By Paddy Waldron,
PRO, KDHS and chairman, Clare Roots Society
[Article published in Clare Association Yearbook 2014 pp. 46-50]
The word “District” in the title of the Kilrush & District Historical Society (KDHS, Est. 2012) reflects the fact that the history of Kilrush is inextricably linked with that of its hinterland in west Clare. The boundaries of that hinterland have been defined in various ways for various purposes over the centuries. The town of Kilrush has provided that hinterland with services including a workhouse and numerous auxiliary workhouses during the Great Famine, and more recently secondary schools, a hospital, a market for its produce, access to steamer traffic on the Shannon Estuary, etc.
Kilrush has given its name to a townland, to a town, to a parish, to electoral divisions (urban and rural) and electoral areas, and to Poor Law Unions. In earlier times, Kilrush was the main town in the Barony of Moyarta. Anyone interested in genealogy and in tracing west Clare roots needs to acquire some familiarity with all these layers of administrative divisions. Given that during the first year of the KDHS’s existence Kilrush was chosen to host the National Famine Commemoration (held in May 2013), the most obvious boundaries to define the district covered by the society's activities are those of the first Kilrush Poor Law Union (PLU), which was operated from Kilrush Union Workhouse by the Kilrush Board of Guardians during the Great Famine.
The first Kilrush Poor Law Union was formally declared on 1 August 1838. It was one of the 130 PLUs into which Ireland was divided around that time, and it remained the basis of local government and local taxation until replaced by a smaller second Kilrush PLU on 22 February 1850. This was part of a restructuring of PLUs which saw an additional 33 Unions created around the country by subdividing and reorganizing the boundaries of some existing Unions (see www.workhouses.org/Kilrush).
Some of the original PLUs, including Kilrush, were simply unions of civil parishes. The 1838 Kilrush PLU comprised 13 multi-seat electoral divisions, each coinciding with a civil parish, as listed in the accompanying table and shown in the accompanying map (see Matthew Lynch, The Mass Evictions in Kilrush Poor Law Union during the Great Famine, (The Old Kilfarboy Society, 2013), p. 12; I am grateful to Matthew Lynch for permission to reproduce the map). A few of these areas had more than one name, for example Kilkee or Kilfearagh; most of them had multiple spellings; and the potential for confusion is compounded by the fact that two of the civil parishes were known as Kilmurry, one in the old Barony of Ibrickan and the other in the old Barony of Clonderalaw! These original electoral divisions were larger than the completely different single-seat district electoral divisions (DEDs) used after the 1850 restructuring. The smaller post-1850 DEDs will be familiar to anyone who has consulted the census returns for 1901 and 1911 at www.census.nationalarchives.ie. Furthermore, the 1838 PLU appears to have included not only many areas which were transferred to the new Kildysart PLU in 1850, but also the eight townlands in Kilmurry (Ibrickan) civil parish which by 1851 were in Ennistimon PLU (see notes to table) and the one townland in Kilmihil civil parish which by 1851 was in Ennis PLU (Sorrel Island, also known as Illaunatoo).
Those engaged in historical and genealogical research in Ireland need to understand the subtle distinctions between civil parishes (of which the boundaries were mapped by the Ordnance Survey of Ireland in the first half of the 19th century) and the church parishes used by the various religious denominations. There is a widespread misconception that each civil parish was also a separate parish of the established church (known between the Act of Union 1800 and the Irish Church Act 1869 as the United Church of England and Ireland). It is certainly true that a separate Tithe Applotment Book (TAB) was compiled for each civil parish in the 1820s and 1830s, setting out the amounts payable by the occupiers of all religions to the clergy of the established church. The accompanying table shows the years of those TABs for the 13 parishes in Kilrush PLU.
In west Clare, by 1838, however, the established church was structured around a number of smaller unions of parishes, generally with only one active church in each union. The parish of Kilmurry (Clonderalaw) had been episcopally united in 1774 to those of Killofin, Kilmacduane, Kilfedane, and Killeymur, together constituting the union of Kilmurry (see Samuel Lewis, County Clare: A History and Topography (paperback ed., CLASP Press, 1998), p. 88). All four of these parishes adjoin Kilmurry (Clonderalaw). The parish of Kilrush had been episcopally united, in 1777 to the vicarages of Kilfieragh, Kilballyhone, and Moyarta (ibid., p. 99); this union too formed a single geographical unit. The vicarage of Kilfarboy was episcopally united, in 1801, to that of Kilmihill (ibid., p. 62). Kilfarboy is geographically separated from Kilmihil by Kilmurry (Ibrickan). which hardly merits a mention in Church of Ireland records and which may also have been part of this union. The vicarage of Kildysart was united to the vicarage of Kilchrist (in Ennis PLU) and the rectory of Kilfarboy (at the opposite end of Kilrush PLU). Killard appears to have been unique in west Clare in remaining an independent Anglican parish in 1838. Kilfearagh appears to have again become an independent parish a few years later when St. James's Church of Ireland was built (constructed 1840/1, consecrated 1843; see www.dia.ie). Today, none of the buildings used by the established church in west Clare in 1838 remains in religious use and St. James's is now the only active Church of Ireland building in the former Kilrush PLU, but only during the summer tourist season in July and August.
The Representative Church Body Library of the Church of Ireland in Dublin holds at least some of the parish registers of all the six parishes which covered the area of Kilrush PLU, namely Kildysert, Kilfarboy, Kilferagh, Killard, Kilmurry and Kilrush (see John Grenham, Tracing Your Irish Ancestors (1st ed., Gill & Macmillan, 1992) pp 253-4).
By 1838, Catholic parishes throughout Ireland were entirely different from the civil parishes used by government and the unions of civil parishes used by the established church. Catholic and civil parishes often shared a name but even then did not necessarily share the same boundaries. Frequently, a Catholic parish comprised two or more civil parishes. While they had common pre-Reformation origins, the two churches were parallel universes with no mutual recognition and there were no longer any jurisdictional connections at all between them. As new Catholic churches were built after the end of the Penal Laws and the introduction of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, usually more than one church per parish, it often made sense to redraw parish borders so that people lived in the same parish as their most convenient church. Gerard Curtin wrote recently in Every Field Had a Name: The Place-names of West Limerick (Sliabh Luachra Historical Society, 2012), p. 2:
in my travels I came across varied opinions of Catholic parish boundaries. In cases it was put forward that people in certain areas were paying church dues to a certain parish or playing football or hurling with another parish. However, where townlands are divided between parishes the whole situation was locally generally confused and it was decided to let the research stand ... the boundaries of the civil parishes and the later Catholic parishes were in almost all cases totally different.
The situation in Clare is no different from that in Limerick. Thus, the table accompanying this article lists:
The notes to the table list some of the discrepancies between church and civil parish boundaries.
In 1838, the Catholic parishes of West Clare generally comprised two civil parishes each, so the first Kilrush PLU at its formation constituted roughly six and a half Catholic parishes. Beginning with the separation of Kilmurry (Ibrickan) from Kilfarboy after the death of Fr. Anthony McGuane in March 1839, 11 of the civil parishes eventually became 11 separate Catholic parishes. The exceptions were Killofin and Kilmurry (Clonderalaw) which have been united as the Catholic parish of Kilmurry McMahon since 1744. The second set of changes came during the Great Famine in 1848, when Kilrush and Killimer were separated on the transfer of the parish priest Fr. John Kenny to Ennis (and to be Dean of Killaloe). At the same time, Kimihil and Kilmacduane were separated on the transfer of Fr. Timothy Kelly to succeed Kenny in Kilrush. The death of Fr. Michael Roughan on 6 August 1868 resulted in the separation of Kildysart and Coolmeen. The separation of Killard from Kilfearagh took place after the death of Fr. Michael Comyn on 7 November 1854. The process ended with the separation of Moyarta and Kilballyowen on the death of Fr. Michael Meehan on 24 January 1878.
For each pair of parishes separated between 1839 and 1878, the existing registers of baptisms and marriages were retained by one parish and new registers were started in the other. So for one parish in each pair it is necessary to consult both sets of registers, one for events before the separation, the other for events after the separation.
On the map of the civil parishes of County Clare, the first Kilrush PLU comprised the civil parishes of Kilmurry (Ibrickan), Kilmihil, Kilfiddane, and Killadysert, i.e. the parishes numbered 40,60,62 and 64, and everything to the south and west as far as Loop Head.
Part of the first Kilrush PLU and part of the original Ennis PLU became the new Kildysart PLU on 22 February 1850, leaving a smaller second Kilrush PLU. In Irish Civil Registration Indexes (available at www.FamilySearch.org), non-Catholic marriages which took place in the original larger 1838 Kilrush PLU from 1 April 1845 to 31 December 1863 and all births, marriages and deaths which took place in the new smaller 1850 Kilrush PLU are listed as taking place and being registered in "Kilrush".
The boundaries of the first Kilrush PLU cross the following main roads at the indicated locations:
|Catholic parish (website)
|Catholic parish (book)
|United since 1744
|United until 1878
|United until 1868
|United until 1854
|United until 1848
|United until 1848
|Killimer and Knockerra
|United until 1839 with Kilfarboy (Ennistimon PLU)