Recovering history: Virtual Treasury of Ireland rescues millions of documents

The Public Records Office was destroyed by a fire 100 years ago at the start of the Civil War

Trinity College Dublin archivist Dr Peter Crooks remembers the date at which he first suggested that his profession should seek to retrieve, as far as possible, the records that were lost in the catastrophic fire at the Four Courts a century ago. It was September 1st, 2015, his daughter’s birthday.

The Public Records Office was destroyed 93 years previously during the fighting between pro and anti-Treaty forces which started the Irish Civil War.

At approximately 11.30am on June 30th, 1922, the Public Records Office went up in a huge explosion that sent a dark plume of smoke hundreds of metres into the air. The shock of the blast disturbed the ducks in St Stephen’s Green.

Ernie O’Malley, the anti-Treaty assistant chief of staff and a future chronicler of the conflict, noted 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.”


The pre-famine census records going back to the first in 1821, were incinerated. Chancery records detailing British rule in Ireland going back to the fourteenth 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 for Ireland, centuries of Church of Ireland parish registers, the Christ Church deeds going back to 1174, court records dating to the thirteenth century, military records of local yeomanry and transportation records to the colonies were also lost.

The list of documents that were stored in the office’s record treasury departments are contained in a single 300-page manuscript, which fortunately survived the fire.

This unpublished book, compiled in 1919 by Herbert Wood, the deputy keeper of the Public Records Office, was described as the “most depressing in Irish history” because it chronicles so many priceless documents that were incinerated.

The English, later the British, were nothing if not assiduous colonisers when it came to keeping records. Though some records, most notably the pre-famine censuses, were never copied, millions of documents over the centuries had been. Crown officials were expected to send copies of everything to London.

‘Almost overwhelming’

Dr Crooks initial proposal got a positive response within Trinity. The Irish Research Council came forward with independent funding to carry out a scoping exercise. It was quickly evident that the researchers had been pushing at an open door which had been closed for almost a century.

“The scale we were finding was almost overwhelming. The question is how we prioritised,” he remembered.

On 2019 the Government came on board through the Decade of Centenaries programme. Three years on and seven after it was first proposed, the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland has been unveiled.

The Virtual Treasury is one of the most ambitious archive projects attempted anywhere. It combines historical investigation, archival conservation, and technical innovation to reimagine and recreate, through digital technologies, the archive lost on June 30th, 1922.

Readers will enter through a virtual reality model of the destroyed Record Treasury building. There will be a virtual model of the reference room, the three floor Record Treasury and then to individual shelves.

The scope of what was lost and what has been retrieved is far beyond what Herbert Wood chronicled. He believed there were 5,000 separate records; the number is closer to 25,000, says Dr Crooks.

Thousands of documents have been digitised. This is not unusual, but it is unusual that, using artificial intelligence, these documents can now be searched for further details.

Chancery records, which detail the scale of economic activity during the medieval period, have been translated from the original Latin and are now available in English.

These are known as gold seams which are full-scale reconstructions of entire series of archives that were destroyed in 1922.

Fourteen archivists have been working on the project for the last three years. The UK National Archives in Kew and the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) came on board from the beginning.

The biggest surprise, Dr Crooks says, is the amount of material that has been found in American, Australian and French archives. The Huntington Library in California has a large collection of early modern Irish manuscripts which it has made available to the public covering the years from 1583 to 1751. Among the many potent manuscripts in that collection is the transfer of lands to English settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries.

One of the most exciting developments is the recovery of the majority of the records of the 1766 religious census.

This was Ireland’s first census of population albeit an unofficial one. It was an attempt by the Church of Ireland to determine how large its congregation was and by extension how large the numbers of those belonging to other faiths, most notably the Catholic Church.

The House of Lords sanctioned the survey to determine which “are Protestants and which are Papists, also a list of the several reputed Popish priests and friars residing in their parishes”.

Most of the records from the religious census were burned in the fire.

Comprehensive survey

Speaking at the University College Cork national conference on the Civil War earlier this month, Beyond 2022 deputy director Ciaran Wallace said they had been able to recover more than half of the religious census using sources found elsewhere.

Before the Beyond 2022 project, only about 7 per cent of the returns were available. Thanks to the copies that have been recovered from PRONI and also the Church of Ireland archives in Dublin, that religious census now covers more than half the country.

Mr Wallace stressed that even at the time it did not cover all the country, but about 80 per cent was covered. The records were uneven. Some gave the names and addresses of all people living their parish, others just the religious denomination of inhabitants.

Nevertheless it constitutes the most comprehensive survey of Ireland carried out before the Famine, especially given the priceless loss of the official pre-Famine censuses.

“It gives you a sense of social relations in an area. In some cases the ministers wrote little comments such as ‘Catholic families will not give me information because they think the state will take their children’,” Mr Wallace said.

All those involved in the project hope that it will be more than, literally and figuratively, an academic exercise and that the papers will be of interest to more than just historians.

Dr Crooks said the spirit of Herbert Wood informs the Virtual Treasury project. Wood was outreaching to schools 100 years ago to get them to visit the Public Records Office. He wanted it to be a public resource not a depository for arcane records.

Since the Bureau of Military History records were first made public in 2003, Ireland has been a world leader in the process of digitising and making records accessible free of charge to the general public. The Virtual Treasury is part of that process. There will now be an astonishing 50 million search woods covering every surname and placename in Ireland.

“There has been a huge move to genuinely democratise material and get rid of the historian gatekeeper approach to these materials. That is the best way for this project to grow and be part of Irish cultural life,” Dr Crooks said.

The Virtual Treasury of Ireland can be accessed via

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times