Civil parishes in Ireland are units of territory that have their origins in old Gaelic territorial divisions. They were adopted by the Anglo-Normans and then the Elizabethans, and were formalised as land divisions at the time of Cromwell. They no longer correspond to the boundaries of Catholic parishes, which are generally larger. Their use as administrative units was gradually replaced by poor law divisions in the 19th century, although they were not formally abolished. Today they are still sometimes used for legal purposes.
The Irish civil parish was based on the Gaelic territorial unit called a túath orTrícha cét. Following the Norman invasion of Ireland, the Anglo-Norman barons retained the tuath, later renamed a parish or manor, as a unit of taxation. The civil parish was formally created by Elizabethan legislation. Accounts were kept of income and expenditures for each parish including pensions and poor relief. Statutes were based on ecclesiastical parishes, although it is not known how well-defined such parishes were.
At the time of the English Civil War, in 1654–56 a Civil Survey was taken of all the lands of Ireland. It proved inaccurate, and in 1656–58 the Down Survey was conducted, using physical measurements to make as accurate a map as was possible at the time of townlands, parishes and baronies. This became the basis for all future land claims. Parishes are an intermediate subdivision, with multiple townlands per parish and multiple parishes per barony. A civil parish is typically made up of 25–30 townlands. It may include urban areas such as villages. A parish may cross the boundaries of both baronies and counties; in some cases it may be in several geographically separate parts.
Civil parishes had some use in local taxation. They were included on the nineteenth century maps of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. The Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898 established administrative counties divided into county districts (urban districts and rural districts) making parishes largely obsolete, and they were removed from subsequent editions of OS maps.
For poor law purposes district electoral divisions replaced the civil parishes in the mid-nineteenth century. Townlands are the smallest land unit in Ireland, and the most precise address that most rural people have.
An 1871 report to parliament noted that there were three classes of parish in Ireland: the civil parish, the Church of Ireland parish and the Roman Catholic parish. The first two generally but not always had the same boundaries, while the third generally did not. As a result of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic church had to adapt to a structure based on towns and villages, with parishes that generally were larger than the old parishes.
A Tudor statute, renewed in 1695 by the Irish parliament, said that land should be granted in each parish for a resident protestant schoolmaster. The Union of Parishes (Ireland) Act 1827 defined rules for redefining parish boundaries, erecting Chapels of Ease and making Perpetual Cures. It has since been amended and in part repealed. While the boundaries of the parishes of the Church of Ireland changed following the disestablishment of the church in 1869, this did not affect the boundaries of the civil parishes.
The 1871 report noted that ecclesiastical parish boundaries must be flexible to meet the requirements of the cure of souls, but that for statistical and possibly administrative purposes the boundaries of civil parishes should be fixed, or at least should rarely change.
By 1800 civil parishes had replaced the ecclesiastical parishes for administrative purposes. although the timing and method of the change is not well-documented. The civil parish was used for census and taxation purposes. The civil parishes were included on the nineteenth century maps of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. At the time of the 1861 census there were 2,428 civil parishes in Ireland. Poor Law districts were created in 1838, each centred on a large town. There were 130 poor law unions with 829 registration districts and 3,751 district electoral divisions for census purposes.In 1898 poor law unions replaced civil parishes as the basic local government unit.
Civil parishes have not been formally abolished in either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, and are still used in some legal contexts. One example where the parish is still referenced in Republic of Ireland law is the Intoxicating Liquor Act, 1988, which allows “any person resident in the parish in which the club premises are situated” to object to the granting of an alcohol licence to a club In 2001 there were 2,508 civil parishes. Old records of marriages, births etc. are mostly organised by civil parish. Church of Ireland parishes usually conform to civil parish boundaries.