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!


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