You've seen the TV show, so who do you think you are?

What stories can we learn by researching our ancestors?What stories can we learn by researching our ancestors?
What stories can we learn by researching our ancestors?
Who Do I Think I Am? Yes, you! Can you name your eight great grandparents? I thought not, but if it weren't for them you wouldn't be here.

I wonder what they were like? What stories they could tell you? (asks Mike McKeag of the North of Ireland Family History Society).

Ever watched Who Do You Think You Are? on the box? A celebrity is taken back, generation by generation and, at each stage, surprising stories are revealed. Every family has interesting stories: it is just a case of finding them.

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It is noticeable in the TV shows how emotional people become when they learn the stories. Even Jeremy Paxman, that toughest of interviewers, was moved to tears. Another interesting thing is how socially mobile families are. Paxman’s ancestor lived in utter poverty, yet her descendants pulled themselves up the social ladder to a position of comfortable wealth.

Back to you and your eight great grandparents: how are you going to find out about them? Since the middle of the 1800s all births, marriages and deaths have had to be registered and are available at a General Register Office or online, so that’s a good place to begin. And before then, what? Everyone attended church, and every church was obliged to keep records of baptisms, marriages and burials, although not all the records still exist.

What else? Every 10 years census records are made available to the public after 100 years. The most recent are the censuses of 1911 and 1901, available online. Sadly, earlier Irish census records were destroyed, but censuses from 1841 for England, Wales and Scotland are online.

So can those missing local generations be found? Maybe. Most people lived rural lives and stayed in much the same place for generations, many paying rent on large country estates. Several big landlords have deposited their estate records in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI]) or elsewhere and evidence of your ancestors may lie in leases and rent rolls.

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To raise taxes, the Government needed to keep good records on taxpayers and how much they should pay. In the 1800s the Griffith’s Valuation listed most householders and what houses and lands they occupied; they also recorded who the immediate landlord was and had a link to a map so you can see exactly where the family lived. A generation before Griffith there was a similar listing called the Tithe Applotments. And after Griffith any changes in occupation of house or land was recorded in the Valuation Revision books. All these are available for you to see.

And there are all sorts of other records – school records; court records; prison records; workhouse records; military records; wills and so on.

Putting all this information together, you can build quite a family tree. Here in Ulster many people can go back about 200 years to about 1800 and a few lucky ones can go back a further 200 years to about 1600.

For help and advice on finding the records you need, why not approach the nearest branch of the North of Ireland Family History Society? There are 11 in all – check to see where and when they meet and go along to the next meeting and introduce yourself to the person chairing the meeting. You will be welcome and there is no obligation to join. You can also you can go to the Society’s Research Centre in Newtownabbey on a Tuesday afternoon or evening.


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To date, we’ve learned how to find the names of our eight great-grandparents, as well as their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

If I can get back that far I shall have identified up to 126 ancestors and they all live on in me, as I have inherited my DNA from them: the colour of my eyes, the shape of my ears and so on.

How do I learn more about these ancestors? I’ve got names, dates and occupations, but what I really want to know is their stories. Many, of course, led uneventful lives, but surely some of those 126 ancestors and many more uncles, aunts and cousins had some stories worth telling?

The best place to start is to ask the older generation, if they are still alive. And ask your cousins about family stories.

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A word of warning: while a story often has a grain of truth, the details have frequently become garbled over the years. Some years ago I had an e-mail from an American asking whether I knew anything about John McKeag, a soldier in Devon. John McKeag, the soldier in Devon, turned out to be James McKeag, a policeman in Govan, and my grandfather’s brother.

It is estimated that many English people really are descended from King Edward III and many Irish are descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages. It gives us a kick to find fame and fortune in our family, but there are many other stories that can be just as interesting, like stowing away on a ship; serving in the Boer War; inventing a new device.

There are many possible sources of such stories (old letters and prison records to name a couple), but probably the best sources are old newspapers. Local newspapers cover all classes and ages and old papers reported in great detail. Local news could cover the AGM of a club or society, listing all the office holders and perhaps all those attending. It often covered the court house, listing the jurymen, the lawyers, the victims, the witnesses, the police officers and, of course, the accused. It even covered the Sunday School outing to Portrush.

People in Ulster were very political and many public meetings were held on religious matters or on Home Rule or on tenants’ rights and these often led to petitions signed by very large numbers of people of all classes. Newspapers printed the names of all concerned, knowing that each would want to buy a copy.

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Until recently, poring over old newspapers was a slow and tedious job. Now, however, vast numbers have been scanned and automatically indexed, so all you need to do is type a word or two, such as Jacob Preston, and up will come a list of all the occurrences of that phrase. Jacob lived from 1740 to 1827 and not many occurrences of his name popped up. Then it clicked! Until the early 1800s printers used the ‘long s’ (that is: ſ, which resembled the letter f). So I typed Jacob Prefton and up they all popped.

And where are these papers to be found? There are several websites and most of them require a subscription because digitising and storing this information is not cheap. The British Newspaper Archive continues to digitise a vast number of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish papers, over 700 so far, of which about 40 circulated in Ulster, including, for example, the Belfast News-Letter (1828-1956) and the Larne Times (1893-1955). These papers are also on the FindMyPast website. There is also the Irish News Archive with about a dozen newspapers that circulated in Ulster, and a couple of American sites with a few papers that circulated here: and Australia and New Zealand are well served with free sites at, respectively, Trove and Papers Past. The newspaper websites can be found at:


The North of Ireland Family History Society’s Research Centre, courses and branches, with their meetings, are open to all. See

Monday, March 13, 7pm, talk: Ulster Postcards, Drama Theatre, Glengormley High School. Queries to [email protected]

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Tuesday 14, Foyle branch research visit to the General Register Office in Belfast, Details from [email protected]; 10am-Noon, course, £10: Emigration to Australia and New Zealand, at Unit C4, Valley Business Centre, 67 Church Road, Newtownabbey, BT36 7LS. Bookings to [email protected]; 2-4pm, course, £10: Family History using PowerPoint, at Unit C4, as above; 7.30pm, talk: The History of Belfast Hills, at The Bridge Community Centre, 50 Railway Street, Lisburn. Queries to [email protected]

Wednesday 15, 7.30pm, talk: LDS Family Search, Bleary Community Centre, 1 Deans Road, Bleary, Craigavon. Queries to [email protected]

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