One the Foundation’s main aims has always been to encourage individuals to visit Ireland. This process began in earnest in the 1970s, and early 1980s, with genealogical visits, organised for clans and historical/genealogical societies. In the early 1990s the momentum increased when the Foundation started to host annual family history conferences in the Searching for that Elusive Irish Ancestors series. Before that series began, UHF hosted a visit by the Society of Australian Genealogists (1990), and in 1992 also organised the International Gathering of the O’Neills (with 70 Portuguese in attendance).
Thus by September 2006, when the Foundation held its 50th anniversary conference, entitled Belfast: Past, Present and Future, the organisation had held a total of 15 annual family history conferences since starting in 1991.
The format of the conferences broke new ground. To maximise research time in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and other repositories, lectures were held in the evenings and at weekends, when the repositories were closed.
Another early innovation was that each conference took an historical theme, around which many lectures were delivered. This ensured delegates received a real perspective on Irish history, in addition to archival training. The themes were often timely, for example, in 1995 Famine Forebears, remembered the 150th anniversary of the start of the Great Famine; and the bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion, was commemorated as The Wild Geese of ’98 in 1998. Other themes included: Mastering the Sources (1996); A Millennium of Migration (1999); Plantation and Colonial Migration (2001); Landlords, Tenants and Tithes (2002); History from Headstones (2003); and Ireland at War 1594–1945 (2005).
The conferences were enjoyed for the daily tours: offered as an alternative to a day in the archives. During the course of 15 years, so much ground was covered and so many activities packed into the programmes that our delegates were exhausted and enthralled in equal measure! There were no nights off either, with a busy social round for people to enjoy.
Usually the conferences were staged in two locations, namely Belfast and Dublin. The Dublin leg of the programme was devised to give delegates, who also had ancestors from outside of Ulster, the opportunity to use the national repositories in the city.
In the late 1990s, diversification resulted in spin-offs – post-conference tours visiting southern Ireland, and later Scotland, enabling delegates to unearth the Scottish dimension to their Irish ancestry. The conferences gave many overseas visitors their first experience of Northern Ireland. UHF conference participants gained the confidence to use the local repositories. So much so that many became champions for Ulster as a visitor destination and they began to make regular visits on their own. Encouraging independent travel and off-the beaten-track tourism can definitely be seen as one of the legacies of these programmes.
Over the years many participants became regulars. One man – John McElroy, attended every conference held by UHF between 1991–2006. The value placed by visitors on the efforts of UHF staff ensured friends from England, Scotland, Australia, Canada, USA, and even South Africa and Bermuda, made a point of returning, again and again. Sure evidence that a lasting connection with Ulster had been made. One short quotation from the many unsolicited testimonials received over the years might suffice:
"In a New York minute! Loved it! Your staff and the personal touch is what visitors need – you exemplify all that is nice." - Margaret Reid, Chicago, USA 1996