parties, usually the grantee, had a copy or ‘memorial’ of the deed made and, following attestation before a justice of the peace, this memorial was sent to the Registry of Deeds. The Registry filed the original memorial, transcribed it in full into a parchment volume, and eventually indexed it. The first memorial was registered on 29 March 1708 and recorded a transaction relating to lands in the barony of Coslea, Co. Limerick, between Nanfan, Earl of Bellomont, and Connell Vereker. During the first two decades of the Registry of Deeds some 35,000 memorials were registered, and by the 1760s there were over 135,000 memorials. The total of memorials exceeded 250,000 by 1790 and had passed 500,000 by the 1820s.
The Registry of Deeds today holds nearly five million memorials, and the signatures of many of Ireland’s historically prominent persons will be found on documents, for example Dean Swift, Henry Grattan, Wolfe Tone, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory and Eamon de Valera. Up to the late nineteenth century and the significant expansion of Irish property ownership in the wake of the land acts, the Registry’s records relate to a wealthy élite, with a bias towards non-Catholics and with the moderately well-off and poor rarely appearing. While genealogists tend to be familiar with the Registry, it would be fair to say that it is rather less used by historians. In addition to genealogy, typical non-legal uses would include biography, local history, architectural studies, landed estates research, house history and social history. The principal classes of deed that will be encountered in the Registry are leases, mortgages, sales, rent charges, marriage settlements and wills, as well as an unusual instrument of the penal era called a ‘bill of discovery’.

Bills of discovery

Wolfe Tone

Wolfe Tone

One of the more obnoxious provisions of the penal laws against Catholics was that relating to ‘Protestant discoverers’. A discoverer could file a bill in the Court of Chancery against a Catholic with a legally deficient lease, and claim the lease for his own benefit. Given that a principal thrust of the laws was against Catholic property rights, unearthing legal flaws was not a difficult task, in particular leases exceeding the 31 years permitted to Catholics. The process, however, was in fact also used by canny Catholics to protect themselves, by employing a ‘collusive discovery’. Working with a trusted Protestant associate or agent, a spurious bill of discovery would be obtained, which on paper would see the property in question assigned to the Protestant, but in reality it would continue to be enjoyed by the Catholic.
The smokescreen of protection afforded by this legal manoeuvre was not infrequently completed by registering a deed of trust in the Registry of Deeds. The late T. P. O’Neill, an expert on discovery, has given examples of some transactions as they relate to Dublin property. Thus in 1737 one John Myers filed a bill in relation to the chapel of St Nicholas and adjoining holdings in Francis Street. Rather than the seizure of what was then the Catholic pro-cathedral of Dublin and its precincts, this was in fact a collusive device to protect the properties. Of course, genuine Protestant discoverers were active also, and many Catholics preferred to secure their property rights more surely by converting to the established church. Thus between the 1690s and 1790s the amount of land in Catholic hands fell from c. 15% to c. 5%, yet relatively little land actually changed hands.

Daniel O’Connell

Daniel O’Connell

In 1814 the Registrar of Deeds, Lord Kilwarden, was occupying the post as a sinecure, allowing a deputy to administer the Registry on his behalf—or, as a parliamentary enquiry delicately put it, ‘he has never interfered in the management or execution of the duties’. Discontent over the way in which the Registry was run was evident from complaints by the Law Society recorded in another parliamentary report of 1831, to the effect that the fees charged were too expensive, that users were prevented from taking full abstracts from the registers and that finding aids were deficient. The transfer of the Registry of Deeds to the King’s Inns in 1831 was followed by some reorganisation, and in particular the indexes became more detailed in respect of addresses of property. A remarkable instance of early information technology appears to have been involved in the efforts of a Mr Dillon in the 1870s to develop a machine to speed up the indexing of deeds, which, however, does not appear to have come to fruition.
The records of the Registry of Deeds only listed specific transactions relating to a given property, which had to be fairly laboriously searched out. There were increasing calls in the nineteenth century, and particularly in the wake of the land acts in the 1880s, for a superior system of registration that would record ownership, mapped location and other details of a given property in a single folio. The Registration of Title Act 1891 was designed to establish such an improved system, modelled on the ideas of Sir Robert Torrens, and gave rise to the Land Registry, which opened in 1892. As demonstrated by its continuing survival, the Registry of Deeds did not lose its utility, particularly with regard to urban property, and it was one of the institutions of the British regime that was maintained after independence in 1922. It is important to remember that the Registry retains records for all of Ireland before 1922, Northern Ireland having established its own Registry of Deeds after that date.
The Property Registration Authority was established under the Registration of Deeds and Titles Act 2006, and is carrying forward a modernisation programme commenced in recent years (Northern Ireland is following a similar trajectory).

Charles Stewart Parnell some of the historically prominent persons whose signatures will be found on documents in the Registry of Deeds.

Charles Stewart Parnell some of the historically prominent persons whose signatures will be found on documents in the Registry of Deeds.

The new authority is geared to developing the Land Registry model with the target of registering all property in the state, and it is obvious that the days of a separate Registry of Deeds are numbered because of its perceived archaism.
All institutions should be subject to reform, but in the case of the Registry of Deeds this should proceed with sufficient respect for its heritage and records. It is encouraging that the Property Registration Authority did mark the tercentenary of the statutory establishment of the Registry of Deeds in 2007, and it is to be hoped that the benefits of information technology will be applied to the older records in the Authority’s care, as they have been to the newer. The Registry of Deeds has endured from the penal era to post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, in the process generating a remarkable archive of documents that should be rendered more accessible to a broader range of scholars, students and family historians. HI

Seán J. Murphy is a historian and Adult Education tutor in genealogy in University College Dublin.

Further reading:

J. Grenham, Tracing your Irish ancestors (Dublin, 2006), chapter 8.

T. P. O’Neill, ‘Discoverers and discoveries: the penal laws and Dublin property’, Dublin Historical Record 37 (1983–4), 2–13.
The Property Registration Authority, http://www.landregistry.ie/eng/.

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