Saturday, 21 June 2014

PRONI user forum meeting - latest developments

Yesterday saw another 4am start to get to Belfast for the latest user forum meeting at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland ( The weather was glorious, and when the weather is glorious, so too is an early morning ferry trip across the Sruth na Maoile, armed with a good coffee and a bacon bap! We kicked off the meeting at 10.30am.

PRONI is in a very busy period just now, not just because of its obligations with regards to the current historical abuse enquiry in Northern Ireland (with cataloguing and other responsibilities taking up a lot of manpower), but also with its continuing drive to become one of the most user friendly national archives out there. A TONNE of activity is under way just now - here are some of the highlights:

1) The First World War

PRONI is currently preparing a range of activities to help commemorate the start of the First World War. Ian Montgomery briefed us that a guide to the archive's resources concerning the conflict will be hopefully online by early July, in a PDF format file, whilst a separate education resource is also being worked on just now.

From August there will also be a blog type feature launched through the PRONI website, detailing on a monthly basis several case studies of those affected by the conflict - it will be a sort of "Voices of the First World War" narrative based type of affair. This is still under development.

A conference will also take place on September 5th to publicise the launch of PRONI's First World War Sources guide.

Joy Carey also provided a great overview of the recent project to digitise the Derry War Memorial books, in collaboration with Derry City Council's archive (see These primarily detail those from the city of Derry or its immediate environs, though also includes some who had connections with the city, for example apprentices. Amongst the papers were some examples of additional materials found such as letters written by soldiers, a great collection. It was interesting to hear about the behind the scenes aspects of this, with the files originally scanned in TIFF format for storage in PRONI's digital repository, with JPEG copies then made from these for practical use, and then PDF files, the format in which the collection is made available online. The files are about 6MB in size, as this was the maximum practical size that could be catered for through their online platform.

Joy also updated us on their project to try to identify photographic portraits from the Strabane area, available via the archive's FLICKR stream ( There are 763 images online, and so far 30 have been positively identified. An exhibition featuring some of the images may soon be happening at Strabane Public Library.

2) School records

This was a new one on me, but PRONI has a collection of Education Committee Applications which underpinned the creation of the National Schools movement in Ireland in the mid 19th century. Catalogued under AD/1, these are to be digitised by PRONI, with those for Down and Fermanagh to be sorted first. It is possible, though not guaranteed, that the first three counties may go online later this year. In total there are some 5774 applications, and these include information such as teachers' salaries, requests for money for books, and much additional context for each school in the six counties of what now comprises Northern Ireland. This was fascinating enough, but late last night after I got home, I discovered that an ancestor I had spent part of yesterday afternoon researching at the archive has tuned out to have been a school teacher and JP in Islandmagee, so I am VERY much looking forward to these now!

Also announced was the fact that PRONI is considering the digitisation of historic school registers, something they may potentially put out to tender. Watch this space!

3) Church records digitisation

PRONI is now digitising new church record accessions deposited with them, but also some historic collections that are poorly presented on microfilm, with some early records from Derry having recently been completed. The plan is to spend up to three months a year on this, through it is not intended that the bulk of records already available on microfilms will be digitised, it's mainly new collections.

4) Royal Victoria Hospital

Another digitisation project concerns the hospital admission books for the Royal Vic in Belfast, from 1914-1916, which it is hoped may go online in March 2015. As ever, this is not a guarantee, but a target they are currently aiming for, but this should be a cracker for those with Belfast links.

5) Coroners records

There are some BIG changes coming on the PRONI website concerning the cataloguing of coroners records. At the moment, PRONI has a series of coroners records available on the Name Search database from 1872-1920, broken down as follows for the seven districts included (six counties and Belfast):

Antrim, 1872-1899
Armagh, 1881-1899
Down, 1872-1920
Fermanagh, 1887- 1920
Londonderry, 1891-1891
Tyrone, 1890-1899
Belfast, 1894-1904

The archive has also recently catalogued 13,000 coroners' records from 1969-1999, but rather than include these in the Name Search database, they have been included directly within the main catalogue.

Now here's the big change - the Name Search coroners records database for 1872-1920 is to be discontinued as of next Wednesday 25th June, with these entries also to be included in the main catalogue. (Everything else in the Name Search database will remain as is, don't panic!). The reason for this is that the coroners collections have been completely re-catalogued, so now have new accession numbers, making the original database redundant. In addition, next Wednesday should also see the addition to the catalogue of 3000 coroners records from 1950-1968. This then leaves the period from 1921-1949, which will be addressed over this summer and added in due course - meaning that very soon all the records from 1872-1999 will be accessible via the PRONI main catalogue (though there are gaps at a regional level pre-1922 as to what has survived).

NB: all records prior to 1920 are open to access. After 1920, to view coroners records you will need to make a Freedom of Information request. You will then be allowed to see a copy, though it may be redacted to protect information on anyone mentioned who may still be alive (to comply with data protection).

6) Recent acquisitions

Some great new deposits have been made recently at the archive, the one that will probably interest most is the acquisition of records from the Blackstaff Spinning Mill on the Springfield Road from 1866-1999 (including records for subsidiary mills at Doagh and Lurgan). These are currently being catalogued.

A major collection of circus material gathered by Dr Richard Hunter, described as one of the most colourful collections PRONI has ever collected, has been acquired, covering the period from 1940-1960. It includes photos of circus performers and programmes from across the world.

Records from the Fermanagh based West Ulster Farmers Co-Operative from Fermanagh from 1898-1990 have also been obtained.

7) Cataloguing 

Detailed work is continuing to catalogue the Londonderry Papers under D3099, including the letters of Lord Londonderry and Lady Londonderry. Of note was a series of letters mentioned by Brett Irwin concerning Lady Londonderry's role as patron to Scottish pianist Duncan Morrison, as well as correspondence by her in support of the linen industry.

The PRONI catalogue will be updated again on Wednesday June 25th.

8) Irish Archival Resource

This is something that was described by Wesley Geddis during the meeting as something that PRONI is currently involved with, and something for professional genealogists to take a particular note of. Here in Scotland we can access various catalogues from archives across the country through a site called the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) at, whilst the English and Welsh have an equivalent called Access to Archives at In Ireland, there hasn't really been that kind of facility until the fairly recent creation of the Irish Archival Resource at This is a catalogue platform that archives north and south of the border contribute to, with some 1000 collections represented by 50 participants - PRONI's contribution to date extends to 50 collections.

Unlike PRONI's own catalogue, the items on IAR are catalogued to fond level only (a sort of broad overview) as opposed to the much desired but time intensive item level, but what the site does is flag up a resource for a search term, and tell you a bit about it, and where to find it - in some cases it even mentions where collections formerly held by PRONI have been relocated to, if they have been transposed somewhere since their initial acquisition. It is a slow burner, in that PRONI will add a small amount to it each year, but it is the closest thing to SCAN that there is, and particularly useful being an all Ireland platform.

A lot of people believe that very few records exist in Ireland, with the oft cited Four Courts explosion the usual cue for gloom, doom, weeping, gnashing of teeth and keening. I would counter that the biggest problem in Ireland in actual fact is that so little is catalogued, or that at least what is catalogued is not accessible online - so this is a very welcome initiative, and one that will become a genuinely brilliant asset if archives really throw their hearts and souls into it. We reap the benefits of SCAN and A2A here in Britain on a daily basis.

9) Events

Keep an eye out for PRONI's participation at the Lanarkshire Family History Show in Motherwell (, but the archive will not be exhibiting at Who Do You Think You Are Live in Glasgow. However, the North of Ireland Family History Society ( will be there, as will the Ulster Historical Foundation (, so God's own accent will be well and truly represented here in Alba in the weeks ahead!

So that was it for the latest visit to PRONI - apart from what I got up to after the meeting with my own research, and the extraordinary coincidence that greeted me when I got home connected to what I had just found during the day. But I'll save that for another time... :)

Oh - and here's a wee selfie at the Titanic exhibition! (Glorious weather!)


Now available for UK research is the new second edition of the best selling Tracing Your Family History on the Internet: A Guide for Family Historians, whilst my new book British and Irish Newspapers is also now out. And FindmyPast - please reinstate the original Scottish census citations on your new site.


  1. Chris,
    You are just a wealth of knowledge.
    Just signing on for my tickets to the WDYTYA Glasgow Aug 29-31
    See you at your speaking events.
    Cathie Christie
    Arroyo Grande, CA.