Retrieval of Irish archive lost in 1922 fire ‘astounding’, historian says

Four Courts fire at start of Civil War destroyed centuries of historic documents

'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

 

An attempt to recreate Ireland’s archives destroyed in a fire in June 1922 has been successful to a “greater extent than ever previously imagined,” the historian behind the project has said.

Two days into the Civil War, a massive explosion destroyed the Public Records Office attached to Dublin’s Four Courts and with it hundreds of years of documented history.

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 and dates back seven centuries.

Duplicates

The Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury research project has sought to retrieve as many of the documents as possible through duplicates in other archives.

It aims by June 30th, 2022, the centenary of the fire, to recreate virtually as much of the archive as possible in a digital format that can be accessible to everybody.

Beyond 2022 director Dr Peter Crooks said the scale of copies and duplicates identified in other archives already is “astounding”.

Five institutions are involved in the project: the National Archives, the UK national archives, the public records office in Northern Ireland, the Irish Manuscripts Collection and the library at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

“We are committed to producing 50 million words of searchable material by 2022 and that is possible with the artificial intelligence we are using,” he said.

“Tens of thousands of papers will be digitised, but they will also be searchable, which is a change. We will be able to mine this information for individual names.”

Three hundred bundles of documents which were retrieved from the fire and locked away for the last century in the National Archives have already been retrieved.

Some of these records date back to the 14th and 15th centuries. They also include a lottery ticket from 1797 issued to raised money for the short-lived Grattan’s parliament.

At least 200 volumes of transcripts for digitisation have been identified in archives in Ireland, the UK and the United States.

These are mostly State papers from the late 13th century up to 1922. “We need to find these manuscripts and connect them together digitally. These records were copied in the early 19th century extensively so it is possible to word search them,” Dr Crooks said.

One of these book is the record of the rolls of chancery going back to the middle ages.

Beyond 2022 has been running for three years and today Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will announce a further €2.5 million for the second phase of the project through the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s Project Ireland 2040 fund.

The second phase will invite the public to become involved in identifying documents which might be in duplicate form – for instance, the Church of Ireland parish records which were destroyed in the fire.

Speaking at Dublin Castle, Mr Varadkar emphasised that the project will be an all-island one and will leave a “permanent, meaningful and imaginative legacy beyond the conclusion of the decade of centenaries”.