The following was written by Robert C Davison, Chairman of the North Down & Ards branch of the North of Ireland Family History Society:
The Irish family history ‘community’ throughout Ireland and beyond, is mourning the loss of Randal Gill, who died in the Ulster Hospital on Sunday afternoon, following a severe stroke on Thursday last. Ironically, Randal was in the grounds of the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum when he collapsed. It was here that he had spent the last 35 years as a Museum Guide and he retired from that position in 2011.
Randal was born on 14th January 1946 and after schooling, worked for Robinson & Cleaver in their Bangor store. His interest in family history began in 1967 when a cousin from Australia came to Northern Ireland, and together, they began to research Randal’s Mother’s family. This led to visits to Limerick for local research and then the old General Register Office in the Custom House, Dublin. However, he was not only interested in Family History but was also involved with the Scouts and the Philatelic Society. He was on the committee of the Ulster Folklife Society and was assistant secretary for many years.
In 1976, Randal commenced working for the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum and utilised his extensive local and historical knowledge to good effect and for the benefit of the visitors. In April of 1979 he attended a well-supported W.E.A. (Workers Educational Association) class on ‘Family History’ at Bangor Technical College, Co. Down. On completion of the course in the September of that year, the 48 members decided to form a ‘Family History Society’ locally based in Bangor. Randal was involved in the organisation to set this up and became the first Treasurer. The Society was so successful that some of the original members broke away to form branches in Lisburn, Co. Antrim and in Belfast City. This led to the formation of the ‘North of Ireland Family History Society’ (NIFHS) as an ‘umbrella organisation’ for family history in Northern Ireland. NIFHS joined the Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS) based in the UK and Randal was involved with the set up of a Society Journal, which came out in Spring 1984 as North Irish Roots. He has been on the Editorial Committee ever since and the Journal continues to appear twice a year!
He became Chairman and Librarian of the Bangor branch of NIFHS in the 1980’s, when it had a small office in the Bangor Heritage Centre. His enthusiasm and expertise in accumulating written material eventually led to him being appointed as Society Librarian when they moved into their first premises in the old Somme Hospital in Belfast. By this time, the Society had expanded to 10 branches and he had also been appointed President of NIFHS, a position he held (along with all the other responsibilities) until 1992. After a break from the Presidential office, he was re-elected President again in 2002 and would have completed his tenth year in post in May 2012.
Randal was a founder member of the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations (CIGO) and was a regular attendee at their meetings in Dublin, as one of the NIFHS representatives. Whilst employed at the Museum, he must have helped thousands of visitors to start off their searches for their Irish ancestors. With his encyclopaedic knowledge of families and locations, he could quickly engage with Museum visitors at the mention of a name! Over the past 20 years, and following the growth of interest in family history research, Randal has worked tirelessly to promote NIFHS and all aspects of Irish research. He has attended events and seminars in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Republic of Ireland and England, too numerous to mention. He regularly lectured to Society branches and other interested bodies. He was constantly searching out suitable material for the Society Library and thought nothing of hopping on a bus to Donegal to visit the local bookshop there. During the ‘NIFHS season’ (usually October to April each year), Randal tried to attend every branch meeting throughout Northern Ireland. It helped him keep in touch with the members but he also took along items for sale from his ‘bookshop’ which generated a considerable amount of money for the Society. These visits were usually made on public transport as he didn’t own a car!
On top of all this, he had spent over 45 years researching the GILL family and had details of 2,300 family members. He was always pleased to share his research with other members of the extended Gill family, no matter where they were in the world, nor how distantly related to him!
Although he was not the sort of person to produce academic papers on genealogy and related topics, Randal’s knowledge of his subject meant that he could instantly engage with fellow researchers or lay people, no matter how little or how much experience they had. He could conjure up a talk on research or on various aspects of family history to Societies at the drop of a hat (or so it seemed!). Many’s the time he has ‘filled in’ at an NIFHS branch meeting when a guest speaker has had to drop out at short notice.
He was invariably the first point of contact for NIFHS members or other visitors who wished to use the Society’s Library, and nothing was too much trouble in this regard, even though he was constantly balancing his work commitments with those of NIFHS.
In February of this year he was at the Who Do You Think You Are – Live family history event at Olympia, London, along with other NIFHS members. They were helping to promote research in Northern Ireland and to encourage membership of the Society, which is an entirely voluntary organisation. In recognition of the contribution that Randal had made to Irish family history research, he was recently awarded a Fellowship by the Irish Genealogical Research Society (IGRS) which he had joined in 1982. IGRS is the oldest established Irish ‘family history society’ and the Fellowship is a prestigious award. Sadly, Randal was due to collect his Fellowship Certificate at a presentation at an IGRS event in London in May.
NIFHS has lost one of its ‘founding fathers’, and his immediate friends and colleagues in the Bangor and North Down area have lost a good friend. Randal is survived by his brother Adrian and sister Deidre. We will miss him and his good and generous nature, and his capacity for extracting excruciatingly humorous puns from any and every situation!! The world of Irish family history is now the poorer for the passing of Randal Gill.
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