Headhunters, pirates and transported convicts: the files rescued from 1922 fire at Public Records Office

An English captain who brought the heads of five Gaelic rebels to Dublin was awarded £12 for his services to the Crown

In his posthumously published memoir The Singing Flame, anti-Treaty officer Ernie O’Malley sarcastically observed the destruction of the Public Records Office (PRO) on June 30th, 1922.

The PRO, which was beside the Four Courts block, went up in a catastrophic explosion at the start of the Civil War.

The latest research by author Michael Fewer suggests the cause of the fire was a shell hitting a munitions dump used by the anti-Treaty rebels who occupied the Four Courts from the previous April.

As he sat on steps outside the Four Courts, O’Malley observed the paper from the PRO was floating about “like hovering white birds”. Presently a half-burnt broken volume fell at his feet.


It was a list of Secret Service money paid by Dublin Castle to informers in the year 1798. “I thought in a hundred years’ time will the new Records office contain an account of the Secret Service money paid out in 1922,” O’Malley mused.

One hundred years on from the destruction of the Public Records Office, the accounts of Crown agents in Ireland have been revealed along with millions of other documents that have been rescued from oblivion by the Beyond 2022 project —mostly through copies found in other archives.

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 re-create, through digital technologies, the archive lost on June 30th, 1922.

Copies of files destroyed in the fire have been found in the UK National Archives in Kew and the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI).

Among the files that have been recovered are ones from the medieval Irish exchequer (1270-1450) in the UK National Archives relating to an English captain named Thomas Astley who operated in Co Wexford.

Astley was a headhunter — literally a man who hunts the heads of enemies of the Crown. According to an exchequer roll from 1367, Astley took the heads of five men to Dublin including those of Captain Murrough Roe O’Brien and WIlliam O’Morth Roe, to claim his reward of £12 from the government, a fortune in those days.

The document reads: “Pay to ‘Thomas de Asteley because recently the Obryns of Dofre, Irish enemies and rebels of the king, with a great multitude of armed men ... attacked and plundered the faithful people of co. Wexford, and Thomas with a small force of men, fought and defeated them ... and brought their heads before the king’s council in Ireland as proof, granted to him as a reward ... [it is] proclaimed that whoever brought the head of any Irish captain to the king’s court would receive an appropriate reward: £12.”

The scale of documents located elsewhere and recovered from the fire is staggering, with at least 50 million searchable titles.

This is the oldest document from the destroyed Record Treasury. It dates back to 1174–5 (within five years of the Anglo-Norman Invasion of Ireland). King Henry II of England confirms a grant of land by the famous Strongbow, one of the leaders of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland who married Aoife, daughter of the Irish king of Leinster. Although the original deed was destroyed, it was photographed to illustrate a late 19th-century lecture. It survives as a glass lantern slide in the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Dublin. — Dr Stuart Kinsella and Dr Lynn Kilgallon

Why do thousands of medieval Irish documents survive in London? Corruption, that’s why. Following a series of scandals at the Irish exchequer, the king of England began to summon his Irish officials for regular audits at Westminster. They literally had to carry their accounts from Dublin to London. This leather pouch once carried eight large ‘rolls’ of parchment from Dublin to London. There the accounts were scrutinised carefully. Clearly visible still is a medieval name-tag with the name of the responsible Irish official, Robert Cotgrave, chamberlain of the Irish exchequer, so that his records could be found again if needed. Bureaucracy has a long memory. The National Archives UK (London) — Dr Elizabeth Biggs

‘The County of Gallway’ (c.1665): the first map of Galway that accurately depicts the coastline and county boundaries. This plate is a hand-coloured ‘printers’ proof’ for an Atlas of Ireland by the creator of the Down Survey maps, Sir William Petty. This unpublished copy was seized by French privateers in 1707 while they were being shipped from Ireland to England. This document, and all of Petty’s notes and barony maps for the Down Survey of Ireland, were captured. The barony maps remain in Paris, but the chest of notes is lost forever. A copy of the Down Survey, held by the Public Record Office of Ireland, was destroyed in 1922. Bibliothèque national de France (Paris) — Dr David Brown

This map of Dublin Castle and its surroundings was made due to fears of an insurrection in Dublin by the United Irishmen. It was drawn by Thomas Sherrard, a surveyor who produced some of the most widely used maps of 18th-century Dublin. Sherrard’s name and the date, 1797, can be seen in the bottom left corner. This item is taken from the papers of Lord Castlereagh, who was Irish Chief Secretary in the era of the 1798 Rebellion. Castlereagh was also instrumental in the Act of Union, 1800, which brought the Irish parliament to an end.. Although the bulk of the records of the Chief Secretary’s Office were destroyed in 1922, many copies remain in private collections such as Castlereagh’s papers in PRONI. Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Castlereagh Papers — Dr Tim Murtagh

This is an original surviving convict list that includes the names, crimes, and sentences of 172 male prisoners transported from Cork to Botany Bay on the Friendship in 1799. The vast majority were sentenced ‘to serve for life’ for the wicked crime of being a United Irishman, whilst others were given life sentences for murder, being ‘idle and disorderly’, or in one case, for animal cruelty. The list is an important replacement for the lost Convict Department records of the Public Record Office of Ireland, which once held records for all convicts sentenced to death or transportation between 1780 and 1836. National Library of Australia — Dr Sarah Hendriks

The 1841 census, held on June 6th, counted 37 people in Aghnaskew Glebe townland (Currin parish, County Fermanagh), living in eight houses. The eight census forms were bundled together, and, although badly burnt, fragments of all the townland’s forms have survived. Here we see the surviving fragment of Marget Maguire’s form. Born about 1777, Marget was the head of a five-person household. Living with her were two temporary ‘visitors’, Mary Clerk (50) and Allise Maguire (10), and two longer-term ‘lodgers’. The townland was a mere 42 acres, so all eight holdings were probably small. Marget was one of two female heads of households in the townland; the other was Rose Maguire. This record is a tantalising glimpse of how much personal and social detail was lost forever when the pre-Famine censuses were destroyed in 1922. National Archives of Ireland — Dr Brian Gurrin

Exhibition on destruction of Public Records Office

Meanwhile, an exhibition based on the destruction of the Public Records Office has opened at the Irish Architectural Archive at 45 Merrion Square, Dublin.

The exhibition tells the story of the building that was the Public Record Office of Ireland from its construction to its burning at the start of the Irish Civil War.

When the Public Record Office of Ireland was completed in 1867, its contemporaries were the National Gallery of Ireland (opened in 1864) and the National Museum (opened in 1857). It was seen across Europe as a state of the art public record office and treasury building.

Behind the Record House was the Record Treasury, an enormous six-storey building containing 100,000 square feet of shelving with records accumulated over seven centuries.

The photographs, plans and drawings of the building have never been on public display before.

The Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin says the exhibition, which runs until August 19th (10am-5pm Monday to Friday), “provides us with an opportunity to step back into history”.