Creation of the Ulster Historical Foundation

THIS VIGOROUS ORGANISATION was founded in December 1956 at the invitation of Sir Basil Brooke (later to become Lord Brookeborough), then the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. He had been so impressed with the reception he had received from the descendants of Ulster emigrants whom he had met in his visits to North America, that he resolved to repay their support.

Because a strong notion persisted that the bulk of the emigrants were Scots who had come to America by way of Ulster, it was decided to set up the Ulster-Scot Historical Society. The Society would assist these people to trace their ancestors and locate their kinfolk still at home, research the history of emigration to and from Ulster, and ‘promote the interests of the homeland amongst people of Ulster origin living overseas’.

The affairs of the Society were to be managed by a Council composed mainly of retired civil servants, businessmen and academics committed to the aims of the Society. The first chairman was Sir William Scott, a former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and among the Trustees was J.C. Beckett, the distinguished professor of Irish history at Queen’s University. Another Trustee, Eric Montgomery, the government information officer, was destined in the 1960s and 1970s to play a key role in the creation of the Ulster-American Folk Park that celebrates the contribution of Ulster people to American life. From the beginning this Council set high standards and delivered quality publications. In 1969 the Trustees remodelled the organisation into a voluntary trust as the Ulster-Scot Historical Foundation and then broadened its scope in 1975 as the Ulster Historical Foundation, affirming its role to serve all denominations and traditions in the province.

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Since the role of the Society was seen as intertwined with that of the Public Record Office, the position of Director of the new Society was given to the Director of the PRONI, Kenneth Darwin, and the Society took over from Record Office staff the entire responsibility for handling genealogical enquiries and dealing with genealogical searchers in person in the public search room of PRONI.

At the launch Darwin was provided with one additional member of staff to act as Secretary of the Society and supervise the genealogical research: within a short time the remarkable Ivy Embleton was managing a small team of hourly-paid part-time searchers. Both genealogists and archivists soon learned to appreciate the value of this arrangement. Archivists were able to concentrate on their traditional roles of acquiring, processing and cataloguing collections of documents while genealogists searched for relevant items of information from a wide variety of sources in order to construct family trees.

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In 1978 the Ulster Historical Foundation created the Ulster Genealogical and Historical Guild in response to requests from overseas inquirers who wanted to identify with the homeland by belonging to such a club based in Ulster. Many of the Guild members have proved very loyal to the Foundation and our staff have been delighted over the years to make and renew acquaintance with those who have helped to organise and support our programmes both in their home countries and in Ireland. Subscribers to the Guild now receive two annual publications: the Directory of Irish Family History Research and Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review. The Directory of Irish Family History Research is the most complete and up-to-date record of Irish genealogical research in progress. It provides members with a means of publicising their research interests and contacting other researchers with similar interests: they submit information about the ancestors they are researching and this is printed in the Directory together with each subscriber’s contact details. Copies of the Directory are then sent to all members and to various libraries and societies overseas. An analysis of the subscribers in 1995 estimated that 30% were from USA, 15% from Canada, 15% from Australasia, and the remaining 40% from across the British Isles. Since that time subscribers have been encouraged to publicise their research interests (as contained in the Directory) on the Foundation’s website. The number of Guild members has fluctuated considerably, matching the expectations and enthusiasm of fresh waves of genealogists: this characteristic has encouraged us to concentrate more of our resources on cultivating our databases.

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Our other publication for Guild members, complementary to the Directory, is Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review which was launched in 1985 with Kenneth Darwin as editor. The current editor, Trevor Parkhill, continues to search out and encourage authors from many places throughout the world to relate their experiences and findings in researching and writing family history. We are happy to have worked closely with historians of the calibre of James S. Donnelly, Donald Akenson, David W. Miller, Kerby A. Miller, David Fitzpatrick, Ruth-Ann Harris, Eric Richards and Patrick O’Farrell. In turn they have enjoyed researching in the great collection of emigrant letters that Darwin’s staff assembled in the Public Record Office and greatly appreciated the helpfulness and co-operation shown to them.

Directory of Irish Family History Research covers

Directory of Irish Family History Research covers

Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review covers

Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review covers

In order to make Ulster people more aware of the great scale of emigration from this province and the contribution that many emigrants have made to their adopted countries, the Foundation helped to pioneer a programme of popular education. In the 1960s the Society co-operated with the Tourist Board and local councils in erecting plaques on sites identified with people of Ulster extraction who had achieved fame overseas, beginning with twenty-four plaques which included six Presidents of the United States of America and two New Zealand prime ministers. After a lapse of several years due to the onset of the Troubles, this project was revived in the mid-1980s by James Hawthorne as the Ulster History Circle and continues to celebrate famous sons and daughters of Ulster.

It is not generally known that in the period from 1982 to 1990 the Foundation organised the collection of gravestone inscriptions by groups of 17-yearold unemployed trainees under a youth training programme operated by the Department of Economic Development, with the result that around two-thirds of all pre-1900 inscriptions in the thousand or so graveyards in and around Northern Ireland have been recorded on index cards. A more permanent public memorial to their work exists on the Stranmillis Road in Belfast at Friar’s Bush graveyard, converted by them from an overgrown wilderness into a public amenity. Since then Dr Eamon Phoenix, a current Trustee, has augmented the value of this enterprise by preparing a valuable teaching aid introducing schools to Two Acres of Irish History: A Study Through Time of Friar’s Bush and Belfast, 1570–1918.

Ancient Discovery

The Foundation has been especially active in promoting publications. In the early years most of the emphasis was on a series of historical volumes published on our behalf by Routledge & Kegan Paul. When it transpired, however, that that publisher was not interested in small circulation scholarly works, all subsequent volumes appeared under the imprint of the Ulster Historical Foundation although it was some time before publishing became a commercial as well as a scholarly success. The Foundation has collaborated occasionally with several overseas publishing houses to produce worthwhile publications. It has also broadened its scope to offer books informing the debates about cultural traditions and identity in Northern Ireland and the promotion of mutual understanding.

The most significant benefaction of the Foundation for genealogists, however, has proved to be the publication of a series of volumes of graveyard inscriptions after 1966 under the editorship of one of our Trustees, Richard Clarke, who was then Professor of Anaesthetics in the Queen’s University of Belfast. Richard has drawn attention to the disappearance and even destruction of gravestones that often represented the only memorials of families resident in a parish. Such records are all the more important in the absence of the nineteenth century census records which were destroyed in Dublin in 1922. Richard’s practice of visiting graveyards to record inscriptions may have gained him the affectionate nickname of ‘Tombstone Dick’ but his perseverance has been well rewarded. He has now transcribed, organised and edited more than thirty volumes, mainly for County Down and the city of Belfast, and they have become more comprehensive and even more informative, constituting a vast resource salvaged for future generations. Richard Clarke’s example of recording gravestone inscriptions has been followed by groups from family history societies as well as individuals throughout the province.

In recent years the Foundation was enabled to develop this important field of research with funds from the New Opportunities Fund. Dr William Roulston implemented the History from Headstones Online project to encourage local people to take an interest in the graveyards of Northern Ireland and ensure their preservation. For any local community the graveyard provides the most accessible source for the study of its history as well as its context. But in the plural, graveyards contribute also an integral part of the Irish landscape. They are open air museums where it should be possible to walk among the exhibits – the stones – and appreciate the layout, lettering and sculpture of long-dead craftsmen. Because of the detailed information they often contain, gravestones provide the ideal launch pad for any genealogical investigation. There are over 1,200 burial grounds in Northern Ireland and they have provided UHF with a searchable graveyard database of over 50,000 inscriptions. Local historians have contributed essays about graveyards they know well: these histories can be read in the case studies section on the website.

In 1975 the Foundation’s new trust deed named Dr Brian Trainor, the Director of the Public Record Office (1970–87) as Administrator of the Foundation. Since his appointment to the staff of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in 1956, Brian Trainor had made a reputation as a very energetic archivist whose fieldwork had secured and processed many major collections for PRONI. The high quality of his work was recognised by the award of honorary doctorates by both the National University of Ireland and the University of Ulster.

In promoting the exploitation of these archives Trainor was prepared not only to supervise the preparation of search reports for clients but also to travel throughout first Ireland, and later the world lecturing about their significance and value for genealogy. An invitation to Ottawa in 1974 to speak on ‘Education and Archives’ to an international meeting of archivists, taught him the value of participation in the North American lecture-tour circuit as a means of publicising the work of PRONI (including the Foundation), attracting clients for the ancestral research service, and strengthening links between the Irish diaspora and the homeland. On several occasions he has honoured invitations to lecture to the National Genealogical Society in America. Indeed, since 1979 Dr Trainor has undertaken more than twenty tours in North America and three in Australia and New Zealand, making innumerable contacts while generating significant income for the Foundation by the sale of books and services. Several younger members of staff have now also benefitted from initiation into these programmes.

In this context the Foundation wishes to place on record its appreciation of the contribution of Mrs Donna Hotaling as its honorary agent in USA. She organised and led parties of visitors to this province from the United States from 1977 to 1984 during some of the worst years of the Troubles. She managed to persuade senators and politicians as well as academics and other keen genealogists to brave the scenes reported on television. ‘They came wearing bullet-proof vests [from Dallas in Texas no less] and left laughing at their fears.’ It is impossible to estimate the value to the province of such contacts during those dark days. It has been claimed, indeed, that the famous American textile firm of Chemstrand located in Coleraine thanks to a family tree rather than a government grant.

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