26 March 2010


     As I posted earlier in this blog, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) will be closed to the public during its move to a new site. The closure is planned for September 2010; the re-opening, May 2011. At least one genealogical society has crossed Belfast off its itinerary during this time period. But PRONI is not the only reason to visit Belfast or the northern counties for genealogical research. Hopefully, the PRONI closure will open researchers' eyes to other resources available in the northern counties. No need to cancel a visit!
     Fintan Mullan of the Ulster Historical Foundation (UHF) assured me that there are many other options for the visiting researcher in the northern counties. I heard Fintan speak at a conference sponsored by the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania held in Valley Forge on March 13th. He and Dr. Brian Trainor packed a ton of information into the day-long conference.
     I asked Fintan if researchers should wait until PRONI reopens before visiting Belfast for research purposes. His response:
     "Obviously when PRONI is closed this will severely limit the research possibilities but there are other options to pursue when [in Belfast], e.g., Ulster Historical Foundation itself, Linen Hall Library, Belfast Central Library and the Newspaper Library, Presbyterian Historical Society, Wesley Historical Society, local libraries across NI, Armagh Ancestry, Derry Genealogy, Irish World, Donegal Ancestry, Cavan Genealogy..."
     Sounds like enough reasons to visit Northern Ireland to me!
     I often hear two versions of the "Ireland trip" from fellow family historians: either they spent all their time in the major archives (PRONI, National Library, etc) and did not "sightsee" OR they "had no time to research because it was a 'pleasure' trip." Perhaps the PRONI closure will open some eyes to the pleasures and rewards of combining sightseeing with local research--spending an afternoon in a small library or cemetery, talking with the locals about the history of the town or region. Stop and smell the heather in the hills of Northern Ireland and view the land and sky as your ancestors did. Infuse yourself with the sights and sounds and smells of the place, and you will infuse your family history research with a new life. Trust me--there is merit to getting out of the archives and allowing fate and ancestors to guide your adventure. So, don't cancel that trip just because the record office is closed!
     I asked Fintan what common mistakes he sees among  researchers from outside Ireland and whether he had any advice. Fintan said that the most common mistake is "trying to start research in Ireland with too little information, or attempting to start when on a holiday." His advice is to do as much research in your home country as possible, as "you never know when a small crumb of information can help open a new lead when you have run into a brick wall."
     He also noted that we researchers should take notice of sources such as old gravestone inscriptions in a forgotten corner of a place where our ancestors might have spent some time. I thought this nugget of advice was a good one, particularly for American researchers whose ancestors did not stay in one place after emigrating from Ireland. Too often we focus on the records available in the places where our ancestors were born and died, and we don't pay enough attention to what they did--or who they left behind--during their life trek through various locations.
    Note:  I want to thank Fintan and Dr. Brian Trainor for coming to Philadelphia to share their knowledge, and also to thank the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania for sponsoring the conference. The full room, in the midst of a terrible storm that closed many area roads, attested to the growing interest in Irish genealogy among Delaware Valley residents.
     Note: The Ulster Historical Foundation, in partnership with the University of Ulster, is running the Ulster History and Genealogy Summer School 2010 from the 20th through the 26th of June. Participants will be able to register as part time students of the University for the duration of the school. Visits to historic and research sites are planned. See the UHF website for more information.
(check out the UHF online resources and database, also)