Your Family Tree

Discover your roots with our guide to genealogy

John Low, Director of Back To Our Past

Genealogy is now one of the fastest growing pastimes in the world, largely thanks to the internet. Family history hobbyists can now search for their ancestors across the globe.As a result of modern technology and the myriad of genealogy databases, many of them free, enthusiasts can access data which previously could have taken weeks to complete.

TV programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are have undoubtedly added to the popularity of genealogy even if we can’t all jet thousands of miles to get the low down on long lost great uncle Charlie. But if you are a beginner in trying to research your family history, some basic guidance is essential; otherwise, you can find yourself hitting a brick wall.

In this e-supplement we want to help you begin the process of tracing your ancestry, directing you to the most reliable sources of information and giving you helpful tips on how to complete a family tree that will amaze and delight future generations. In the following pages a number of respected genealogists, archivists and family history experts offer a wealth of advice to help you on your way.

For those of you who wish to find out more about your family history, why not attend the Back To Our Past Show at Titanic Belfast on Friday 16th and Ssaturday17th February 2018. Tickets cost £10 each.

Buy your ticket here


Where to begin your search?

Donegal Square, Belfast City Hall, 1932

Using and understanding 1901 and 1911 online census records

Tom Quinlan, Keeper, Collection Care and Customer Service,
National Archives

Of all the archival sources of information available to those with an interest in genealogy, census records –a survey and enumeration of all people and households at a designated point in time - are perhaps the most valuable and frequently used. A nation’s official census of the population constitutes the complete periodic survey of information about a country’s people that government makes. Because the aim is to include everybody, there turns of information made to government provide a detailed and comprehensive snapshot of an entire population, where the same type of information has been collected on everyone at the same point in time.

Response from radical thinking woman from the 1911 census. 

Response from radical thinking woman from the 1911 census. 

Although a census is undertaken for the primary purpose of providing the government with essential information on the people who make up the nation, one of the secondary uses of census return forms is by those engaged in research of their ancestors. And few richer seams of quality information on people are to be found. A census was taken in Ireland every ten years from 1821 until 1911. No census was taken in 1921 because of the disturbed state of the county during the War of Independence. Decennial census resumed in 1926 in those twenty-six counties that comprised the Irish Free State and a census was subsequently taken in 1936 and 1946.

Example of a census form from 1911 

Example of a census form from 1911 

However, before haring off in that direction to hunt for elusive ancestors in its raw data, remember that census records are closed to public access for 100 years from the date on which the census was taken. This means that the latest census to which there is public access is the 1911 census. The surviving records cover all of Ireland and not only comprise the census return forms in which data was recorded, collated and summarised by census enumerators, but also the original individual household census return forms filled out and signed by the head of each household on census night. The 1901 census was taken on 31st March 1901 and the 1911 census on 2 April 1911. For those new to genealogy, it is probably surprising to learn that the census for 1901and 1911 has been available and searchable online for less than a decade.

Which Census forms can I access?

The most useful relevant form for anybody doing family history is Form A, which is the census return for each household recording each member of the family and any visitors, boarders or servants.

It was completed and signed by the head of the household. Information recorded on each individual resident in a household on census night 1901 or 1911 is a name, age, sex, relationship to head of the household, religion, occupation, marital status, county or country of birth. People in institutions on census night were recorded only by their initials.

Is the online census easy to search?

As mentioned, putting the census online revolutionised access to this information. It allowed the family historian to search census data to find returns for named individuals who had hitherto remained hidden. The National Archives census website at can be searched in two ways: by name or by geographic location.

However, the less precise the information entered in the search boxes, the more numerous the results that have to be sifted through.It is important to remember that the census data has been indexed as the names were written into the original census form. Spellings have not been corrected.

The basic topographical divisions for the census are county; district electoral division; townland or street. This is a simple hierarchical structure which makes it easy to access returns for any area in the country. The returns are arranged in clusters by townland/street within district electoral division within the county. For anybody unsure of the townland or street the person sought lived in, browsing can be done within a district electoral division of a county, which contains numbers of townlands or streets. The browse function allows searching for someone through location, and to view households surrounding that of an ancestor. It also allows for studies of particular districts.

Preparing and writing up a family tree chart

Your family tree

Christine Deakin, Director of Irish Genealogy Solutions

Creating a family tree is a labour of love which will serve generations to come. But before contemplating writing up your family tree chart, you, of course, need to have gathered information on your ancestry. It is best to start with yourself and work backwards, verifying any information uncovered. Before consulting official sources, speak to any living relatives regarding their memories, names of relatives, where people lived, travelled, where they worked, etc. This is invaluable as you will be able to uncover many leads in establishing your family history.

Writing up a family tree chart

When you have a few names and information you can then start to write them on a family tree.

You can:

■ Write them yourself
■ Use a calligrapher on a blank chart
■ Use a family tree computer software package, e.g. Family Tree Maker
■ Use an online family tree company, e.g. My Heritage, Ancestry, Find My Past

Charts are either ‘grown’ vertically or sideways and usually have a generation organised into a single level so it is easy to see which ancestors preceded which generation. A box is also usually included for each individual and is connected to the others to indicate the relationship between them all. There may be space to include key dates (births, deaths, etc.)

Preserving your family tree

When it comes to storing the family tree you have lovingly created, there are some issues to consider. This document needs to be preserved for years so that it can eventually be passed to future generations.

Several factors can contribute towards the deterioration of items including environmental conditions, the quality of materials used and the chemical changes which take place in those materials over time. Some wear and tear is inevitable, but our objective is to extend the life of our documents and treasures. Like professional conservators, you need to protect your collections from harmful external factors as best you can.

Where to store your family tree

Light, heat, damp, dust and insects all cause damage and deterioration. Don’t store anything in direct sunlight, near bright light or any heat source. Avoid areas of high humidity such as conservatories where condensation forms.Other areas to avoid include damp places like cellars, sheds, garages or external walls which have a high-temperature fluctuation. Ensure the area is free from pests and insects.

Choose quality, acid-free materials

Quality, acid-free archival storage products are essential for the preservation of items you wish to cover, wrap and contain. Storage in these types of materials will prevent damage and deterioration and add years of life and enjoyment of the items that you value.A variety of acid-free pockets, paper, card, storage boxes, binders, pens, gloves & glue are available.

Storing important documents

There are specially designed family history binders available to store your certificates, photos, documents and research.

These come in different forms such as:
■ A4 landscape certificate /document padded binder
■ Portrait A4 photo /memorabilia padded album

Both incorporate acid-free pockets and divider tabs. Pockets come in handy a sit is possible that you will collect a variety of treasured items, photos and documents during your research.

Tracing your Northern Irish ancestry

Tracing your Northern Irish Ancestors: A three-step guide

Brian Mitchell, Director of Derry Genealogy

There are 289 parishes in Northern Ireland (i.e. Counties Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone). You can identify the civil parishes of Northern Ireland, and their associated townlands, at by selecting county of interest on the map. To gain insight into the economic and social landscape of 19th century Ireland you can consult a Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, published in 1837, by Samuel Lewis. Arranged in alphabetical order by parishes, towns and villages this book can be viewed online.

Step 1: Search 1901 and 1911 Census Returns

Although census enumerations were carried out every decade from 1821, the earliest surviving complete return for Ireland is that of 1901. The census enumerations of 1901 and 1911, arranged by townland in rural areas and by street in urban areas, can be searched for free. These returns will list the names, ages and place of birth of all members of a household.

Step 2: Search for births, marriages and deaths

Civil registration of births, deaths and Roman Catholic marriages in Ireland began on 1st January 1864 while non-Catholic marriages were subject to registration from 1st April 1845. Prior to the commencement of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in Ireland, family history researchers usually rely on baptismal, marriage and burial registers kept by churches. With civil registration of births and deaths commencing in 1864, and with the patchy survival of church records prior to 1820, gravestone inscriptions can be a vital source for family historians. Northern Irish Civil Records of births 1864-1916, marriages 1870- 1921 and deaths 1878-1921 can now be searched and viewed online.

You can also search and view ‘historic’ civil records of births, marriages and deaths for Northern Ireland at GRONI Online, by purchasing credits, of births (over 100 years old), marriages (over 75 years old) and deaths (over 50 years old).

RootsIreland is a good starting point for searching church registers of baptisms, marriages and burials as this website is the largest online source of Northern Irish church register transcripts. As the search facility on this website is very flexible it means that you should be able to determine if any entries of interest to your family history are held in this database.

Microfilm copy of church registers can be examined, at no charge, in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast. Their Guide To Church Records, which can be accessed on their website.

Step 3: Search Census Substitutes

Quite often the only realistic strategy in tracing ancestors beyond church registers (which are the building blocks of family history) is to examine surviving census returns and census substitutes, often compiled by civil parish, for any references to a surname or the given name of interest. There are a number of census substitutes – such as:

1630 Muster Roll
1663 Hearth Money Rolls
1740 Protestant Householders Lists
1766Religious Census
1796 FlaxGrowers Lists
Early-19th-century Tithe Books
Mid-19th-century Griffith’s Valuation

All which can be searched to confirm the presence of the family name. The problem with these sources is that they name heads of household only; hence they provide insufficient information to confirm the nature of linkages between named people in these sources. Census substitutes, however, are very useful in confirming the presence of a family name in a particular townland and/or parish, and in providing some insight into the frequency and distribution of surnames.

Exploring your family
history at PRONI

A picture of the Public Records Office for Northern Ireland in Belfast

What is PRONI?

Janet Hancock, Deputy Head of Public Services, PRONI

Have you ever wanted to find out more about your family history – where your ancestors came from, how they earned a living, and what their lives might have been like? The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), part of the Department for Communities (DfC), is the official archive for NorthernIreland and holds literally millions of historical records and images. PRONI records relate mainly to the north of Ireland and date mostly from the 17th century onwards. They cover key periods of history from the Plantation of Ulster to the peace process, and span a wide range of topical interests, from maritime heritage to transport to arts and literature.

Getting started

A wealth of information is now available online, with more sources being added all the time. Many online resources are free of charge, including all information on the PRONI website. Before you begin, it is a good idea to speak to other family members who can often provide valuable information you may not otherwise be aware of. Check if someone from your extended family – sometimes in another country – has already been researching your family or a common ancestor. PRONI’swebsite is a great starting point. You can find guidance on carrying out research, a number of searchable digitised archives and databases which document literally thousands of names, and a searchable catalogue detailing over 1.5million PRONI records.

What records are available?

Many important records were lost in 1922 during the destruction of the Four Courts in Dublin, which was the Public Record Office for all of Ireland prior to partition. This included most early wills and church records, and nearly all pre-1901 census records. Whilst this was a terrible loss, a wealth of sources still remain.

■ 1901and 911 digitised Census records
■ Census substitutes
■ Civil registers (births, deaths and marriages)
■ Wills and letters of administration
■ Other searchable archives on the PRONI website

A range of other searchable archives are available on the PRONI website. PRONI’s Ulster Covenant application contains just under half a million signatures from the Ulster Covenant and corresponding Women’s Declaration of 1912. You can also search pre-1840 Freeholders’ Registers and Poll Books. PRONI’s Historical Maps Viewer allows you to search and browse almost 1,500 historical Ordnance Survey maps, dating from 1832-1986 and covering the six counties of Northern Ireland.

Why not visit PRONI?

PRONI staff cannot undertake research for you, however, we are always available to provide advice on PRONI records and help you get started. Most PRONI records are open to the public and can be copied free of charge using your digital camera, phone or tablet. PRONI also provides a range of introductory tours and workshops for groups and individuals, and a fee-paying copying and search service for accessing specific information if you are unable to visit the record office in person.

Visit PRONI at 2 Titanic Boulevard, Belfast, BT3 9HQ
VisitPRONI’s website and Follow PRONI on Facebook.


Local yet global

The North of Ireland Family History Society helps connect people around the world with their roots in Ulster

Many people have been inspired by watching TV programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? to start their family tree, but are unsure about where to begin or perhaps get stuck on a “brick wall”. That’s where the North of Ireland Family History Society (NIFHS) can help them.

It helps connect people around the world with their family here in Ulster, while people locally can get support and advice by joining local branches and attending meetings, talks and classes to help them trace their roots.

A DNA class at the North
 of Ireland Family History  Society research centre at  Newtownabbey

A DNA class at the North of Ireland Family History  Society research centre at  Newtownabbey

North of Ireland Family History Society (NIFHS)

Established in County Down in 1979, the North of Ireland Family History Society (NIFHS) was formed to promote and encourage the study of family history. Today it has ten branches across Northern Ireland and members worldwide. The society is run by unpaid volunteers and has charitable status.
Members support each other in tracing their family trees and can attend talks at any of their branches, use their well-resourced library or avail of the many services, such as their education programme.

Meetings, classes and outings
Each of the ten branches runs an annual programme of genealogy talks and workshops and, alongside social evenings, members also visit local archives, such as the Public Record Office, as well as places of historic interest.

A dedicated family history library in NI
Over the years the society has gathered together an impressive set of resources for local and family historians and has established the Randal Gill Library and Research Centre in Newtownabbey.

Preserving history
A valuable resource is a large and expanding collection of indexed transcriptions of parish records and gravestones, mostly produced by very active groups of branch members working together to preserve these historical documents. In recent years the society has used crowdsourcing techniques that members around the world can help.

Useful guides to help beginners, they have published dedicated county research guides that so far have covered Counties Tyrone, Derry-Londonderry, Cavan and Monaghan.

DNA Project
The society has been running a successful DNA project for a number of years and it now has over 1600 members. It’s a newer way of making family connections or verifying existing family tree research. Help with understanding the results is available at meetings and classes and there is an online chat forum where members can help each other.

“Our members have put a lot of work into helping others and creating useful resources. In the past year, the Society has arranged over 150 meetings, workshops and classes, and members have participated in local projects as well as outreach events in Northern Ireland, Dublin and Birmingham. I am delighted that our efforts are helping people make family connections in Northern Ireland and beyond”.

Brian O’Hara, Chairperson of NIFHS,

Click the image above to find out more about NIFHS

Find more about your roots
with Back to our Past

Ever tried to trace your family history and didn't know where to start?

Then you must visit Ireland’s only national event, now in its second year featuring specialists and experts from all over the country and beyond. It’s all here - births, marriages and death records, family tree makers and software, photo restorers, leading genealogy websites and much, much more!

There is a full schedule of events across the two days which is included in the ticket price, these seminars are on a first come first served basis to ensure you're there in time to avoid disappointment.

Friday's schedule of events 

Friday's schedule of events 

Saturday's schedule of events

Saturday's schedule of events

What else is happening on the day?

Free antique valuations
Tom Keane, well-known for his appearances on popular BBC programmes such as Cash in the Attic, Bargain Hunt and the Antiques Roadshow.
Free DNA Presentations
The DNA of the people of the North of Ireland will be revealed by Genealogy Ireland, bringing together academics and hobbyists to demonstrate how DNA testing has revolutionised family history research today.

Normal admission £10 per day.
There are 2 easy ways to purchase your tickets in advance.

By Phone

Pay for your Back To Our Past tickets by Credit or Debit Card. Call 00353 1 496 9028 during office hours and we will take your order over the phone.


General Admission for Friday 16th February 2018
General Admission for Saturday 17th February 2018