When the Public Record Office of Ireland was reduced to rubble and ashes in the Irish civil war, seven centuries of precious historical documents were lost.
Exactly 100 years later, the public will be able to step back in time into the six-storey Victorian building in Dublin to experience it as it was on the eve of its destruction in June 1922 via an immersive 3D experience, and access many of those records thanks to a pioneering global project reclaiming Irish history.
The National Archives at Kew in London is among 70 archives and institutions worldwide to have sourced and digitally contributed replacement and duplicate documents and maps as part of the Beyond 2022 project, led by Trinity College Dublin.
Many have been excavated from long-forgotten dusty boxes and cabinets to recreate, as near as possible, those documents lost to Ireland during the Four Courts five-day battle that began on 28 June 1922.
They include 13th-century rolls of animal skin parchment records of Irish exchequer payments, written by medieval clerks, copies of which were fortuitously also kept in London, and a 1798 yeomanry return from the Irish rebellion of that year.
In total, 150,000 records and more than 6,000 maps are available, spanning an arc of Irish history from 1174 up to 1922, including Ireland’s first census of 1766, surveys during the Cromwellian era, and records on how Ireland was governed by the English crown in the middle ages. All are now retrievable and accessible for free.
The building itself has been faithfully digitally recreated from a 1914 photograph, and using information in the 1919 book, Guide to the Public Records Office, by then head archivist Herbert Wood, which provided essential inventory on almost everything subsequently lost.
“It was the major cultural calamity of 20th-century Ireland,” said the Trinity College historian Dr Peter Crooks, who headed the five-year state-funded project. “And a devastating blow to history.”
Computer wizardry means visitors and can pick from hundreds of virtual shelves just as they were left on the eve of the battle. AI programs have scanned and translated handwritten records, many in Latin, French or Irish, to form a searchable database of more than 50m words.
Dr Paul Dryburgh, medieval records specialist at the National Archives in Kew, said copies of Irish medieval exchequer records were kept in London as the crown was concerned about corruption in Dublin Castle. “Royal officials would have to come over from Dublin with their parchment rolls, their receipts, their little wooden tally sticks,” he said. “Those were copies of the documents in Dublin.
“The documents in Dublin haven’t survived. But their counterparts did because the English exchequer kept all their records over the centuries.”
Dr Neil Johnston, the head of early modern records at Kew, said: “Here at Kew, I reckon, there’s at least a quarter of a million Irish or Irish-related documents.”
Of the project, Johnson said: “Some things were hiding in plain sight, other things we didn’t know we had. All of a sudden there’s a whole treasure trove when you start to look, squirrelling around, opening boxes. A whole myriad of treasure troves have emerged from materials, some of which haven’t been opened in 300 or 500 years.”
the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland will be a vast and growing treasury of replacement documents newly discovered in partner archives.
Speaking before the launch, the taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said: “The Virtual Record Treasury is an enduring and meaningful legacy for our decade of centenaries. It belongs to the people of Ireland, democratizing access to our rich archival heritage and making our shared history accessible to everyone.
“It is an invaluable historical resource for people of all traditions across the island and for everyone of Irish heritage around the world. It is an immense achievement and testament to the commitment and dedication of the Beyond 2022 project team.”
Leo Varadkar, the tánaiste, said: “This is a really exciting project which opens new doors into Irish history. It brings together a wealth of information from around the world to illustrate what happened in Ireland, and helps to fill in the blanks arising from that infamous 1922 fire in the Public Record Office.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism