Irish Roots

Conga lines of dancing Northern Irish civil servants


The first attempt to make a large body of very desirable records searchable online, at least on this side of the Atlantic, was back in 2001, with the 1901 census for England and Wales. It was a fiasco. The website crumbled under the onslaught of users, was down for months and the English civil service had to take vitriolic abuse that went on for what must have seemed an eternity.

The horror seems to have stayed in the memory of UK public servants. At least that’s the only explanation I can see for the very low-key arrival of Northern Ireland General Register Office records online ( Included are all Six-County births, marriages and deaths up to 1914, 1939 and 1974 respectively. The birth records search incorporates the mother’s maiden name, making it simple to reconstruct entire families. Marriage search results include the spouse’s surname, meaning you can zero in on just the relevant record. For deaths (and births) you can narrow the search area right down to local registrar’s district, a godsend where a surname is particularly common. And you can do all this without paying a cent – it only becomes necessary to pay when you have identified the right record, and even then you have a choice of fees, all very reasonable.

There should be conga lines of dancing civil servants celebrating this achievement allover Belfast. But no. One second the thing wasn’t there, the next it was. Under-promising and over-performing with a vengeance.

Let me slip in the few required quibbles. The surname variants option doesn’t seem to be working: “McAlindon” and “McAlinden” get different results. The few historic registrars’ districts (parts of Castlefin and Inishowen, for example) that now lie across the Border seem to have been excised, which is a pity. The unit-based payment system is a classic horse-designed-by-committee.

But these are tiny details. I just hope our own GRO is examining the site and turning green.