Replacing Ireland’s Lost Records: Doing Public History with the Beyond 2022 Project

By Elizabeth Biggs

One hundred years ago, in the spring and early summer of 1922, the Public Record Office of Ireland in the Four Courts complex in Dublin was occupied by anti-Treaty forces, with Rory O’Connor as one of their leaders. They were opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of the previous year, which they felt gave the British government too much involvement in the new independent Irish state, including the continued presence of British troops and inclusion within the Commonwealth. At the end of June 1922, in the opening engagement of the Irish Civil War, national troops directed by the Irish provisional government attacked the occupiers of the Four Courts and after three days of fighting, the anti-treaty forces were defeated. During this battle, an explosion followed by a fire on 30 June 1922 destroyed the Record Treasury, the part of the Public Record Office where seven centuries of Irish records were stored.

This is an event that is well-known in Ireland – it is why trying to track your family history in Ireland and locating evidence for the Irish diaspora can be particularly hard. Among the records lost were the nineteenth-century census records. Just a few items were successfully pulled from the rubble and brought into the new Public Record Office building, now the National Archives of Ireland. But the story is more hopeful than the way it’s often told. The records stored in the Public Record Office were available and were used by researchers, by members of the public, and by Irish descendants around the world until Easter 1922. Their notes, copies and publications as well as the work of the staff, provide the text of some of the documents lost in 1922. Additionally, a major revenue source was providing certified copies of records, such as deeds, marriage settlements or the results of lawsuits. These copies survive in archives around the world. Finally, as a medievalist, my favourite surviving analogue to the records lost in 1922 are the thousand or so medieval documents written in Dublin for the English government there and brought to London for checking and archiving. These have ended up in the National Archives (UK) at Kew. 

Public record offices, whether national archives or local archives across the UK and in Ireland, are deliberately meant for everyone. Their records belong to everyone and in theory anyone can come look at items that interest them. Of course, they don’t always live up to this ideal. Cuts in funding mean that opening hours may be very short. The short descriptions in their catalogues may make it hard to find what you are looking for. People don’t always know about them. Older documents are hard to read without specialist training. But the principle remains that these records belong to everyone. Often, members of the public come to these archives looking to research their family history, or the history of their local area. In Lincoln, I was thrilled to be able to help a local woman read a twelfth-century charter that described her street. It was in Latin and the handwriting was difficult. The connection between the present and the past in that moment was almost tangible. The street had been there for eight hundred years. But that is a rare, direct, and immediate connection between a medieval document and someone today.

As part of the Beyond 2022 Project at Trinity College Dublin, I’m part of a team gathering together the surviving materials from the Public Record Office of Ireland and putting them back on the virtual shelves of the Record Treasury. My role is to edit those surviving documents in London, translate them from Latin and make them searchable. Instead of having to learn Latin and learn how to untangle the format of the records, you’ll be able to search our translation and look at images of the originals online. You’ll be able to find stories about people and places in medieval Ireland. It’s unlikely that many people will find their ancestors, simply because it is so far back. Although if your surname is Constantine or Constantin, you might just be able to work out if you are related to people whose names are in this photo, where Lucy, the widow of George Constantin pays for a licence, hidden in the margin of an Irish record.

Figure 1. Stitching at the bottom of E 101/232/24 m.1, The National Archives (UK),
face from Autumn 1296, showing an entry hidden in the seam:
Dublin: From Lucy who was the wife of Geoffrey Constantin for licence to
purchase a better writ: ½ mark. Sum: £4 10s”.
Author’s own image.

Instead, public medieval history is often based around artefacts, local history and heritage sites. If you come from Lambey Island, just outside Dublin, you might find it interesting to learn that it was the site of some fairly intensive rabbit farming, not sheep as you might guess.

Heritage sites are one of the best ways to make the links between the medieval past and the present clear. To walk into Westminster Hall is to walk into the quintessential medieval hall on a spectacular scale. People can imagine what it might have been like to come there to see a royal feast, a Parliamentary event or a coronation banquet. Being in the space itself allows for that imaginative leap and a sense of empathy with what happened. In October 1325, Alexander Bicknor, the former treasurer of Ireland, was brought to Westminster to answer charges of forgery and embezzlement. The Irish records brought from Dublin to London were at the heart of the case against him. By telling that story in Westminster at an event recently, my colleagues and I were able to highlight the long and deep links between Dublin and Westminster, as embodied in the records at The National Archives and in the very rooms where they were used against Bicknor. A trial that might seem abstract and distant can be made very real and specific in that particular place, while also drawing together wider connections between neighbouring countries.

Public history is about making the imaginative leap between what we know today and what happened then, and finding methods to give people ways into the past, including the more distant past. Medieval public records are for everyone, but they often need more interpretation or translation. By translating the Irish documents at The National Archives and making them available online, hopefully many more people will be able to find stories that interest them in these sources.

Dr Elizabeth Biggs is one of two Medieval Exchequer Gold Seam Research Fellows working on the Beyond 2022 Project at Trinity College Dublin. She is interested in the reach of medieval English government in England and Ireland as well as the spaces in which government was enacted. Previously, she taught at the University of the West of England, and held a variety of research posts. Her book, St Stephen’s College, Westminster: A Royal Chapel and English Kingship, 1348-1548 was published in 2020 by Boydell and Brewer.

Beyond 2022 | Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland is funded by the Government of Ireland as part of the Decade of Centenaries Programme.

Figure 2. Beyond 2022 Logo. Author’s own image.

Cover Image. Virtual reconstruction of the Public Record Office, Ireland. Reproduced with permission of the Beyond 2022 project.

Figure 1. Stitching at the bottom of E 101/232/24 m.1, The National Archives (UK), face from Autumn 1296, showing an entry hidden in the seam: “Dublin: From Lucy who was the wife of Geoffrey Constantin for licence to purchase a better writ: ½ mark. Sum: £4 10s”. Reproduced with permission of the author.

Figure 2. Beyond 2022 Logo. Reproduced with permission of the author.

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