Historical Society make a record of PRONI trip

ADRIAN Howlett and I went to PRONI (Public Record Office of Northern Ireland) in the Titanic Quarter.

We attended the launch of a new project, ‘People and Places’, organized by the Federation of Ulster Local Studies, commonly known as FULS.

Banbridge’s local Historical Society is a member of FULS, which is why we got an invitation. Adrian is the local Chairman while I just help make the tea! I was lucky!

FULS applied to The Lottery Heritage Fund for a grant to encourage local people to study their local history. As a result local historical societies can apply for funding to study the past in any way they like.

The idea is to collect information about people and places in the past and make it available to others. The project appears wide enough to allow for societies individual interests and Adrian and other members of Banbridge Historical Society are very interested. If others want to join Banbridge Historical they would be very welcome.

Adrian and I’d never been to the new PRONI building and I must say a we were most impressed. It’s well worth a visit, a beautiful building with a pleasant cafe and helpful staff.

The service when looking for old records has improved enormously. It now takes only 20 minutes to find a document in PRONI’s archive or you could visit PRONI’s online catalogue and ask for documents to be ready for your arrival.

That is a great improvement on the old building in Balmoral Avenue where documents seemed to get lost. That’s an unfair statement because they were probably not lost, just sometimes nobody could find them in the archaic filing system.

The old PRONI was outdated, the new one is state of the art. We decided to test the system by asking for documents on something which interested us, namely the old coach road from Belfast to Banbridge.

We asked for, and received help to look up the catalogue which turned up relevant files. We chose three and asked to see them, were given the number 12 and told to collect our material from the reading room when our number appeared on the overhead notice board.

Unfortunately we weren’t prepared for a project launch, were just being curious and making use of the fact that we were early and we made the cardinal mistake of anyone doing research. We didn’t take notes! I at least am going to have to go back! What we found was fascinating.

I have always heard the Old Coach Road runs down Ballymoney Road. That was confirmed.The information we obtained dated back to the 1700s. It was very difficult to read although we managed to decipher a series of documents relevant to a family called Hamilton.

In the mid-1700s they assigned some of their land to a family member at a rent of 25 shillings a year, to be paid half yearly in two amounts of 12 shillings and sixpence each plus half a side of beef, a fat hen and the work of a man with a horse for two days.

A hundred years later that rent had more than doubled! At the time we simply thought ‘inflation’ and went to the project launch. That night I woke up with one of those ‘Eureka’ moments, realising division of the land had occurred well before the Great Famine’ (1845-1847).

One of the causes of the famine was the population grew to such an extent there was tremendous pressure on land. As a result rents increased dramatically so parents subdivided their land giving pieces to their offspring. This resulted in smaller and smaller farms so people were basically subsistence farming.

Ulster had the greatest number of small farms, that is farms under five acres, in Ireland so that famine here became inevitable. After the Great Famine a law was passed so parents had to will land to a single family member making a similar disaster was less likely.

I’m looking forward to returning to PRONI properly armed with writing materials and enough time to do a bit of sensible research. I would thoroughly recommend the new PRONI building in the Titanic Quarter as being well worth a visit to anyone interested in local history or genealogy.