The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) is located in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland in a purpose-built archive. It is overlooked by Samson and Goliath, the two iconic, yellow-painted gantry cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the doomed Titanic was built.
Following the partition of Ireland, PRONI was established on 22 June 1923 and this year has seen celebrations to mark its centenary. These included unveiling a ‘treasure trove of documents spanning more than 800 years’ that showcased Northern Ireland’s ‘historical, social and cultural’ history.
One of the records showcased in this treasure trove is the oldest document currently held by PRONI – a Papal Bull by Pope Honorious III dating back to 1219.
PRONI holds a vast array of records of interest to the genealogist, many of which have not been digitised and may only be viewed during an in-person visit. These include for example, church records, wills and testamentary records, estate records, land valuation, maps, the sale of land to tenant farmers under the Land Commission, voter records, business records, government and local government records, muster rolls, court and prison records, workhouse records, hospital records, school records, correspondence, family papers and family trees.
Although it is the official archive of Northern Ireland, it does also hold some records for the Republic of Ireland, in particular, church records, along with some estate and workhouse records.
For example, PRONI holds the church records for most places of worship in Northern Ireland [counties Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone] and a substantial number for the remaining three counties of Ulster [Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan].
More surprisingly perhaps is that church records from counties Clare, Cork, Dublin, Galway, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Leitrim, Limerick, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Offaly, Tipperary, Waterford, Westmeath and Wexford are also available at PRONI – these are mostly for Protestant denomination churches.
Preparation before you visit
The key to a successful visit to PRONI is to do good preparation before you go.
As someone who visits PRONI on an almost weekly basis to conduct client research, I often see first-time visitors arrive late in the day, with limited information about their ancestor and no real understanding of what type of records they might be able to find at PRONI. Sadly, these people often leave disappointed.
The PRONI staff are generally helpful, friendly and knowledgeable but they cannot do research for you and can only guide you to look in certain records or help with technical queries such as how to search the catalogue. During busy periods, their time to devote to any one person is limited.
Therefore, do find out as much as possible about your ancestor in the country that they emigrated to. The civil registration of births, deaths and Roman Catholic marriages commenced in Ireland in 1864 while non-Roman Catholic marriages were registered from 1845.
Prior to these dates, you ideally want to tie your ancestor to a parish and preferably a townland because so many records used these administrative units. Church records, Griffith’s primary valuation, tithe applotment books, pre-1901 census records, etc, were all grouped under civil parishes.
If you don’t know the parish, it can be a very long, time consuming process to track down your ancestor, particularly if the records are not digitised.
Clues as to a place of origin in Ireland might be found in letters, family bibles, headstones, wills, the name of farmsteads, etc. Research on your ancestors FAN [family, friends, associates and neighbours] network could also help, particularly as chain migration saw people from the same area in Ireland emigrating to the same area as people they already knew from home.
Research on PRONI’S website
PRONI’S website has quite a bit of freely available information that you can access from the comfort of your own home. It makes good use of your time to do as much research as possible on PRONI’S website and then reserve your visit to access records that are not available online.
Search the Archives Online Section
In this section the following records may be accessed:
- E-catalogue. PRONI’S e-catalogue is comprehensive and often quite detailed with over one million entries. It is always worthwhile doing a search of your ancestors name and any townlands they lived in. A useful video providing guidance on how to search the catalogue may be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF3uEA_lW8Q
If you find any records of interest, take a note of the PRONI reference number as you will be able to search for that record when you visit in-person.
Do be aware of different spellings of names and placenames – the asterisk wildcard can only be used at the end of words on the e-catalogue so you may have to try a number of spelling variations.
- Freeholders’ registers and poll books – before the 1872 Ballot Act voting was not done in secret and the right to vote was mostly tied to whether one owned land outright or the type of lease that one had. These records provide information on who was registered to vote, the lists of voters and the candidates for whom they voted.
- Londonderry Corporation records has three record sets:
- Corporation minute books. These are digital copies of the Corporation Minute Books from 1673-1901 that record the business life of the city along with many names of townsfolk and merchants.
- Records of Freemen of the city between 1675-1945.
- War memorial records provide information about those from the city who died during World War One and who are commemorated on the war memorial located in the Diamond in Derry/Londonderry city centre.
- Name Search provides transcripts of surviving pre-1858 will indexes along with surviving fragments of the 1740 and 1766 religious census returns and 1775 dissenters petitions.
- The Historical Maps Viewer allows you to search within and to view Ordnance Survey maps for Northern Ireland dated from 1832-1986.
- Web Archive – PRONI captures and preserves a selection of Northern Ireland’s websites that are of historical and cultural importance to Northern Ireland. Websites are listed alphabetically and it is possible to search for keywords.
- Street Directories. PRONI has digitised and indexed a number of street directories which are fully searchable. The earliest is Bradshaw’s General and Commercial Directory for 1819 while the latest is The Belfast and Province of Ulster Directory 1900. Some only provide information about Belfast while others offer entries about the smaller towns and villages along with details of their tradespeople and inhabitants.
- The Ulster Covenant – almost half a million signatures and addresses of the men and women who signed the Ulster Covenant or corresponding Women’s Declaration on 28 September 1912. The Covenant was signed by those of Ulster birth who opposed Irish Home Rule and were of a Unionist persuasion.
- Valuation Revision Books. Griffith’s Primary Valuation was published on a rolling basis throughout Ireland between 1847-1864. Thereafter, properties were valued annually from 1864 to the early 1930s. The ledgers were annotated with different colour inks for each year and recorded change of owner, tenant, size and value of property. The books for Northern Ireland are available here although it is a browse function and you need to know which parish and townland you wish to view.
- Will Calendars 1858-1965. There are also copy wills on the website for the Registries of Armagh (1858 to 1918), Belfast (1858 to 1909) and Londonderry (1858 to 1899).
What’s On at PRONI section
The What’s On at PRONI section provides access to 3500 photographs on Flickr and there is a link to PRONI’S YouTube channel where you can view (at the time of writing) 391 talks on a range of topics. You can also subscribe to the PRONI Express newsletter and register for forthcoming talks.
Resources and Learning Section
The Resources and Learning Section provides background information on key subjects although the Absent Voters Lists 1918 and the Royal Victoria Hospital Register 1914-1916 actually list names of individuals from the World War One era – these are easily overlooked in this section.
Your Research Section
The Your Research section provides information leaflets about the different types of records held at PRONI and the Guides to PRONI Records.
This is where you will find the vitally important Guide to Church Records which is in fact, two separate documents. The PRONI Guide to Church records lists all the holdings at PRONI and also some that are still held in local custody or other repositories such as the Presbyterian Historical Society. This large PDF document may be downloaded and saved to your device. It is mostly laid out on a parish basis apart from Belfast and most of the Republic of Ireland church records.
Anything with a MIC prefix indicates that the record is available on microfilm and these can be viewed using the microfilm readers in the Search Room at PRONI.
Any church records with a D, T, or CR prefix is generally available to be ordered and viewed during your visit or alternatively as one of the digital church records.
The Church Records Available as Digital Copies in PRONI lists those records that have been digitised (but not indexed) and you can browse these on the same computers that hold the PRONI catalogue in the Search Room. All of these records have the CR prefix. Both catalogues may be found here: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/publications/guide-church-records
This section also has the Index to School Collections https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/publications/index-school-collections where you can find further information about over 1,500 national schools in Northern Ireland, mainly from the 1860s to the 1940s – these can be ordered when in PRONI and viewed in person.
Getting to PRONI and parking
PRONI is located at 2 Titanic Boulevard in the Titanic Quarter, Belfast – a former industrial area that has undergone quite a transformation in recent years. It is close to landmark sites such as the Titanic Centre, HMS Caroline and the Titanic Exhibition Centre. It is about a 25-minute walk from Belfast City Centre, while regular buses run and taxis are also available.
If you are driving, there is very limited parking in front of PRONI, but there is a large car park at the SSE Arena or the Titanic Quarter Premier Inn, both of which are close by.
Arriving at PRONI and getting your Visitor’s Pass
Before you can access any records in PRONI, you must be issued with a Visitor’s Pass. Upon arrival, you will complete a form, have your photo taken and be issued with your pass which is valid for ten years. To be issued with your card, you must bring an acceptable form of photographic ID – a list may be found at https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/registration-and-preparing-visit
Your pass will be issued free of charge but if you forget it or lose it, a £10 fee will be charged for a replacement.
Your card must be validated at reception each time you visit by tapping it on the electronic swipe machine.
You need to keep the card with you during your visit as it will be required to provide access into the Search Room and the Reading Room. You will be asked to show your card before being issued with any documents in the Reading Room.
What can you take with you?
There are restrictions on what you can take with you to the Search and Reading Rooms.
You are not allowed to wear outdoor coats, but it can be chilly in the building, so go prepared with a fleece or a warm jumper.
You cannot take bags with you, but PRONI do provide clear plastic bags in which you can take everything you need, such as phone, keys, wallet, etc. You can also take your laptop or tablet and a notebook.
Lockers are provided where you can store everything you don’t need to have with you – a token is provided to lock it.
You cannot eat or drink in the Search and Reading Rooms and you cannot take pens into the Reading Room – pencils are provided there.
The Search Room
The Search and Reading Rooms are located on the first floor.
Swipe your Visitor’s Pass to gain access to the Search Room and upon entering you will see computer terminals on both sides of the room.
On the left-hand side, the terminals provide internet access; there are also terminals that have access to paid subscriptions to Find My Past, The British Newspaper Archive and Ancestry. You can also access Northern Ireland Screen’s Digital Film Archive, State Papers Online and the Prison Memories Archive here.
On the right-hand side of the Search Room there are terminals that provide access to PRONI’S catalogue and ordering system.
You can search for a PRONI reference number or just using keywords. You can also order wills dated after 1858 – for this you will need to know the registry that dealt with it, the date of probate and the type of record, ie a will, administration, etc.
This is when you will reap the benefit of having done your research before arriving at PRONI, as knowing what you want to order will save you valuable time.
Five documents may be ordered at the same time and you will need to enter your reader number found on your Visitor’s Pass for each document ordered. You will be allocated a table number and when your order is ready to be collected, your table number will show on the overhead monitors located in the Search Room.
Also located in the Search Room are four terminals belonging to the General Register Office of Northern Ireland (GRONI).
GRONI holds civil registration of births, marriage and deaths for Northern Ireland since registration commenced, but there are restrictions on what you can view when searching from home. From home, you can view births more than 100 years old, marriages more than 75 years old and deaths more than 50 years old.
However, on the GRONI terminals you can view records up to the present day. You need to have registered for an account and have paid up front for credits to view records – save time by setting this up before you arrive at PRONI. You will not be able to print, take screenshots or photos of any records that you find but you can transcribe what you see on the screen. Records cost 50 pence for a limited view and £2.50 for the full record. Register for a GRONI account at https://geni.nidirect.gov.uk/
During busy times, use of the GRONI terminals is limited to 20 minutes per person.
You will find the microfilm readers in the Search Room and the microfilms themselves are held in a bank of drawers at the back of the room.
Guides to the church records are available in hard copy folders. The records of some churches might be found in one of a series of microfilms – consult the guides to determine which microfilm holds specific records.
Two of the microfilm machines have a printing capability.
Other records are also available on microfilm, such as estate papers, correspondence, family papers, business records, newspapers, etc. Consult the e-catalogue to find what is available and you can browse under M to get a listing of all microfilms.
Bookshelves in the Reading Room hold will calendars, indexes to some church records, gravestone inscriptions, passenger lists, householders index, street directories, deputy keepers reports, fasti lists, ordnance survey memoirs as well as useful genealogy guidebooks.
There is a stand with copies of PRONI leaflets on genealogy and local history topics and a range of maps to view.
Staff are on hand to assist with your queries and help with any difficulties you encounter.
The Reading Room
When your allocated table number shows on the overhead monitors, your order is ready; exit the Search Room, go to the opposite end of the corridor, swipe your Visitor’s Card for entry and find your table number – numbers are located on the end of each table and on each corner.
Go to the desk and tell the staff your table number. They will check your Visitor’s Pass, issue you with the document which you must sign for using a pencil. When you return the document, you must sign it back in.
Generally, you can take photos of documents with your phone, but if in doubt, ask the staff.
There are photocopying machines here too – you will need to purchase a photocopy card. Five credits are loaded onto each card costing 25 pence each and each copy uses one credit. These cards may be bought from the staff in the Reading Room. With the photocopying machines, you can print the copy or save it to a memory stick. If you don’t remember to bring a stick with you, you can buy one from the staff.
To order more documents, return to the Search Room and repeat the earlier process.
PRONI is a modern building with good disabled access. There is a lift that can take you to the Search and Reading Rooms on the first floor, if required.
On site facilities
Visitor’s toilets are on the ground floor.
There is a reasonably priced café on the ground floor where you can buy snacks and lunch. There are also vending machines for drinks and snacks.
In the atrium, displays are regularly changed to showcase records held at PRONI.
There are also regular exhibitions such as the recent Creative Responses to the Prisons Memory Archive, Lynne Hocking’s art installation ‘Ancestral Interconnections’ and the Ulster Scots and The Declaration of Independence exhibition that included an original copy of the US Declaration of Independence on loan from The National Archives.
There is a regular talks programme – see the What’s On At PRONI section of the website for more information.
PRONI is open Monday to Friday and it is closed on public holidays.
It opens at 9.00am each day apart from Thursday when it opens at 10.00am. It closes each day at 4.45pm and the last time to order documents is 4.15pm.
Check the website before you visit for details of closure dates.
Assisted research at PRONI
If the prospect of visiting PRONI and getting to grips with doing research there seems a bit overwhelming, Roots Revealed offers guided research and consultation in the archives. Please see https://rootsrevealed.co.uk/consultation/ for more information.
PRONI is a wonderful facility with a great deal of information that can help you to research your family tree and to discover more about the life and times of your ancestors. However, you will really benefit from good preparation and planning your research trip, especially if you are visiting from abroad and have limited time.
Good luck and happy researching!
About the authorNatalie Bodle, a native of Northern Ireland is the author of the Roots Blog and founder of Roots Revealed. She is a professionally qualified genealogist and is a member of APG and of the Genealogical Speakers Guild. She is also a qualified tour guide and a member of TGNI. Her first book Tracing your family history using Irish newspapers and other printed material is due to be published by Pen and Sword in February 2024. Roots Revealed provides genealogy research services to clients who are searching for their Irish, Northern Irish and Scots-Irish ancestors, in addition to bespoke genealogy tours and family history courses and talks. For more information about the full range of services provided by Roots Revealed, please visit www.rootsrevealed.co.uk or get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org