When the Taoiseach reached for a heavily charred document dating back to Henry VIII's time, the archivist charged with explaining the document's importance almost slapped his hand away.
Wearing a pair of purple latex gloves, she offered to pick it up for him. Instead Leo Varadkar opted to gaze at the fragment, rescued from the Four Courts after it was shelled and burned by Free State forces in 1922 during the Civil War, through a magnifying glass as Zoe Reid, the senior conservator at the National Archives, kept a close eye on him.
Standing beside the Taoiseach was Minister for Culture and Heritage Josepha Madigan, who looked at lottery tickets dating back to 1790. She marvelled at the clarity of the numbers and asked what Lotto jackpots would have been back then, but was told that information has been lost in the mists of time.
The Taoiseach and the Minister were in Dublin Castle for an event related to a huge trove of information which was previously presumed lost in the fog of war, but has now been recovered as part of the Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury research project.
The event was to launch the second phase of the research project, and the Taoiseach and the Minister brought with them news of a €2.5 million grant.
The project aims to retrieve documents from the Public Record Office of Ireland destroyed in the Civil War fire through a combination of enhanced scanning facilities, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and copies of the material found in other archives in Ireland, the UK, the US and France.
By June 30th, 2022, the centenary of the fire, the team behind the project hopes to have recreated – virtually – as much of the office’s archive as possible in a digital format accessible to everybody.
The project's co-lead was Trinity College computer scientist Prof Séamus Lawless, who died while on an expedition to climb Mount Everest earlier this year, and tributes were paid to him and to his academic legacy at Thursday's launch event.
Prof Lawless's wife, children and parents were present at the event and heard from Mr Varadkar and the project's other co-lead, historian Dr Peter Crooks, details of the pivotal and enduring role Prof Lawless had played in making the project a reality.
Hundreds of volumes
All told more than 200 volumes of transcripts, scattered between archives in the US, the UK and on the island of Ireland, that were suitable for enhanced digitisation were identified.
The handwritten records contain more than 25 million words from documents destroyed in 1922 and will help to create a “fully immersive, three-dimensional, virtual reality model of the digitally reconstructed Public Record Office of Ireland”, according to a Government statement.
The Taoiseach said the enterprise would restore “a significant missing chapter in our history, which was believed to be irretrievably lost”, and that the “recreation of seven centuries of historical, genealogical and administrative records [will] enable a new understanding of Ireland’s shared past”.
Ms Madigan said that “anyone with an interest in history, on the island of Ireland and around the globe, will be able to engage with the past in a completely new and exciting way that is personal and meaningful”.
Dr Crooks described the Four Courts blaze as “a national tragedy” but added that “all is not lost. Beyond 2022 combines virtual reality and big data to recover from the losses of 1922 to a greater extent than ever previously imagined. The scale of copies and duplicates we have identified in other archives is astounding . . . And this is only the beginning.”