Going It Alone

In 1987 while the Foundation was celebrating its thirtieth birthday, the government decided that it had ‘outgrown its dependence’ on the Public Record Office and should therefore be required to assume a separate identity with responsibility for handling genealogical enquiries as well as the publication and distribution of historical works. The Foundation protested in vain that it had been created by the government itself as a flexible instrument to deliver quality services that no one else could provide. It had been widely acclaimed for providing a high quality genealogical service at minimum cost to the government while publishing worthwhile historical material: ‘a unique and ingenious piece of improvisation’, according to one observer. The government, however, had some difficulty in separating the finances of the two bodies and considered that the Foundation absorbed more staff time than it should; therefore the Public Record Office would be more manageable without the Foundation.

It must be said that much of the great reputation that the Public Record Office had acquired in those thirty years was due to its alliance with the Ulster Historical Foundation as personified in Ken Darwin (with the skilful help of another archivist, Brian Hutton) and then Brian Trainor. They were deeply committed both to the salvage of archives throughout the province and then to their presentation as valuable assets for understanding our history and coping with our problems.

They never lost their belief that the Public Record Office had an important educational role to play. In the Foundation they had found able and active support from the Trustees. The contribution of the Trustees was recognised by Richard Needham, then the responsible Minister of State, when he thanked them at a reception for the work they had undertaken over the previous thirty years:

I know that a great deal of their personal time has been devoted to Foundation business but I believe that one positive outcome of their work is to show abroad, particularly in America and Australasia, the better side of Ulster life.
Genealogists visit Derry 1
American Visit 1977

Negotiations for the separation were handled on behalf of the Foundation by Sir Robert Kidd, an Ulsterman and a former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (1976–9), who had succeeded Colonel Greeves as Chairman of the Trustees (December 1987 to November 1993). As the government decided that it should no longer provide civil servants to staff the Foundation, it offered instead to finance the operation by a grant-in-aid. This was tantamount to an admission that the Foundation was unlikely ever to become self-financing. It also implied that its employees would not be likely to enjoy civil service terms and conditions.

Nevertheless, the Trustees of the Foundation believed that it could still play a valuable role, pursuing in the best freelance style initiatives that could benefit the province. Both Kidd and Trainor had many contacts in Dublin. In 1990 the British and Irish governments with the International Fund for Ireland launched a massive programme to exploit the tourism potential of Ireland’s reservoir of genealogical information. Their plan was to provide young unemployed people with short-term employment in schemes designed to train them in IT skills. They would capture on computer databases all pre-1900 entries in surviving church registers of all denominations, together with official civil records of births, deaths and marriages from 1864 to 1921; tithe applotment records created in the 1820s; Griffith valuation records c.1860; the information contained in the 1901 census; and gravestone inscriptions. To implement this programme 35 data-entry centres were established throughout Ireland under the aegis of the Irish Family History Foundation.

The Ulster Historical Foundation undertook responsibility for Belfast and the counties of Antrim and Down which involved the capture of some four million primary records. Sir Robert Kidd devoted an immense amount of time and effort to the establishment and then the stimulation of the Irish Genealogical Project throughout the island and served as Vice-Chairman of the Irish Family History Foundation and as a director of Irish Genealogy Ltd. After Kidd retired in late 1993 the new Chairman of the Foundation, Dr George Chambers, took over his roles in IGP and IFHF. Because the scheme in Northern Ireland had never been as well-resourced as in the rest of the country, the Foundation felt at the time that it had not been able to do itself justice. Now, however, it is beginning to benefit from its former massive input and its original targets are within reach.

Valuation records spines LR

As long as the headquarters of the Foundation continued to be located within the grounds of the Public Record Office, it was easy still for visiting genealogists to discuss their needs and problems with the trained staff of the Foundation. Unfortunately this ideal arrangement lasted only three years after the separation because the Public Record Office found then that it required extra accommodation. The consequence was that the Foundation was displaced and therefore forced to search for alternative accommodation. In 1991 it moved into a suite of offices at 12 College Square East in the once-fashionable heart of Belfast, part of a terrace of four-storey red brick houses restored about 1986, retaining its small-pane sash widows. Among its neighbours were the Belfast Technical College and the Royal Belfast Academical Institution clustered around the ‘Black Man’, a bronze statue to one of Ulster’s most controversial ecclesiastical sons, the Revd. Dr Henry Cooke.

Within a year a corner shop on the ground floor of 64 Wellington Place became vacant and the Trustees decided to establish a small-scale heritage centre – Familia – to provide advisory and consultancy services on genealogy and local history and to sell publications. It opened on 3 December 1992. The experiment did attract tourists as well as local customers but the shop proved too small and too specialised to pay for the high overheads of a downtown location. Indeed, in its fifth and final year the Foundation sold more publications through its new internet site than through the shop. Nevertheless the experience of this venture convinced Trustees that an historic city such as Belfast ought to be able to support such a centre.

Michael Mc Atamney
Ulster Historical Foundation, College Square

The brunt of all these changes fell on Brian Trainor who had taken early retirement from his post as Director of PRONI to become full-time Director of the Foundation. For many years he had been recognised in the family history world as the figurehead of the Foundation. With the support of his Trustees he had recruited young staff to service the Foundation. He continued to assert that the most important role of the Foundation was to develop contacts with family history societies in North America and to look after the welfare and interests of their members when they came to visit Ireland.

In the summer of 1991 he and his team organised a week-long conference That Elusive Irish Ancestor at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown. It catered both for the enthusiasts determined to spend every precious moment in archives and libraries throughout Ulster and those who wished to visit every place they had read about in history books and holiday brochures. For both parties the September conference proved so successful that it became a fixture in the annual programme. Many visitors from North America and Australasia appreciated the opportunities it provided. No-one showed more gratitude than the late Ms Elizabeth Beam who left the Foundation a substantial legacy in her will: the Foundation has earmarked this gift to purchase and equip new headquarters.

Lonesome Thumn

During the 1990s the most influential member of the Trustees was Dr George Chambers who was invited to become a Trustee by Sir Robert Kidd in 1992 and was elected Chairman in the following year. George Chambers stressed the need to reduce staffing and overhead costs, increase output, and generate additional income from other sources. At one stage he took over the post of Administrator for a year to reorganise the finances of the Foundation and streamline its staff. He trained Shane McAteer, who served as Executive Director from 1994 to 2001. His experience taught him that while ‘pump-prime’ sponsorship or capital grants were obtainable, ongoing revenue support was very difficult to acquire.

In 1996 the Foundation was required to undergo a review of its grant-in-aid for which Dr Chambers submitted a detailed submission. Soon afterwards re-organisation within the Northern Ireland Office saw responsibility for the Foundation transferred from the Department of Environment to the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure. Dr Chambers served again as Chairman from 1997 to 2000, making way for David Clement, whom he had introduced to the Foundation. Fintan Mullan replaced Shane McAteer as Executive Director in 2001 and he continues to serve in that role.

Our plans to place the Foundation on a proper financial footing with a headquarters to match, were dashed, however, when we were informed in 2003 that the Foundation’s grant-in-aid was to be withdrawn. We found it even more galling when the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure dropped the Foundation from its structure without any reason or explanation.

Fintan at podium 2015

The Department no longer seemed to appreciate the special role of the Foundation both in promoting the study of family and local history in the province and in publishing studies generated by people who were involved in ongoing research. It overlooked the valuable role that the Foundation plays in maintaining the connections between the province and its kinsfolk overseas. The Trustees decided, however, that the baby should not be emptied out with the bath water and laid plans to carry on with the work so well established.