Kilrush Poor Law Union and the Parishes of West Clare

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

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 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 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, 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:

Notes Electoral
Civil parish Catholic parish (website) Catholic parish (book) Earliest Catholic
TAB Other
United since 1744 Killofin Killofin Kilmurry McMahon Kilmurry MacMahon 1837 1834 Labasheeda
Knock Kilmurry (Clonderalaw) 1825
United until 1878 Moyarta Moyarta Carrigaholt Carrigaholt 1852 1827 Doonaha
Kilballyoan Kilballyowen Cross (Kilballyowen) Cross 1878 1825 Kilbaha
United until 1868 Kildysert Killadysert Kildysart Kildysart 1829 1825
Kilfidduan Kilfiddane Coolmeen (Kilfidane) Cranny/Coolmeen 1868 1824 Cranny
United until 1854 Killard Killard Doonbeg (Killard) Doonbeg 1855 1826 Bealaha
Kilkee Kilfearagh Kilkee (Kilfearagh) Kilkee 1836 1827 Lisdeen
United until 1848 Kilmacdooaun Kilmacduane Cooraclare (Kilmacduane) Cooraclare 1853 1825 Cree
Kilmihil Kilmihil Kilmihil Kilmihill 1849 1826
United until 1848 Killiner Killimer Killimer and Knockerra Killimer/Knockerra 1859 1824 Knockerra
Kilrush Kilrush Kilrush Kilrush 1827 1826 Moanmore
United until 1839 with Kilfarboy (Ennistimon PLU) Kilmurry Kilmurry (Ibrickan) Mullagh (Kilmurry-Ibrickane) Mullagh 1839

Notes to Table:

  1. Generally, birth and marriage registers have survived, but there are some gaps, and very few burial registers were kept. With the exception of the earliest register for Kilkee, these registers have been microfilmed up to around 1880 and are available at the Local Studies Centre in Clare County Library in Ennis and at the National Library of Ireland in Dublin and can also be ordered through the Family History Centers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Ireland and worldwide.
  2. The townlands of Bellia, Cloonconeen, Killeenagh, Killinny and Knocknagarhoon, along with parts of Trusklieve and Tullig, are in Moyarta civil parish but in Cross Catholic parish (Paul Murphy, Cuchulain’s Leap (Loop Head): A History Of The Parishes Of Carrigaholt & Cross (1st ed., Carrigaholt & Cross Heritage Group, 1992), p. 243.)
  3. The townlands of Lisgurreen and Lismuse, and possibly part of the townland of Carrowblough More, are in Killard civil parish but in Kilkee Catholic parish; and part of the townland of Farrihy in Kilfearagh civil parish may be in Doonbeg Catholic parish. The present area of Kilkee Catholic parish is over 10,000 acres, including land gained in a territorial adjustment with Killard in 1854, leaving 16,323 acres in Doonbeg Catholic parish. In 1851, the civil parish of Kilfearagh comprised 9,870 acres, 2 roods and 38 perches and that of Killard comprised 17,022 acres, 1 rood and 1 perch (Joe Hurley (ed), Doonbeg: A Story to Tell (Doonbeg Book Committee, 1995), pp 12-13; and Ignatius Murphy, Before the Famine Struck: Life in West Clare 1834-1845, (Irish Academic Press, 1996), p. 11.)
  4. The townlands of Carrowduff, Doonsallagh East, Doonsallagh West, Killernan, Knockanalban, Knockloskeraun, Shanavogh East and Shanavogh West in Kilmurry (Ibrickan) civil parish (no. 40 on the map) appear to have become part of Miltown Malbay Catholic parish (no. 39 on the map) in 1839 and part of Ennistimon PLU in 1850. This move straightened the meandering boundary between the two civil parishes and between the original 1838 PLUs which can be seen on the map.
  5. There are probably other similar discrepancies between the other Catholic and civil parishes in the above table known only to those with local expertise. I would be happy to hear of any such discrepancies. See or or for contact details.