Registry of Deeds

Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2015), Volume 23

Memorial or ‘Tombstone’ books in the Registry of Deeds, into which the original sworn documents were transcribed. (S.J. Murphy)

Memorial or ‘Tombstone’ books in the Registry of Deeds, into which the original sworn documents were transcribed. (S.J. Murphy)

In 1707 the Registry of Deeds was established by act of the Irish parliament, to secure the transfer of land after the Williamite conquest. The Registry’s intended main function was to provide security of tenure for new owners of land in Ireland. The registration or ‘memorialising’ of deeds was on an entirely voluntary basis. Registered deeds had priority title over unregistered deeds.

The process by which a deed was memorialised involved the clerk in the Registry transcribing the original sworn document into the Memorial or ‘Tombstone’ books (so called because that’s what you’d end up under if one of these outsize volumes fell on you!). The clerks compiled two indexes: the Grantors’ Index, which recorded the surnames of the contracting parties and is now available in the Genealogy Room on the second floor, and the Townlands’ Index, which recorded place-names and is available in the Research Room, adjoining the Genealogy Room. The index of place-names includes separate books for the cities, with an alphabetical street index, e.g. ‘City of Dublin—Aungier Street’. From 1820 the clerks also maintained separate books for all borough towns in Ireland, with an alphabetical street index. From 1833 to 1969, clerks made separate Abstract books of documents.

The Registry of Deeds attracted significant numbers of users from the start. Between 1708 and 1832 approximately 800,000 deeds were memorialised; between 1830 and 1930 a further 1½ million deeds were added. As the Penal Laws were relaxed from the 1780s, more people had recourse to the Registry. In the first half of the nineteenth century the Registry achieved its greatest number of users, as it became increasingly popular to register 21-year leases and leases-for-lives. In 1832 the system of indexing and memorialising deeds was reformed. The indices to original documents are only complete from this date.

The records of the Registry of Deeds have been dismissed by some as the records of an élite. The aristocracy and gentry are well represented, but these are mainly the records of the Irish middle class, which remained a broad social group even after three conquests. Registration of a deed conferred priority title, so that from the outset the ‘old’ Catholic landowners and Dissenters had recourse to the Registry. Within a generation it became a vehicle for trusts to ‘dodge’ the Penal Laws.

The deeds memorialised mainly concern property, because this was most people’s principal asset. These documents, however, record more than simple leases and conveyances. From the 1700s many of the records document mortgages, as property was leveraged to raise money for new business ventures; the creation and dissolution of business partnerships; or even defining the assets and ownership of a business. Other deeds include marriage settlements, and in some instances legal agreements of separation. The Registry also memorialised many wills, especially where there were overseas assets or where designated heirs lived outside Ireland. Wills were commonly memorialised if they were contentious, i.e. bequests to a mistress or to natural children born outside marriage.

These deeds also contain a further layer of society in the names of the witnesses: most often the legal clerks, schoolteachers and small shopkeepers in their local communities. We don’t see them in other sources, as they didn’t have enough resources to leave a paper trail. Only digitisation will recover these names for researchers.

Fiona Fitzsimons is a director of Eneclann, a Trinity College campus company, and of findmypast Ireland.

Further reading

S.J. Murphy, ‘A most valuable storehouse of history’, History Ireland 17 (1) (2009), 22–5.

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