Reconstructing Irish history from the ashes

Logo Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland

The loss of archival records by an accident, deliberate destruction or whatever other cause is one of the greatest threats for the collective memory of peoples and nations, and even for humankind in general. How can you substitute things lost for ever? Such thoughts were very much alive after June 30, 1922, when the Public Record Office of Ireland in Dublin went on fire during the Battle of Dublin. Munition stored in the building was hit by shells and multiple fires destroyed documents from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Only in 1928 the PRO could reopen. On June 30, 1922 the National Archives of Ireland launched the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland, a portal with at its heart three reconstructed archival collections. In this post I will look at the new portal, and also at the project of Trinity College, Dublin, for the reconstruction of records for the medieval Irish Chancery.

Lost in one afternoon

Logo National Archives of Ireland

The turns and key moments in irish history during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can readily be defined as tragedies. The famine in the mid-nineteenth century became worse by appalling English actions and negligence. With the emigrants to the United States of America Ireland was bereft again of many thousand people. Gladstone could nearly bring Home Rule for Ierland, but both he and Asquith just before the First World War did not succeed in accomplishing it. The Easter Rising of 1916 and the civil war that led to the foundation of the Irish Republic took a heavy toll, and the Troubles since 1969 were another grim period which ended just a few decades ago. After the Brexit the Irish frontier has become again a real political frontier. By the way, the National Archives in Dublin bring the period between 1912 and 1923 to your attention with the apt heading Decade of Centenaries.

When even the memory of many periods with turmoil is destroyed more happens than just irreparable loss of documents. It is a cultural disaster, damaging the collective memory and removing a point of reference. Normally I try to avoid writing about centenaries and commemorations, but with the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland you have a very important sign of revival, a kind of light shining and bringing back things that seemed totally lost. For a long period after the Four Courts Blaze only the socalled Salved Records, charred record remains, survived as did rather miraculously the finding aids, catalogues and the staff library.

Let´s go immediately to the core of the new portal. Three collections are presented in a new digital form, starting in chronological order with the medieval exchequer from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, the Cromwellian Surveys from the late seventeenth century, and the 1766 religious census. If anything this choice of records ornamented with the lofty title Gold Seams shows already the range in time of the holdings at the National Archives of ireland.

The medieval exchequer

Example of a record from the Exchequer for Ireland, TNA E 101/237/5 - image source VRT / TNA
Example of a record from the Exchequer for Ireland, TNA E 101/237/5 – image source VRT / TNA

The collection concerning records of the medieval exchequer for Ireland is not entirely characteristic of the Virtual Record Treasury, because almost all these records are held at the National Archives, Kew. Three main record types are presented: issue rolls, receipt rolls, enrolled parchments and two memoranda rolls (NAI, EX 1/1 and EX 1/2) from the fourteenth century. Luckily the Irish Record Commission had made summaries of the memoranda rolls; a digital version of the 43 volumes is a desideratum. The web page with illustrated examples of these records series and related documents (Manuscripts Gallery) is very instructive. In the section Delving Deeper you will find more historical background and additional images, including editorial conventions and a liost of recurring phrases. The section with stories does what it promises.

Navigating the images of records can be done in several ways. The free text search filed offers the most simple search mode, but you can alo filter for reference code, title and creator. The advanced search mode functions for the whole Virtual Record Treasury. You can start with the fields for title, creator and reference code, and chnage them or add a field for repository and/or transcription. After scrolling down you can find under the heading Further search options filters for a particular time range, Gold Seam, query expansion, fuzzy search, and items without images. Apart from a particular Gold Seam you can also limit your search to the Treasures.

The option Gold Seam Highlight in the navigation menu for the exchequer brings you not only a number of useful general descriptions of medieval record genres, but also access to records

Document view screen in the highlights section for the medieval exchequer
Document view screen in the highlights section for the medieval exchequer

Only after trying to use this view I succeeded in accessing actual images. By clicking on a record title you can access them in a kind of workspace with at your left several view options. Some way of highlighting the choices when you hover over them would be helpful. I did not yet find a concise user manual for this workspace. The use of the term manifests and the presence in the left corner of the distinctive logo are normally sufficient signs for indicating the use of the IIIF compliant Mirador viewer, but due to tropical temperatures I clearly failed to recognize them at first!

At this point I would like to mention the general User Guide which does not just help a casual visitor or a curious historian. In my opinion the National Archives of Ireland succeed here splendidly in explaining not only the features of the Virtual Record Treasury, but also a number of archival matters in an exemplary way. The distinctions between several possible grades of documents in relation to an original are given, and also a number of key description terms. A four colour code is used to indicate linked records in the three Gold Seams, the three core collections of this portal.

The Cromwellian surveys of the seventeenth century

The next core collection brings you to Early Modern Ireland in the period starting with the revolt of 1641 that eventually led to the end of landholding by the Catholic gentry and aristocracy. The landowners’ surveys of the 1650s formed a key element in this development. In the nineteenth century the Irish Manuscript Commission created a massive index for the socalled Down Surveys or Cromwellian Surveys. The digitized surveys are reinforced by some 2,000 digitized maps. These resources show landed property in a very detailed way. The starting page of this section leads you also to a video and a background essay.

The Barony of Sheelburne in the County of Wexford by George Tuffin alias Johnson - London BL, 72868, f. 077
The Barony of Sheelburne in the County of Wexford by George Tuffin alias Johnson – London BL, add. ms.72868, f. 077

Exactly the combination of records and maps helps you to view matters in telling detail. The manuscript gallery for this section shows a fine example how using a number of survey records gives you a much fuller view than each of them separately. Land already owned by Protestant supporters of Cromwell is shown as blank spaces in the Down Survey. Among the items shown are also some editions of records, but the coloured maps attract your attention, too. I could not readily spot clear references for the resources shown. The highlights for the Cromwellian surveys contain documents held at Dublin, Belfast, London and Paris. Here, too, you can use the IIIF-compliant Mirador viewer to view images of records. I must again admit I was initially a bit confused by the way of navigating to the record images. However, I realize that until now I met the Mirador viewer exclusively for viewing medieval manuscripts, not for archival records or record series.

For understanding the Cromwellian Surveys it pays off to start with the page Delving Deeper. You can read here about the historical background of the plans for confiscation and their aftermath. There is precious information about parish maps and barony maps, on further archival resources elsewhere, editorial explanations, and information about some relevant publications about the digitization project. By the way the subdomain The Down Survey of Trinity College Dublin, offers another digital road to this survey.

The 1766 religious census

The importance of the 1766 religious census is the wealth of historical and genealogical information it provides concerning the period before the census of 1813. Just 59 original items survived the 1922 disaster, but luckily transcripts and records held elsewhere can now supplement this information bringing you some 50,000 names.

This time I started with the page Delving Deeper in order to get a good view of the documents and their background. The information for each parish was not uniformly recorded, and thus it is by chance some very rich records have survived. In some cases ministers added social or political comments in their record. The archival history and use of this census before 1922 is traced here, too. Some remnants of editorial remarks for preparing this webpage made me smile abou the efforts of the webteam preparing this splendid portal. We should not complain about every small blemish and forget the overall quality!

nai-ihp-1-688-1766-census
A Parliamentary Return, here for Cullen (detail) – Dublin, National Archives of Ireland, IHP/1/688

The manuscripts gallery for this section gives further illustrations of the record genres themselves and of the whole process to create and evaluate this census, including diocesan overviews of parishes and the final recording in the Book of Returns. The highlights bring you to six different records, not just the offical Parliamentary Returns. Here again a better way of indicating the navigation is most welcome, for example by just adding some marker to each item, perhaps only a streak before each title. Maybe the fact the Mirador viewer was developed with the aim to contain single manuscripts plays a role here, but this viewer has now also been adapted by the Dutch Nationaal Archief for viewing some digitized records of the former Ministerie van Koloniën, and they can be navigated without any ado. Alas this archive did not translate its message of October 11, 2022 about this new feature into English, nor has it been duplicated in the research section. As an addition to the three aspects common to each of the three main collections you will find in the Virtual Record Treasury also a story section, albeit with currently just two essays.

Beyond digitized collections

The Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland is a true treasure trove! It points also nicely to the fact the word treasure is both a noun and a verb. The rich collections of this portal help very much to rekindle interest in several periods of Ireland’s chequered history. Not the least bonus is the way light is shed on the importance of records elsewhere, in particular in England, and on the changing relations between England and Ireland. The word United Kingdom has definitely a hollow ring in view of some dark periods in Irish history where English rule seems to deserve the adjective colonial.

The new portal contains much more that I will only mention briefly here, because you will want to investigate these features yourself. There is a useful glossary of technical terms around digitization. The virtual tour of the old Public Record Office desrves your attention, too. It is also possible to browse the items from particular contributing institutions. The section Thematic collections brings you to more newly digitized collections with additional resources, such as the 1922 Salved Records, the Down Survey and Grand Jury maps. The overview of partners can serve you as a web directory for institutions with relevant holdings for Irish history.

Although I could point you to more corners of the Virtual Treasury of Ireland I would like to mention here a few other online projects well worth visiting. Somehow I had expected to find the respective links also at this portal, but this can readily be redeemed. The records of the medieval Irish exchequer can be supplemented with the project CIRCLE: A Calendar of Irish Chancery Rolls c. 1244-1509, created by Trinity College Dublin in a couple of decades. This institution created also the project The Down Survey: Mapping a century of change. where you can use a HISGIS map next to the survey records. The decision for the Cromwellian Survey came following a period of much turmoil. In particular The 1641 Depositions, another project from Dublin, from a decade before the great surveys, should not be forgotten. The Great Parchment Project of the London Metropolitan Archives focuses on a survey in 1639 of landed property in county Derby.

Header CICLE project, Trinity College Dublin

I promised at the start to look here also at the CIRCLE project of Trinity College Dublin. This project contains some 20,000 charters. Charters in Latin have been translated into English. It is possible to browse and search charters by reign and by roll type (patent rolls or close rolls). The advanced search mode offers you even more. The project helps your research with fine introductions, overviews of medieval and editorial abbreviations, a glossary and a bibliography. In the links section you will find more projects with medieval accounting rolls. For many items there are images. In my view this project is truly much more than just another calendar for medieval sources. Let’s not insist too much on the obvious fact that your research can benefit enormously from combining this resource with the exchequer records now available online in the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland.

I had intended to finish this post much earlier, but surely I mean this contribution as a heartfelt homage to al efforts shown here to bring Irish history to the widest possible public. Twenty years ago the archival building of my own employer, the Regionaal Archief Zuid-Utrecht in Wijk bij Duurstede, was flooded. Thanks to swift, massive and apt efforts almost every damaged record could be salvaged and restored. Such catastrophes make it less normal for me that we are are at all able to consult historical records, and hence my interest and admiration for this most valuable project in Dublin. Keeping archival records safe and creating access to them in various ways, from finding aids and indexes to transcriptions and digital collections, can only happen when we sustain efforts to investigate the past and to cherish cultural heritage for the present and for future generations.

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