Days 2 and 4: Research at PRONI

On Days 2 and 4 participants will have the opportunity to carry out research into their family history at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). In PRONI, Belfast has one of the best —possibly even the best—regional archives in the UK. Here there are centuries of records relating to the families of Ulster.

In March 2011 PRONI reopened after its move to new premises in Titanic Quarter, Belfast. The new building is spacious and welcoming. The search room and reading rooms have many more spaces for researchers than was the case in the previous building. There is also an auditorium for public lectures and an exhibition area.

No previous knowledge of research techniques or sources is necessary. The Foundation’s experienced team of researchers will be on hand to assist participants carry out their research.

The great majority of the sources you will be using to research your ancestors will be found at PRONI. Using the PRONI eCatalogue, which can be done online prior to a visit to the archive, it is possible to identify the records of greatest interest. In summary, the principal categories of record include:

Church Registers
Prior to the introduction of civil registration, church registers of baptisms, marriages and burials are the best sources of information on family history. PRONI has microfilms and occasionally original copies of registers for nearly all Presbyterian churches in Ulster (and those of other denomnations as well). See the Guide to Church Records which is available on the PRONI website for more details.

PRONI also has many records relating to the administration of the Presbyterian church, such as session books and presbytery minutes, as well as a range of other documentation generated by Presbyterian churches, such as emigrants’ lists and communion rolls. See the section on this site looking at Presbyterian research.

Valuation Records
These principally cover counties in Northern Ireland and include:

  • Manuscript fieldbooks of the Primary (Griffith’s) Valuation of c.1860 as well as accompanying maps
  • Valuation revision books, c.1864-
  • Manuscript fieldbooks of the First Valuation of c.1835 as well as accompanying maps
  • Tithe applotment books, c1830

Landed Estate Papers
PRONI has a vast collection of administrative records relating to the mangement of landed estates in Ulster, principally from the early 17th century onwards. These are especially useful if looking for farming ancestors, virtually all of whom would have been tenants on an estate prior to the 20th century.

What makes the estate records in PRONI stand out is the fact that most of them have been expertly catalogued so that it is relatively easy to discover whether the records for a particular estate are available.

Wills and Testamentary Papers
Prior to 1858 the Church of Ireland was responsible for administering all testamentary affairs.  Unfortunately, nearly all original wills probated before 1858 were destroyed in Dublin in 1922. However, indexes to these destroyed wills do exist and are available at PRONI.

From 1858-99 transcripts of original wills are available at PRONI for most of Ulster (these can now be accessed online) From 1900 onwards original wills for Northern Ireland can be read at PRONI.

School Records
A state-run system of education was established in Ireland in 1831. Prior to this (and for some time after it) there were several different organisations and institutions providing education in Ireland. From 1831 National Schools were built with the aid of the Commissioners of National Education and local trustees.

Between 1832 and 1870 about 2,500 national schools were established in Ulster. The records of over 1,500 schools in Northern Ireland are held at PRONI. Of particular interest are the enrolment registers. These record the full name of the pupil, his or her date of birth (or age at entry), religion, and father’s address and occupation.

Board of Guardians Records
The new English system of Poor Law administration was applied to Ireland in 1838. Destitute poor who were previously granted relief at parish level were to be accommodated in new workhouses. The management of the workhouses was the responsibility of Boards of Guardians.

A great many records relating to the management of the workhouses and other activities of the Boards of Guardians are in PRONI. These include minute books, indoor registers, outdoor relief books, and vaccination registers.

Other Archives and Libraries in Belfast

The following libraries and archives in Belfast are also open to members of the public and, depending on opening times, may be visited during the family history conference. We would also suggest that you consider setting aside some time either before or afterwards to visit them. We can provide advice on how their holdings can help you in your research.

General Register Office
Oxford House, 49/55 Chichester Street, Belfast, BT1 4HL

The official keeping of all births, deaths and marriages began in Ireland in 1864. Prior to this non-Catholic marriages had been officially recorded, but only since 1 April 1845. The General Register Office of Northern Ireland (GRONI) is located in Chichester Street in Belfast and has records of births, marriages and deaths for the six counties that now make up Northern Ireland from 1864 onwards. At GRONI it is possible for members of the public to book an index search (with verification of entries by staff) or an assisted search which allows for a general search of records for any period of years and any number of entries. Advance booking is advisable.

Linen Hall Library
17 Donegall Square North, Belfast, BT1 5GD

Belfast also has several excellent libraries. The Linen Hall Library in Donegall Square North was founded in 1788 as the Belfast Reading Society and is the oldest library in Belfast. The Irish and Local Studies Collection is particularly strong on published material for Belfast and Counties Antrim and Down. Its Genealogical Collection is unsurpassed in Northern Ireland for the sheer numbers of published family histories on its open shelves. In all the Library houses more than 250,000 volumes, 75,000 pamphlets, plus significant holdings of periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, maps, microforms, photographs, films and recordings. Among its useful resources for genealogists is the card index to birth, marriage and death notices in the Belfast Newsletter covering the period from 1800 to 1864.

Belfast Central Library
Royal Avenue, Belfast, BT1 1EA

Opened in 1888 Belfast Central Library in Royal Avenue is the city’s principal library and houses some 1,000,000 volumes. Special collections include the 10,000 volume Natural History Collection; a rare book collection, and the Irish Collection. The last of these is the largest in Northern Ireland, and includes the 4,000 volume Francis Joseph Bigger Collection. The Bigger Collection is complemented by the Bigger Archive, with 10,000 items of archaeological, historical and biographical interest. Bigger (1863–1926), the grandson of United Irishman David Bigger, was a successful lawyer and member of the Gaelic League who assembled an impressive collection of books, pamphlets and bound manuscripts of Irish historical, archaeological and antiquarian interest. A section within Central Library is the Belfast Newspaper Library which has almost complete runs of the Belfast Telegraph, Newsletter, Irish News and Northern Whig.

Presbyterian Historical Society
26 College Green, Belfast, BT7 1LN

The Presbyterian Historical Society was created in 1906 to promote public awareness of the history of the various strands of Presbyterianism in Ireland. Once described as a ‘Treasure House of Ulster’s History’, the Library of the Presbyterian Historical Society contains some 12,000 books and pamphlets. These are mainly concerned with ecclesiastical history and in particular Presbyterian history. The collection includes a large number of congregational histories. A set of The Witness, a Presbyterian newspaper covering the period 1874–1941, is also available for consultation, as are the printed minutes of the General Assembly beginning in 1840. Manuscript materials include session minutes, baptisms and marriages from individual churches as well as some presbytery minutes, some of which date from the seventeenth century. The society also has a duplicate set of the microfilm copies of Presbyterian Church registers held by PRONI covering the vast majority of Presbyterian congregations in Ireland.

Ulster Historical Foundation
49 Malone Road, Belfast, BT9 6RY

The Ulster Historical Foundation is now based at 49 Malone Road which it hopes to make its long-term home. Here in a dedicated space there will is a library and resource centre. The Foundation is a not-for-profit educational charity which was founded in 1956. For over half a century the Ulster Historical Foundation has been conducting genealogical research on behalf of clients and to date has completed some 13,000 ancestral reports. The Foundation has also published a broad range of books looking at different aspects of Irish history and genealogy, and organises conferences, family history workshops and lectures tours. Among the Foundation’s electronic resources is a large database of civil and church records mainly relating to counties Antrim and Down, including the city of Belfast.