Digital project to recreate public record office destroyed by Four Courts fire

Posted on: 08 February 2018

A ground-breaking project to digitally recreate the building and contents of the Public Record Office of Ireland, destroyed by fire at Dublin’s Four Courts at the outset of the Irish Civil War, has been announced by Trinity College Dublin today, February 8th, 2018.

The project has the potential to transform how we understand Ireland’s past and will be of great interest to the Irish diaspora and anyone tracing their Irish roots. It is estimated that up to 70 million people around the world claim Irish ancestry and heritage.

When Dublin’s Four Courts went up in flames on June 30th, 1922, seven centuries of Ireland’s historical and genealogical records, stored in a magnificent six-storey Victorian archive building known as the Record Treasury, were lost. In one afternoon, hundreds of thousands of English government records concerning Ireland, dating back to the 13th century, were destroyed—seemingly forever.

As well as documenting the growth of the state in Ireland across many centuries the archive’s collections touched on almost every aspect of life in Ireland, including births, marriages and deaths, wills, maps, parish registers and town records from across the island. For generations, the loss of these precious historical documents has hampered the study of Ireland’s past, limiting our understanding of family, local and national history as well as Ireland’s connected history with the wider world.

New technology, historical research and careful archival practice mean that these losses are not irrecoverable. Today historians and computer scientists at Trinity have unveiled plans to bring Ireland’s Public Record Office back to life by creating a 3D virtual reality reconstruction of the destroyed building and refilling its shelves with fully-searchable surviving documents and copies of the lost records, which have been identified by the team in archives and libraries around the world. The project will bring millions of lost historical and genealogical facts to a global audience and will allow historical research to reach back four centuries earlier than most currently available genealogical resources.

The project, ‘Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury’, was launched today (Thurs, Feb 8th) at an event in the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute. Led by the School of Histories and Humanities and the ADAPT Centre for Digital Content Technology in the School of Computer Science and Statistics, the project is a collaboration with Trinity’s four archival partners: The National Archives of Ireland, The National Archives (UK), The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland  and The Irish Manuscripts Commission. The project is funded by the Irish Research Council.

Pictured examining original architectural drawings for the Public Record Office were Dr Séamus Lawless and Dr Peter Crooks from Trinity’s ‘Beyond 2022:Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury’ project and Zoë Reid Senior Conservator, National Archives of Ireland.

The completed project will be made available on the centenary of the Four Courts blaze in 2022. A project website was launched today, which demonstrates the scope of the project and technology involved. This includes an animation of the 3D model being developed which allows the public to experience the magnificent Victorian archive as it was on the eve of its destruction. In December 2018, this website will be enhanced to make the full catalogue of the record treasury available to the public for the first time since 1922.

Commenting on the significance of the project, Dr Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity, said: “Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury will be a public and academic resource with global reach and impact. This international, collaborative project makes a significant contribution to the national commemorative effort by reuniting collections destroyed by war. It forms part of our strategic research theme ‘Making Ireland’ — a transformative collaboration in Irish studies. By reconstructing a lost treasure, Trinity is seeking to create a lasting and meaningful legacy and an invaluable resource for researchers and educators at all levels which will continue to grow beyond 2022. By moving beyond the divisive legacy of the period, the project will also reopen Ireland’s deeper past to the general public at home and in the wider diaspora.”

Through detailed historical detective work, the project team is working to recover the information contained in the destroyed archive by identifying and digitising surviving or substitute materials held by archives and libraries around the world. These materials include records that survived the blaze, records that were damaged but not completely destroyed, duplicates of original records now held in partner archives, as well as facsimile images, antiquarian transcripts and summaries of the records made before 1922.

Dr Peter Crooks, Assistant Professor, School of Histories and Humanities, commented on the potential impact of the project: “One of the most ambitious elements of our work is the identification of ‘Gold Seams’ of substitute sources. These are hugely significant substitute archival collections held in libraries and archives scattered around the world that can help us recover whole series of records destroyed in 1922. By reconstructing these records, which collectively comprise millions of historical and genealogical facts, we have the potential to transform the evidence base on which Irish history is written. Because the archival collections date from such an early period of history, the reconstruction effort will allow anyone with an interest in researching their families or localities to engage in deep history, reaching back almost half a millennium earlier than most readily available genealogical resources.”

Interior of Record Treasury building including full detail on surface material and textures, taken from 3D model.

When complete, users of Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury will experience a fully immersive virtual tour of the digitally reconstructed Public Record Office. They will be able to enter a 3D virtual reality reconstruction of the destroyed building and request a historical document in the beautiful Victorian Reading Room. Users will then be able to enter the destroyed Record Treasury itself where the records were held, and move through its 100,000sq ft of archive shelving to the very spot where the record was once stored in order to access any surviving fragments or substitute copies in digital form. The record on the shelf will be a launch pad to substitute records stored in libraries and archives around the globe.

Dr Séamus Lawless, Assistant Professor, ADAPT Centre and School of Computer Science, commented on the scientific and technological aspects of the project: “This is a true digital humanities project, with exciting research in both computer science and history. The development of a fully immersive recreation of the archive allows us to blend the physical with the digital, and study how people search for information when using the archive. It will also develop approaches to allow people to seamlessly search for information within the virtual archive, and in archives across the globe that hold related or substitute content. Beyond 2022 has the potential to have significant impact on how people search for, interact with and consume information in virtual reality experiences.”

Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury will comprise:

o   A virtual reality reconstruction of the destroyed Public Record Office of Ireland. This will be built from original architectural plans and photographic evidence, and will capture the scale and dimensions of the spectacular six-storey Victorian archive with its iconic arcade of 30-ft tall windows, its expansive glass ceiling and intricate ornamental ironwork. Users will be able to enter the archive, browse its virtual shelves and link to substitute or surviving records held by archives and libraries around the world.

o   A complete inventory of survival and loss of the 1922 fire, as well as digitisations of surviving originals and substitute sources. The entire archive will be fully searchable with its contents ranging from basic descriptions to fully restored records ranging in date from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

o   ‘Gold Seams’ of evidence will offer full reconstructions of whole series of destroyed records based on particularly rich collections of substitute materials held in partner archives. An example of a Gold Seam identified by the project is the records of the Medieval Irish Exchequer, tens of thousands of which survive both in Dublin (in the form of 19th-century transcripts) and in London (in the form of original copies of the records sent to England for audit by the English Crown). These exchequer records offer searing insights into the politics, warfare, diplomacy, trade and landholding of the later Middle Ages. A second Gold Seam identified by the project comprises 22,500 handwritten transcripts of government orders from the Cromwellian era. Considered ‘lost’ for 100 years, these 17th-century records can be reconstructed as the result of a major collaborative effort by institutions in Ireland, the UK and the USA.

John McDonough, Director of the National Archives of Ireland, commented on the significance of the international archival partnership formed by the project: “The collaboration between Trinity and its archival partners —The National Archives of Ireland, The National Archives (UK), The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and The Irish Manuscripts Commission — is a symbolic moment. It represents imaginative cooperation in order to realise a shared ambition of recreating virtually the holdings of the Public Record Office of Ireland by the year 2022. In a parallel project funded by the Irish Manuscripts Commission, the National Archives is currently engaged in a conservation assessment on nearly 300 boxes of records, which though damaged, survived the 1922 fire. Following selection and conservation, it is hoped to make selections of these salved records available for the first time for researchers and the general public.”


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