Irish archives at PRONI

I’ve just completed my initial archival research for my PhD, which involved a very long trip from Australia to Ireland. After a couple of days in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin, I ventured north to Belfast. My aim in this blogpost is to provide some information about carrying out research at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland—PRONI for short.

IMG_3164PRONI is housed in a modern, light-filled building in the Titanic Quarter, a twenty-minute walk from City Hall in the centre of Belfast.  PRONI is a repository for archives from all over Ireland, and holds a diverse collection of official and private documents.

Obtaining a reader’s card was simple – no academic reference was required, just photo ID, and the card was produced on the spot. As is the norm with archives, researchers cannot take bags, coats/jackets or pens into the reading room—a plastic bag is provided to carry in your pencils, laptop, purse etc with you. The rest can be left in a free locker for the day (although you need to insert a £1 coin which is refunded when you finish with the locker).

Most visitors to PRONI seemed to be people researching their family history, and from what I observed, the staff were enormously helpful and patient with these visitors. I heard accents from America, Canada, Australia, England and New Zealand—PRONI clearly generates a fair amount of tourist revenue for Northern Ireland.

As an academic researcher spending more than just a couple of days at PRONI, I encountered some stumbling blocks, and having chatted with others doing similar work, I realised I wasn’t alone. Time was of the essence for my trip, I couldn’t be away from home for long so a leisurely trawl through the archives was out of the question. My aim was to locate and photograph as many potentially useful documents as possible, then catalogue and review them on my return home.  I hope that by writing about my experiences, I can help future researchers better prepare (logistically and financially) for research at PRONI. This is by no means a criticism of the archives or its staff, as I found them all to be friendly, welcoming and helpful. It was lovely to be greeted by name as I arrived for ‘work’ in the morning!

Bulk ordering documents: The PRONI catalogue is marvellously detailed. The online catalogue is good, but PRONI’s onsite catalogue (which cannot be accessed unless you are onsite) is far more detailed. This onsite catalogue breaks down each collection into individual items, for example, I wanted to review the collection of 18 letters exchanged between James Blair and his family in the 1770s. The collection is broken down into the 18 individual letters. As PRONI only permits readers to order 5 items at a time, this meant I was ordering 5 letters, then returning each as I finished reading or scanning, then ordering the next one—wasting precious time. The reading room staff eventually put me in touch with the manager of the document-ordering department, who gave me permission to make a ‘bulk order,’ so that I could order an entire collection. I couldn’t put that order in the system myself, this had to be done on my behalf by a member of staff. During my time at PRONI, some staff members would require me to fill out a form before placing a bulk order, others would call the head of the document-ordering department, and others just took my word for it that I had permission to do so. So while bulk ordering solved the problem of time-wasting for me, it was still a bureaucratic process.

My advice to future researchers is to contact PRONI ahead of your visit to request permission to place bulk orders, or at least to make contact so they can set you up with the necessary permissions as soon as possible.

Photographing documents: As I was in Belfast for a limited period, my aim was to photograph as many documents as possible, then catalogue and read them later. I had contacted PRONI to check I could photograph documents in the archive ahead of my visit, but I hadn’t understood the subtleties of the rules! They differ from any other archive I’ve ever visited…

Basically there are two options. Option 1 is to use your own camera. PRONI charges £10.50 per hour for camera use, and they require you to give advance notice in writing of exactly which documents you will be photographing. Your camera will be held behind the counter in the reading room until you begin using it, and then the clock will start running to calculate the price you need to pay. For example, if it takes you 10 minutes to do your photography, you will be charged £1.75.  Option 2 is to use PRONI’s scanner to photograph documents. You do not need to give notice of what you will be scanning, but it does cost 30p per image. Copy cards can be purchased at the reading room, and you need to bring your own USB stick to save the scanned images to. The scanner is easy to use and the scanned images are excellent quality, but this is an expensive exercise if you wish to take a lot of pictures, which I did!

If I’d grasped the complexities of PRONI’s photographing/copying rules, I would have incorporated copying costs into my funding request from my university. I did feel rather taken advantage of in this respect, particularly as other archives and institutions (the National Library of Ireland and Linen Hall Library in Belfast, to name two) permit researchers to photograph documents with smartphones. I happily scanned a number of documents in both these places at no cost.

Eating & Drinking in the Titanic Quarter: As I already mentioned, PRONI is located in the Titanic Quarter. I didn’t take long breaks for lunch but found a couple of interesting options if you want to get out. Alternatively, if you pack your own lunch & want to stay at the archives, there are comfortable tables and chairs just inside the building’s entrance where you can eat. There is also a cafe in the building, but frankly, there are better options a short walk away! Dock Cafe

Cast and Crew is a fairly new restaurant from well-known Belfast restauranteurs, 5 minutes walk from PRONI. It’s only open during the day, but they do great lunches (and presumably great breakfasts too). You can eat-in or take-away, and the coffee was great. The restaurant is so-named as it’s opposite the Titanic Studios where Game of Thrones is filmed. I wonder if I tag ‘game of thrones’ for this blogpost I’ll get a huge spike in readership 🙂

The Dock Cafe is a 2 minute walk from PRONI. It is a charity-run cafe which operates on an honesty-box system, so you pay however much (or little) you wish! They have excellent soup (after 12.30pm), tea, coffee, and the ubiquitous Irish scones & traybake offerings. They’re also more than happy for you to bring your own food to eat in the cafe.

All the best with researching at PRONI. Overall I had a great time discovering the wealth of archival material available, as well as exploring further afield in Belfast and County Antrim.

* The header image for this blogpost shows some of the glass frontage of the PRONI building, which features script from the archives. It also features some blue sky in Belfast!

PhD: 5 weeks in

Inter-library loans also make a handy display stand for Easter decorations—courtesy of my daughter!
Inter-library loans also make a handy display stand for Easter decorations—courtesy of my daughter!

I’ve officially been a PhD student for five weeks now and frankly, I don’t feel as though I’ve got a lot to show for it! Sure, I have a lovely fresh blue Moleskine notebook, a new (v.big) computer screen for my home office, and a growing pile of books on my desk and on my kindle. I also have a spreadsheet with a detailed three-year plan (let’s see how that evolves over time!) and a Scrivener project entitled ‘PhD’. That reminds me, I did spend about an hour a day of Week 1 in an online Scrivener course.* Oh, and I sat through almost a day of ‘induction’ for newbie PhD students.  On a more inspiring note, I made it to a wonderful presentation by Prof Simon Newman from Glasgow about 18hC Jamaica (thanks Sydney Uni US Studies Centre for being so welcoming), and two excellent in-house Macquarie history seminars. And my first conference abstract has been accepted, so I’ll be presenting some of my MRes findings at the NewMac postgrad conference in July!** This in addition to supervision meetings, having my parents over to visit from the other side of Australia, then nursing a sick daughter at home for the past week…I guess I have been rather busy!  But given that my first goal was to nail down some primary sources for a chapter of my thesis—which I’ve not yet done—I don’t feel a great sense of achievement.

I’m starting on primary sources rather than a literature review because the work I did in my Masters of Research last year gave me a head-start on the Irish historiography. My PhD will investigate links between Ireland and the British Atlantic around the turn of the nineteenth century…so my first research efforts will build upon the stellar work of Nini Rodgers, as well as the fantastic resource that is the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database. It’s a slow process though. More than once already I’ve wished I was back in our Islington flat, so I could just pop down to the British Library or Kew and have a nosy around. I’m sure that will be a recurrent thought, but perhaps (?) my distance from the archives will force me to be thorough and focused in my prep so that when I do get to the archives, I’ll know exactly what I’m looking for.

* I highly recommend this: Scrivener Courses: Gwen Hernandez

** NewMac 2015!

Archive envy. A Private Empire by Stephen Foster.

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I’ve just finished Stephen Foster’s A Private Empire, which I learnt so much from—as an historian, a writer and a reader. A Private Empire charts five generations of the Macphersons of Blairgowrie, Perthshire, a family which could be described as landed gentry, except as the narrative traces their vicissitudes, we see that the Macphersons’ hold on this status was sometimes tenuous. Foster had access to the family archive begun in the eighteenth century by the current laird’s great-great-great-grandfather. This is family history, but writ large. The richness of the archive, combined with Foster’s wonderfully accessible prose, and his skilful distillation of historical context, have resulted in a family history which can tell a far wider story than ‘simply’ the family tree. As the blurb on the book says, A Private Empire “explores Britain’s imperial past through the eyes and experiences of a single family.”

With access to the family’s letters and diaries, as well as account books, legal documents and more, Foster takes the reader behind the scenes of the Macphersons’ imperial lives, so that as well as learning about the careers of the leading men of each generation, we gain an insight into how those men felt about their careers, and their families, and the imperial spaces they inhabited—in the West Indies, India and colonial Australia. It is this private sense of empire which so drew me to the book. We see, for example, the frustration of Allan Macpherson as he fails time and again to obtain the promotions he seeks within the East India Company in the 1770s; and the similar sense of frustration his grandson Allan endured as he tried to establish himself as a pastoralist in colonial New South Wales one hundred years later. Foster also managed to elucidate the lives of the women of the family, many of whom led extraordinary lives, criss-crossing the empire. My favourite narrative which winds its way through the book is that of William Macpherson’s first family—with the slave woman ‘Countess’—founded in Berbice, British Guiana at the dawn of the nineteenth century. I will say no more for fear of spoiling the story for future readers!

The book, published by Pier 9, is beautifully produced. It’s available on Kindle, but the contemporary paintings and photographs reproduced throughout make it worthwhile tracking down the hard-copy book itself. According to the judge’s report for the 2011 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (for which the book was shortlisted), “underlying A Private Empire is substantial research – in Britain, Australia, India and America – and Foster weaves the primary source material through his narrative to masterly effect.” I couldn’t agree more.

Finding women in the archives

Late last year I attended a public lecture by Dr Noeline Kyle, an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney, who has been working with and supporting family historians for many years. Dr Kyle discussed her recently published book Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and writing women into family history. This is an update of her 1986 book We Should’ve Listened to Grandma. The lecture was directed at the family historian, so there was plenty of practical advice—which gave me lots to think about in researching my own family history, but also with my PhD project in mind.

My great great grandparents. Source: Judy Deane, Ancestry.com

Finding Florence is essentially a guide to finding women in the archives, with a focus on the women who didn’t make newspaper headlines. The book contains long lists of public records to search for traces of women in the past, such as educational archives, and government record-keepers for women who might have worked in the ‘female’ professions of teaching, healthcare and social welfare.

I was particularly interested in Dr Kyle’s discussion of what she calls a “circle strategy.” As women can be largely absent from the archival record, she suggested investigating the biographies of close siblings, parents, other relatives such as cousins, and friends, neighbours and work colleagues. This may be a laborious task, but as Dr Kyle said, our ancestors often lived in close proximity to extended family and community members—so newspaper obituaries (for example) for neighbours and relatives  might yield a nugget of information about a woman we know little else about. So too, the records of primary schools, community and religious organisations. The book would be of great use to researchers in Australia, as well as the UK and Ireland, as Dr Kyle has experience of researching in archives for all of these locations.

I went to the lecture with a friend who’s done extensive research into her own family tree, far more than I have. The budding historian in me was thrilled to hear her say that Dr Kyle’s lecture had made her realise why she’s found it so much harder to gain a clear picture of her female ancestors, than for the men in her family tree. Students of history will be familiar with the project of social history to raise marginalised groups (whether on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, ability etc) from obscurity. Whether consciously or not, non-academic, hobbyist family historians seeking to elucidate the lives of their female ancestors, are chipping away at the obscurity that many women have suffered at the hands of official histories, and archival practices of the past. Just another reason why family history is such an admirable pursuit!

Noeline Kyle, Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and writing women into family history. Published by Unlock the Past, 2014.http://www.gould.com.au/Finding-Florence-Maude-Matilda-Rose-Women-FH-p/utp0321.htm

Submitting my Thesis

Well, I’ve submitted my Masters thesis and am waiting on my markers’ verdict. I was pleased with how the thesis came together in the end, as was my supervisor, so my fingers are crossed for a good outcome.  The final title was ‘Celebrating the Battle of the Saintes: Imperial News in England and Ireland, 1782.’ I took the newspaper reporting of Britain’s victory over the French in April 1782 in les Saintes (in the Caribbean) as a case study to examine the impact of imperial news in London, and a second site of empire: Ireland. The case study also allowed me to look at the network which passed information from an outpost of empire to England and Ireland. I thoroughly enjoyed the primary research for this project. Most of my sources were digitised newspapers, although I did need to go to the National Library in Canberra to read the Dublin Evening Post on microfiche, which felt like a blast from the past, technologically speaking. During our family holiday in England I even managed to get to the British Library Manuscripts room—with my precious reader’s ticket in hand—to read a journal from one of the British ships at the Saintes, as well as the journal of John Mair, who watched the battle and its aftermath from his plantation on Dominica. I also visited the National Archives at Kew, and read some of the personal correspondence of Admiral Rodney, who commanded the British fleet at the Saintes—including a letter from Edmund Burke. A highlight for me was the moment I realised that the pencil markings I thought had been made by a selfish scholar on the original letters, were actually Rodney’s own markings! The experience of reading original documents in manuscript is one of the reasons I am determined to continue with historical research – whether as a PhD student or an independent researcher.