Questions and explanations. The very welcome release of the Catholic Parish Registers online has prompted a number of questions from Kerry descendants. The question bothering most enquirers is ‘Why does xxx parish register only start 1840’? or ‘Where are the records before 1780 for xxxx parish?
Descendants of Kerry emigrants from the United States, Australia and New Zealand in particular, find it difficult to understand the situation where we do not have baptismal, marriage or indeed death records going back before 1820/1850. This problem is as a result of the general religious restrictions and the Penal Laws from the late 16th century to the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, it was difficult and dangerous for priests to keep and/or maintain records. As a result only a small number of parish registers survive of baptisms and marriages before 1820. The urban parishes of Tralee (1772), Killarney (1792) and Listowel (1802) have the earliest records but the records for more rural and poorer parishes start much later.
Again there is a misunderstanding in that descendants also assume that the parish structure itself began in the year from which the records are available. The present parish structure of Kerry Catholic parishes was ultimately defined after the Counter Reformation by Rickard O’Connell in 1613. Due to the political situation there were no seminaries in Ireland. Fr. O’Connell had attended the Seminary of Salamanca and been ordained for the Diocese of Ardfert. He was appointed vicar apostolic rather than bishop and he immediately set to re-organising the diocese.
The questions are not just coming from Kerry descendants of course. In my work as part of the GAS (Genealogy Advisory Service) at the National Library, this question is posed again and again for parishes throughout Ireland. Descendants from all over the world flock to the Library hoping to find that elusive ‘birth’ record of a long lost ancestor. We explain that ‘births’ were not recorded in Ireland until after 1864 and then we are into the search for the baptismal record. We may not be able to find a record of the actual baptism, if it is too early but we can usually help in finding some trace of a family through land/shipping/ estate records. A lot depends on the quality of the research already carried out in the country the emigrant arrived in.
 Kieran O’Shea, ed. The Diocese of Kerry formerly Ardfert, (Strasbourg) 2005