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Irish Landed Estate Records:  Piepowder, Anyone?

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Irish Records


Parkes Castle Ireland. Courtesy of

Parkes Castle Ireland. Courtesy of

By Deborah Dale, Student

My binder, full of material from the course, Irish: Land Administration Records  felt somewhat heavy after eight weeks of studying.  I carried it to my desk, to the open spot between several stacks of files, along with some just brewed coffee.

At the window I paused to look at the gray sky and wondered if it resembled the color over County Waterford — on what was perhaps a cool January morning in 1851 – when my 3rd great grandfather Michael Higgins, a Roman Catholic tenant farmer, could have walked the length of the land he occupied.

I opened my binder to the module about Irish landed estate records (Module 4), which had been for me the most interesting, not only because these records include lists of tenants, but also because I had been suddenly, but enjoyably, catapulted into the history of a word I knew nothing about:  piepowder.

I will explain in a few moments.  First, a couple of things about landed estate records:  1) they can be used as a substitute for Ireland’s nineteenth century census returns, which were mostly destroyed in the Four Courts fire of 1922, and 2) even though Module 4 gives a description of the most common estate documents, it does not fail to mention the difficulties a researcher may encounter during the search process.

The module also mentions the right of Irish landowners to hold manorial courts.  In Ireland, these consisted of the court-baron, the court-leet and the court of piepowder.

Piepowder?   At first reading, my eyes scrolled to the footnotes for an explanation.  Who knew that a French term meaning “dusty feet” was associated with the word piepowder and the trying of cases involving travelers from out of town (mostly merchants)?

A series of questions emerged: did traveling merchants in Ireland often trespass estate boundaries?  Were Irish courts of Piepowder named after English courts of piepowder?  If so, how did the English courts, which had been associated with markets and fairs, become associated with Irish estates?  Did Irish estates hold markets and fairs?  Did my ancestor Michael Higgins attend them?  These and other questions were sparked simply by reading the material from the Irish: Land Administration Records course.

Now, the morning is long over and I feel some sense of accomplishment:  the assignments for this course have all been submitted and I will take the exam shortly, my first at the intermediate level in the Irish records program.



Irish: Testamentary Source Records

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Irish Records

ireland_127_bg_061702 courtesy of

By Debbie Dale, Student

The Irish: Testamentary Source Records course is short; only four modules are included. In fact, it is the shortest course I have ever taken through the National Institute for Genealogical Studies, yet each module is packed with information.

But first, a couple of sad but helpful facts about testamentary records:

  • The majority of testamentary records (wills, administrations, probates) were destroyed in the Public Record Office fire of 1922, but not all of them and indices and abstracts created before 1922, such as Betham’s abstracts can be found. The “Index of Irish Wills 1484-1858,” for example, can now be accessed through the subscription website Findmypast and the National Archives of Ireland offers a digitized collection called “Calendars of Wills and Administrations 1858 – 1920.” One should also check the PRONI (the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland).
  • Although the majority of wills were left by men who owned property, the wills of spinsters and widows make up a significant minority. These may be surprisingly rich in genealogy, listing numerous family members, including nephews and nieces.  After the Married Women’s Property Act 1882, married women could legally create wills.

Now for a quick rundown of course material and assignments:

Module 1 of the Irish: Testamentary Source Records course defines wills and last testaments, their types, purpose and importance. It offers common terms used with wills and administrations as well as common elements that exist in every will.

Module 2 talks about the advantages and disadvantages of using civil court records. It also breaks the history of Irish testamentary sources into three periods:  1) rare medieval wills prior to the Reformation, 2) 1536 to 1858 when Ecclesiastical Courts of the Established Church of Ireland held jurisdiction over all probate matters, and 3) from 1858 forward when jurisdiction was transferred to civil courts.

Module 3 discusses testamentary records before 1858, the courts of the Established Church of Ireland and the availability of records. It also gives a county by county listing of court jurisdictions.

Module 4 talks about records after the Probate Act of 1857 and their availability. The module ends by offering a nice summation of the course material, which includes the different types of documents (wills, will abstracts and indices, administrations as well as their abstracts and indices) and repositories.

As for assignments, there are a total of 27 individual questions that ask about the course material and your own research and experience with testamentary sources.

Not a bad bargain for a four-week course.

As I write this I have one assignment left:  a research plan involving testamentary records. After that, the exam and a decision about the next intermediate level course I will take through the National Institute for Genealogical Studies. I look forward to my selection.

See you next time!







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