And now with the growth of the Internet, a profusion of books and the success of TV series such as the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? genealogy has taken root as a major hobby.
It has also spawned a wave of professional genealogists who, for a fee, will do the research for you and help you piece together a complex family jigsaw.
With mountains of on-line and hard copy archives to dissect, it's tempting to go down this path. However, with a bit of planning, and a good list of contacts, taking on the project yourself should be a fun and rewarding journey into the bowels of your past.
Many local organisations can offer advice and provide excellent sources of information to the novice genealogist. But, before you land on their doorstep demanding to know when great grandad Bert married his third wife, try and make sure you're armed with as much information as possible.
Full names, dates and places of births, deaths & marriages are all excellent starting points. Talking to older relatives is particularly invaluable; grandparents' memories are screaming to be tapped so click on the dictaphone, sit back and hear those stories flow.
Belfast City Council has put together a very useful online guide... click here to read more. You could also write to a local newspaper, such as the Belfast Telegraph, Newsletter or Irish News, and ask readers if they know anything about your ancestors. NI is a small place, so your chances of hitting paydirt are good.
Next, go on-line and search through the world's largest database of individual files - the Mormon Church of the Latter Day Saints' International Genealogical Index (IGI).
The IGI holds over 600million files making it the world's largest database of human records. It's an incredible archive and a great starting point for family tree fanatics.
Though based in Salt Lake City, the archive is accessible at locations throughout the world including:
The Belfast Family History Centre, 403 Holywood Rd, tel. 9076 9839. Open Wed-Thur 10:00-16:00, Sat 09:00-13:00.
The Centre provides free access to the IGI and, for a small fee, can order up a hard copy of any file in the IGI system. It also holds many other Irish records, most importantly the official Irish Index for the registration of births, deaths and marriages from 1864-1958.Other organisations of note are:
The Public Record Office for Northern Ireland, 66 Balmoral Ave, tel. 9025 5905. Open Mon - Wed, Fri 09:00-16:45, Thurs 10:00-20:45.
As the major holder of archives in Northern Ireland, PRONI is another excellent, free source of historical information. Its unrivalled collections of public and private records lure ancestry and history buffs from around the world. A great starting point is their website's excellent section on How To Trace Your Family Tree. First-time visitors to PRONI must show some form of ID. No appointment is needed, research is free and staff can help you navigate the 54km of archives.The Ulster Historical Foundation, 12 College Square East, tel. 9033 2288. Open Mon - Fri 09:00-17:30.
The UHF has an on-line database of over 500,000 records and can provide professional genealogical searches and more in-depth services for a fee. An annual membership of £30 gives you greater access to all records, free initial advice and various discounts. You can also access the on-line database from £6 for a 24-hour period, but a full family history report will cost considerably more, depending on how far you want to go. The city centre building is easy to find, on the corner of Great Victoria St and Wellington Place, a short walk from the Grand Opera House.
The Foundation's sister site - www.historyfromheadstones.com - has archived over 60,000 inscriptions from graveyards across Northern Ireland. These fascinating historical records are a great way to get up close and personal with your descendants and provide palpable evidence of your Irish roots. Again, a basic name basic search is free but you need to pay a viewing fee of £4 per record.
The Society of Genealogists of Northern Ireland (SGNI) is a group of commercial NI genealogists offering a professional service and working within SGNI's code of practice. Some members have expertise in a particular field that suits your study.
Good luck with your search - but be warned. Tracing your roots can become an addictive and never-ending pursuit...