Irish Roots

April 25th, 2011

John Grenham


Before we get too enmired in self-flagellation, let us praise at least one aspect of the Celtic Tiger. Ten years ago, apart from Dublin and Cork cities, almost no local authority archives existed. Since then, such services have mushroomed. Under Section 80 of the Local Government Act, 2001, each local authority acquired a statutory duty to conserve local records and archives and make them available to the public. Different approaches to this obligation have emerged around the country. In some cases, dedicated archives have been set up, complete with purpose-built premises, ever-expanding websites and full-time professional archivists. In others, the manuscript and record-collection roles of the county library have simply been beefed up. But all over the country the attitude to local record-keeping has undergone a sea-change for the better.

The best institutions have begun the work of making original records available online - Limerick city archives is a shining example - and everywhere detailed descriptive lists and guides to the records are becoming available. One example: local workhouse records, one of the very few sources of information on the vast army of the destitute in the 19th century, have been virtually impossible to track down for years. Now, most counties have listings of exactly what has survived, whether there are admission and discharge registers or records of "indoor relief", and precisely what years they cover. The best guide to individual bodies is on the links page of the National Archives, tinyurl.ie/4u4.

Of course, the question now is "what happens next?". There is real fear that cuts in local authority spending will result in the loss of some or all of these archive services. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that they mark time. In any case, one thing made absolutely clear over the past few years is that local archives are not a luxury.


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