Saturday 22 October 2011

Back To Our Past - Round Two!

Despite having had a full and busy Friday at the Back To Our Past show, there were still plenty of exhibitors that I hadn't been able to chat to – mainly because their stands were surrounded by visitors most of the day. So I was back again this morning for Round Two.

First stop was Ask About Ireland, where Anne-Marie Dwyer ran me through recent developments on the site. Most Irish family historians know this Library Council site for its searchable access to Griffiths Valuation, but it also holds a huge volume of material on Irish social history and heritage in the Reading Room section.

It's seen some widening out recently, with videos on traditional crafts (under History and Heritage) and traditional cooking (under Life and Society), and Irish Talking Books which tell stories and legends in both Irish and English, and in simple and advanced learning styles.

The most recent development is the addition of O'Donovan Name Books and Letters which will be uploaded, county by county, over the coming months, to build into an extremely useful resource for those seeking placenames guidance and historical observation at a county level.

Developers are also working on the recording of old songs, half in Irish, half in English, and a major indepth article on the island's traditions and customs.

Over on the Irish Genealogical Research Society's stand, I had a brief chat with Chairman Steven Smyrl about how visitors to this year's show differed to those who attended in 2010.

"I've recognised some of the people I've spoken to from last year when they were asking quite 'innocent' questions," he said. "You can tell they've done their research in the intervening 12 months. Now, they're coming with much more incisive questions, and it's obvious they've learned how to search the records."

Alan Robertson of PRONI was witnessing the same phenomenon. "At the first show visitors had a name and a rough location and were asking what information we might have that could be useful.

"This time round, they want much more specific information. They've traced their family back further, too. They're not after bmds. They've shifted back almost a whole century, into the 18th century and early 19th."

Sticking with the North, I called in on the Northern Ireland Family History Society where Rosemary Sibbett showed me new publications in the Researching your ancestors in the North of Ireland series. In 2010 the NIFHS published two booklets: A Research Guide and A List of Websites.

These have now been joined by Locating Church Records and A Beginners Guide, all of which can be purchased at

So, too, can a wonderful series of historic maps, most of them dating from the first decade of the 20th century, and not restricted to Northern Ireland. I love maps rather more than is considered healthy and these black and white, beautifully drawn and detailed maps do nothing to bring my passion within the 'normal' scale. I'm already looking forward to spending (too) many hours learning every inch of my new map collection.

Old newspapers come a pretty close second on my list of obsessive interests so I was delighted to hear from Jonathan of of imminent developments.

November will see the Donegal News going under the scanner (in a five-month project), followed by the Belfast Newsletter. This will be a mammoth task (the Newsletter is the world's oldest English language general daily paper still in publication, having first been printed in 1737) but Jonathan says it should be digitised and available online by the end of 2012. The Donegal Democrat will then go through the same process.

I managed to collar Brian Donovan, CEO of Eneclann and Director of, again to ask him why the Prison Registers collection released yesterday doesn't include records from gaols in the North.

It's a simple explanation. "The collection we've released is from the National Archives of Ireland so it covers only the prisons of the Republic. Records for the North are in the care of PRONI and we're in discussion with that institution to see if we can get their records digitised, too."

During the course of the day I also had a natter with Julie Phibbs of Irish Roots magazine, had a quick hello with Bob Blatchford whose Irish Family and Local History Handbook was selling like hot cakes, and called in on another family business,, where the Whelans (Joe, Margaret and son Damien) have established a new site where family historians can upload their trees, and much more besides, all for free.

It's been a great couple of days. Highly informative, for sure, but also very satisfying to see just how far Irish genealogy has come in the last few years. What is clear from the success of BTOP is the strength of energy behind the current momentum, which can only mean continued progress.

See also my report from Day One for news of more developments.