On this page you will find useful information that will help you begin your family history research including a list of useful book titles, a series of frequently asked questions and brief descriptions of four important archives in Belfast.
The following are frequently asked questions by those carrying out genealogical research. A list of abbreviations used are listed below.
- GRO – General Register Office
- LC – Local Custody
- M – Methodist
- NAI – National Archives of Ireland
- NLI – National Library of Ireland
- P – Presbyterian
- PRONI – Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
- RC – Roman Catholic
- UHF – Ulster Historical Foundation
All references, unless otherwise stated, are for documents held by PRONI.
The best way for someone to begin researching the history of their family is within their own family. In nearly every family there is at least one member with an encyclopaedic knowledge of who married who and how many children they had and where they lived etc. Collect as much information as possible on names, dates and places relating to your family, write it down and begin to plot out the skeleton of a family tree. Once you have done this it is much easier to see where the gaps in what you know are. A family Bible is another possible source of information on your ancestors. Gathering this information before you visit the archives can save a great deal of time.
A popular misconception about researching Irish ancestors is that it is a fruitless exercise because so many records were destroyed. There is no denying that the loss of so many records in the destruction of the Public Record Office, Dublin, in 1922 was a catastrophe as far as historical and genealogical research is concerned. However, since 1922 the work of archivists to gather records of historical importance has resulted in a vast amount of material being available for the genealogical researcher to peruse. In addition there are other repositories in Ireland where the collections have survived virtually intact, as well as categories of records now available that were not in the Public Record Office in 1922 and so escaped destruction. Reading through the answers to other questions posed in this section will reveal something of the extent of the records which are available for genealogical research.
For many people coming to Ireland to look for their ancestors, one of the most important activities for them is to look for their ancestral home. Even if the house no longer stands, just to stand on the site it once occupied is a special experience. It may be possible to find out from knowledgeable local people where your ancestral home was located. If this is not possible a mid 19th-century land valuation might provide the answer.
The Primary Valuation of Ireland, better known as Griffith’s Valuation after the Commissioner of Valuation, Sir Richard Griffith, is arranged by county, within counties by Poor Law Union division, and within Unions by parish. It includes the following information: the name of the townland; the name of the householder or leaseholder; the name of the person from whom the property was leased; a description of the property; its acreage; and finally the valuation of the land and buildings.
For Northern Ireland it is available in manuscript form at PRONI (ref. VAL/2B). A bound and printed summary version is available in the Public Search Room, PRONI, and at major libraries. Accompanying Griffith’s Valuation is the valuer’s annotated set of Ordnance Survey maps showing the location of every property. These maps are available at PRONI (ref. VAL/2A) for Northern Ireland. For the Republic of Ireland the manuscript books and maps are available in the Valuation Office in Dublin. The books and maps enable a researcher to identify the exact location of the house in which an ancestor may have lived. Scans of the printed books & maps are now available on the free website www.askaboutireland.ie/griffith-valuation
The value of gravestone inscriptions for ancestral research has long been recognised. The discovery of a single gravestone may provide more information on the history of a family than could otherwise be gleaned from hours of searching through documentary sources. A visit to the graveyard in which your ancestors are buried is, therefore, an essential part of compiling your family tree. Discovering the graveyard in which your ancestors are buried is not necessarily straightforward. They may be buried in the graveyard adjoining the church to which your family belongs. Alternatively they may be buried in a graveyard no longer in use or adjoining another church. Burial registers kept by a church are one way of finding the place of burial, but as is explained below, these have limitations and do not survive for every graveyard. In nearly every parish in Northern Ireland there is at least one graveyard pre-dating the Reformation of the sixteenth century. In these graveyards it is not unusual to find all denominations buried.
The Ulster Historical Foundation has a searchable database of over 50,000 inscriptions for a large number of graveyards in Northern Ireland. These are available as a pay-per-view resource on our website www.ancestryireland.com/family-records/gravestone-inscriptions (free for Guild members). Another major resource on our gravestone website www.historyfromheadstones.com is a series of maps showing the location of graveyards. These are interactive so that it is possible to plot graveyards by denomination or view the location of all graveyards in a county at one time. Precise grid references are provided making it possible, using the Ordnance Survey Discoverer series of maps (1:50,000 scale), to pinpoint exactly the site of a graveyard. Case studies look in detail at individual graveyards and there is also a guide to how to study a graveyard.
Many inscriptions appeared in the Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland, published in twelve volumes between 1888 and 1931. These recordings are particularly useful if the gravestone can no longer be traced. There are sets of the Memorials of the Dead in the Linen Hall Library and Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
Civil or state registration of all births, deaths and marriages began in Ireland on 1 January 1864. Non-Catholic marriages, including those conducted in a government registry office, were required in law to be registered from 1 April 1845. The Ulster Historical Foundation has almost all civil marriage records for Counties Antrim and Down on our website, as well as many civil birth records for the Belfast area: www.ancestryireland.com/search-irish-genealogy-databases. The Irish Family History Foundation holds civil birth, marriage and death records for the majority of other counties in Ireland: www.rootsireland.ie.
The General Register Office of Northern Ireland (GRO) in Belfast holds the original birth, marriage and death registers recorded by the local district registrars for Northern Ireland from 1864 (1845 for non -Catholic marriages) until the present day. They have recently added historic records to their website. Further information, including opening hours and fees charged, can be found on their website: www.nidirect.gov.uk/gro
The General Register Office of Ireland has copies of births, deaths and marriages for all Ireland from 1845 to 1921 and for the Republic of Ireland from 1922. Further information, including opening hours and fees charged, can be found on its website: www.welfare.ie/en/Pages/General-Register-Office.aspx.
From 1948 the Latter-Day Saints (LDS), or Mormons, began microfilming documentary material in Ireland. The most important resource acquired at that time was the registers of births, deaths and marriages as well as the indexes to these records held in the Registrar General’s Office in Dublin. The Mormons were not able to complete the filming of all registers before work was suspended. Available microfilms can be consulted at their Family History Centre, 401 Holywood Road, Belfast. Telephone 028 9076 8250 for opening times. The Church of the Latter-Day Saints also holds the civil registration index for Ireland (1845-1922 for Northern Ireland, 1845-1958 for the Republic of Ireland) on their website: https://familysearch.org/search/collection/1408347.
Birth certificates record the date and place of birth of the child. Normally the name of the child is also given, but in some cases only the sex is given, i.e. the child had not been given a name by the time the birth was registered. The name and residence of the father is given. Usually this will be the same as the place of birth of the child, but in some cases it will show that the father was working abroad or in another part of Ireland when the child was born. The father’s occupation is also given. The mother’s maiden name is provided as well as her first name. Finally, the name and address of the informant is given, together with his or her qualification to sign. This will usually be the father or mother or someone present at the birth, such as a midwife or even the child’s grandmother.
Civil records of marriage normally give fuller information than birth and death certificates, and are the most useful of civil records. Information on the individuals getting married includes their name, age, status, and occupation. The names and occupations of their fathers are also given. The church, the officiating minister and the witnesses to the ceremony are named. In most cases the exact age of the parties is not given, and the entry will simply read ‘full age’ (i.e. over 21) or ‘minor’ (i.e. under 21). If the father of one of the parties was no longer living, this may be indicated in the marriage certificate by the word ‘deceased’ or by leaving the space blank, but in many cases it is not.
Civil records of death in Ireland are rather uninformative in comparison to other countries. The name of the deceased is given together with the date, place and cause of death, marital status, the age at death, and occupation. The name and address of the informant is also given. Usually this is the person present at the time of the death; this may be a close family member.
The first census was held in Ireland in 1821 and thereafter every ten years until 1911. Unfortunately, the earliest census that survives in its entirety for the whole of Ireland is the 1901 census. Census returns 1821-51 were almost entirely lost in 1922 in the destruction of the Public Record Office in Dublin. Census returns 1861-91 were completely destroyed by government order, many during the First World War. The first census after the partition of Ireland was held in 1926 in both Northern Ireland and what was then known as the Irish Free State. It now appears that the 1926 census for Northern Ireland has been destroyed.
The original returns of the 1901 and 1911 censuses are deposited at the National Archives in Dublin and are now available online at www.census.nationalarchives.ie, along with surviving fragments from the nineteenth century census returns.
The information in the 1901 census is listed under the following headings: name; relationship to the head of the household; religion; literacy; occupation; age; marital status; county of birth (or country if born outside Ireland); and ability to speak English or Irish. The 1911 census additionally includes the number of years a wife was married, the number of children born and the number still living.
When searching for ancestors prior to the 19th century, the best single work of reference is Researching Scots-Irish Ancestors. The essential genealogical guide to early modern Ulster by Dr William Roulston and published by the Ulster Historical Foundation. This provides a detailed guide to records from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Belfast Central Library / Newspaper Library
The network of local libraries across Northern Ireland is managed by Libraries NI. Each library will generally have a local studies section with significant heritage collections at the larger libraries.
Opened in 1888 Belfast Central Library in Royal Avenue is the principal library in Northern Ireland and houses some 1,000,000 volumes. An important section within Belfast Central Library is the Newspaper Library.
Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland
The Presbyterian Historical Society was founded in 1907 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.
The collection includes a large number of congregational histories. Manuscript materials include session minutes, baptisms and marriages from individual churches. The society also has a duplicate set of the microfilm copies of Presbyterian Church registers held by the PRONI covering the vast majority of congregations in Ireland.
Linen Hall Library
The Linen Hall Library in Donegall Square North was founded in 1788 as the Belfast Reading Society and is the oldest library in Belfast. 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.
Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in Belfast is one of the best regional archives in the UK. It holds centuries of records relating to the province of Ulster and the families that have lived here.
One of the main features of PRONI’s collections is the fact that they cover both public (i.e. official) and private records. These include thousands of documents relating to the management of the great landed estates, records of many important businesses, records relating to the governance of many of Northern Ireland’s towns.
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.