Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland as a political entity is less than a century old, but has roots back to Norman times. Chris Paton explores its history and how to research your roots there

Header Image: The Giant’s Causeway, a volcanic rock formation in County Antrim and Northern Ireland’s most popular tourist attraction Petr Brož

Chris Paton, Specialist in Scotland and Ireland Family History

Chris Paton

Specialist in Scotland and Ireland Family History

The modern state of Northern Ireland has existed as a part of the United Kingdom since May 1921, and yet the six counties that form the country have in fact been members for considerably longer, with the whole of Ireland having previously joined the UK in 1801. The influence of Britain in Ireland goes back to Norman times, but it was from the early 1600s that waves of Scots and English people were physically settled by the British Crown in the north of the island, in an effort to pacify the region towards Crown influence. The most significant factor from this ‘plantation’ was that these new colonists were followers of Britain’s Protestant reformed religions, while the majority of the island’s population, as to this day, adhered strongly to the Roman Catholic faith.

Following the political and sectarian turmoil within the country between 1916 and 1921 (which included the Easter Rising in Dublin and the Anglo-Irish War), an imperfect solution was found by partitioning the island into two new states. Northern Ireland was founded with a predominantly Protestant-based population, and in the south the Irish Free State was largely Catholic, later to become a fully fledged republic. It should be noted that as well as Ireland being divided, so too was the historic province of Ulster – counties Antrim, Down, Armagh, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Londonderry remained within the British union, while counties Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan were included within the southern state.

Belfast City Hall
Belfast City Hall, built in 1898 in recognition of Belfast’s industrial expansion (particularly in linen, rope-making, shipbuilding and engineering) and on the site of a former linen exchange

Lost records
For family historians this divided history provides some interesting challenges, none more so than overcoming the destruction of a significant proportion of the island’s official records in Dublin during the south’s subsequent civil war in 1922, by a faction of the IRA which did not agree with partition. In the years following this act of vandalism, many good people on both sides of the Irish border have retrieved much of the genealogical information lost from copies of records that were preserved through chance, or through materials fortunately not held at the Public Record Office when it was destroyed. Nevertheless, despite a great deal of information being still lost forever, where there is the will to get through a particular brick wall, very often there may still be a way.

Arthur Square
Arthur Square, with the Spirit of Belfast sculpture VisitBritain/Britain on View

Online records
Prior to May 1921, the administrative centre for Ireland was based in Dublin, but following the island’s division, Belfast became the capital of the north. This means that for Northern Irish research you will often have to consult resources in both cities, as well as from more localised holdings. As with any genealogy research, it all starts with the vital records of births, marriages and deaths. At the present moment there are no online indexes for these events from 1922 onwards, but prior to this indexes to the records of civil registration can be found on the internet through sites such as FamilySearch ( State-based registration commenced in April 1845, but only for non-Roman Catholic based church marriages, or through civil marriages performed by a registrar (which could include Roman Catholics). It was not until January 1864 that civil records for all births, death and marriages (for all denominations) were gathered by the General Register Office (GRO) in Dublin.

Using the online indexes, it is possible to purchase photocopied extracts of records for the north for the 1845-1922 period from the GRO in the Republic of Ireland via The advantage here is that such copies cost only €4 each. Although a separate GRO has existed in Belfast since 1922, where the same records can be purchased also, to do so at present costs a whopping £15 per certificate. After 1922, however, Belfast is the only GRO source where such records can be applied for – do so via its website at here. The building also has a public search room, where you can obtain certificate information at £4 per entry but in spring 2014, an online portal will also go live from the centre, through which you will be able to access digital images of records. It will soon be possible to download records after certain ‘closure periods’ for access – births older then 100 years, marriages older than 75 and deaths older than 50 – and to consult indexes for the same periods (though unfortunately not for events after these closure periods). This will be a major development for Northern Irish genealogy.

Roselawn Cemetery in BelfastBelfast City Council’s burials database
Roselawn Cemetery in Belfast. The ashes of Northern Irish footballer George Best are buried here – the inset shows his burial record, in Belfast City Council’s burials database

Some alternatives for the same information can also be found online. Transcripts of many civil and parish records can be accessed from RootsIreland at a cost of €5 each, though the records available vary from county to county. Detailed indexes can also be found at Emerald Ancestors, which costs £9.99 for a month’s subscription, and through which you can request a full look-up of a record for a further £12 per record. Some partial transcripts of civil registration records can also be freely accessed through FamilySearch for births (1864-1881) and marriages (1864-1870), included within the Ireland Births and Baptisms, 1620-1881 and Ireland Marriages, 1619-1898 databases.

Intriguing article?

Subscribe to our newsletter, filled with more captivating articles, expert tips, and special offers.

A useful alternative to forking out for expensive death certificates is to obtain burial records, particularly for Belfast. Transcribed records for the city’s Dundonald, Roselawn and City Cemeteries are freely available from (click on ‘burial records’, bottom right of screen), while the original images can be purchased for £1.50 each, a tenth the cost of a GRO certificate, and in fact containing more information (including cause of death and the name of the lair owner). Other online burial and gravestone inscription records from across the country can be found at,, and Books of gravestone inscriptions, particularly for Counties Antrim and Down, can also be purchased from the Ulster Historical Foundation at and from the North of Ireland Family History Society at .

Most census records prior to 1901 have unfortunately been destroyed, but those from 1901 and 1911 have been digitised by the National Archives of Ireland, and made freely available online through its genealogy records platform at Some remnants before this do survive – the 1851 census for a significant part of County Antrim, for example, is transcribed and available online at, while Bill MacAfee’s excellent site at provides access to the 1831 census for County Londonderry. Some information from the 1841 and 1851 censuses was used from 1908 onwards to provide proof of age for the new old age pension, and has survived through the applications, despite the loss of the censuses themselves. These applications are held at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), but online indexes with some limited details can be consulted at The National Archives of Ireland has also recently uploaded digital copies of the actual census search request forms for these applications through its online genealogy site.

The First Presbyterian Church in Belfast
The First Presbyterian Church in Belfast, representing the largest Protestant denomination in Ireland. 96% of its members are in the North

The Public Record Office
PRONI is Northern Ireland’s very own dedicated national archive. Its new premises, located in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, have very much been developed with the family historian in mind and offer a range of services. One of the most important offerings in its main search room is a free to use microfilm viewing area, where many microfilms of land records, school records, poor relief registers and more can be consulted. The archive’s website provides a series of guides on its records holdings, accessible through the Online Guides section at By far the most important is its parish register holdings catalogue, located at here, which breaks down parish by parish and denomination by denomination which records can be consulted at the facility – and if not there, the location where they can be found. Not all parish records are in PRONI, however, with significant collections held at the Belfast based Presbyterian Historical Society, the Dublin based Representative Church Body Library, for Church of Ireland records, and others still in local custody.

PRONI also provides many important records collections online through its website, including a wills database from 1858 to 1943 (soon to be extended to 1965), the Ulster Covenant signatures of half a million Protestants opposed to home rule from 1912, street directories from the 19th century for Belfast and Ulster (additional directories are also found at, and a selection of pre-1840s freeholders records.

A series of valuation records for Northern Ireland, following on from Griffith’s Primary Valuation of the whole island, exists from the 1860s to the the early 1930s in the site’s Valuation Revision Books collection here. This immensely important resource can help to trace changes in ownership for properties across time. The equivalent books for the Republic of Ireland have yet to be digitised, though Sir Richard Griffith’s original Primary Valuation, carried out across the island between 1847 and 1864, which the revision books succeed, have been digitised and made available at (Earlier tithe applotment records from the 1823-1837 are also available at PRONI).

Intriguing article?

Try a four-month Diamond subscription and we’ll apply a lifetime discount making it just £44.95 (standard price £64.95). You’ll gain access to all of our exclusive record collections and unique search tools (Along with Censuses, BMDs, Wills and more), providing you with the best resources online to discover your family history story.

We’ll also give you a free 12-month subscription to Discover Your Ancestors online magazine (worth £24.99), so you can read more great Family History research articles like this!

View Offer Details

Although PRONI is Northern Ireland’s national archive, many other collections for the country, most notably military service records and pre-1922 administrative records for Ireland, can be found at the National Archives at Kew, with further material held in Dublin at the National Library of Ireland and the National Archives of Ireland, though the latter offers a poor online catalogue at present.

Other records
Newspapers are another very useful resource. Various editions of Northern Ireland’s oldest newspaper, the Belfast Newsletter, can be found online through sites such as the Irish Newspaper Archives with the latter site also now beginning to add the Belfast Morning News from 1828-1900. The free to access Belfast Gazette, the official state newspaper, is also worth consulting at, though this covers 1922 onwards only – the earlier Dublin Gazette title, which previously covered the north, has yet to be digitised. The Irish Times archive from 1859 onwards can also be consulted at .

Finally, you can get your bearings across the country with free-to access historic Ordnance Survey maps at .

Murlough Nature reserve
Murlough Nature reserve looking towards the Mourne Mountains, County Down VisitBritain/Britain on View


The Plantations of Ulster, initiated by James VI and I.
United Irishmen in Ulster defeated at the Battle of Antrim; Ireland absorbed into the UK three years
Roman Catholic emancipation. later.
Civil registration of marriages commences in Ireland.
Launch of RMS Titanic at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast.
The Government of Ireland Act sees the establishment of Northern Ireland from May 3rd.
The Belfast Blitz; two devastating Luftwaffe raids on the city in April and May kill 900.
The Troubles commence, a thirty year conflict between the Provisional IRA and British forces.
The Belfast Agreement signals a new beginning.
The Belfast Agreement signals a new beginning.

Discover Your Ancestors Periodical is published by Discover Your Ancestors Publishing, UK. All rights in the material belong to Discover Your Ancestors Publishing and may not be reproduced, whether in whole or in part, without their prior written consent. The publisher makes every effort to ensure the magazine's contents are correct. All articles are copyright© of Discover Your Ancestors Publishing and unauthorised reproduction is forbidden. Please refer to full Terms and Conditions at The editors and publishers of this publication give no warranties,
guarantees or assurances and make no representations regarding any goods or services advertised.