I’ve been pondering on what to write about in my next blog for a few days now having finished a series of stories about my Irvine family from Killyleagh in Co Down. Having mentioned this to our GSQ Patron, she suggested I write about researching at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in Belfast, so that’s what this missive is about.
I have now realised that my blog is due for publishing on 12 December 2022. This date marks 34 years yesterday since my much loved father, descendant of a Scots Irish family from Killyleagh, Co Down, passed away. Doubly fitting as it’s in mid-November as I write, so it’s now exactly 20 years since my first unfortunate visit to PRONI at its Balmoral Avenue site before the archive relocated to the Titanic Quarters in Belfast.
Much planning had gone into the visit, I’d written to the archive to determine what written permissions I needed to have in order to copy some of ‘my’ parish registers and received same, and these were in my trusty folder. This rule is now mostly not in place. I’d spent a week in Dublin researching there, and now to the excitement to find… a closed gate! The devastating thing was that there was a notice attached to the gate to advise me that the archive was closed for stocktake for a week.
I sat in my hire car and cried, and cried a bit more, my disappointment was overwhelming. What to do now? Well, there was probably only one thing for it to make the most of this emotional visit, as I’d booked my return flight in a week’s time from Belfast. I decided to return to Dublin to do research there at the RCB (Representative Church Body ie the Trustee body of the Church of Ireland) even though they did not allow photocopying of their registers. Having returned to my accommodation and explained my hurriedly decided change of plans, I then drove back to Dublin for even more research. Lesson learnt. Always check the website thoroughly, check any stocktake closure periods, check any public holiday closures, check the normal opening hours. Do this for any archive you are planning on visiting.
After another week in Dublin, including a little sightseeing, I then drove back to Belfast and caught my return flight to Gatwick where hubby and I were staying with friends. Thankfully I had enough ‘spare’ time to rebook another flight to Belfast in a fortnight, during our last week in Britain. I then booked the accommodation again, caught the bus out to PRONI and immediately realised that I was in heaven at last, it didn’t take long to find out this archive is a Pandoras Box.
Since relocating to its now location at the Titanic Quarter, PRONI has to be the best organised archive I’ve visited, and I’ve now researched in a number of UK and Australian archives as well as local ones. There are two separate areas to this archive, the Search Room, where the shelf items ie books, microfische and microfilms are stored along with Guides to the relevant numbers etc., and the machines to view them on. This area also has two micro-printers for printing A3 copies of your films, but sadly the quality of a number of the micro-films have degraded through the years of heavy use. Some parish registers have been filmed in excellent quality and available online on these computers, but note these records are not available to view outside PRONI. Friendly assistants are on hand to guide you, there are also multiple computer stations where you can access the catalogue or online listings.
The other main area is the Reading Room, this is where you can call up those extra special original articles. These are items you’ve found in the PRONI catalogue which haven’t been scanned or have microfilms available. There are many quite large, numbered tables in this area and when you request an article, you will be allocated to one section of a table.
PRONI has an extensive and detailed catalogue which is easy to search https://apps.proni.gov.uk/eCatNI_IE/SearchPage.aspx, it’s worth trying several different search terms in the ‘Any Text’ search box. I generally start with a wide search, then perhaps restrict to certain years if there are too many results. Also search for just the townland name or both the townland and parish or just the parish, as these can all prove useful. There are also several choices with how you wish to search for your chosen search term ie Match ALL words OR Match ANY word OR Match Phrase.
Having exhausted the surviving church registers, pew books and minute books of my paternal County Down family, last visit I spent most of my time deep in boxes of Deeds and Estate records pertaining to their parish, most were a minimum of two hundred years old. Beautifully written on parchment, rolled or folded in such a way that made it quite hard to keep each sheet open which necessitated the use of many lead bags and string weights, all the while ending up absolutely filthy myself. However, who cares when you’re viewing such treasures?
In the past I’ve viewed and copied several years of lot numbered survey maps, again beautifully drawn and notated, these are accompanied by house and field notebooks full of detailed descriptions of the house and fields. More treasures most of which you can only view onsite.
Not able to visit this beautiful land of many of our ancestors? Well, don’t despair as PRONI has a number of records online. These include:
- Freeholders’ records
- Londonderry Corporation records
- Name Search
- PRONI Historical Maps viewer
- PRONI Web Archive
- Street directories
- Ulster Covenant
- Valuation Revision Books
- Will calendars
As well as the above, PRONI has a collection of images available online at https://www.flickr.com/photos/proni These are free of copyright, but please acknowledge the site.
Within the PRONI eCatalogue you can search for any of the now Northern Ireland townlands tithe records by putting the Parish or Townland name combined with ‘Tithe’ into the search box. The resulting record shows a link as a Digital Record, this is quite a large file which will open up to a page with a downloadable pdf option after you have agreed to the Copying and Copyright Declaration. Note that the document is in townland alpha order and within each is listed every occupier of land showing the acreage and rateable value. These tithe documents are dated mid – late 1820s.
It’s important to note the various periods that Griffith Valuation (GV) was done in each of the Ulster counties, and especially so if your ancestor died just prior to the valuation year. A family I was searching for in Tyrone with three generations of the same name (quite a common occurrence) but Snr and Jnr in earlier records. However, in GV it just listed the name, was it the father or the son, or the son’s son? Checking the valuation year (which is shown incorrectly in the list on askaboutireland.ie) I realised it had to be the son and his son as the senior had died two years prior to that year:
1858 Derry previously Londonderry
PRONI has another very useful set of records online. These are the Valuation Revision Books which follow-on from the Griffiths Valuation. It is possible to follow these through from that big valuation and its accompanying maps with each book spanning several years. The notations of any change of lease details within each book are coloured with any amendments dated on the extreme right column. These typically show small lot amalgamations and re-numberings, new Lessors and new Occupiers with each change period dated. These books span from Griffith up to about 1930, so it’s possible to link those notations with the surviving 1901 and 1911 Irish Census results available on http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/search/
If, like me, you love pouring over maps in detail then the Griffith Valuation linked maps on askaboutireland.ie will be a treat. Beware though, that they are not strictly aligned to the GV results and maybe for a different year. The B&W maps available on FindMyPast are more accurate but most don’t show the lot numbers and tend to be more for the Counties of Eire/The Free State.
In closing. Never let anyone tell you “All the records were destroyed in the 1922 bombing” I’ve had six further journeys researching full time at PRONI for two weeks each time and despite me tackling many entries from my “To do” list on each visit, it’s still a long list. However, at this stage I’m not sure if I’ll get back there again. Regarding the 1922 bombing, the marvelous reincarnation of the Four Courts archive is now live online at Beyond 2022 Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury so many of the records have been copied and are now available online at that site (currently a work in progress) but unfortunately yes, many were destroyed forever including just over 50% of the Church of Ireland registers. However, hopefully one day you maybe lucky enough yourself to visit this beautiful country of our ancestors and feel the same connection I do when you step foot in the area that they lived for so long.
Editors Note: The author gratefully acknowledges the Deputy Keeper of the Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland for permission to use the PRONI images featured in this blog.