Jul 29, 2022

The Archivists Who Rediscovered 700 Years of Irish History

The Virtual Record Treasury is recreating much of what was lost in a Dublin fire a century ago.

On June 30, 1922, MORE than 700 years of Ireland’s history went up in flames.

After the explosion at the Public Record Office of Ireland in June 1922, Dubliners rushed to rescue smoldering scraps of history. COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY, TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN

Handwritten parish records noting centuries of baptisms, marriages, and burials; courtroom files laying out the details of lawsuits and criminal cases on brittle parchment; census data; parliamentary transcripts; wills; deeds; and financial ledgers—nearly all were lost when an explosion and fire tore through the Public Record Office in Dublin at the start of the year-long Irish Civil War. The war, which pitted the newly formed Irish government against a rebel faction that opposed a treaty with Britain, would leave hundreds dead, along with a bitter legacy that affected Irish politics for decades. Meanwhile, its impact on the country’s history would also remain an open wound.

“The history of a country is founded upon its archives,” wrote a doleful Herbert Wood, who was serving as deputy keeper of the Public Record Office of Ireland—the country’s de facto chief archivist—at the time of the fire. “Accordingly, the destruction of a great accumulation of records… comes as a tremendous shock to those who were anxious to wrest the truth from these memorials of the past.”

Thanks to international collaboration and 21st-century technology, a good portion of what was lost has finally been restored.

Supported by a €2.5 million grant from the Irish government and employing 14 full-time archivists, Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury is a massive effort to recreate as much of the archive as possible. Begun five years ago, as the centenary of Irish independence—and of the fire—approached, it went live online this summer, with a searchable database, a selection of curated stories, and a 3D virtual-reality recreation of the building itself as it would have looked in the days before the fire.

You can read the full story in an article written by Amy Crawford and published in the Atlas Obscura web site at:

My thanks to newsletter reader Leslie Rubinson for telling me about this story.