Centuries of documents burned in the Four Courts in 1922. Now they’re being recreated

Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland follows a global effort to recover destroyed items

The siege of the Four Courts ended on June 30th, 1922, with a catastrophic explosion that destroyed the Public Records Office and with it hundreds of years of documented Irish history.

At approximately 11.30am the Public Records Office went up in a huge explosion that sent a dark plume of smoke hundreds of metres into the air. Ernie O’Malley, the anti-treaty assistant chief of staff and a future chronicler of the conflict, noted that a “thick black cloud floated up about the buildings and drifted away slowly. Fluttering up and down against the black mass were leaves of white paper; they looked like hovering white birds.”

The explosion could be heard 2km away. It shattered windows on Grafton Street, Dublin’s premier shopping street, scattered the ducks in St Stephen’s Green and sent the populace scurrying for what shelter they could find. A member of the Public Records Office staff, SC Ratcliff, recalled a scene of utter devastation afterwards. The glass and slate roof built in 1867 had fallen in and a huge crack emerged in one of the walls. The floor of the repository was piled up to 5m high with twisted ironwork and debris. The iron boxes containing many precious records had melted in the heat “and the contents have been reduced in every case to a little white ash”.

The census records for the whole of the 19th century, going back to the first in 1821, were incinerated. The records of those who had lived in Ireland before the calamity of the Great Famine were lost forever. Chancery records detailing British rule in Ireland going back to the 14th century and grants of land by the crown were also destroyed, along with thousands of wills and title deeds. The records of various chief secretaries for Ireland, centuries of Church of Ireland parish registers, the Christ Church deeds going back to 1174, court records dating to the 13th century, military records of local yeomanry and transportation records to the colonies were also lost.


National loss

The list of documents that were stored in the office's record treasury departments are contained in a single 300-page manuscript, which fortunately survived the fire. This unpublished book, compiled in 1919 by Herbert Wood, the deputy keeper of the Public Records Office, was described as the "most depressing in Irish history" because it chronicles so many priceless documents that were incinerated.

The sense of national loss has prompted an international effort to recover what was destroyed. Beyond 2022, a project launched by the Government, involves the National Archives of Ireland, the UK National Archives, the Public Records Office in Northern Ireland, the Irish Manuscripts Collection and the library at Trinity College Dublin. They have teamed up to scour archives for duplicates of the documents that were lost, to be recreated in a virtual treasury for future generations.

On the centenary of the Four Courts blaze this year the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland online will be launched.

Many millions of words from destroyed documents will be linked and reassembled from copies, transcripts and other records scattered among the collections of our archival partners.

The Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland will be an open-access resource, freely available online to all those interested in Irish history at home and abroad and will be an enduring legacy from the Decade of Centenaries.