“The yard was littered with chunks of masonry and smouldering records; pieces of white paper were gyrating in the upper air like seagulls...” So wrote the eloquent Ernie O’Malley, Republican soldier and hero of the Irish War of Independence in the early 20th century.
Unfortunately, “the seagulls” were precious papers from the Public Record Office of Ireland, a magnificent six-storey Victorian building destroyed in 1922 during the Battle of Dublin, a confrontation between forces that favoured and opposed the British government’s Anglo-Irish Treaty.
That battle, which sparked a civil war in Ireland, would have many lasting consequences for the new state, not least of which was the loss of a sizeable chunk of the new nation’s historical past.
The Public Record Office of Ireland housed seven centuries of documented history – hundreds of thousands of government records dating back to the 13th century that touched on almost every aspect of life in Britain’s Irish dominion.
Census and chancery records, details of grants of land by the crown, thousands of wills and title deeds, the files of various chief secretaries to Ireland and centuries of parish registers were incinerated. It was a calamity for archivists and historians, who were forced to spend the next 100 years having to work around this enormous hole in the official records, hampering the study of Ireland’s past. But not any more.
Historians, archivists and computer scientists are bringing the Public Record Office of Ireland back to life by creating a digital reconstruction of the destroyed building and refilling its shelves with searchable surviving documents and copies of the lost records.
This ambitious project, called Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury, hopes to open its portals by 30 June 2022 – the centenary of the fire. It is the brainchild of Peter Crooks, a historian at Trinity College Dublin, who discovered copies and correspondence relating to the chancery records he was researching in 2011.
If there were copies and duplicates of these records in other archives and libraries, he thought, could there be similar records for other historical periods? With a government grant and other “seed funding", Crooks set about finding out.
Interest grew in his research, boosted by the Irish government’s Decade of Centenaries, a programme that took a fresh look at the decade leading up to the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922. Five institutions are involved in the second phase of the project: the national archives of Ireland and the UK, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), the Irish Manuscripts Commission and the library at Trinity College Dublin.
It is funded by €2.5m from Ireland’s Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. At least 200 volumes of transcripts for digitisation have been identified in archives in Ireland, the UK and the US. A team of 10, including researchers attached to PRONI and the UK’s National Archives in Kew, will delve into archives around the country.
So far, identifying the sources of duplicates has been more successful than had been imagined, says Ciaran Wallace, the deputy director of Beyond 2022.
“It helps that we know something of what was lost, thanks to the work of Herbert Wood, who was then assistant deputy keeper of the Irish record office,” says Wallace. “In 1919, he produced A Guide to the Records Deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland, a 300-page index of the collections and series held in the archives.”
This was augmented by the work of the first deputy keeper of PRONI, which was set up following the partition of Ireland in 1922. David Chart spent 20 years replacing many of the lost records by approaching solicitors, business people, politicians, churches and the landed aristocracy, who provided parish records, wills and the extensive private papers of major aristocratic families such as the Kenmares and the Earl of Leinster.
“The trail was laid back then,” says Stephen Scarth, the head of public services at PRONI. “What we are doing now is bringing it all together.” Together with a 1928 report that tried to point future researchers to the sources of some copies of the lost records, these documents are the foundations of this unique archival quest.
Replacement materials have been identified in clerical copies, facsimiles, printed editions and published calendars, as well as original holdings from across the world. “Because we know what was lost, the task is to find any duplicates and surrogates,” says Scarth.
The history of Britain’s relationship with Ireland is also the history of bureaucracy’s obsession with duplicates and even triplicates of documents stored in different places. “Much of the archive consisted of correspondence from somebody to somebody – so there’s often a duplicate of the original elsewhere,” says Wallace. “Crown patents, for example, usually have a copy in London.”
But it is also the result of generations of historians and archivists lovingly copying such documents over the centuries. Their efforts have turned up as part of private depositions, and reports by genealogists and other institutions, such as courts. For example, the administrative records of the National Archives of Ireland (which survived the fire) show that one day, seven cartloads of records from Armagh Court of Assizes arrived at the back door of the building.
Tracing such leads has enabled researchers to unearth significant caches of material. Other sources can be found in the files of organisations such as the Irish Records Commission, which was set up in the 19th century to transcribe ancient records. Its printed transcripts ended up in the US and other countries.
The Royal Irish Academy, which supports research in Ireland, has 45 volumes of manuscripts. One of the major contributors to the project will be the UK’s National Archives. It holds an extensive collection relating to the governance of Ireland from 1200 onwards, says Neil Johnson, the principal records specialist on Ireland.
“Orders and responses on a vast range of business crossed the Irish Sea because the Exchequer of Ireland was required to account for its time and present receipts for audit at Whitehall,” he says. “In the modern period, correspondence, legal records and notes issued by the crown existed alongside the records of the Irish treasurer.”
As the complexity and scope of the British government in Ireland expanded, so did the administrative and bureaucratic communications. The holdings at the UK’s National Archives include original correspondence, clerical copies of letters and accounts, as well as grants, petitions and commissions of office.
A good example is the letters patent, the standard means of communicating royal business, which contain grants of land and money, appointments to office, pensions, pardons, power of attorney, treaties, proclamations and letters of safe conduct.
“Beyond 2022 has provided the impetus to look again at the collections and to try to unearth poorly catalogued or previously unknown material,” says Johnson. “We have had a considerable amount of goodwill, and lots of colleagues in other libraries and archives are interested. But it takes time to identify everything – it’s a daunting task.”
Another pioneering aspect of the project is the restoration of damaged records, as not everything was destroyed by the fire. Some 272 boxes of material, which were gathered by staff in the aftermath of the blaze, were retrieved and locked away ready for the moment when their singed innards could be restored.
The National Archives of Ireland, with the support of the Irish Manuscripts Commission, sponsored a conservation project to look at these parcels of “salved” material, which had remained hidden for nearly a century.
The survey identified the parcels’ contents and quantified the condition and historical significance of the documents, some of which date back to the 14th and 15th centuries.
Subsequent cleaning, humidification and flattening have stabilised the material, which “was baked rather than burnt”, says Wallace. Thanks to techniques being used for the first time, many of these will be restored and will take their place on the virtual shelves.
By the June 2022 launch date, all of this material will feature on a website offering a virtual-reality reconstruction of the destroyed building, recreated from original architectural plans and photographs. It’s been designed with maximum wow factor, according to Beyond 2022’s computer engineers. Visitors will be able to wander around the spectacular six-storey archive with its arcade of 30-foot-tall windows, expansive glass ceiling and intricate ornamental ironwork.
Browsing the virtual shelves, they will be able to link to substitute or surviving records held by archives and libraries around the world. Using a common online platform, users will have at their fingertips 50 million words of searchable material, ranging from basic descriptions to fully restored records.
“It’s important to us that all this will be free to the end user – accessible at all levels from school pupils to professional researchers,” says Wallace. “We are expecting a major public response akin to that when the 1901 census records were released online. There was huge public enthusiasm. If we get anything like that, we will be happy.”
So, what has the impact of the Covid-19 crisis been on the project? “We have been quite lucky as our project exists mainly in the digital environment,” Wallace says. “In the scoping phase in 2016-19 we had amassed a large volume of materials and many leads for archival detective work, so all this could be worked on remotely. Our computer science team has been developing a complex database, so the many meetings, trials and adjustments for this key task can also go ahead online.”
Wallace says that the project recently recruited two medieval records specialists who are based in London and Dublin. As these records have already been digitised, they were able to immediately begin work on transcribing and translating collection. Two archival discovery postdoctoral fellows also started work recently and have been joining the inevitable Zoom meetings and getting on with scoping work.
“To date, work has progressed quite fast during the lockdown,” Wallace says. “In the ‘new normal’ it may be that online research is even more important as an option, so we see Beyond 2022 contributing to that trend, which was already an established part of most researchers’ lives.”
Patrick Kelly is a freelance journalist