Researchers aim to recreate history lost in 1922 ‘war crime’

New virtual archive aims to reproduce thousands of files destroyed during Civil War

'Beyond 2022 Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury’ is a project which aims to digitally recreate the building and contents of the Public Record Office of Ireland, destroyed by fire at Dublin’s Four Courts in 1922. Video: Trinity College Dublin


On the afternoon of June 30th, 1922, a massive explosion destroyed the Public Records Office attached to Dublin’s Four Courts and with it hundreds of years of documented history.

Both the pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty sides of the Civil War blamed each other, but the end result was the same.

The census records for the whole of the 19th century going back to the first in 1821 were incinerated. Chancery records, detailing British rule in Ireland going back to the 14th century and grants of land by the crown, were also destroyed along with thousands of wills and title deeds.

The records of various chief secretaries to Ireland and centuries of Church of Ireland parish registers vanished in the fire.

The list of documents which were stored in the office’s record treasury departments are contained in a single manuscript which is 300 pages long.

This unpublished book, compiled by the deputy keeper in 1919, has been described as the “most depressing in Irish history” because it chronicles so many priceless documents that were subsequently lost.

Fortunately, this list is proving to be invaluable in recreating this vast archive.

Researchers at Trinity College Dublin will build a 3D computer simulation of the magnificent six floor building which housed the archives.

The reconstruction will be designed from exterior shots and from the few remaining interior shots which depict kilometres of shelves rising up to the roof of the original Victorian building.

The launch of Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury on Thursday marks the beginning of a five-year process. It is hoped that by the time of the centenary of the fire, all the documents destroyed for which copies exist will be available in a virtual archive.

The deputy keeper’s list will provide invaluable help in that regard.

“It lists in minute detail shelf by shelf what was in the building and three years later it was destroyed,” explains Dr Peter Crooks, the principal investigator on the project.

“We are incredibly lucky to have that. Most archives that are lost don’t have that.”

The fate of the Public Records Office shocked Ireland even at a time of wanton destruction of lives and property.

“It was a major national calamity,” Dr Crooks says. “It was an assault on the collective memory of the nation. Nowadays such actions are considered as war crimes, they are that serious a cultural atrocity.”

All is not lost, though, figuratively and literally. Many of the documents were copied – for instance all taxation documents have their counterpart in England – but nobody has yet managed to bring them all together again.

The Beyond 2022 project co-ordinators intend to fill this virtual archive with copies of some of the millions of documents lost in the fire. These archives will be open to the public to browse online.

“Instead of having scattered evidence everywhere, you can bring it back together in one place,” Dr Crooks says.

“If you are in the know across any aspect of Irish history, you will have a fair idea what is the archival evidence. What nobody has tried to do before is to gather all the evidence in one searchable platform.”

He cites the example of some of the documents relating to the Cromwellian settlement of Ireland which were assumed to be lost in the fire. Diligent research by Trinity historian Prof Micheál Ó Siochrú has identified copies of many of these documents.

There are 22,500 handwritten transcripts of government orders from the Cromwellian era. Considered lost for 100 years, these 17th-century records can be reconstructed as the result of a major collaborative effort by institutions in the Republic, the UK and the US.

“He [Ó Siochrú] is having extraordinary success in reconstructing those. He thinks he can get to 100 per cent recovery of the actual documents,” says Dr Crooks.

“In certain cases there are certain volumes we can get back to 100 per cent. We can’t do so in the case of every volume.

“There are certain classes of material, we call them gold seams of material, where the range and depth of the substitute sources are so rich that you can get back the entire series of documents.”

The project is a collaboration with Trinity’s four archival partners: The National Archives of Ireland, The National Archives (UK), the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and The Irish Manuscripts Commission. The project is funded by the Irish Research Council.

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