Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

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The BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? has sparked a craze for genealogy. Laura Murphy visits the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland to find out more about her ancestors.

Family tree tracing is now apparently the number one pastime in the United Kingdom; it seems tracking down our ancestors in a bid to discover deep, dark secrets about our past has really caught on as something of a national obsession.

And down at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, the shiny glass doors are constantly swinging open to welcome in would-be genealogists of all ages, clutching folders containing the evidence of their research, geared up to spend hours, days and even weeks poring over old books, archives, and certificates to see what pieces of the jigsaw that is their family tree they can piece together.

In my case, the research I had to do was minimal; the helpful girls down at PRONI said they would do a little work on my behalf if I supplied them with my great-grandparents’ names, townland, and domination.

After seeking said information from my maternal grandmother one Friday evening, I whizzed an email off to PRONI and a couple of days later down I went to see them, more than a little curious to see what they had come up with.

There’s something about the idea of tracing your family tree that conjures up images of bookish sorts locked away in a dimly lit room, peering at barely legible, antiquated handwriting in a dust-covered volume through a magnifying glass.

And to be honest, the building on Balmoral Avenue which housed the old PRONI premises, from the outside anyway, seemed to fit with that stereotype well.

To my delight, the new building down at Titanic Boulevard is a world away from this; it’s all gleaming surfaces and high ceilings, a welcoming space with a coffee shop and free Wifi.

In the heart of the building is the room which stores the three million public records and private documents entrusted to PRONI - all 85,000 boxes of them.

There is a Reading Room, in which people are scrutinising old documents, and a Search Room with internet access and laptop points.

And it is here I’m headed today, to be met by assistants Alyson Stanford and Marion Molloy, who have been trying to find out a little more about my mother’s side of the family - the Richardsons - on my behalf.

Alyson explains that under normal circumstances, when a customer comes in they are pointed in the right direction of the documents they need to get their research under way.

“We would drip-feed the information over the course of a day or two and you would be constantly asking for advice from our help desk staff,” she says.

Because researching your family, as I’m about to see for myself, is a bit of a tricky business.

But Marion adds reassuringly: “Certainly if people are struggling and we’re not busy, we can give them more assistance with it.

“But once you’ve shown them something they’ll run with it - they’ll pick it up quite quickly.”

The starting point for anyone attempting to dabble in a little tracing, they tell me, is townland and domination - which in the case of my great-grandparents, Joseph and Annie Richardson, was a place called Cloncore, and Church of Ireland.

“First of all, we looked up the Townland Index Book which lists the 66, 000 townlands of the whole of Ireland,” Alyson explains.

“This tells us the county, barony, parish and Poor Law Union. It also gives a sheet number for ordering out maps.

“Knowing the name of the parish - in your case, Tartaraghan - we can look at the Guide to Church Records to see what information we hold for births, deaths and marriages.”

Church records, Marion and Alyson say, are one of PRONI’s main sources of information.

From these, you’re able to lift what are known as microfilm reference numbers - church registers can be viewed in this format using one of the microfilm readers at the end of the room.

Some of these are quite hard to read, and Alyson tells me that the reel relating to Tartaraghan wasn’t very clear, so, with that method of obtaining information pretty much exhausted, she tried the Griffiths Valuation.

Griffiths is a complete survey of every tenant who lived in Ireland between 1848 and 1864, recording the occupier of the land or houses, the name of the person from whom the property was leased, a description of the property, acreage of the farm and valuation of the land and buildings.

Says Marion: “Griffiths is what our current rates system really goes back to. What it does in the absence of the Census is give you a location, a map and tells you whether (your relative) owned or leased the land, and if they were tenants, who they were tenants of. All that information opens up other opportunities of research.”

Using Griffiths, Marion and Alyson “were able to order out the originals for the appropriate townland along with a map.”

They discovered that a John Richardson, of Tartaraghan parish, had leased land from a Sir William Verner (the Verner Estate) in 1826; the plot of land marked was at Derrylee, in Co Armagh, close to Lough Neagh.

So who exactly is this John Richardson, and how is he related to my great-grandfather Joseph, I wonder out loud.

“You see, now you’re getting into it,” smiles Alyson, witnessing the genealogy bug bite me before her eyes.

“So a bit of investigation on your part is called for. Usually people just copy, copy, copy, and then go away and fit everything together.”

Next to be pulled out from the growing pile of papers in front of me are some photocopies of pages recorded as part of the 1901 and 1911 Censuses.

I study the detail recorded on the 1911 one, which notes that on the night of Sunday April 2, the residents of “a house 70 in Annaghmore” ( this area is close to where my grandparents lived) included John Richardson, who was a 17-year-old farm labourer. He shared this home with father Archibald, a 46-year-old farmer, mother Eliza, 45, who was recorded as having “no occupation”, and siblings James, 19, Sarrah, 24, Ellen, 22, and Lizzie, 13.

“It is quiet complex,” says Marion, as I silently muse over the findings, wondering if my family descended from this one.

“If you were doing these searches in England, Scotland or Wales it would be much easier, because all the censuses are available. In Ireland they’re not.”

She adds: “It’s a great resource because you can get people’s ages and how long they were married, and work backwards.”

Another useful source of information available at PRONI are school records, which can point towards your ancestor’s date of birth, father’s name, address etc.

Says Alyson: “Our website opens link in new window is, of course, fabulous for example for wills, the originals of which we hold from 1900, and there are images available from 1858 on screen. Our electronic catalogue is searchable from home as well.”

But she points out: “It’s important to stress that sometimes there is a degree of supposition involved and that it can be difficult to tie everything together. We only spent a short time looking, so imagine what someone with time to spare could turn up.”

Certainly, it seemed there were a few blanks for me and my family to fill in, and I was looking forward to our next get-together so we could try and start piecing together all the parts of the puzzle.

I was satisfied that I had done my share of the work - and then I got a late night text from my dad.

“I may be able to get you some information on my great grand-dad,” he wrote.

That’s the thing about family trees - they have branches and branches that will never be satisfied until they get right back to their roots.

You can access the 1901 and 1911 Census online by visiting opens link in new window

Published in News Letter as 'Rooted to the spot by family tree' on 24 August 2011. Read on opens link in new window


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