People who have done no family history investigation don’t understand the pleasure you can get from a research trip. A genealogist is never too seasoned to get a kick out of new sources and experiences. Recently I visited the General Register Office of Northern Ireland for the first time since the early 1990s. The trip was prompted by being told by a Belfast-based colleague that GRONI’s upgraded facilities were now fully functional.
The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland Offices
Having booked myself in for an Index Search (£14), I arrived on the appointed day and was shown up to the search room. It was equipped with computers for twenty or more visitors. Within minutes I was finding results. The births database indicates the child’s exact date of birth and mother’s maiden surname. For deaths, the exact date of death and age (or, for more recent years, exact date of birth) are stated. Marriages are best of all. The spouse’s full name, the exact date of marriage and place of marriage are given. The name of the church is stated except in the case of Roman Catholic ceremonies, where the registrar’s district is given.
GRONI’s facility covers records for all six counties of Northern Ireland from the commencement of civil registration (1845 for non-Catholic marriages; 1864 for all other records) forward. It should be remembered that pre-1922 records for Northern Ireland are available also through GRO Ireland in Roscommon / Dublin. To go beyond GRONI’s computerised indexes you can get a ‘verification’ for £4. This consists of being shown a digitised image of the record on a computer screen and being allowed copy down the details. The price of your first two verifications is included in the £14 search fee. A more elaborate option is the Assisted Search (£35 per hour), but certainly that would not be for the first time visitor.
The only way of getting a print-out of the digital image of an actual record is to purchase a certificate. This costs £14, a pretty expensive option. There are pros and cons when comparing GRONI’s facilities with those offered by GRO Ireland. On balance GRONI is streets ahead of its older sibling south of the border. Furthermore, I am reliably informed by GRONI’s management that its earlier material will be searchable on-line within two years. If only those in power at GRO Ireland in Roscommon were so interested in engaging with the public.
GRONI is not the only Belfast record repository that could teach the Republic’s institutions a thing or two about research facilities. In May of last year the National Library in Dublin downgraded its reading room services, making efficient research nigh impossible. Having been frustrated in my attempt to do extensive newspaper searches there, I found it worthwhile to stay over in Belfast to use the newspaper section of Belfast Central Library. This repository is more akin to Dublin City Library & Archive in Pearse Street, but both now offer better research facilities than the much larger national institution.
The newspaper library of Belfast Central is around the corner from the main building, which is in Royal Avenue. It is the most user-friendly newspaper research area I have ever visited. As well as Belfast publications, which were the focus of my research, they hold a range of local titles from across Northern Ireland and Donegal, as well as the Irish Times and a good run of the Irish Independent and the Irish Press. There are hardcopy and microfilm options in most cases. You may order only one item at a time, but each hardcopy newspaper I ordered was on my desk in less than five minutes. There was no limit to the number of requests I could place. I went through several volumes of newspapers per hour, and each volume was delivered with a smile. The powers that be in Belfast Central Library evidently understand the nature of research.
Belfast has two other record repositories of interest to genealogists, though they were not on my itinerary for the recent visit. The Linen Hall Library is within walking distance of both GRONI and Belfast Central. Situated in the heart of town, facing City Hall, the Linen Hall is my idea of what Heaven’s research facilities would look like. With its unique nineteenth century entrance, the high ceilings of its reading rooms, and its curvaceous staircases, the Linen Hall gives a feeling of connection with the past. The institution was founded in 1788 and it is the last remaining subscribing library in Ireland. Its Irish & Reference area, on Level 4, is where to find the likes of early periodicals and newspapers, manuscripts, publications in Irish, Ulster Scots and Ulster dialects, early Belfast books, and a very extensive collection of genealogical publications.
Slightly away from the centre of town is the city’s most important place of research, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. PRONI moved into its new headquarters in the Titanic Quarter just a year ago. The spacious purpose-built facility is an impressive state-of-the-art record repository. It is one of Ireland’s premier store-houses of local and family history material, principally but not exclusively for the province of Ulster.
Sitting at home finding ancestors on your computer may be most family historians’ dream scenario. It’s convenient; it can be very rewarding, but it’s also solitary and somewhat sterile. A research trip to a library or archives that welcomes your presence and caters for your needs is an entirely different experience. This is one of the elements that encourage people to cross oceans to visit Ireland in pursuit of elusive ancestors.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Belfast Central Library
address: Royal Avenue, Belfast, BT1 1EA
phone: 028-90509150 (within Northern Ireland) or 048-90509150 (from the Republic)
opening hours: Mon.-Thurs. 9.00am-8.00pm; Fri. 9.00am-5.30pm; Sat. 9.00am-4.30pm
(Newspaper Library around the corner in Library Street)
General Register Office of Northern Ireland (GRONI)
address: Oxford House, 49-55 Chichester Street, Belfast, BT1 4HL
phone: 0300-2007890 (within Northern Ireland) or 048-91513101 (from the Republic)
opening hours: Mon.-Fri. 9.30am-4.00pm; no admissions between 12.00 & 12.30pm
requirements: appointment necessary / photographic ID required
Linen Hall Library
address: 17 Donegall Square North, Belfast, BT1 5GB
phone: 028-90321707 (within Northern Ireland) or 048-90321707 (from the Republic)
opening hours: Mon.-Fri. 9.30am-5.30pm; Sat. 9.30am-4.00pm
requirements: none, but donations from visitors welcomed
Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI)
address: 2 Titanic Boulevard, Belfast, BT3 9HQ
phone: 028-90534800 (within Northern Ireland) or 048-90534800 (from the Republic)
opening hours: Mon.-Wed. & Fri. 9.00am-4.45pm; Thurs. 10.00am-8.45pm
requirements: apply for Visitor Pass on first visit / photographic ID required for same