Some thoughts on researching families and localities

To me researching families and localities are two ends of a continuum. You can either begin by researching a locality but, very soon, you will want to know more about the families that helped create the place that you are investigating. Equally, if you begin with families it will be necessary at some point to set the families in a place context. I came to family history through local history which explains my particular interest in where families lived, what they did for a living, why some emigrated and some did not, etc. This means that I would normally begin with a local study. However because for many of you family history is now paramount, I will begin with families and then move on to localities.


1920s to present-day

Tracing your family from the present back to say the 1920s or 30s should be a relatively easy task. Family members (particularly the older folk) can supplement the knowledge that you undoubtedly have yourself. At this stage drawing up a rough family tree going back as far as you can is a useful exercise and can be added to as various relatives provide further information.

A visit to local graveyards can be a quick way of checking on the ages of older relatives. Civil registers of births, deaths and marriages could be consulted in the General Register Office in Belfast to verify the ages of various people and the maiden names of wives, but at this stage this is rarely necessary until you reach the very early years of the twentieth century.

When talking to relatives you should also try to establish whether any personal papers, photographs, family bibles, wills, etc. are available within the wider family circle. These historical sources can often take you back to much earlier times. For example when researching my own family I came across a piece of paper on which my great-great-grandfather had written out the ages and names of all the members of his family in 1879.  Click here to see a copy of this paper.

1860 to 1920s

To carry the story back to the early years of the twentieth century and the second half of the nineteenth century you will need to consult sources in record repositories such as the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) and the General Register Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages in Belfast or the GROI in Abbey Street, Dublin. I have to say, however, that the recent explosion of online sources means that much family and local history research can be carried out on the Internet.

Nevertheless, whether your place of research be your laptop or the local library or the record office, as I see it, piecing together the history or story of a family in this period is matching up the three sets of records listed below with evidence from the civil registers of births, deaths and marriages, the church registers of baptisms, burials and marriages along with any family papers that you happen to have.

The three three sets of records you need to consult are:

  • The Griffith's Printed Valuation which lists the occupiers of houses and land by townland circa 1860. Note that this source only gives the name of the head of a household.
  • The Census Enumerators' Returns of 1901 and 1911 which give detailed information on all members of the family living in the house in those years.
  • The Revisions to the Griffith's Valuation dating from c.1860 and running through to the 1930s which note changes in the occupiers of houses and land during that period.

These three sources are now online and freely available. The 1901/1911 Census and the Griffith's Printed Valuation with, in most cases, accompanying Valuation Maps cover all of Ireland. The PRONI Griffith's Revision Books cover the six counties of Northern Ireland.

Clearly, whether you begin with the civil and church registers or the Griffith's Valuation and Census Enumerators' Returns is a matter of choice and what you already know. My own choice is to begin with Griffith's and the Census Returns. This is mainly because it gives me a better idea of where people lived at that time and it is important that you already have this information when you are searching the civil registers. Way back in the past I usually began with Griffith's. However, since the census returns came online, I now tend to begin with the 1901 Census Returns.

Note, that before you use any of these records you must know which Barony, Civil Parish, Poor Law Union, District Electoral Division (DED) and Registrar's District a town or townland was situated in. You will find this information for Co. Londonderry and North & Mid Antrim at the Administrative Divisions link in the top menu.

Before 1860

It is much more difficult, but not always impossible, to find evidence of your family before 1860. If parish registers are available you could take the story of your family back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, or even earlier. One source which may indicate if your family name was present in an area around the 1830s is the Tithe Applotment Book. We are fortunate in North Antrim that there is an Agricultural Census for 1803 for some of the parishes in the region plus a Church Census for First Ballymoney Presbyterian Church and a Church Census for the entire Parish of Ballintoy. Also, there is an 1831 "Census" of sorts for Co. Londonderry which lists heads of households at townland level for the entire county.

Going back into the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries becomes even more difficult and I would recommend that you leave it until you have amassed as much information as you can on the period from the 1830s to the present. When you do decide to venture into this earlier period, I would recommend that you read William J. Roulston's book - Researching Scots-Irish Ancestors: The Essential Genealogical Guide to Early Modern Ulster, 1600-1800, published by the Ulster Historical Foundation, Belfast, 2005 - now available as an eBook.


As well as creating family trees and identifying individual ancestors through family photographs, etc. many of us want to know more about the places where our ancestors lived - where they lived, exactly, in a townland or street - what that townland or street was like at the time when they were living there - how they earned a living - and so on. This will require more research into the localities where they lived. Below are some pointers based on my experiences of researching localities.

In a town I tend to begin with a street and in the countryside with a townland, moving out from these focal points to encompass an area which in some way forms a locality and community which is of a size that it is manageable in terms of working with sources.

I use much the same sources for both town and countryside and, even if I do not know a street or a townland, I proceed something like this.

  • I find out in which Barony, Civil Parish, Poor Law Union and  District Electoral Division (DED) it was located. I will need this information when I go looking for historical records. This information is available on this website for Co. Londonderry and North & Mid Antrim at the Administrative Divisions link in the top menu.
  • I get the six-inch Ordnance Survey Maps covering the 1830s, c.1860, c1905 and c.1930s. In towns I get the large-scale maps of the towns for similar dates. Although some maps are online, I normally have to go Coleraine and Ballymena libraries or PRONI in Belfast to see copies of these maps - particularly the large scale town maps.
  • I get a copy of the Griffith's Printed Valuation of circa 1860 plus the Valuation Map that accompanies it. This allows me to people the townland or street at that time and have an idea of where each family lives, who are the farmers and who are the cottiers, etc. in the countryside. For towns, I also look at the street directories, particularly for the period 1846 to 1864. These are now online from PRONI. I database these, which means that I can usually match them up with Griffith's which means that I know where people lived in the town and their occupation or profession. See my paper on Locating Properties and Families within a Townland or Street.

I now have a choice - I can go back from 1860 to say the 1830s or I can go forward towards the 1900s and the present day. In most instances I choose the latter.

  • I then look at the Census Enumerators' Returns of 1901 and 1911 which give detailed information on all members of the family living in each house in those years, and, the Revisions to the Griffith's Valuation dating from 1864 and running through to the 1930s which note changes in the occupiers of houses and land during that period. I have mentioned these together because I often move from one to the other and sometimes I begin with Griffith's and sometimes with the Census Returns. I usually create databases from the surnames which makes it easier for me to find people and cross-reference them. I also database more of the street directories c.1900. The fact that the 1901 and 1911 census is now online makes this whole process much easier. In fact, because the census returns are now online means that 1901/1911 has become my starting point in many studies. Since the valuation and census sources went online I now tend to begin with the 1901 Census and work backwards to the c.1860 Griffith's Valuation.
  • If there are some families that I want more detail on, I consult the appropriate church registers of baptisms, burials and marriages. If necessary, I consult the civil registers.
  • At this point I will have a good deal of information on the families who lived in the street or townland between 1860 and circa 1930. If I want to look at more detail at any of these families I invoke the procedures outlined in the section on Researching Families.
  • The story of the locality from 1930 to the present can usually be filled out by people living in the town or townland today. A visit at this point to talk to older inhabitants is probably better than going at an earlier time. By this stage I have information on the place and showing it to people can jog their memory, and, some of the oral information relating to the past will make more sense to me.
  • I search for other sources which will allow me to to gain a better understanding of the social and economic life of the area and what it looked like during the period. Clearly, photographs provide the best evidence of what a place looked like in the past. Whilst there are plenty of photographs of the countryside in general, it is often difficult to get any relating to a specific townland or group of townlands. Usually more photographs of particular towns survive. Sources such as emigrant letters, estate records containing rental and agent's correspondence with the landlord, reports of parliamentary commissions, newspapers, etc. provide me with some evidence of social and economic life not only in the relatively small area that I am studying but also in the wider region of which it is a part.

I then turn my attention to the period before 1860.  As with family history, going back to the first half of the nineteenth century, and indeed earlier, is perhaps more difficult. Nevertheless, I still try to try to find out who was living there in the first half of the nineteenth century and what life was like for them.

  • Sources such as the Ordnance Survey Memoirs for the 1830s, parliamentary commissions and reports, travellers' accounts, etc. provide me with more general information on what life in the area was like at that time. This was a period when there was great interest in England on what was going on in Ireland, so many private individuals and officials were writing about it.
  • It is more difficult to identify all of the families who lived in an area at that time. The locality studies will show you the sources which give lists of names for this earlier period. Most of the sources listed in the site will be available for other areas in the province but there are some, such as the lists of inhabitants which accompany the early town maps of Ballymoney, which are particular to that town.
  • However, a word of caution. I usually find people in the Tithe Applotment Books whose names are familiar to me but, without evidence from parish registers, it is often difficult to be sure about their relationship to others with the same name, or to persons that I managed to identify in the later years of the nineteenth century. Church registers are necessary to establish relationships between people but, unfortunately, they can be very patchy for this period.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are very interesting periods but, as in most earlier periods of history, the sources are not as extensive and are often more difficult to decipher and interpret, not least because they belong to a very different historical period. But, where sources are available for a particular locality, studies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can be very rewarding. Again the same word of caution, mentioned above, regarding the recognition of surnames.

Because of the increasing dominance of online sources in the research process I have recently added some extra content to this paper.

Copyright 2013 W.Macafee.