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Researching in Ireland - Belfast

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The Titanic Museum

   It’s that time of year when I'm usually getting ready to leave for Ireland.  Unfortunately this year that wasn’t in the cards.  Having had foot surgery in July, I’m still not walking.  I knew this was coming and my schedule didn’t allow the surgery to happen earlier, so here I sit.  Next year’s research trip is coming along nicely and is already about half full, so if you are interested, register now.  Last week I wrote about the research opportunities in Dublin, and this week, as promised, it’s Belfast.

   The main research facility in Belfast is the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland known as PRONI.  Created in 1923 after the partition of Ireland, and shortly after the disaster at the Public Records Office in Dublin, PRONI’s first Deputy Keeper of the Records, Dr. David Chart,  looked to collect not only public records, but also private records.  The hope was that some of the private records could be used to replace what had been lost.  They went out to solicitors to obtain copies of wills, and the aristocracy to invite donation of their estate papers.  They contacted churches of all religions, and have an extensive collection of church records.  Sometimes the terms Northern Ireland and Ulster are used interchangeably, but the partition moved three counties of traditional Ulster, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan to the Republic of Ireland, so PRONI’s collection also includes records from these counties.  In addition, many of their estate papers cover estates located in the Republic.

   When I first visited PRONI in the 1990s it was located on the outskirts of Belfast, but in 2011 it moved to its current location in a modern building in the Titanic Quarter.  Like repositories in Dublin, PRONI requires a reader’s ticket (Visitor’s Pass).  Computers in the reading room contain the catalog (which is more detailed than the online eCatalog).  There are also internet computers (although you can bring your own and connect to the internet).  Last year, after the General Register Office of Northern Ireland (GRONI) moved out of downtown,  they moved terminals into PRONI to allow access to their systems.  The interface is identical to the online system and requires and account and credits, however it is not limited to the online data restriction standard of 100 years for births, 75 years for marriages and 50 years for deaths. Last year I was able to research a family into the 2000s.  

   Material in the Reading Room, including microfilms of all church records are freely accessible.  Original material must be ordered and is sent to the manuscript reading room down the hall.  They have a large format scanner which can be used to take images of large and fragile documents and saved to a USB drive. 

   Also in Belfast, and a short walk across the Lagan foot bridge, is the Ulster Historical Foundation.  Created in 1956, the UHF is a membership society.  It is also the Heritage Centre for Antrim and Down, and as such indexed the church records for both of those counties. Members can access  records on their website, and non-members can access some of the records for a fee.  Their research library is free to members and cost a minimal £3 for non-members.  They have over 2,500 titles with a strong focus on both published and unpublished family histories.  They offer conferences and conduct a lecture tour in the US each March.  They also offer on-site consultations.  

   Another place of interest in Belfast is the Linen Hall Library. In downtown Belfast, a short walk from the UHF and across from the Belfast City Hall, the Library, founded in 1788 is the oldest library in Belfast.  It contains a one of the largest Irish and Local Studies collections, as well as a Genealogy and Heraldry Collection.  

   The Belfast Central Library, as well as libraries around Northern Ireland, have various collections for genealogists.  The Belfast Central Library has a large newspaper collection as well as maps to assist with research for Belfast ancestors.

   The Presbyterian Historical Society can be helpful especially if you are researching clergy.  Most of the sacramental church records are on microfilm at PRONI, but occasionally there are records that only exist at the Presbyterian Historical Society.  

   As I mentioned last week, there are many small and/or specialized archives throughout Ireland and you should check The Directory of Irish Archives (Fifth Edition).  When planning your trip, make sure you contact these places in advance to verify they have the information and to make sure they can accommodate you.  You will frequently need an appointment.  Last year one of the participants traced down a source to St. Malachy’s College in Belfast and was able to meet one of the archivists there.

   It’s so important to understand the history of the area  you’re visiting.  Most of us remember the news reports of “The Troubles” from the late 1960s until the Good Friday Accord in 1998.  On my first visit to Ireland in 1992 with my 15 year old daughter, I wanted to visit Belleek in County Fermanagh.  When we arrived at the border, there were armed military and I turned around.  By 1998 the border had basically disappeared and driving from Dublin to Belfast presented no problems.  I have never felt unsafe in Belfast  walking around on my own, even at night.  But I encourage you to learn about the history before you visit.  I’ve enjoyed the narrated hop-on, hop-off buses which take you through the areas of Shankill and Falls Road which separated the Protestant and Catholic communities.  The Titanic Museum is just blocks away from the Public Records Office. A visit to St. George’s Market on Friday through Sunday is a must.  A Friday market has existed on this site since 1604!  Belfast is also a point of departure for tours to the Giant’s Causeway, Bushmills, and there are even multiple tours to filming sites for Game of Thrones.   

   Next week I’ll look at some of the resources outside of Belfast and Dublin.  After spending time in the major repositories, it’s always good to spend some time in the area where your ancestors lived.

   Happy Hunting!

© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2018