Pathways to Ulster’s Past: Sources and Resources for Local Studies Peter Collins (Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s, £6.50) ISBN 0853896933

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 1999), Reviews, Volume 7

If you are exploring the labyrinthine pathways to Ulster’s past, you are likely to welcome the appearance of this guide by Peter Collins. It is a great boon to have the mysteries of the myriad records, and those of the archives, museums and libraries in which they repose, so comprehensively elucidated within the covers of one paperback book. An added bonus is that your guide has been so attractively produced and competitively priced by the Institute of Irish Studies. It deserves to be well used by the ever-growing number of local historians—of all ages and levels of expertise.
Pathways to Ulster’s Past adds to a remarkable efflorescence of books for and by local historians in Ireland over the last two years, and Collins refers to some of them is his ‘further reading’. The spectacular Atlas of the Rural Irish Landscape, edited by Aalen, Whelan and Stout (Cork University Press) appeared in 1997. It was followed in 1998 by: Sources for Studying the Irish Town, edited by Nolan and Simms (Geography Publications); Doing Irish Local History: Pursuit and Practice, edited by Gillespie and Hill (Institute of Irish Studies, Queens); and Townlands in Ulster: Local History Studies, edited by Crawford and Foy (Federation of Ulster Local Studies and Ulster Historical Foundation). To Townlands in Ulster especially might be added Irish Townlands, edited by Ó Dálaigh, Cronin and Connell (Four Courts Press) which appeared earlier in 1998. Both provide model studies to entice many more explorers down the pathways of Irish local history. Complementing them are Sources for Studying the Irish Town and Doing Irish Local History, which both provide training materials, and more inspiration, for explorers to do their own rural and urban townland studies.  Now, added to these exemplars and guidance on good practice, we have this user-friendly compendium, focused on the nine counties of Ulster.
The structure is sensible and leads the reader to a commanding overview of the sources and the resources which hold them. As the preface explains, Chapter 1 attempts to define briefly the scope of local history and the units of administration which the local historian in Ireland needs to know. Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5 examine the records or sources from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. In Chapter 6 the records are then examined in a generic sense; religious, business, educational, photographic, etc.. Archives and record offices are covered in Chapter 7; museums in Chapter 8; and finally libraries are looked at in Chapter 9. These last three are considered under the categories of accessibility to the public and their main holdings and collections. Collins acknowledges that he has relied heavily on information furnished by the professional staff of all the record repositories, including guides and lists usually written by the staff. He has replicated this information within the book, although he warns that what he has listed is not exhaustive and is only what he believes will be most useful to his readers. His aim is not to explain to them how to go about the practice of local history but rather to show where they should go to obtain the raw material.
Because of the heavy reliance on the information supplied by them, archivists, museum curators and librarians will largely be pleased at what they find here about their own institutions. There is no attempt at an Egon Ronay type of grading. This reviewer was certainly happy to find in Chapter 6 in the section on emigration records good mention of the Irish Emigration Database at the Ulster American Folk Park, and of the Centre for Migration Studies Research Library in Chapter 8. Some of the information, inevitably perhaps, is already dated: for example, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) Guide to County Tyrone Sources, referred to as forthcoming, was published in two volumes in 1997; and the General Register Office of Ireland, formerly based in Dublin, is now operating on a split site, between Dublin and Roscommon, and will relocate shortly to Roscommon. While the excellent and rapidly developing PRONI web site (http://ww certainly deserves the attention it receives, it is unfortunate that references are not given to other Internet resources such as those of the National Archives of Ireland (http: // Given the importance of census records, it would have been helpful to mention the Irish Historical Statistics Database, developed and maintained by the Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis at Queen’s University (http://www.qub. Maybe further cross-referencing of this kind is something for the Guide to Local History Sources in PRONI referred to by Collins, which is currently in preparation by Jonathan Bardon.
The text is enlivened by reference to illustrative examples of records, including occasional quotations such as the comment by the Chairman of the Belfast Guardians in 1929 about what she regarded as the over-large families of the poor: ‘There is no poverty under the blankets!’. There are enlightening snippets of information for the uninitiated such as the explanation that ‘cess’ is simply an abbreviation for ‘assessment’—something not revealed by the relevant entry in the Oxford Companion to Irish History (also published in 1998). Guidance is less sure, however, on the difficult task of clarifying the origin and development of townlands and other administrative divisions in Ireland. For example, the difficulty of knowing the total number of townlands in Ireland is not made clear: we are told (p.2) that ‘the 1901 census showed 60,462’, but later (p.36) that ‘there were c. 65,000 townlands in Ireland in 1901’.
Pathways to Ulster’s Past is particularly strong in its recommendation of comparative local studies and the usefulness of particular sources for them. Collins points out that the records of different Poor Law Unions provide excellent materials for comparative area studies and that changes in valuation records were made in ways that allow longitudinal studies. Ordnance Survey maps he discusses well, together with their potential for studies on patterns of development in many topics such as transport, industry, agriculture, field and natural boundaries, mineral resource sites and industrial archaeology.
These are the kind of local studies whose method is so well set out, explained and exemplified in Sources for Studying the Irish Town, Doing Irish Local History, Irish Townlands and Townlands in Ulster. Now that we also have this concise map and overview of the labyrinth of our sources and resources, local studies in Ireland are well provided for going into the new millennium. The scene is set, not least in Ulster, for much more fruitful exploration by the whole community of the pathways to its past.

Brian K. Lambkin


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