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How we traced our family tree and unlocked the interesting secrets hidden in our histories

Tomorrow the Belfast Telegraph is giving away a brilliant free Your Family Tree supplement, packed with information and tips on how to trace your ancestors. Ivan Little hears the fascinating stories discovered by two people from Northern Ireland after they delved into their pasts

Belfast man Michael McKeag with his intriguing family tree
Belfast man Michael McKeag with his intriguing family tree

Organisations involved in helping Ulster people to research their family trees say the interest in genealogy is blossoming all the time. And they acknowledge that the success of the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? series - where celebrities are assisted in unearthing their roots - has been a major factor in encouraging more people here to investigate their family histories.

One charity, the North of Ireland Family History Society (NIFHS), now have 10 branches here with 500 members.

But they have even more associate members - 600 - outside Ireland, mainly exiles or descendants of Ulster people in America and Australia.

The branches meet once a month when members exchange ideas about how to improve what they do.

But NIFHS also has a research centre in Newtownabbey which has an extensive library of records and collections of church papers as well as already completed family trees. Courses are regularly held for members of the public where experts try to demystify genealogy.

NIFHS also produce booklets about various parts of the nine counties of Ulster.

They are trying to encourage people to form new branches in Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal, where there used to be an offshoot of the charity.

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Officials from NIFHS say that while the Who Do You Think You Are? programme has been pivotal to the surge in interest in genealogy the number of companies helping researchers has also grown.

Added to that a vast amount of information is now available online and more crucially important church records are being digitised along with newspaper archives. Military records are also more readily accessible than ever before.

One source said: "DNA analysis is also becoming cheaper and that is used more to confirm family ties."

He never imagined it but Michael McKeag's hunt for his ancestors revealed links with the Napoleonic Wars, a gifted English writer and a cleric who officiated in front of a king at the opening of the first Northern Ireland Parliament.

Michael, a 73-year-old retired lecturer at Queen's University, Belfast, was born in Bath, England, before his parents moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

"To me, family meant mother, father, two sisters and the family dog," says Michael. "But when I came back to the UK I saw a composite picture of six generations of the family.

Elizabeth Scott
Elizabeth Scott

"And I suddenly thought there was more to them than I thought."

Michael was only a teenager but his interest had been fired and he used research carried out by his great-grandfather to draw up a family tree on his mother's side

But Michael's Irish ancestors were harder to trace. Looking into his English family Michael discovered that his four times great-grandfather, John Preston, had "written and beautifully illustrated books" in the 1800s.

He also found out that the Prestons had built nine ships for the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

Some ancestors were captured in France and Michael's five times great-grandfather, Jacob Preston, was Mayor of Great Yarmouth and received news that Napoleon had been defeated. To celebrate, Jacob organised a free dinner which was attended by 8,000 people.

Michael says: "They sat down at tables along the quay for roast beef, plum pudding and ale; another 1,000 people in the hospitals, workhouse, schools and prisons had the same meal."

Elizabeth Scott at her three-times great grandfather’s grave in Midlothian, Scotland
Elizabeth Scott at her three-times great grandfather’s grave in Midlothian, Scotland

Not all of Michael's relatives were so charitable, alas.

He established that in Norfolk in 1860 a Victorian clergyman who was a distant cousin sued a grieving couple who sang a hymn in his churchyard when they were burying a child.

"As the child was unbaptised he could not conduct a funeral service and he claimed that singing a hymn constituted holding a service and only he was allowed to do that," says Micheal

"The couple were fined a shilling each plus costs. The local newspaper was indignant - and the story went viral with papers all over England and Scotland and Wales reporting the case; in Ireland it was covered by the Coleraine Chronicle, the Northern Whig, the Belfast Mercury and others."

A more recent clergyman in Michael's family was in the news in 1921. His grandfather, the Rev Hugh McKeag, started proceedings when the first Northern Irish Parliament was opened by King George V in the City Hall in Belfast.

Michael, who is vice-president of the North of Ireland Family History Society, says he's still learning about his past and he believes that more people should follow his lead.

"It's a great pastime but it's also fun," he says.

Elizabeth Scott admits that she's an addict. But the retired biochemist isn't hooked on anything illicit or expensive.

Instead, the 72-year-old Lisburn woman says her obsession is centred on something that costs absolutely nothing.

And while other retirees may spend their free time in the garden, Elizabeth relishes digging ... into her past.

She's one of a growing number of people in Northern Ireland who are researching their family trees.

Elizabeth got the genealogy bug 10 years ago. But her hopes that her husband John might catch it too were dashed.

Elizabeth says: "He wasn't interested. So I struck out on my own to see what I could learn about my family, the Elders who were from the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal."

Elizabeth followed the now traditional routes - on her computer and in the Public Record Office - to uncover her roots.

But joining the Lisburn branch of the North of Ireland Family History Society five years ago was another crucial pointer to the road to discovery.

Elizabeth's journey took her to Scotland after establishing that her grandmother was from there. "I began looking into the Scottish records and they were very good," she says, adding that there were a few detours - pleasantly fruitful ones - along the way.

She says: "I tracked the Kilpatrick side of my family to a place called West Linton, in Midlothian, in the mid-19th century though they subsequently moved farther north.

"In 2010 I googled 'Kilpatrick' and 'West Linton' and up came a family who had a self-catering cottage beside their house," says Elizabeth, who got more than a roof over her head after booking the cottage for a week online.

For it turned out that the owner was not only a Kilpatrick but he was also her third cousin.

She says: "His father had bought the property in the late 1940s and he had also done an extensive family history which was given to me over in Scotland."

When Elizabeth was in Midlothian she and her husband went to the grave of her three-times great-grandfather. He was buried in a small, neglected and difficult to access graveyard attached to an old decommissioned church.

The gravestone to her ancestor was a big surprise for Elizabeth, literally. The huge memorial dwarfed her and it emerged that it had been funded by the dead man's son. He was Thomas Grainger, the brother of her two-times great grandmother.

Thomas was an engineer who made a fortune designing railway lines. Elizabeth said the grave was overgrown with a tree blocking part of it but her visit unexpectedly yielded another branch of her own family tree.

For a cabinet-maker who had a workshop in the old church told Elizabeth that just two days earlier the grave had been visited for the first time in 30 years.

After social media appeals it transpired, in small world fashion, that the other visitors were related to Elizabeth too.

"We are still in touch," says Elizabeth, who is now researching her mother's side of the family.

She adds: "I really enjoy the exploration. I'm fascinated by all the social history.

"I want to find out how my ancestors fitted in with their surroundings and if they were related to anything that happened in history.

"It's partly detective work. You find one piece and you want another piece to fit. It is addictive.

"And it's definitely something I would recommend to everyone. It keeps your brain active and you meet a lot of new people."

Back to our past

Your Family Tree supplement, free with tomorrow’s Belfast Telegraph, is published in association with Back to Our Past genealogy and social history event, which visits Titanic Belfast on Friday, February 16 and Saturday, February 17. For information and tickets visit

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