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…

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.

How many potential MAs, PhDs, articles and books went up in smoke that day along with the records? How many Irish citizens and people of Irish descent abroad were denied access to crucial information about their ancestors? And what damage was done to the burgeoning project of writing Irish history based on evidential primary sources?

We’ll never know. But we should not forget that we began our existence as an independent State with the abolition of a priceless national cultural resource, and we did it to ourselves. Winston Churchill wrote to Michael Collins on hearing of the destruction: “The archives of the Four Courts may be scattered, but the title deeds of Ireland are safe.” It would be nice to have both.

But the story is not totally depressing. Many records escaped destruction, some, like those of the Chief Secretary’s Office, because they had not been transferred to the Public Record Office in time to be burned, due to bureaucratic inertia. These, dating from 1796 to 1922, form the most important archive relating to 19th century Ireland anywhere in the world.

The 1901 and 1911 census records survived in the Registrar General’s Office. The records of the Quit Rent Office, dealing with land revenues due to the crown, the Valuation Office, the Office of Public Works, and the Commissioners of National Education, dealing with the administration of the primary education system from 1831 on, all survived, and in due course were transferred to the newly rebuilt Public Record Office.

And the rebuilding itself was a kind of miracle: a newly independent State, in the aftermath of a vicious civil war, with very little money, still believed it necessary to restore its national archives; there was no question of abandoning the project, despite the terrible destruction wrought by explosion and fire.

When you read the words of the SC Ratcliff, a member of staff, in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, you can see the enormity of the task: “What remains of the building is a mere ruinous shell. The roof, which was partly glass, and partly slates, has fallen in, the coping of the whole of the east side has fallen, and there is a fissure several feet wide extending from the top to the ground floor level.

“The floor of the repository is piled 10 to 20 feet high with twisted ironwork and debris and entry is impossible . . . In the vaults were deed boxes on iron racks. The racks were evidently softened by the great heat, and the weight of the boxes has bent them and drawn them forward; the lids of the boxes have fallen in, and the contents have been reduced in every case to a little white ash.”

Despite this daunting task, the Public Record Office was open for business again by 1928, and herculean efforts were made by the staff to find replacements for records that had been destroyed.

It is ironic that such a massive rebuilding effort could have taken place at a time when our newly independent State had no resources, while the National Archives is now in the middle of a major space crisis after many years when all other national cultural institutions got either new buildings or major additions to their existing accommodation.

The National Archives is now a modern, innovative organisation, albeit seriously understaffed and critically short of space. There is landmark legislation which defines our responsibilities and rights, and which has led to huge transfers of records over the last 20 years, and a consequent flowering of 20th century Irish history. We owe a great debt to our predecessors who undertook to rebuild a national cultural institution from the ashes, and to the government of the time, who respected its importance, independence and crucial role in the scholarly and democratic life of the country.

Caitríona Crowe is head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland