Believed to be destroyed 100 years ago, our historical archives are brought back to life with virtual treasury

Posted on: 27 June 2022

Peter Crooks and Zoë Reid write about how Ireland's historical archives were brought back to life in a piece originally published in The Irish Independent.

by Peter Crooks and Zoë Reid

Tucked in behind the famous green dome of Dublin’s Four Courts sits a forgotten building with an extraordinary story. It was once one of the great archives of Europe with a historical collection that stretched back 850 years.

A century ago this week, the vast majority of these historicl treasures were destroyed in the opening battle of the Civil War – lost, seemingly forever.

The Public Record Office of Ireland opened its doors in 1867. Its job was to bring together all official papers and State records into one secure archive to be kept safe for future generations.

The historical documents of the Public Record Office were kept in a six-storey repository behind the reading room known as the Record Treasury. The full story of Ireland from 1172 to 1922 – a story of invasion and confiscation, of immigration and emigration, of opportunity and denial – was held in that Treasury.

This graceful stone structure had a long arcade of 10 tall windows and a glass ceiling. A firebreak – an open space a couple of meters wide – kept the document store separate from the reading room. This was so that if an accidental fire broke out in the reading room, the firebreak would stop it from spreading into the Treasury to engulf the documents.

No one could have guessed one day the Treasury would be at the epicentre of a national conflict.

In 1922 that’s exactly what happened, when an anti-Treaty garrison occupied the Four Courts.

The Record Treasury received a new name from the occupying garrison. It became known as the “munitions block”. The building was used for making explosives. And ancient historical documents were used like sandbags in the windows to protect the forces from incoming fire.

The Battle of the Four Courts, the first military engagement of the Civil War, began on June 28, 1922.

National Army forces of the Irish Free State were attempting to drive Anti-Treaty Republicans from the Four Courts, and other locations in Dublin.

In the early hours of Wednesday June 28, they gave the Anti-Treaty forces an ultimatum –evacuate the building or they would open fire.

At around 4.45am, just before sunrise, an artillery gun firing 18 pound shells opened fire on the building, accompanied by machine gun and rifle fire. The battle had begun.

Fire took hold of the Record Treasury on the afternoon of June 30, 1922. In a single afternoon, hundreds of thousands of records were consumed by the blaze. Seven centuries of Irish history stored in the Record Treasury were gone.

Ironically, the front of the building survived because the firebreak that separated the reading room from the Treasury was effective – the flames were confined to the Treasury, rather than the reading room as expected.

Winston Churchill was speaking in the House of Commons in London when he heard the news that the Four Courts was ablaze. “Better a state without public records than public records without a state”, he joked tastelessly.

Some historians understood straight away that this was not a joking matter. A Wexford antiquarian wrote in his diary: “All the Records of the country for centuries have perished. One hardly realises as yet the magnitude of this irreparable calamity.”

A century later, the Record Treasury and its collections have been reconstructed and reimagined through a groundbreaking research and digitisation project. It will be launched next week.

For the past five years, a dedicated team of researchers has been working side-by-side with archivists and conservators in Dublin, Belfast and London to recreate what was lost in 1922.

The result is the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland – a dynamic legacy for everyone with an interest in Irish history, at home and abroad, arising from the State’s Decade of Centenaries programme.

From Monday you will be able to visit the beautiful Record Treasury from any web browser. More than that, you can explore an extraordinary collection of digitised historical documents dating all the way back to the Middle Ages.

Some documents were recovered from the rubble of the Four Courts in 1922. These damaged documents were wrapped in brown sugar paper and kept safely until they could be unwrapped and restored.

Almost a century later, the National Archives has been working to conserve these documents. Whenever possible, they are repaired so they can be consulted by readers again. Page by page, records are being returned to the public.

Other documents survive as copies carefully transcribed by men and women who worked in the Public Record Office before the fire. Still other documents, numbering tens of thousands, are the duplicates of English, later British, administrations, and survive in The National Archives UK.

When all this material is brought back together in digital form, it forms a vast digital repository drawn from collections across Ireland and around the world.

You can mine these collections in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. The spidery scrawl of ancient handwriting can now be transcribed very accurately by Artificial Intelligence.

This means we can find material deep in the digital archive that would have been invisible to the staff of the Public Record Office of Ireland a century ago.

Despite the cultural tragedy of 1922, Ireland has a remarkably rich documentary heritage. Now, through the Virtual Record Treasury, we can all enjoy open access to Ireland’s deep history and records once thought lost forever.

Peter Crooks is Director of the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland. Zoe Reid is Keeper of the National Archives.

This article was originally published in The Irish Independent on June 25.