The importance of Wills in building your family history.

It always worth considering if your ancestor left a will.  Often people assume that their forebears were not in a position to make a will as they owned too little to pass on but wills were not just for the well off, and there are instances where the amount of effects were as little as £5.


There is the problem that the vast majority of original wills in Ireland were destroyed in the bombing and subsequent fire in the Four Courts in 1922.   Most original wills for everywhere outside of the Principal Registry (Dublin) survive from 1858 forwards and for the Principal Registry from 1904 on.


To see if your ancestor left a will or administration of their estate was granted between 1858 and 1920, you can search the Calendar of Wills and Administrations:


The Calendar of Wills and Administrations will give the date of death and address of the individual, their occupation if they had one, the executor/s, the amount of the effects and the place of registry.  So for example we have in the 1893 calendar an entry for an Hanora Sullivan, late of Ballyvougane, Co. Cork, widow who died 12 December 1892.  Hanora’s effects amounted to £62 15s and there were two executors – Daniel Twomey of Aghina, postmaster and Timothy Coakley, of Ballyvougane, a farmer.  I have chosen to highlight a Cork will because many of the will registers for Cork Registry survive from the 19th century, so we can see a copy from the register of the original will.   These registers are held in the National Archives but have been digitised by Findmypast along with all other surviving registers and can be accessed on the following link:


We learn that Hanora had two sons, Denis and John, and her will was dated the day before she died.  She was anxious that her ‘son Denis is bound to pay my lawful debt and to bury me respectable out of my own house and place’.


It is a simple will probably in part due to the fact that Hanora had very little to bequeath but it helps to build a picture of a family.  Other wills can be highly illuminating –  bequests of a fur coat to one relation, a specific piece of jewellery to another, husbands making sure that their surviving wives are left the family home in trust, heirs chastised and left 5 shillings or deliberately omitted because they have received enough already.  Wills, either those of your own ancestors or not, are an endless source of interest and speculation.


Why did William Shakespeare leave his wife his second-best bed?


By Helen Moss

Helen Moss

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