Importance of proper archival catalogue of 19th century papers cannot be overstated
Records from early 19th century prove there is nothing new under the sun
Irish archives have been in the news lately. Two important new websites have been launched in the last two weeks, both of them deploying images of primary source material, both of them free to access. The first is the innovative Century Ireland (rte.ie/centuryireland), a fortnightly online “newspaper” that will take us through the decade of centenaries with contemporary news reports and documents, video footage, photographs and contextual essays and interviews. By 2023, this will be an unparalleled resource for important archives relating to the period.
The second is the beautiful and fabulously informative Down Survey site (downsurvey.tcd.ie), gathering together for the first time most of the maps and associated material dealing with Ireland in the mid- to late-17th century, when sweeping changes in land ownership, overwhelmingly from Catholic to Protestant, changed the country in a relatively short space of time. At the launch in Trinity College Dublin this week, there was palpable emotion in the room as we looked at stark visual representations of massive dispossession, but also marvelled at the topographical and graphic skills of the mapmakers.
There is another, smaller, but significant website available, free to access, at csorp.nationalarchives.ie. This is a detailed catalogue of the first five years of the Chief Secretary’s Office registered papers, a hugely important collection covering 1818 to 1922.
It is the single most comprehensive archival collection relating to 19th and early 20th century Ireland anywhere in the world.
The chief secretary, although technically subordinate to the lord lieutenant, was the most powerful administrative and political figure in Ireland at the time. His office oversaw every aspect of the administration of the country, such as appointments to jobs; hospitals and asylums; the judicial, penal and transportation systems; public infrastructure; fisheries; trade and manufacture; trade unions; famines; emigration; political disaffection; and Catholic emancipation.
The modern equivalent would be a person comprising the secretaries general of the Departments of the Taoiseach, Finance, Justice, Health, Environment and Education, with a dose of political clout thrown in for good measure. Some might think this a frightening prospect.
The papers were supposed to have been transferred to the public record office in the Four Courts in time to be burned in 1922, but due to bureaucratic inertia, they remained in Dublin Castle and thus survived. But they are incredibly difficult to use, first, because the finding aids – the archivist’s term for lists, catalogues, calendars, indexes and databases of archives – are contemporary, sparse, and subject to changing administrative systems; second, because those for the period 1853-1922 are gigantic bound volumes that require vigorous strength on the part of those who use them; third, because you may find after a painstaking search through many of them that the item you seek is not there.
The size of this collection is such that a sparsely resourced National Archives could not contemplate giving it the attention it deserves, until a generous bequest from Francis Crowley, professor of French at the University of California, who left the bulk of his estate to be used for the preservation of records of the history of the Irish people, made a start possible.
The first five years have revealed hitherto inaccessible, wonderfully interesting material, which can now be found through the excellent online catalogue for the first time.
For example, just to prove that there is nothing new under the sun, there is an extensive file on the collapse of Leslie’s bank in Cork in 1821, and requests for government aid to restore it. The file contains 70 pages.
The original catalogue entry was one line, and gave no hint of the complexity and abundance of the documentation. The importance of a proper archival catalogue, revealing the extent and meaning of these crucial documents for the first time, cannot be overstated.
The site contains a small selection of images from the records, including a threat from “Captain Rock” in Mallow, Co Cork, in 1821, to cut off and nail to the church door the ears of the local clergyman for daring to remove a previous Rockite notice outlining dire consequences for those collecting tithes and rents.
There is a beautiful hand-coloured 1822 map of a proposed road in Killorglin, Co Kerry. There is an account of the destruction in 1819 of two illegal distilleries (and their product) in Gortahork, Co Donegal, and a riot against the police thereafter.
There is an 1818 list of girls apprenticed to service from Celbridge Charter School in Co Kildare, which tells us how they got on in their places of employment. Among the long list of those who “served their time faithfully and are still in their place”, we get a one-word entry for Frances Collins: “Elop’d”. And lots more, on every conceivable subject.
The money for this wonderful project will run out in two years’ time. It is essential that it continues, and that the high standards set by the project archivists continue to be met. We have so much to learn about our 19th century history from this extraordinary collection.
Catriona Crowe is head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland