How to get started with discovering your hidden family history

Genealogy has become a national pastime, judging by the popularity of 'Getting Started' workshops at Belfast's Public Records Office, where Gemma Eaton and Stephen Scarth tell Gail Bell that amateur genealogists should never really be too surprised to find out who they really are...

A group of 'Getting Started' participants perusing rare and precious documents at the Proni building in Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann
Gail Bell

SO, WHO do you think you are... and where do you come from, really? Finding an answer has reduced many inquisitive celebrities to teary-eyed, emotional wrecks in the television programme of the same name and, lately, a growing number of local people have set out on their own Holy Grail, in search of nebulous family figures from the past and secrets sealed for centuries.

But, in Northern Ireland, where identity, religion and history are intertwined with particularly fragile intensity, that journey can often be a fraught one, blocked by an unseen pothole on the road to an unknown destination, warn experts at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (Proni).

Luckily, staff working in the modern Titanic headquarters are well acquainted with the obstacles as well as the shortcuts when it comes to trekking down ancestry and have been helping a growing number of enthusiasts navigate the complexities through a series of 'Getting Started' workshops.

And, while the collective advice tends to be 'proceed with care' – and be prepared for all kinds of skeletons springing out of your family cupboard, along with those proverbial 'missing millions' – groups of amateur genealogists have been queuing up to learn more from Proni's extensive archives.

Holding over three million records, its resources have been combed by actors such as Daniel Radcliffe and Mark Gatiss, as well as former Apprentice advisor, Nick Hewer, all of whom were filmed in Belfast for the Who Do You Think You Are? programme – but, on a cold winter's morning in February, it was the turn of a bunch of locals to shine detective torches on the uppermost, threadbare branches of their family tree.

Converting into a sort of super-sleuth is a necessary part of the skill set, stresses Gemma Eaton, Proni tutor for the workshops which last around two hours and can now accommodate up to 25 people, following a reconfiguration of the training area on the first floor.

As well as advice on how to search for records online, participants take part in a practical demonstration on using the public search room (there is a 'quiet area' and 'very quiet area') – and also have the chance to handle fragile, original documents: photographs of the Belfast Blitz and a baptismal register of St Comgall's Parish Church, Bangor, dating from 1805 to 1849, were laid out on the vast viewing table during our recent visit.

Fascinating as all this is, though, it is important to do your 'homework' first.

"Start with what you know and work backwards", Gemma advises.

"Talk to family and friends who may remember useful snippets of information and be aware that accounts may differ. You can check family gravestone inscriptions for names and vital dates and old family Bibles are also a valuable resource, containing details of births, marriages and deaths.

"The search can be particularly challenging in Ireland because of the 1922 fire in the Dublin Four Courts which destroyed many historical documents. Fortunately, we still have the 1901 and 1911 censuses which are always a good starting point, as well as many substitute records, including street directories, parish records, school registers and employer records.

"We hold some Harland and Wolff records at Proni, as well as probated wills and even early prison records. There's lots you can do online, but there's something about holding an actual record in your hands to make it all come to life".

Proni's Head of Public Services, Stephen Scarth. Picture by Mal McCann

Discovering a relative with a prison record is less shocking than people might think, according to Stephen Scarth, head of public services at Proni, given the fact so many were imprisoned for relatively little during the 1800s.

"People find out all sorts of things – their parents may not have been married, for example," he says.

"Research into my own family found an illegitimate line that no-one knew about, which was quite interesting. Finding a black sheep in the family is a real added story for people – especially if they discover a relative had been up in front of the courts. It was actually quite frequent in the 19th century, because during the Irish famine people couldn't feed themselves and were often prosecuted for stealing food.

"Another revelation that can surprise is the cross-over that often happened in terms of religion. It is endlessly fascinating how nuanced society is and how names evolved and family religions changed over the generations. Catholics became Methodists, became Presbyterians, often due to the penal legislation, and 'Neill' became 'O'Neill' then 'McNeill'. How surnames changed is an interesting area in its own right."

While Stephen discovered illegitimacy in his family line, Gemma managed to unearth a few skeletons of her own, including "a rather humongous one", involving a great, great grandfather who was accused of being a "fire starter" in Belfast and was interned on the HMS prison ship Argenta in 1916.

"He was eventually given a pardon and there was no evidence whatsoever, but there is a morbid curiosity about stories like these," she says.

"The prison file states he was of good character, but it was obviously a shock for my family to find out something like that. One of my great uncles refused to believe it, right up to the day he died."

Amateur genealogist, Sally Forwood, from Luxembourg, was one of many recent visitors to the Proni archives which welcomes up to 15,000 researchers every year, 46 per cent of whom are from outside Northern Ireland

A Luxembourg visitor to the Proni archives, 70-year-old retired book sub-editor Sally Forwood didn't find any criminals lurking in her Irish ancestry – "apart from two dodgy ancestors who tried to persuade their elderly aunt to change her will" – but was happily able to trace the origins of a number of mysterious artefacts.

Sally had been researching her grandmother's family (Eccles) from Coleraine, also enlisting the help of the Ulster Historical Foundation to help solve the mystery of a "metal thing", a brass plate and a "letter from America", alongside a "strange, coloured folded document".

"The metal object turned out to a 1762 brown linen seal owned by a family member and the brass plate was a buckle from one of the WW1 Volunteer forces in Coleraine – my grandmother had volunteered at a Red Cross hospital in Rouen and we found a reference in the archives, which was amazing," she explains.

The Robb flax seal which helped Sally on the trail of her Irish ancestry

"The letter, on the other hand, led me to many branches of the family who had emigrated to America and the coloured document appears to be a beautifully coloured rectifying compass. It is in a museum now, puzzling everyone as to how it came to be written in Coleraine in 1729."

While she had to bury herself in "hearth rolls and vestry books" as well as getting to grips with "19th century jargon", her advice is to never give up on your historical adventure, because you never quite know what will fall at your feet – literally.

"On my last trip to the Proni archives, I was looking through a file of 14,000 typed wills when a thin paper suddenly floated out on to the floor in front of me," she says.

"Astonishingly, it was a pedigree written out in about 1920 of the very family I was looking for and all my problems were solved – I can now write the book!"

:: Dates of Proni workshops are available via

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