Sunday 20 October 2013

Back To Our Past 2013: Part Two

Day Two of Back To Our Past opened yesterday under a sunny sky, which was a whole lot better than the previous day's squalls and general dampness. Perhaps this change in the weather, plus the fact it was the weekend, was the reason for a lot more early visitors and then a steady stream pretty much all day.

Certainly Ancestry's team was busy helping visitors throughout, but without the long queues of last year. Irish genealogy specialist Kyle Betit, Senior Genealogist for Utah-based ProGenealogists, Ancestry's official genealogy research firm, was among those working directly with visitors. He told me that most of the people he'd been helping had already done some level of research; few were completely unaware of how to start researching and many were Irish people looking for extended family – typically siblings of direct ancestors – who emigrated to the States.

I also had a chat with Eric Booth, who heads up Ancestry's International Marketing department in Dublin. He confirmed that Ancestry hopes to add to the Guinness personnel records collection (uploaded to the site earlier in the week, see blogpost) in the future. He said also that the recent arrival of the 1901 and 1911 Irish Censuses reflected the National Archives of Ireland's desire to reach new audiences with their free-to-view collections. With any luck, this may mark another step in stamping out the myth of how 'all Ireland's records were lost in the fire'.

I also caught up with Stephen Scarth, Head of Public Services at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, who gave me a very thorough overview of what's happening at PRONI (my word, Stephen can hold an impressive amount of detail in his head!). It seems to have been a busy year for PRONI, with the statistics for its website showing that this year's hits will probably top 14million, up from what was already a very strong performance in 2012/13 of 10.2million.

Of course, a sizeable chunk of this online growth will have been due to the release of the North's Griffith's Valuation Revision Books (Cancelled Land Books) at the end of March, but it also reflects a greater general awareness of PRONI. This process has been helped along by television programmes such as BBC1's WDYTYA? episode featuring Nick Hewer in August which was partly filmed in the Belfast office – the broadcast doubled daily hits to the online records – and the Groundbreakers series of documentaries on BBC2, which has also featured PRONI-materials (next one to watch out for tells the story of Isabella Tod, the most prominent feminist in 19th-century Ireland who lived in Belfast).

Still on the subject of the website, you may have noticed there's a bit of a revamp going on. This upgrade is designed to make the site more 'tablet' and 'mobile' friendly. There may yet be a more significant upgrade on the cards in the medium term.

PRONI, as you're probably aware, works to a 'one big new collection per year' schedule. You can see details of the 2014 Biggie, below. Before that comes along, Stephen's team is also developing new resources to mark the anniversary of World War One next year. The main resource will, possibly, be photographic but an online guide to 'WW1 sources' will also be made available and a new exhibition will be presented in the atrium foyer at Titanic Boulevard.

Stephen also mentioned that the History of Witchcraft, Magic and the Devil in Ireland Conference on 31 October will be repeated on Thursday 28 November. The Halloween date booked up very, very quickly, so there is clearly a huge appetite for this subject. Those already on the Halloween reserve list will automatically be offered a place on the November date. I'll be highlighting this re-running of the Conference in a dedicated blogpost on Monday, so if you want to get in first, be sure to get your email sent today to

Junior Gene
Before heading back South, I popped in on the North of Ireland Family History Society stand where there was a brisk trade being done in books and maps. Sandra Ardis introduced me to Junior Genie, a specially designed character to appeal to children and stimulate their interest in family history.

Young Junior was launched on Culture Night in Belfast and proved highly successful as a means to getting youngsters to talk to their parents and grandparents about their ancestral heritage and will now form a large part of the Society's education programme.

During the day I also got the chance to meet Shane Mac Thomais, resident historian at Glasnevin Cemetery where visitors have leapt by 25% this year. This growth, he said, is largely due to The Gathering but there has also been a lot more interest from schools and general visitors. Next month will see a number of military-themed events. They're all on the Glasnevin Trust's website.

Sticking with the military, the Western Front Association stand seemed to have a permanent full house of visitors peering over its bank of computers. This was the third consecutive appearance by the WFA at Back To Our Past and I've never known it to be any different, but for the first time I found a slight lull and was able to get to speak to a member of the Association. Ian Chambers told me that the computers were linked up to Ancestry's military collections, and the WFA team were usually able to find at least something about each visitor's ancestors. He said the old 'stigma' of having British Army ancestors in Irish families has diminished considerably in recent years and been replaced with widespread curiosity.

Dr Tyrone Bowes delivers his lecture
on genetic genealogy
There was also plenty of curiosity evident on the Family Tree DNA stand, which was rarely without a bank of queueing visitors waiting to speak to one of the consultants including well-known genealogist and DNA enthusiast Debbie Kennett. Family Tree DNA sponsored a dedicated strand of Genetic Genealogy lectures on all three days of the show and these were particularly well attended. Most had an audience of around 50 people.

Dr Maurice Gleeson, who worked as the Genetic Genealogy lecture co-ordinator, said most of the audience were was made up of complete beginners, intrigued to discover what DNA could tell them about their heritage. There was also a noticeable US contingent of visitors at many of the lectures. One Mr McClelland had said he had crossed the pond specifically to attend Dr Tyrone Bowes's presentation 'Pinpointing Your Irish Origin using Commercial Ancestral DNA Testing'.

If you couldn't be at the show, you can see most of the presentations via GGI's You Tube channel.

I didn't get to as many of the BTOP lectures as I'd hoped. There was a terrific mix of genealogy, heritage, military and local history subjects and I could easily have sat, listened and learned quite contentedly from morning to evening, but then this report would never have got written! I will, however, pull up one for mention: Nicola Morris's talk on Occupation sources. Despite a heavy cold, Nicola gave a superb overview of where to find records for the major occupation groups (army, RIC, Teachers, legal and medical professions, priests and clergymen, and the merchants covered by the Guilds of Dublin). Opening up the floor to the audience to mention specific occupations they were interested in, she was able to give some direction for records for everyone from postmen to railway workers, and from butchers to sailors. Impressive.

It was a good show, from my perspective. I learned a lot, and I'm sure visitors did too, because there were just so many opportunities to get free specialist help. And there was a great atmosphere, too.

See also my Part One report for more Irish genealogy news.

Coming soon to a screen near you!

So are you still waiting for the promised list of forthcoming records? Get your seatbelt on... I'm going to rattle through them. None should be a complete surprise to regular readers of Irish Genealogy News; I've mentioned all of these collections or enhancements as being 'in the pipe' over the course of the last year. The exciting thing is that they'll be plopping out the interesting end of the pipe soon. And I mean soon. Here you go!

By Christmas, indexes and images of the surviving census fragments from the 1821 – 1851 censuses will be available on the National Archives of Ireland's Genealogy website. They will be joined by the Census Search forms (ie pension application forms for research into the 1841 and/or 1851 censuses). The collections will appear also on FamilySearch and FindMyPast, all free.

The site will also be getting an upgrade before the festive season arrives. We'll be able to enjoy a completely new incarnation and much enhanced version of the Irish Civil Registration indexes. This includes all maiden names from 1903 to 1927 (maiden names didn't start appearing in the published birth registration indexes until 1928), as well as birth dates from the same starting date. I understand that this new database carries records right up to current, whereas existing versions stop at 1958 (or 1921 for Northern Ireland). See Addendum below, also.

At around the same time, or just possibly into January, the National Archives's collection of Valuation Office field and house books will join the line up. These too, will be getting the freedom of FMP and Family Search.

Happy so far? Let's see what the New Year will bring:

In the first quarter of 2014, the Diocesan Court and Prerogative Court records will be added. These include the indexes to wills, administrations and marriage licence bonds, pre-1858.

The original Wills books from 1858 onwards for all areas except Dublin will also be added.

Again, these collections will appear also on FamilySearch and FindMyPast, all free.

In Northern Ireland, wills for the Civil War period, and right up to the 1960s will be uploaded to PRONI's website by March 2014. By then, the remaining 44 volumes missing from the initial upload of Revision Books will also have been added to the database. (Stephen Scarth didn't want to be drawn on a likely date for this final batch of Revision Books, but told me the scanning is currently in progress, approaching completion. I wouldn't be surprised if these 44 volumes hit by the end of the year or shortly afterwards.)

I think I'll leave you to take all that in!!

Addendum: How I forgot this, I don't know! Brian Donovan of Eneclann told me the company has finished digitising an additional set of church registers for more than 20 parishes in West Cork on behalf of These will be making their way onto that website in due course. Whether this will happen fairly imminently or will occur at the time of the big GRO update, no one was able to confirm just yet, but they are coming. Great news for anyone (like me) with family from West Cork.