Sunday, 23 June 2013

A Grand Day Out - Research at PRONI in Belfast

I've been on something of a roll with my Irish family history in the last month, meaning that on a visit to Belfast last week I had a lot of work before me to pursue various leads! The main reason for my visit was actually to attend a PRONI user forum meeting on Friday - I participate on the forum every three months as a 'remote user' (i.e. I assume they heard I came from Largs, looked it up on a map and realised I qualified!) - but on this occasion I decided to go a day earlier to get in some research. Although I've been to the archive a few times, and carried out the occasional look up, this was my first real chance to test the new facility since it opened two years ago. As such, here's a quick run down of the experience.

PRONI is open Mondays to Fridays, but an advantage with Thursday based attendance is that it is open late into the evening. I arrived and first had to register for a reader's ticket, which required just one piece of ID (in this case I had my passport on me), and I had to have a picture taken for this. The camera was actually connected to a pole from the ceiling next to the reception desk, so I was simply asked to sit down, look up and smile! Within a couple of minutes I had a nice shiny visitor pass, and with this I made my way up to the search room.

To access the rooms you merely hold your pass against a sensor, and the doors then open automatically. Once inside you are in one of the most modern archive search rooms in the United Kingdom. On the first part of my day I decided to access the self-service microfilms at the far end, and was soon browsing Presbyterian records from Templepatrick. There were a few others in the room, it was not packed, but I bizarrely bumped into two people I know - one a student from the Strathclyde University course I tutor on, who I met at WDYTYA in London in February, and a genie from Belfast who I met at the previous London show in 2012. It's a very small world - and they do say everyone in Northern Ireland knows everyone through everyone else!

I made a substantial number of finds from Templepatrick, taking up most of the morning, and then decided to turn to another branch of my family from Ulster, this time from Islandmagee in County Antrim. One of the great things about PRONI is that it is Wifi enabled throughout - something every archive should absolutely adopt in the 21st century - although I had a slight issue with accessing a personal family history site using this, with the address blocked for some reason. Thankfully my iPad has a 3G connection, so anything I needed to look up, including some of the details I had forgotten to note down from my site before arriving at the archive, could be done this way if there was a permission issue. Unfortunately, I have a situation where my Islandmagee ancestors, despite having Scottish surnames such as Gordon and Montgomery, were Anglican, rather than Presbyterian, as would be more usually expected. The problem here is that the early Anglican registers for Islandmagee were destroyed in the civil war of 1922, although the Presbyterian records for the peninsula go back to the early 1800s. I consulted the Presbyterian registers anyway - and did in fact find some of my lot - but I needed another source to compensate for those that I couldn't.

I had identified from home via the public online catalogue that there was at least one rental roll for the area from 1855, which seemed worth looking up. In obtaining this via the computer based ordering system, I discovered that the search room's version of the catalogue was considerably more detailed. In fact, far from having one rental roll from 1855, I was astounded to note a series of annual rental rolls from the estate of Viscount Dungannon recorded on an annual basis from 1819 onwards! When I discussed this with one of the staff, he responded that if he ever had to do family history research using the public catalogue, he thought he would have problems - errrr...OK! (Thankfully, whilst that may or may not be true, I did learn from the user forum meeting on the following day that the online catalogue is to be majorly updated in early July, so should not be quite so problematic from then!). You can order five records at a time, and I soon had the rental rolls - generating all sorts of useful leads - as well as many other documents, including a copy of my grandmother's letter of administration for her estate following her death in July 2001.

The staff could not have been friendlier if they tried - at one point one of the  female security staff got talking with a woman on the table behind me and offered her "a wee cup of tea in her hand" at 6.30!!! Throughout the day, the humour and help from the staff could not have been better. One of the other things I am beginning to note is just how easy it really is to get to PRONI from where I live in the west of Scotland - in fact, no sooner was I back on Friday night from Belfast, than I was off to Aberdeen first thing Saturday morning for a Scottish Genealogy Network meeting - and it took longer to get there, with the fare more expensive than the ferry to Ireland. As such, I now hope to make more frequent visits to Belfast, and may even incorporate that as an option within my research service, which is primarily Scottish based just now.

Friday morning was taken up with the meeting, but I did manage to get in some extra research after before heading into the city centre to meet my sister for a drink. One thing to note on a return visit - you need to reactivate your user's card on every visit by holding it against a wee sensor by the main reception desk - if you don't do this, no doors will open, and you can't make orders etc.

Facilities wise, the cafe does great food - and at a very good rate - and next time I think I will stay at the Premiere Inn next door to the facility, rather than head back out to my home town in Carrickfergus as on this occasion, as it would be much more convenient. Not to mention that Belfast 2013 is a new world, and I'm beginning to fall back in love with the place...! :)

And finally, just to give you a bit more of the flavour within, here's an interview I did with Stephen Scarth, Head of Public Services at PRONI, two years ago (the day before the new building opened to the public), giving a guided tour of the facilities:

Bottom line: go visit PRONI - you'll LOVE it! :)  And for news of latest PRONI developments, visit

One final thing....! If you are just starting out with your family history research, and have still to construct your family tree before making your way to PRONI, my book, Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet, should help you to locate many of the key resources to help you get underway - not least of which some of the resources digitised and made available online by bodies such as PRONI, the National Archives of Ireland, the National Archives at Kew, and more.

The book is available from publisher Pen and Sword in paperback, Kindle and ebook editions. For a free 13 page preview - and to order a copy - visit And on the top right corner of this blog page, you will also find a short video of me discussing the book, and what you can expect from it - hope it helps!


Saturday, 8 June 2013

A tragedy within a tragedy - the laughing Mr Wray

I discovered last week the story of the Templepatrick Murder within my family tree, an event that happened in Northern Ireland in October 1874, when my 3 x great grandfather's brother William was accused of murdering their cousin Margaret Langtry.

The story of Margaret's murder is shocking enough, but within the story of this tragedy lay yet another tragedy, even closer to home. Just days before Margaret's murder, another child of my four times great grandmother Rosanna Bill (nee Coulter) had passed away and was buried. I have yet to determine the child's name, but part of the subsequent story between Margaret and William lay with the assertion that there had been an argument between them about the burial, with Margaret allegedly claiming that the burial lair used was one that had been reserved for her. But one of the remarkable things about the newspaper coverage within the Belfast Newsletter of March 18th 1875 was a record of the court testimony from Rosanna, which recalls the added pressures placed upon her during the police investigation into her son William, and the additional suffering that she herself was already enduring as a consequence of her loss.

Rosanna Bill, examined by Mr McMECHAN - 
The prisoner is my son. He came home to me on Wednesday before he was arrested. I was in trouble about the death of my daughter. Quinn was on a visit at the house. He came home from Scotland along with my other son. He was telegraphed for after the death, and he arrived next morning. My son, the prisoner, was digging potatoes all day on Thursday, and he was also working on Friday. My husband went to Belfast about two o'clock on Friday morning, and did not come back to about eleven o'clock that night. I sat up for him, and all the rest were in bed when he arrived. In consequence of the trouble I was in about my daughter my appetite was very bad. Sometimes my appetite is so bad that I can hardly walk for weakness. William, the prisoner, went away up to snare rabbits. He took the snare [produced] with him. He came back with a rabbit. I skinned it, and soup was made of it. I took some of it, and the girls also got some. After he came home he sat down and took a smoke and then wound up his watch. It was twenty minutes to nine o'clock. When he went out he had no gun with him - nothing but that snare in his pocket, and when he came back he had no gun with him. I recollect my husband bringing ham and cheese the second night of my daughter's wake. It was rolled up in a piece of newspaper. The police searched the house, and abused it very badly. There is a man Wray (pointing to the sub-inspector) and I don't say he is a bad man, but he jeered and taunted at me. 

Mr. McMECHAN - That man, Wray, did it, who wears the coat of a gentleman, and is supposed to be a gentleman. This poor woman is jeered and taunted in her affliction. Her daughter dead, and her son in prison. I hope I will have an opportunity of cross-examining this laughing Mr. Wray.

A desperate time.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Another Irish Eureka moment - and another murder

This can't keep happening to me. Last year I had a book published about the murder of my three times great grandmother in Perthshire, Scotland, a story which gained some notoriety as being the longest unsolved murder case by a modern police force in the UK (see As a family historian I deemed it an extraordinary episode, certainly something never likely to be found in my tree again, and as such I wrote the book to let my kids have an example to read in years to come of the sorts of adversity our ancestors had to go through to allow us to exist in the present day. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would find another murder in the family - and yet, last night, not only did I do just that - this time in Ireland - but in the space of a couple of hours I have already identified fourteen new family members.

Coincidentally, I gave a talk at South Ayrshire History and Family History Fair in Troon yesterday about the use of online Irish sources for genealogical research. My opening point was that Irish research is not like Scottish research. Certainly within the Scottish civil registration period a significant amount of detail is handed to us on a plate, with our records here being so comprehensive. Ireland, on the other hand, has a double whammy of problems - less detail in the records to start with, and the possibility that many significant resources no longer exist, such as the censuses. It can still be done - but you may need to take a much more long winded approach!

So how did I find out about the murder? Believe it or not, I was looking at the death of my four times great grandfather, John BILL from the parish of Kilbride, County Antrim, in 1900, and trying to identify where his townland was - Ballyvoy. Virtually every list of townlands online states that Ballyvoy is by Ballycastle, to the north of the county, but that did not make sense in the context of what I was examining. All the family events I had been consulting were in Kilbride parish, near Ballyclare. I finally resolved it by consulting the Belfast Newsletter newspaper, available via the National Library of Scotland platform in the British Library 19th Century Newspaper Collection, which noted a sale in Kilbride within the townland of Ballyvoy, aka Duncansland - the latter being the name it normally went by. So he was from Kilbride parish after all, just outside of Doagh in Ballyvoy/Duncansland. From this I then found John listed in Griffith's Valuation, incorrectly recorded under the name of BELL, not BILL. This name error was in fact why I had previously taken so long to get anywhere with this family, for John's granddaughter, my 2 x great grandmother Elizabeth, had been recorded as BELL also in her marriage record, which had led to my brick wall for so long (I won't go into how I discovered the name BILL to be correct, or I'll be here all day!).

So having found John in Griffith's, I then found him in a probate entry from the wills calendars now at the NAI portal at (don't always assume that northerners can only be found on the PRONI equivalent at - it only covers the northern probate districts, but you could prove wills in Dublin also). I decided to go through the Valuation Revision books on the PRONI website. It noted that in 1902, two years after his death, a Mary BILL had taken occupancy of his property in Duncansland. Was she a second wife perhaps? A consultation of the 1901 and 1911 censuses revealed that she was way too young to be so. Perhaps a daughter then? With her in the house in 1901 was a 16 year old son, Robert BILL, and there again in 1911. Surmising he was of the right age for military service, I searched for a Robert BILL on the First World War Soldiers Wills collection on the NAI portal, and found he had indeed died in the war, and had left a will. I then turned to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at It transpired from this site Robert was in fact the son of a Frank BILL and and his wife Mary COBAIN.

Bear with me! I now looked on Emerald Ancestors ( for a Frank BILL marrying a Mary, and found one in Kilbride in 1883, although he was recorded under the name of Francis BILL. The following year Robert was then born. It seemed clear that Frank was a son of John, and the fact that Mary took John's property, and not Frank, was soon explained by the fact that Frank had in fact died in 1899, a year before his father. At this point I decided to search for Francis in the Belfast Newsletter. And then all hell broke loose...

I found Francis - he was a witness to a trial in 1875 for what has become known in the history of Ulster as the Templepatrick Murder of 1874. Not only was Francis there, but virtually every member of the BILL family who seemed to exist in Doagh at that time - brothers, sisters, his father, his mother, his uncle, cousins, all were interrogated at the trial. Why so much interest in them? For the simple fact that Francis' brother William was accused of murdering his cousin Margaret LANGTRY. The information I had already gathered on Elizabeth and her grandfather John is more than corroborated from the article, which gives me details of everything from the food they ate, the work they did, even words that they spoke (including some good Ulsterisms).

If this seems a long winded research route, it is because it is! That's how Irish research is often done, and I have other examples equally as complex. But therein lies another major fact about Irish research - despite the tragedy you may encounter, it can still be a lot more fun.

Virtually every website I mentioned in my talk yesterday was used to resolve this issue (and I am only now getting started). For more details on how to find your Irish ancestors, my latest book is Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet, from Pen and Sword.

You can read the reviews at and can purchase the book from There is nothing in the book which I don't use myself - and it might just help you shatter a few brick walls like the one I have just described!