27 June 2022
On June 30th, 1922, the Four Courts and the neighbouring Public Record Office of Ireland (PRO) were consumed by fire, with the destruction of over 800 years’ worth of documents relating to Irish history and genealogy. Professional Irish genealogist David Ryan looks at which records survived and how modern technology and conservation techniques are helping in the recovery of some of the material once believed lost.
The Backstory: Background of the Irish Public Record Office and The Four Courts
The Four Courts, located on Inns Quay in Dublin, is the most prominent court building in Ireland and familiar to anyone who has visited Dublin. The building originally housed four superior courts, of Chancery, King's Bench, Exchequer and Common Pleas, which is where the name of the building originated. In 1877, the original four courts were replaced by two - the Court of Appeal, presided over by the Lord Chancellor, and the High Court of Justice, headed by the Lord Chief Justice. These would have been the courts present in the building in 1922. Currently the Four Courts is the principal seat of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, the High Court and the Dublin Circuit Court.
The Public Record Office of Ireland was established in 1867 to provide a safe repository for the Irish records then widely scattered in several premises and locations. It undertook the accessioning of records from the Irish courts then in existence, from the probate registries, from parishes of the Church of Ireland, from official bodies which had ceased to function, and from the State Paper Office in Dublin Castle, which since 1702, had been gathering the records of the central administration under British rule. Fifty years after its foundation, the PRO had accumulated a vast body of records dating from the thirteenth century and ranging geographically from one end of the country to the other, including many classes which those researching family history would regard as of primary value and importance.
Genealogist David Ryan speaks to Helen Tovey about the history leading up to the Four Courts fire and the impact and consequences of the destruction, leading to the launch of the Virtual Treasury project in 2022.
Destruction of the Public Records Office
The siege of the Four Courts and the Civil War that followed had their roots in the struggle for Irish Independence that had begun with the Easter Rising in 1916.
When the infamous explosion on 30 June 1922 occurred at the Four Courts it could be heard 2km away. It shattered windows on Grafton Street, Dublin’s premier shopping street, scattered the ducks in St Stephen’s Green and sent the populace scurrying for what shelter they could find. A member of the Public Records Office staff, SC Ratcliff, recalled a scene of utter devastation afterwards. The glass and slate roof built in 1867 had fallen in and a huge crack emerged in one of the walls. The floor of the repository was piled up to 5m high with twisted ironwork and debris. The iron boxes containing many precious records had melted in the heat.
Aftermath of the fire
It was the 17th of July before it was considered safe to begin retrieving documents from the rubble. James Morrissey, Assistant Deputy Keeper, led staff in gathering up fragments which were then sorted and identified. Everything retrieved from the wreckage was wrapped in brown sugar paper, labelled, and secured with string. The Records Office was made available in Dublin Castle for sorting and cataloguing the retrieved documents.
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 in the fire.
The surviving records
It is often incorrectly assumed that everything was lost in the 1922 fire. However, there were many records which were not stored in the Public Records Office or were in the Reading Room at the time of the fire. For example, we have some surviving fragments of the 1821-1851 census. Some transcripts of testamentary records survive. Indexes to probate records are still available and provide a basic summary of the lost wills. Records for churches other than Church of Ireland, such as Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist, were not stored with the Public Records Office. In addition, there are many records which were preserved in other repositories. For example, records for Irish military service and policing in the period before 1922 were kept in the UK and are available from the National Archives (UK) in Kew. Other records relating to the British administration of Ireland were kept in Dublin Castle.
It should also be noted that although severely damaged, there was a lot of material salvaged from the fire. More than 25,000 sheets of paper and parchment were retrieved from the rubble. These records, which date from the 14th to the 19th centuries and are known as the ‘1922 salved records’, are now held at the National Archives of Ireland. Using the latest conservation techniques and technologies, conservators continue the work to someday make this material available to researchers.
Examples of the material which was salvaged include the Roll of Attorneys for the period 1785–1834, 250 Writs of Summons from the Law Exchequer for 1894, Revenue Exchequer Accounts from Dublin Port on wheat premiums for the period 1762–1789, sixty-six Yeomanry monthly returns from County Carlow for 1798, and Roll of Certificates issued to adventurers for land for the period 1665–1668. During a recent investigation of unopened parcels of records, archivists also identified a number of documents significant to the history of Dublin port for the period 1817-1818.
Launching on 27th June 2022, Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland is an all-island and international collaborative research project working to create a virtual reconstruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland. Together with their five core archival partners and over forty other participating institutions in Ireland, Britain and the USA, they are working to recover what was lost in that terrible fire one hundred years ago. On the centenary of the Four Courts blaze at the end of June 2022, they will launch the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland online. Many millions of words from destroyed documents will be linked and reassembled from copies, transcripts and other records scattered among the collections of the archival partners. The rich array of replacement items will be represented within an immersive 3-D reconstruction of the destroyed building, which users will be able to tour virtually. The Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland will be an open-access resource, freely available online to all those interested in Irish history at home and abroad.
This coverage is an excerpt of David Ryan's fuller article which will be published in the September 2022 issue of Family Tree, on sale from 08 August.
Image - showing a bomb exploding on the site of the Four Courts - from the T. J. Byrne Collection in the public domain.