I visited Belfast back in 1996, and after 23 years, last month I had the opportunity to return, and continue my family history research.
My first stop was at the Ulster Historical Foundation, which is the “county” genealogy centre for most of Northern Ireland, and the regional contributor to the RootsIreland website, a one stop shop for transcribed Irish records. In my 50 years of researching family history, I have never paid for a consultation with a local expert, so this was a new experience to me.
To my surprise, my “expert” was the organization’s research director, Dr. William Roulston. Our time together was certainly worthwhile, with Dr. Roulston identifying some additional sources to investigate, beyond what I had already planned, and even identified a couple of new data points in the lives of my Belfast ancestors. Local knowledge in invaluable, especially when time in the area is limited.
Next stop was the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), the repository of documents of national significance. I had pre-registered for a visitor pass online several weeks before my visit, but on arrival the receptionist could find no record of my registration. Luckily I had brought a copy of the completed registration form with me, so did not have to fill out another one. Once equipped with my visitor pass, I headed for the public search room to learn the ropes.
The assistant at the desk in the public search room was impressed that I had brought a printed list of the items that I wanted to view, so her assistance was limited to how to order documents and what items were openly available in the public search room. After a few minutes spent keying reference numbers into a computer, my first documents were ordered and a desk assigned in the reading room. The system is very efficient, and within 15 minutes my desk number appeared on an overhead monitor, telling me that I had documents available, so off I went to the reading room.
The reading room staff were very helpful, even when I didn’t realize that I needed help – A staff member appeared with cloth-covered weights when I was struggling to get a large document to stay flat while I photographed it, and when I asked if I could stand on a chair to photograph a large map, the security person steered me to a low table, provided for the purpose. I guess they run into these issues every day.
I spent 3 productive days at PRONI and left with all but one item from my original list completed (one item could not be located), plus many more that I had identified during my visit. I photographed so many documents that my iPad memory was full.
My final research destination in Belfast was the Linen Hall Library, conveniently located on Donegall Square (all public buses run through Donegall Square). This private library was established in 1788 and is open to the public for research. The primary reason for my visit was to explore the card index to births, marriages and deaths from the Belfast News Letter newspaper, but I also took the opportunity to review published pedigrees for my ancestral surnames, and that was all that time would permit. I could have spent many more hours browsing other items in their collection. Maybe next time!
I hope that it will not be another 23 years before I can return to Belfast. Meanwhile I have copies of a lot of material to sift through.