County Antrim was historically within the Gaelic Kingdom of Dalriada, which was part of the territory of the O’Neills and associated families of McQuillan, O’Quinn. Due to its proximity to Scotland, there was significant immigration of Scottish families such as the McDonnells, Bissels, McNeills and McAllisters. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Normans made several unsuccessful attempts to conquer the county, but were repulsed by the O’Neills and their allies. However, in the 17th century a failed rebellion by the O’Neills and O’Donnells led to their departure from Ireland, with their allies, in 1603. This was the so-called ‘Flight of the Earls’, and is regarded as the end of the old Gaelic order in Ireland.

In 1609, the ‘Ulster Plantation’ started the process of settling the confiscated lands with people from England and Scotland. The lands were granted to ‘adventurers’, or those who had supported or funded the army which defeated the rebels. These grantees ‘undertook’ to settle the confiscated lands, hence the name ‘undertaker’. The settler families they brought to the Belfast area were mainly from Devon, Lancashire and Cheshire and included families named Bradshaw, Bradford, Watson, Taylor, Walker, Wilson, Johnson and Young.

North Antrim had more Scottish settlers including Boyd, Lindsay, Johnson, Morrison and Patterson. Antrim is arguably the county in which the objective of the Plantation, or the elimination of the native population and replacement with loyal settlers, was most successfully achieved. Repression of the limited Gaelic population continued through a series of ‘Penal Laws’ which disadvantaged Catholics and to a lesser extent Presbyterians. These led to bitter local divisions which have persisted.

Many of the Scottish settlers – commonly known as Scots-Irish – who were predominantly Presbyterian, left Antrim and other Ulster counties during the 1700s to settle in America. The county was not badly affected by the Great Famine of 1845-47, but this was mainly due to the growth and prosperity of the linen and ship-building industry in Belfast and surrounding areas.

In 1922, the county was one of six which remained as part of the United Kingdom when the Irish Free State, now the Republic of Ireland, was formed. The county currently has a population of over 615,000. The main towns are Belfast, parts of which are also in County Down, and Lisburn. Other larger towns of greater than 18,000 include Antrim, Ballymena, Carrickfergus, Larne and Newtownabbey.

Getting started

Antrim has a diverse set of genealogical records, including all of the major national records. Civil records of birth, death and marriage start in 1864 and most of these are now on-line.

Note, however, that registration of births, marriages and deaths after 1922 was conducted within Northern Ireland by a separate UK administration. Civil Records after 1922 are available from the General Register Office.

Griffith’s Valuation (a major survey of land occupiers) was conducted in 1861-2 and is available on many websites. The  National Archives have made the 1901 and 1911 Census returns available on-line.

If you are beginning your search and do not know where in Antrim your family was located, these sources are useful starting points. Griffith Valuation, for instance, may show where your family name is located within the county (e.g. a civil parish). An easy way to do this search is through the excellent Irish Ancestors site of John Grenham. If you locate a possible ancestor, a search of church or civil records from that area may provide further verification.

The 1901 census, although compiled long after the major period of emigration for most Scots-Irish, may also indicate the local prevalence of a surname. When you have identified a likely area, or a definite ancestor, one or more of the following types of records can extend your search.

Photo: Howard Walsh

Church Records

Catholic baptism and marriage records in Antrim are relatively poor in comparison to many Irish counties. There are 28 Catholic parishes but only one (Glenarm – 1784) has records starting in the 18th century, and most start in the mid 1800s. The factors which affected record-keeping are detailed in Irish Church Records (Flyleaf Press, 2001).

Catholic registers are available free online through the National Library of Ireland. There is no index, but an index is available on Ancestry and Find My Past Ireland. Roots Ireland also provide searches of a separately conducted index of original registers.

There are 46 Church of Ireland parishes with records, the earliest of which dates back to 1637 in Lisnagarvey. Three parishes have records from the 17th century and eight from the 18th century. Most of these have been indexed by Ulster Historical Foundation and can be searched, for a fee, on-line through Roots Ireland. The originals are mainly at their church of origin.

A full list of Church of Ireland records can be down-loaded from the Representative Church Body (RCB) library website. Finding Presbyterian records is complex as there have been several sub-divisions of the church at various times, and this has resulted in separate administrations. Its various branches are described in Irish Church Records.

There are 68 churches or Kirks and the earliest, Dundonald in Belfast, has records dating from 1678. However, most date from the 19th century. Their major repository is the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and information on these records is available from the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland.

Census Substitutes

The earliest complete set of Antrim Government census returns is for 1901, as most were destroyed in a fire in 1922. However, other local records may provide evidence of an ancestor. These include lists of voters, freeholders, petitioners, taxpayers and others compiled for various reasons. Some provide a specific address and other useful details as to the circumstances or occupation of an ancestor.

Examples, to demonstrate the diversity of sources, include: a 1635 Roll of Freemen, and a 1643 Tax List of Belfast (both in Townbook of Corporation of Belfast); the 1659 ‘Census of Ireland’ (Published by Irish Manuscripts Commission 2002); 1660-69 Hearth Money Rolls for County Antrim (published by PRONI); a 1740 list of householders for 19 parishes (in NLI, PRONI and RCB library); a 1796 list of farmers receiving Spinning Wheels as a reward for planting flax; an 1804 list of residents of Ballymoney (North Irish Roots 2(3) 1989); and a list of Freeholders of Carrickfergus in 1834.

These are just a small sample of the lesser sources from which family information may be obtained.


The classic newspaper records are notices of births, marriages and death. Until relatively recent times these were restricted to prominent members of a community. However, information on many others include appearances in court, local incidents, attendance at meetings, signing of petitions, or donors to local causes. Newspapers also contain advertisements for local businesses. Antrim had some local papers such as the Ballymena Advertiser (from 1867-92); and the Northern Herald (from 1860). However, Antrim events were mainly reported by papers published in Belfast (Belfast Newsletter; 1738-current).

Original copies of these and other papers are available in PRONI, the National Library of Ireland, the British Library and in local libraries, as well as commercial sites such as Newspapers in surrounding counties, particularly Derry, may also be consulted. There are also national papers such as the Irish Times (1859- current); and The Freeman’s Journal (from 1763). Many other Irish newspapers can be searched on the commercial website and on the British Library newspaper archive (

Photo: Greg Montani

Gravestones Inscriptions

Many Antrim gravestone inscriptions have been transcribed and are available on-line from Ulster Historical Foundation through RootsIreland. Others have been published in local journals especially The Glynns. Further inscriptions are becoming available on-line through projects such as Ireland Genealogy Project, From Ireland, and FindAGrave.

Commercial Directories

During the 18th century directories of major towns were published by private companies. These contain listings of tradesmen, professionals, public officials, and sometimes local gentry. The earliest of relevance to Antrim are mainly focussed on Belfast, such as Joseph Smith’s Belfast Directories of 1807 and 1808; and Bradshaw’s General and Commercial Directory of 1819.

Some Antrim towns are included in the following national directories:

  • Pigott’s Commercial Directory of Ireland 1820
  • Pigott’s Hibernian Provincial Directory 1824 which includes traders, merchants and gentry
  • Martin’s Belfast Directory (1842)
  • Henderson’s Belfast and Province of Ulster Directory (1852); and other later directories.

These can be accessed on several websites and in libraries, and some have been made available via popular on-line genealogical research sites.

Estate Papers

Antrim has a good collection of estate papers and rentals, many of which are in public archives, particularly the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI); and the National Library of Ireland. These can be searched through the Sources database which lists items of Irish historical interest in many archives, and is a goldmine of local material. This database lists over 300 references to Antrim estate papers, including the Downshire, Earls of Antrim estates. These include 73 rentals, which are particularly valuable as they list residents occupying properties.

Local and Family Histories

Antrim is particularly well-served with historical societies, many of which publish journals or websites. Among these must be particularly mentioned the Glens of Antrim Historical Society, which has published The Glynns since 1973.

Of genealogical relevance is the North of Ireland Family History Society, which also publishes a journal. Histories of local families have also been published and many contain personal recollections and knowledge of families. These are usually published in local or national journals, as short run books or pamphlets for circulation to family members, or as manuscript copies donated to libraries. Sources for Family and Local History, published by Flyleaf Press, contains an extensive list of these.


Archives and Libraries of particular value for Antrim family history include:

Another major source is the Ulster Historical Foundation, which has indexed and published local material and provides research services. It is affiliated to the Irish Family History Foundation (IFHF), an all-Ireland network of genealogy centres, and their services are accessible through RootsIreland.


–  This article appeared in issue no 112 of Irish Roots magazine. Image credit: Giorgio Galeotti via Wikipedia