How to research your Northern Irish roots

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How to research your Northern Irish roots

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Have you ever wanted to find out more about your family history but never really knew how to get started?

Well you’re in luck, because with the assistance of the Public Record Office Northern Ireland (PRONI),  Northern Irish Connections has put together a short guide to help you find out more about your family history and the origins of your ancestors.

Get organised & keep good records

OK, so you’ve decided to research your family tree. Before you get going, invest in a good folder and ensure you have a rigorous record keeping system. 

This might seem a little bit boring but it will stop you from ‘doubling up’ on research and help avoid confusion as your search becomes more extensive.

Decide on your goal

PRONI recommends setting yourself immediate goals and concentrating your efforts in one area of family history at a time, For example…

‘I only want to explore direct ancestors of both male and female lines.’

Lay the foundations for your search 

Researching your family tree is not quite as simple as using google. You will need patience and some good detective skills to piece together information from a range of sources, including: 

Speaking to family members, looking through old photo albums, visiting family grave yards etc. Do family members still have immigration papers or naturalisation records?

Research and join local history groups 

There are thousands of Facebook pages, blogs and websites full of information that may be relevant to your particular search. Don’t be shy. Ask plenty of questions. You might even stumble across some distant relatives!

Get online and explore the records

After you’ve gathered as much information as you can from family, it’s time to get online and fill in the gaps. 

If you live overseas you should check the following: 

1. passenger lists

2. Naturalisation records

3. Cemetery records and gravestone inscriptions (to find out where the family came from in Ireland)

Use the PRONI e–catalgoue

By this time you should have gathered plenty of useful information, ie names, dates, places.

Armed with plenty of useful information, ie names, dates and places – it’s time to search PRONI’s e–catalogue. You can access all sorts of information there but PRONI’s extensive Parish and Townland registers will almost certainly become a highly useful resource.

17th Century Barony Maps c.1609 - Tyrone etc. (From collection of maps of escheated counties of Ireland) PRONI Ref: T1652/2
17th Century Barony Maps c.1609 - Tyrone etc. (From collection of maps of escheated counties of Ireland) PRONI Ref: T1652/2

These records can be accessed remotely using PRONI’s e–catalogue facility –  perfect for anyone who can’t make it to the PRONI offices in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter.

The e–catalogue allows you to find out whether or not a specific record is held by PRONI. If you want to view the records they relate to firsthand, you will have to visit in person. Alternatively PRONI offers a search and copying service to help you access information.

Visit here for info regarding fees.

Visiting in Person

Before visiting PRONI for research purposes you will need to register

Admission is absolutely free and your registration and visitor pass is valid for ten years from the date of issue.  In order to get the most out of your visit, here’s some helpful guidance.

Expert tips

Beware variations in spelling, eg: McVeigh, McVay, MacVeagh, McFeigh, McVea 

People more often than not didn’t fill in their own forms due to not being able to read or write. An official was employed to transcribe all records and mis–spelling of names was very common. So never rule out a ‘lead’ just because the spelling doesn’t seem completely right.

Beware – this also applies to the spelling of town lands and places!

Watch out for the re–use of names 

It was common for the the names of children who died in infancy to be given to future children.

Dates & Ages

Another thing to watch out for…Before the days of birth certificates, ‘rounding up’ was common practice.

Other useful resources include: 

General Register Office Northern Ireland

General Register Office Ireland

National Library of Ireland

Good luck & happy searching!

Living overseas and have an interesting story to tell? We’d love to hear from you. Contact us at or via social media. 

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