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Ireland's Social ClassesKnowing your Irish ancestors religion and their social class will help when seeking documents or any evidence of their existence

In the past, social inequality in Ireland was not only accepted but was even considered by some to be ‘divinely ordained’.

We can’t discount the class system during our genealogical research. The family background of our ancestor(s) – whether they were labourers, cottiers, small-holders, merchants, strong-farmers, gentry, or aristocrats – will determine which records we search to find them.


The economic class into which a person was born often determined their age at first marriage and when their children were likely to have been born. As a rule of thumb, we take a generation as being 30 years. However, among the aristocratic classes, the daughters that married and the eldest son who was due to inherit everything, usually married relatively early – in their early to mid-twenties.

‘A good catch’ was snapped up early while those with little or no dowery took longer and often did not ever marry.

A similar pattern can be seen in the poorest classes but for very different reasons. They had nothing to gain and nothing to lose. They married when the opportunity arose, this was often when they were quite young, especially before the famine.

Emigrants sometimes married outside of their religion but mixed marriages seldom occurred on the island of Ireland.

Rural Working Class

The vast majority of the Irish population were rural working class – oppressed, impoverished catholics. Pre-famine they married early and had large families, post famine they often married much later or emigrated before marriage.

Social stratification existed even within this group – labourers tended to marry servants, cottiers married each other, small farmers seldom married into ‘comfortable’ farmers and visa-versa

Generational Gaps

Have you ever looked at generational gaps in your family tree?

For instance one branch of my family were impoverished, small farmers; my ggg grandfather was born in 1770, that averages at nearly 50 years per generation. Whereas another branch were even more impoverished artisans, shoemakers etc and their line speeds up by about 50 years over 5 generations


The direction of their emigration can also be an indicator; those who could afford a passage to the US went stateside whereas others took the boat to Great Britain which was much cheaper. Some went to England with the intention of continuing to the US but never got there. Others drifted out of England in other directions – these are some of the most difficult ancestors to find as there were no documentation required to travel between Ireland and GB


It is within the majority of the population we’ll find the ‘wrong-doers’; those who appeared in the courts, in the papers and on transportation records. They were marginalised, they fought against the system and many were penalised for so doing.


Class can also be a useful signifier, helping to distinguish one man from another in an historic document or parish register. For example, in an 18th or 19th century record, the use of ‘Esq.’ (Esquire) after a man’s name indicates he enjoyed a certain status above the mere ‘misters’ who in turn were separate from the majority of the population who where just plain John & Jane Doe

So, although the idea of a class system may not appeal to us nowadays, it is something that we need to consider during our research, and which can help us to understand more about our ancestors and their lives.

Further Reading

An Essay on the Distribution of Wealth, and on the Sources of Taxation  ~ Richard Jones