The Dublin Public Record Office Fire: Catastrophe and Comebacks

Two years ago I had the privilege of studying in Ireland at Trinity College Dublin. While pursuing my History degree I grew interested in the physical remnants of the past and in the field of archives more generally. This curiosity was kindled through the many hours I spent in the imposing, highly Victorian, reading rooms of the National Library on Kildare Street. There I read records as disparate as eighteenth century recipe books and twentieth century war diaries.

However I soon came to understand that in Dublin history is a concern that extends beyond the cloistered environments of libraries and archives, it resonates with the city’s people. The year 2013 for example saw extensive public commemorations of the 1913 ‘Lock-Out’, perhaps Ireland’s most famous industrial struggle. Through marches, art-works and theatrical performances, residents celebrated the centenary of this vital episode in the capital’s history. Moreover, 2013 could be viewed as a ‘warm up’ for future historical commemorations, as in coming years events like the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Irish Civil War will all receive significant and sincere contemplation.

It was during the Irish of Civil War of 1922 – 23 that the violent course of history came to clash with the sheltered environments of archives. During this upheaval the Public Record Office, housed in the grounds of the Four Courts building, Ireland’s legal epicentre, was destroyed in dramatic circumstances. The P.R.O had been based at Four Courts, on the banks of the River Liffey since 1867 and was a uniquely designed repository.

However in April 1922, the site was occupied by Republican forces opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the document which established the Irish Free State and abandoned the goal of a united Ireland. Over the following weeks the P.R.O was used to hold supplies including explosives. Several months of intense fighting followed, the site being repeatedly shelled by the Provisional Government.

On June 30th 1922, an explosion and resulting fire caused the loss of thousands of documents, some dating back as early as the high middle ages. The items destroyed ranged from legal proceedings to genealogical records, from ecclesiastical documents to wills and amounted to “most of the records of English governance in Ireland stretching back to the thirteenth century.”

The Four Courts Bombardment (1922) ©RTE Stills Library
The Four Courts Bombardment (1922)
©RTE Stills Library

The gravity of the loss was immediately apparent to contemporaries in Dublin. An article in the Irish Times from July lamented that these “precious records” had been “devoured by flames ” and thus could be of no use to future historians .
Perhaps the best account of the tragedy is supplied by Ernie O’Malley, an anti-treaty I.R.A officer who was based at Four Courts during the Civil War. Known retrospectively as the ‘I.R.A Intellectual’ , O’Malley documented his experiences in three works of poetic autobiographical prose. It was in the second of these texts ‘The Singing Flame’ that O’Malley recounted the story of the P.R.O explosion, writing that “the yard was littered with chunks of masonry and smouldering records; pieces of white paper were gyrating in the upper air like seagulls”. O’Malley beautifully captured the melancholy of the scene, surrounded by “half burnt broken volumes”, with “leaves of white paper” being carried up into the air. Supposedly, calls from archivists for the public to return found portions of documents were largely ignored, as scraps were kept as souvenirs.

If the story were to end here, it would amount to another bleak example of violence and warfare eroding the vestiges of history, whether deliberately or accidentally; a sad but familiar narrative which continues up to this day with the horrific destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra by ISIL forces.

However, recent events provide a more positive conclusion, highlighting the ability of archivists and historians to adapt to adverse circumstances. The research group CIRCLE, based at Trinity College and headed by several historians, has endeavoured over the past forty years to reconstruct material lost in the 1922 fire. Using sources from the early 1800s, these academics have managed to compile and digitise a wealth of material relating to the legal and monarchical realm of Medieval Ireland, much of which is available to view for free through the CIRCLE website.

Thus it is shown that scholarship and the devotion of resources to archival professionals, even the greatest of tragedies can provide opportunities for scholarly exploration and ultimately a greater insight into the past.

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3 thoughts on “The Dublin Public Record Office Fire: Catastrophe and Comebacks

  1. Pingback: How lost is lost? | Off the Shelf

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