People sometimes comment on the fact that we are called ‘The National Archives’ and not ‘The National Archives of…’ If you look at the Who we are page of our website you will see that ‘The National Archives is the official archive and publisher for the UK government, and for England and Wales.’ Or, to put it another way, some of our records cover only England and Wales, and some cover the whole of the United Kingdom. So far, so good, but then you have to remember that the United Kingdom has changed over time; it came into existence until 1707, with the Union of the English and Scottish parliaments, to which Ireland was added in 1801. Most of Ireland gained its independence under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, and forms of devolved government were established in Scotland and Wales in 1999 with the re-introduction of a Scottish Parliament and the new Welsh Assembly.
For a student of history this is interesting – I was interested enough to take a course called ‘Territory and Power in the UK’ in my final year at university – but it’s also important for a genealogist to know about the history of the United Kingdom and its constituent parts. Two of those constituent parts, Scotland and Northern Ireland, also have their own national archive bodies, the National Records of Scotland (NRS) and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI); Wales has been entirely under the control of England and its legal system since 1282 and does not have a national archive, but it does have the National Library of Wales.
If you have English ancestry you need to work out which records are held locally in county record offices, and which records are here in The National Archives, but if you are researching Welsh, Scottish or Irish families you might also need to work out which national repository you need to consult. People researching their Irish ancestry are often particularly surprised to discover just how many Irish records we hold here, and yet The National Archives rarely features in lists of major resources or websites for Irish research.
The Irish Diaspora is particularly large, since Ireland once had a large population but which dropped dramatically from the 1840s onwards, mostly due to emigration. In 1841 there were 8.2 million people in Ireland, compared to England’s 15.9 million, but by 1911 this had fallen to 4.4 million while England’s population had more than doubled to 36.1 million. As a result, there are far more people outside Ireland with Irish ancestry than there are in Ireland. They may not be aware, at least to start with, that Ireland was part of the UK during the time period they are researching. I have no such excuse, having lived in the UK all my life, but I didn’t realise just how much we had until I started gathering material for a talk on Irish records in The National Archives, which I first delivered about 8 years ago.