Today was an early (and long) day…I left the hotel about 6:15, took the Luas (tram) to Connolly Station for a 7:30 train to Belfast. It's a bit over two hours to Belfast, then a cab to the new Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in the Titantic Quarter. This was my first trip since their move last year and I am very impressed. The facility is beautiful, lots of open space and bright (a little too much so for the microfilm readers).
The first thing I had to do was get a new reader's card. Although mine hadn't expired, security required a new card that you use to swipe into the various reading rooms. When you arrive you must place all of your belongings, coat, bag, etc. into a locker. You can take your computer and files but you MUST leave behind your phone and camera. Very strict about this.
I worked with microfilmed parish registers which are self service. There were plenty of readers (although I don't think as many as in the old facility) but it was not crowded. There are also two reader/printers to use for copies. The down side is that once you find something you want to print, you can't simply remove the film and take it to the printer…you have to rewind it, then try to find your place again once you put it on the printer. I was working on Church of Ireland films from 1745 - 1830; the good news is that they exist…the bad news, is the quality was terrible. I managed to find an index, but in most cases the top and bottomn of the pages (were the numbers were located) were so dark they couldn't be read. Printing was another problem. The printers are loaded with A3 (big) paper and trying to get them adjusted to print anything readable was difficult. You need to purchase a copy card which has five copies on it, and it can take all five to get a decent copy. Not PRONI's fault, just time consuming. It would be great if they were set up for digital copies. At least that way you'd have some chance of enhancing the documents.
A lot of the material at PRONI is manuscript and they have an excellent ordering system. There are desks set up with computers; you search the catalog, and when you find what you want, you order it electronically with your reader's card number. When the order is complete, you receive a table number as a confirmation. Your table number appears on an electronic board when the material is ready and you go down to the other end of the building to the Reading Room to collect your material. You must use the manuscript material in the Reading Room.
Shortly after my last trip to PRONI, they announced that they had received material from Allison Studios, a photographer in Armagh (with branches in Belfast and Dundalk). They have posted the pictures to a Flickr account linked to their website. I have a number of pictures that were taken by Allison in Dundalk and Belfast (check out my Photos) and I was hoping that their Day Books might identify the pictures. Unfortunately, the books don't start until 1900 and most of my pictures were taken before that. There is one, which I think might be wedding picture of my great grandmother and her second husband in 1903, so I requested the books and read through all of the entries for May of 1903. Nothing there.
PRONI closes at 4:45, but by 4:30 they begin moving you out. The front desk called for a cab for me, and back to the station for my 6:10 train back to Dublin. If I had more time on this trip, I'd would probably have spent the night in Belfast. That woud have given me a chance to also visit the General Register office of Northern Ireland and the Linen Hall Library. If your ancestors were from the Ulster (including the border counties) you should plan to spend some time at PRONI.