Readers of my Twitter account were surprised this week when I mentioned that I was going to visit PRONI (the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland) for the first time. I’ve attended talks there before but never actually done research there.
I wanted to take some time to explain why this is the case and then tell you about the visit itself.
Firstly, a very brief history lesson. There are two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland since 1922: the Republic of Ireland comprises 26 counties and Dublin is the capital city. Northern Ireland is one of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom. It has 6 counties, all in Ulster, and Belfast is the capital city. This means that records pertaining to each polity are, for the most part, in two separate archival repositories. The National Archives for the Republic and PRONI for the north.
Thanks to the Good Friday agreement, there is peace and complete freedom of travel, etc between the two parts of the island. Belfast is about a 2 hour drive from where I live in north county Dublin.There’s no visible border and you only know you’re in the north because of the road sign and phone roaming!
Some time ago, I took the decision to concentrate on genealogy for the Republic because being in Dublin I’m better placed to research in the centrally located repositories such as the archives, the Valuation Office and the National Library. A client is better served by someone with area-specific knowledge and ease of access to relevant repositories. Of course from time to time, work that I start strays into the north, and I do continue it, but if I know from the outset that visits to Belfast might be required, I like to refer to a genealogist based in Northern Ireland.
PRONI is a fine purpose-built modern facility in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. It’s very close to the fantastic Titanic Museum, which I highly recommend. The area doesn’t have much in the way of shops or other facilities though. I’m staying in a budget hotel nearby and the area is dead as a dodo at night, despite being near the largest concert venue in Belfast.
So what am I researching at PRONI? Two years ago I completed a Masters in the History of the Family at the University of Limerick. My dissertation concerned an 18th century Irish Quaker family called Goff who lived in Wexford. The primary source for the research were letters written by members of the family. Back in 2021, I realised there were some more letters in PRONI, but because of the pandemic, I was unable to review or include them in my dissertation analysis. This trip, already postponed once by the late Queen Elizabeth’s death (meaning that PRONI was closed when I intended to go) finally picks up that research to investigate what is in the letters in PRONI. I can only tell so much from the e-catalogue, but it looks like these letters have more of a business tone than familial. I am also interested in the accession details – who donated them to PRONI and when. It’s only existed since 1923 – they just celebrated their first centenary in June.
Next week, in part II, I’ll discuss actually visiting the archives, how to get setup with a Reader’s Ticket and what I found!