Finding festive treats in the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland

Posted on: 26 December 2022

The Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland is an online treasure trove of historical records where we can learn a lot about Christmas of the past, explains Ciarán Wallace, Keeper of the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland, in this piece that was first published by RTE History.

We saw three ships come sailing in. ‘Chart of Ireland's southern coast’ from Thresoor Der Zeevaert by Lucas Waghenaer. (1584). L. Brown Collection.

Since its launch in June the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland has been bringing thousands of Irish historical records back into the daylight. Digitally reconstructing huge numbers of records burned in 1922, at the start of the Irish Civil War, the Virtual Treasury allows you to hunt through copies and transcripts of these lost treasures.

Users have been busy looking up their family name or the names of places in their locality - but in this chilly, wintry season we thought it would be fun to look up some seasonal search terms.

The Irish interest in the weather is not new. Some of the earliest records go back to 684 when the Annals of the Four Masters recorded ‘a great frost in this year so that the lakes and rivers of Ireland were frozen, and the sea between Ireland and Scotland was frozen, so that there was a communication between them on the ice’. This fact, and many other natural disasters, appear in the wonderfully titled ‘Table of Cosmological Phenomena, Epizootics, Famines and Pestilences in Ireland’ in Census of Ireland 1851.

Census of Ireland 1851 : part V: tables of deaths, p. 55 (1856). Enhanced Parliamentary Papers of Ireland.

Compulsory gift-giving is not a modern phenomenon either. In 1364 the records from Cloyne, Co. Cork, tell us that tenants around Mitchelstown and Fermoy had to give their landlord a hen at Christmas. We hope the tenants got to choose which hen to hand over, and which plump bird to keep for their own family celebrations!

The Pipe Roll of Cloyne (Rotulus Pipae Clonensis), McCotter and Nicholls (eds), Cloyne Literary and Historical Society, p 21.

Another example of this seasonal cashless economy also comes from Cloyne around 1299, when an annual rent  was set at ‘one grain of pepper at every Christmas’ - showing the legal origins of the notional ‘peppercorn rent’.

Buying the ingredients for a festive feast was never cheap, and throughout history luxury foods attracted the eye of the taxman.  In 1358 King Edward III allowed Dublin’s mayor to tax every barrel of figs and raisins, the money raised would fund repairs to the city tholsel, an early version of the city hall.

A tholsel tax in DCLA Royal Charters/32 (1358). Dublin City Library and Archives

His father, Edward II, missed the perfect chance to promote a ‘shop local’ campaign for Christmas 1325. He issued a proclamation that ‘no man or woman of a burgh or city [shall] use cloth … if it be not cloth made in England, Ireland or Wales’ - but the rule was not to come into effect until after Christmas. So you still had time to buy those fancy imported goods for that special holiday outfit.

Some luxury fabrics on show, ‘Hellelil and Hildebrand, the meeting on the turret stairs’ (1864) Frederic William Burton, National Gallery of Ireland. Creative Commons

Centuries later the connection between fashion and taxes may still have been at work in 1639 when Dublin’s Guild of Tailors presented the Mayor with ‘a beef’. It seems it was always useful to keep those in power well fed. 

Charters and documents of the Guild of Tailors, Dublin, 1296 to 1753.

Cork was the gateway for many exotic foodstuffs entering the country, the city’s merchants could supply all your Christmas catering needs. In 1690 The Dublin Gazette reported that ‘an abundance of … sugar, rice, currants, raisins, almonds and prunes' was unloaded onto the quayside, showing the long-established trade routes linking Leeside with warmer climes.

Cork’s prosperous quayside from ‘The county of Cork, surveyed by order of the Grand Jury of the county by Neville Bath, 1811'. Cork City Libraries

A hundred years later you can still see these tasty imports continuing, but this time it was the taxman counting cargoes of ‘Liquorice, prunes, raisins, almonds’ imported into Ireland in 1786, including a consignment of toys landed at Cork.

Brandy, toys, walnuts and wine among the imports from Portugal, 1786. CentralBank F1893164/1, Imports to Ireland for year ending 25 March 1786 

Coming closer to our own time, in 1914 an investigation into Irish primary schools found that children are not particularly interested in elementary science, but ‘little girls show an interest in dolls houses and boys in hobby horses’. But children’s natural curiosity about their toys was more important. According to one expert, most children ‘are disposed to break them up to see how the thing is worked’ Delightfully detailed dolls house. National Museum of American History. Creative commons.

If your inner child is keen to see how the thing is worked you can treat yourself to a free 3-D tour of the Virtual Treasury. Find out the fascinating story of this forgotten building. Walk around the outside, go into the Reading Room and leaf through some ancient records, and sneak into the actual Record Treasury itself - a place where no one alive today has ever stood. And yes  - if you hunt around the six levels of shelving in this vast hall of records you will even find a dolls house.  

Can you find the Virtual Treasury dolls house – deep inside the VR model?  

Once you find it click on it and see where it will bring you. Be sure to leave a trail of breadcrumbs - you can get happily lost down these historical rabbit holes!

The Virtual Treasury is funded by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media as part of the Decade of Centenaries Programme (2012-2023). 


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