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Local history: getting started

Northern Ireland landscape Map from the PRONI archives A local mill and water wheel
PRONI holds a vast range of different archives that will be of great value to anyone researching local history.  Key sources for local history provides a good starting point.
PRONI’s Your Family Tree leaflet series and Local History leaflet series will help you identify which archives to consult - Local History Leaflet 10 – sources for studying local history (29KB) Adobe PDF formatted document Opens a new browser window. summarises the most useful sources.
This page aims to give you ideas on how and where to begin your local history research.

Explore the locality

Walk round your local area and look out for clues about the past. Note buildings or institutions whose history you might want to explore. You might just want to research the history of one of these buildings - a local school, a factory or a hospital.  Prominent buildings and features might suggest subjects that you want to research.

On the other hand you might want to study the entire community over time. In that case you need to record what remains today that will get you started - a ruined castle, a town wall, a country house, a railway station, bridges and canals etc.

Note also the names of streets and townlands as these can often give you clues about the history of the locality.

This will lead you to ask meaningful questions:
  • When was the building erected?
  • Was there a previous building on the site?
  • Why does this town have so many churches?
  • What was the canal used for?

Choose your approach

You need to decide your method of approach.  You might:
  • Take a locality - a townland, a parish, a village or a town and tell the story of the changes that have occurred in that area over a period of time.
  • Take a particular theme - for example industry, transport or education, and research the history of that subject within a certain geographical area.
  • Take a feature in the local landscape - a church, a school or a mill and trace its history over time.

Join a local history society

Local history societies run talks, workshops and local outings, publish local interest material and encourage and support local history research.  There are now almost 100 societies in Northern Ireland - for details of where the nearest society is to you see the Celebrating Local History Opens a new browser window. website.

Know your areas

Become familiar with the administrative divisions used in Ireland (see areas, regions and land divisions).  This is essential if you want to access the archives for a particular area.

Reference books

Get hold of some good books on how to study local history, such as Townlands in Ulster: Local History Studies edited by WH Crawford and RH Foy.  For similar publications, see the local and family history bibliography.

Printed sources

Check out the local history: early printed sources before you come to research the archives in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) - books, journals and newspapers are available in the public libraries, in the Linen Hall Library Opens a new browser window. and in university libraries.

Public libraries Opens a new browser window. will also hold street directories, local photographs and postcards as well as copies of some Ordnance Survey and Valuation maps.

Oral history

As well as researching printed and manuscript sources, you should also consider collecting the memories and traditions of older people in the community.
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