Harland & Wolff shipyard
Was your ancestor a farmer? A city mill worker? Or maybe a fisherman?
If you are looking for clues to your family’s genealogy and past occupations, there are many opportunities to explore the traditional industries that once underpinned Northern Irish society.
The times your Northern Ireland ancestor lived through and the way their occupation influenced them may still be written in the landscapes, architecture and industrial heritage of today.
Government support for the linen industry led to its growth throughout the seventeenth century and its expansion was used to attract new settlers to Northern Ireland from England and Scotland.
In 1850, a third of the flax spinning mills, producing over half of the linen output for all of Ireland, were located in the Belfast area. By 1852, the number of linen mills in Belfast numbered 28 and by the end of the nineteenth century Belfast was the linen capital of the world.
Outside the city, the industry was concentrated in the region between the River Lagan and River Bann. As the fame and reputation of Irish linen flourished, this area of Northern Ireland became known as the Linen Homelands.
Most linen workers lived within walking distance of the mills, often in houses built by the mill and factory owners. The names of streets and roads in many Northern Irish towns still reflect the linen legacy: Linen Hall Street, Weavers Row, Mill Street. The linen industry declined in the twentieth century with the introduction of cotton and synthetic fibres, but the impressive red brick mills still leave their mark on the landscape of Northern Ireland and many are still in use today for other endeavours.
Lives in linen
Explore Conway Mill in west Belfast, which houses a linen museum, as well as gallery space for exhibitions. The Owen O’Cork Mill in east Belfast is home to Bloomfield Auction House, a great spot for bargain hunters, and Mossley Mill in the outskirts of the city houses a theatre and museum.
Other linen experiences include free guided tours at the Irish Linen Centre in Lisburn, which houses a major exhibition on the industry, including an interactive gallery with hands-on participation in the linen manufacturing processes. Or try a factory tour of one of the oldest names in Irish linen, Ferguson’s of Banbridge, famed for being the only company in the world to produce double damask.
At the Wellbrook Beetling Mill in Cookstown, in the care of the National Trust, there is a working water-powered linen beetling mill, offering a unique experience for all the family. Beetling was the last stage in the manufacturing of linen.
Shipbuilding and industrial engineering
Belfast is famous for its shipbuilding and maritime heritage. At its height, the city had one of the biggest shipyards in the world, and of course it is the birthplace of the Titanic, the most famous ship on the planet.
The launch of Titanic in April 1912 was the crowning achievement of a remarkable era of shipbuilding and industrial engineering in the city. It was the largest man-made object ever to have taken to the seas.
The legendary Harland & Wolff shipyard was founded in 1862 and many a Belfast man worked there on some of the biggest and best Olympic class ocean liners, aircraft carriers and cruisers of the early twentieth century.
There were welders, riveters, platers, plumbers, painters, carpenters, designers and naval architects. Those were the days when the ‘Belfast symphony’ – the pulsating rhythm of the shipyard riveters’ hammers – rang out across the city as a token of employment and prosperity.
Associated with the shipbuilding and textile industries was the clang of cast-iron, the hiss of steam and the fiery blast of a furnace. No city in the world produced more ships or linen, more ropes, tobacco or tea than Belfast in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The famous Sirocco Works was at one time the largest rope manufacturer in the world, while James Mackie & Son employed thousands of local men and women as a world-leading engineering firm.
You can explore the city of industrial engineering workers, innovators and shipyard men, by foot, bus, car, boat or even bike. Take a guided or self-guided tour and delve in to uncover the stories and landmarks that your ancestor may have been associated with.
The iconic Titanic Belfast celebrates the mighty ship, the amazing workers who built her and the social, historical, industrial and maritime heritage of the city. A must-see on any visit to Belfast.
SS Nomadic was built alongside the Titanic and is the last White Star vessel anywhere in the world. This unique tender ship was used in Cherbourg to bring passengers out to RMS Titanic. It is positioned right beside Titanic Belfast.
Although not officially classed as wonders of the world, Samson and Goliath, look like one. The two massive Harland & Wolff shipyard cranes, which serve one of the world’s largest building docks, are certainly masterpieces of engineering.
HMS Caroline, a World War I light battle cruiser, is the last surviving ship from the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Extensively restored as a floating museum, the ship is berthed in Belfast's Titanic Quarter.
For anyone with a family ancestry rooted in the Northern Irish countryside it is more than likely they were engaged in the toil of the land in some form or other.
Before the onset of the agricultural revolution, it was common for families to keep a few animals and to grow sufficient food for their own requirements. Most people lived in simple thatched cottages with one or two rooms. Life was tough among these rural communities. Living on small farms demanded hard work and plenty of endurance. Money was short, emigration a constant factor.
If you have ever wondered about how your relatives lived, come to your ancestral homeland and do some exploring. The farming life of old is reflected in some excellent museums in Northern Ireland that can offer insights into times past and the tight-knit nature of farming communities.
At the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum you can step back in time and experience the living history of daily life on the farms of 100 years ago. Explore thatched cottages, farms, schools and shops all set in beautiful parkland. Experience tasks your ancestor may have had to do, everything from country cooking to butter making, sheep shearing, spinning and horse grooming.
As a contrast to the life of the poorer cottiers or farm labourers of Ireland, try Ardress House in the apple county of Armagh. Originally a modest farmhouse, it has been expanded over the years and now has a comprehensive range of farm buildings, including a dairy, smithy, tool shed and threshing barn, all fully equipped with tools used in the 18th century.
The spade, a pervasive part of farming life, is celebrated at Patterson’s Spade Mill in Templepatrick. Here you can see history literally forged in steel at the last water-driven spade mill in daily use in Ireland or Britain.
Northern Ireland had a position of rare advantage in the fertile fishing grounds of the North Atlantic. All around the coast, there were opportunities for fishing pursuits, including land-based operations for crabs and lobsters, land and sea fisheries for shellfish, and open sea fishing for migratory species such as herring and mackerel.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries herring fishing was a key sector of the economy and during this period Ardglass in County Down rose to prominence as a fishing station, a reputation it still maintains today. In the North West salmon fishing in Lough Foyle was common, as was herring fishing on a smaller scale.
For every one job in the boats, there were perhaps four back on land. The baiting of lines and net repairing were normally done by members of the fishermen's families and the catch was processed by women known as gutting girls. Fishing also drove the curing industry, which became established when Scottish curers followed the richness of the herring harvest to Ireland.
Explore this fishing heritage and ancestry in places such as Annalong, Portavogie and Kilkeel, where the Nautilus Centre overlooks the busy and picturesque harbour. The centre houses the Mourne Maritime Visitor Centre, which charts the history of the local harbour and the development of fishing and maritime links through the years. Its Families at Sea Exhibition is a great way to trace your relatives, with the fishing and maritime histories and photographs of over 20 local families on display.
Cockle Row Cottages, in the quaint seaside village of Groomsport, is another spot with a range of heritage information as well as a small gift shop full of local crafts and pottery.