Community History: Researching the Local Past


History is who we are and why we are the way we are On Sunday, the 2nd April 1911, Neal Gallagher, filled in a census form for himself, his wife Mary Ellen, and their three children, Columba, Daniel and Kathleen. Neal was from Donegal, his wife from Armagh, the oldest child was born in Cavan and the other two were Belfast-born. The migratory pathway traced out by the family, one shared by many other migrants to the boom town of Belfast, is clearly evident in the census manuscript. On a more poignant note, Mary Ellen, though only 30 years old at the time of the census, had already lost two children. She had been a young bride, married at the age of nineteen.


Neal was in the Royal Irish Constabulary, was Roman Catholic, and rented a red-bricked terraced house on a mainly protestant street off the Shankill Road. Even more challenging perhaps to some of our perceptions of the past, Constable Gallagher was an Irish or Gaelic speaker.


This family vignette gives a sample of the kinds of evidence available from one of the richest sources on the Irish past, the original census forms filled in by some one million households in Ireland in 1911. The material is ideal for local and community historians, in that it offers a window on social, economic and cultural life on the eve of the Great War, the Easter Rising and Partition.


Belfast Family & Community History

The BelFam database and website contains details of 60,000 or so individuals living in Belfast in 1901 or 1911. This sample is organised on a street by street basis, so we are happy to share Census datasets (in Excel format) relating to a particular street or cluster of streets with professional and amateur historians, and others, interested in local and community history. 


Making history

These census forms are a unique source for individuals exploring family history but are also among the richest resources available to those seeking a deeper understanding of everyday life in the past. Among the wider issues illuminated by these records are people's occupations, age at marriage, family size, migration into Belfast from the countryside, levels of education, and the extent to which different religious groups lived side by side in the past. This resource can, in turn, be joined to other more readily accessible records like street directories and local newspapers to yield a fuller picture of life in Belfast before the Great War and Partition.


So, what can be done?

You could, for instance, compare the occupations of people on your street or neighbourhood with that of another neighbourhood, or compare family size across different religious denominations or different social classes in your part of Belfast.


These enquiries in turn could give rise to further questions:

  • What was the usual age at marriage for men and women?
  • Did this vary by religion?
  • Was there much of an age gap between spouses in the early 20th century?
  • Were mill workers more likely to marry at an early age than other workers?
  • Were there many households in which child deaths were reported?
  • Might this be related to housing conditions or occupation?
  • Were many local residents originally migrants from other parts of Ulster or indeed farther afield?
  • How segregated along religious lines were particular neighbourhoods?

End note

History is who we are and why we are the way we are One could go on and on. The range of possibilities is almost endless. The key thing is to take the first step. So, for those wishing to explore the social past in greater depth - community groups, women's groups, ethnic minorities, and students engaged in projects - the resources are readily available, via BelFam, for detailed explorations into the many different facets of people's lives in the early 20th century. Depending on time and resources, BelFam is happy to give advice on how community history projects might be set up.


The past is dead. Long live history!