Most of the sources consulted for genealogical purposes – for example, the Tithe Applotment Books, wills and testamentary records and the censuses of 1901 and 1911 – are systematic bodies of records from which the researcher can be reasonably sure of finding material relating to the area in which s/he is interested. The records of specific landed estates may not be so readily available and in many cases, may not survive at all, but where they can be found, such records provide one of the richest of all the sources available to the local historian.
Collections of estate papers can contain records of several different types. The most common of these records are leases which are the legal documents which regulate the duration of the tenant’s holding of lands (for a period of years or for a number of lives), the amount of land held, the rent to be paid each year and when, and any other conditions relating to the leasing of property. Maps or sketch plans of the property to be let are sometimes attached to the lease and in order for the lease to be valid, the signatures or witnessed marks of all participants must be on the documents with seals attached.
Estate collections may also include rentals or rent rolls, the regular accounts of the rent owed or paid by the tenants on the estate, when, and under what conditions. Where rentals do not include details of the terms under which tenants held their land, the information may be available in lease-books or collections of original leases. Correspondence, especially correspondence between a landlord and his agent, can also provide insights into problems of estate management, landlord-tenant relations and into economic and social conditions generally. From time to time either an agent or a specially-commissioned expert drew up a report on the condition of a particular estate, with suggestions for improvement.
Estate collections frequently include manuscript estate maps, in some cases containing very detailed information on land-holding and land-usage and may include the names of fields and the name of tenants renting those fields in addition to tenants in adjoining lots. The maps may also include specific details on the demesne and on the demesne house with indications of tree and flower/shrub plantings.
The collection of estate papers in the National Archives is substantial and even larger collections are to be found in the National Library of Ireland and in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, while the records of some estates remain in private hands, with an estate agent or with a solicitor. The first step in attempting to trace any surviving estate papers relevant to a particular area must be to discover the names of as many local landowners as possible.
This can be done from commercial directories and other printed sources and from the Primary Valuation. Records held in Irish and non-Irish repositories will be indexed in Hayes’s Manuscript Sources for the History of Irish Civilisation but it will also be necessary to check the ‘Miscellaneous’, ‘Pre-1708 Deeds’, and ‘Estate Maps and Rentals’ finding aids in the Reading Room of the National Archives to trace the most modern accessions. For material still in private hands, the best guide is the reports of the survey of documents in private keeping available in the National Library of Ireland and which are listed in Hayes’s Manuscript Sources for the History of Irish Civilisation.
In the National Archives, estate collections previously received the prefixes D(eed) or M(iscellaneous) and at a later period, received the prefix 999 (if a small collection) or 1000+ (if a larger collection). Since 1996, estate collections have received the prefix of the year in which the collection has been accessioned and there are comprehensive lists and card indexes of estate collections available for consultation in the Reading Room.