Researching at PRONI
The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) was set up after the partition of Ireland to be the repository for the six counties of the new Northern Ireland. The first Deputy Keeper of the Records had worked at the Public Records Office in Dublin and was familiar with the records held there, as well as the records that had been lost in the fire in 1922. He made sure that the charter for PRONI allowed them to bring in not just government records, but other documents relating to Northern Ireland. He contacted private sources including solicitors, politicians, businesses and the landed aristocracy to encourage them to provide copies of their records. By doing this, he was able to recreate some of the records lost in Dublin. Unlike its sister organization, the National Archives of Ireland, PRONI has extensive private collections. You’ll tend to find the private collections in the Republic at the National Library which I discussed last week.
The other thing to understand is that Ulster and Northern Ireland are not the same thing. Ulster, one of the four Provinces of Ireland, consists of nine counties; Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry (Derry) Monaghan and Tyrone. Three of the Counties of Ulster, Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan today are part of the Republic of Ireland, so records for these three counties can be found both in Dublin and in Belfast. Most of the government records for these three counties such as civil records and valuation records will be in Dublin, however, private records, such as church, estate and business records as well as historical information can be found at PRONI and other repositories in Northern Ireland. You'll also find that the private records at PRONI may cover localities in the Republic…one large collection of estate records at PRONI is for the Kenmare Estate in County Kerry. In addition, some landlords in the North also held properties in the Republic of Ireland and there are records from some of the bordering counties such as Leitrim and Louth.
Having said that, many of the online collections focus on Northern Ireland though there are exceptions. The Name Search for the 1766 Religious Census includes data from 15 counties in the Republic though none are complete. If you click on Search Archives Online from the home page you will find a list of the online resources.
PRONI is located in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast. It is walking distance from downtown, across a foot bridge or you can take one of the buses from the Donegal Square area. As in most Archives, you are limited in what you can take in, so coats, bags, etc., have to be left in lockers. The lockers require a £1 coin, however you do get the coin back at the end of the day, so they're really free. A Visitor’s Pass is required to research at PRONI (equivalent to a Readers Ticket) which can be obtained upon arrival and presentation of a photo ID. (Yes, it's true...all of my IDs look like hostage pictures!😀) If you have a Visitor’s Pass previously issued, you need to show it. The Visitor’s Pass is free, but if you lose it, the replacement cost is £10.
As I mentioned with the National Library, you might not find your ancestors' names when searching the catalog; it is more likely that the names that do appear would be those that interacted with your ancestors such as their landlord. Dr. Des McCabe, an Archivist and Historian at PRONI encourages researchers to explore resources for the locality where their ancestors lived rather than simply focusing on births, deaths and marriages. He also encouraged people to use maps, to understand how townlands and parishes fit together. And finally to write. It’s through the process of writing that new questions will come to mind. These are all things that I have written or spoken about in the past. Records that might provide information on your ancestor include material in estate records such as deeds, rent books, letters, maps, applotment books that pre-date the Tithe, Petty Session records, business records...the lists go on and on. PRONI is one of the most sophisticated Archives in Europe. Ordering is done online with one of the terminals in the Public Search Room and most document requests are usually fulfilled in15 minutes.
Prior to your visit to PRONI, I’d encourage you to spend time on PRONI's website. The section under “Your research” provides information on many types of records. The “Your Family Tree Series” under "Information Leaflets" contains PDFs which provide detailed information on various types of records.
PRONI’s Guide to Church Records (2019) is a key resource for church records. It includes not only baptisms, marriages and deaths, but also Vestry Minutes, Session Minutes and other records kept by a church. There is also a list of Church Records Available as Digital Copies in PRONI including some Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Moravian congregations. The records are not available online, but onsite at PRONI.
When you move to the eCatalogue, begin by reading “About the Catalogue.” Search by county or parish and if you search by townland remember that names are repeated in many counties, so make sure you're in the correct location. You should also search by landlord if you know the name from Griffith’s Valuation. This will give you an idea of what records are available. Records beginning with MIC are microfilms and if church records are available as self service in the Public Search Room for review. Records that must be ordered are sent to the Reading Room…a TV screen at each end of the Search Room will tell you when the records have arrived. Most records can be photographed, however, always check with a staff member to make sure. In many cases you are working with original documents that might be hundreds of years old. In the Reading Room there is also a digital printer that works for large documents and books, so you might want to bring a USB stick.
One last thing about the catalogue…there is an onsite catalogue in the Search Room that you will use to order your documents. I’ve found it more complete than the eCatalogue, so check that as well.
For more information about PRONI or any of the other repositories you can check the blogs from my previous trips. On the Blog page, move your cursor to More and in the drop down menu select, Research In Ireland. Just scroll down to October of 2018 or 2019 to find daily blogs regarding the trip, including blogs from some of the participants.
There is still space available for all of the trips for 2022, so please share this with your Genealogical Society or anyone you think might be interested.
Happy Hunting and Stay Safe!