Ruin of Public Record Office marked loss of great archive
ANALYSIS:NINETY YEARS ago today, on June 30th, 1922, the biggest explosion seen in Dublin before or since took place at the Four Courts. Mines exploded in the basement of the Public Record Office, which was at the western end of the Four Courts complex, and the records of the Irish administration from the 13th to the 19th century were almost totally destroyed.
Anti-treaty forces had occupied the Four Courts complex in April 1922, and had made the Public Record Office their munitions block, where they stored mines and ammunition.
They were asked, in person and in writing, on three occasions, to remember that the history of the country was in their safekeeping, but they did not seek another location for their munitions. When the Free State army began to shell the Four Courts in late June, it was inevitable that calamity would follow.
Ernie O’Malley, IRA director of organisation, a member of the Four Courts garrison, and later a talented author, wrote of the event in The Singing Flame: “A thick black cloud floated up about the buildings and drifted away slowly. Fluttering up and down against the black mass were leaves of white paper; they looked like hovering white birds.”
Further on, he describes “pieces of white paper gyrating in the upper air like seagulls”. These avian observations are followed by a poetic tribute to the fire causing these effects: “Fire was fascinating to watch; it had a spell like running water. Flame sang and conducted its own orchestra simultaneously.”
What were these birdlike fragments floating in the air over the Four Courts, some to descend to the ground as far away as Howth? Among them were the census records of 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851, an entire demographic record of pre-Famine Ireland. Anyone who has visited the poignant deserted village on Achill Island, where you can walk the pathways of a once teeming human settlement depopulated by the Great Famine, can lament the loss of their names and family structures.
The silence that fills the place is deepened by the tragic lack of once-existing rich information about its inhabitants. The millions in Ireland and abroad who have used and enjoyed the 1901 and 1911 census online would be very glad to have these records, particularly the very large number whose ancestors left the country before and during the Famine.
Heartbreakingly but usefully, we have an almost complete account of what was in the Public Record Office before its destruction: Herbert Wood, assistant deputy keeper at the record office, published his guide to the records deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1919. So we can see that the Public Record Office, established in 1867 after numerous attempts to create a repository for Irish official records, contained, three years before its destruction: ecclesiastical records, like the Christ Church deeds dating back to 1174; court records dating back to the 13th century, which gave details of criminal and civil cases, as well as the financial and legislative affairs of the country; military records giving details of local yeomanry from the 18th century; transportation records for the same period often containing petitions from prisoners pleading for clemency; masses of records dealing with the huge land transfers of the 17th century; Church of Ireland parish records dating back to the 17th century; and many wills dating back to the 16th century. These are just samples.