Thank you, Dr Linda Doyle, for your kind introduction. It is genuinely a great honour to be with you this morning.
Throughout the Decade of Centenaries we have worked with stakeholders across the island to remember significant events in our shared history in an inclusive, sensitive and meaningful way.
2022 is a particularly complex commemorative year as we look back one hundred years to our Civil War – a painful and deeply personal centenary for many.
The destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland at the Four Courts, in the opening engagement of the Civil War, was an absolute catastrophe. Seven centuries of Ireland’s deep history were destroyed in one afternoon – a devastating and seemingly irrecoverable archival loss of our cultural heritage and collective memory and a traumatic legacy of our Civil War.
The scale of destruction in 1922 was near total – the Record Treasury was completely consumed by the fire; the reading room survived but was badly damaged; and the strong room protected some documents and finding aids. It was a reasonable, although mistaken belief that everything was lost forever.
Herbert Wood, Deputy Keeper, was among the first to survey the damage to the Public Record Office on 2nd July. The Minister for Finance, Michael Collins, also visited the Four Courts on that day and noted in his diary that the site must be secured to protect what remained. Within days, the Office of Public Works received official notification from Collins that co-ordination of the salvage effort was its responsibility.
On 13th July, John Chaloner Smith – a structural engineer for the OPW - was appointed to take charge of this operation. By 17th July, staff of the Public Record Office were permitted to begin the momentous task of retrieving documents from the rubble of the Record Treasury. Led by James Morrissey, Assistant Deputy Keeper, they gathered, sorted and identified what they could find among the ruins.
In just under a year, they packed 25,000 sheets of paper and parchment into almost 400 bundles. Everything retrieved was wrapped in brown paper, labelled and secured with string.
The National Archives, as successor institution to the Public Record Office, has held these records, salvaged from the 1922 fire, in its care for almost a century and has now begun the process of conservation, with the support of the Irish Manuscripts Commission. This work represents a significant contribution to the State’s key legacy project for the Decade of Centenaries.
One hundred years later, we celebrate the magnificent restoration in virtual reality of the Public Record Office building and its archival collections. It is an occasion for joy and pride - the culmination of six years of partnership and collaboration, led by the dedicated project team in Trinity College Dublin, to bring this exciting and ambitious project to fruition.
Today is not without sadness too – your friend and colleague, the late Dr Séamus Lawless is deeply missed. He left a wonderful, imaginative and pioneering legacy, which will transform and greatly enrich how we learn about our past. I would like to acknowledge Shay’s parents; his wife, Pamela; and his family who are here today. This must be a very moving occasion for you all.
The Virtual Record Treasury offers an enduring legacy for our Decade of Centenaries. It is an invaluable historical resource for people of all traditions across the island and for everyone of Irish heritage around the world. It is an immense achievement and testament to the commitment and dedication of the Beyond 2022 project team and the archival partners.
The Virtual Treasury belongs to the people of Ireland, democratising access to our rich archival heritage and making our shared history accessible and engaging for everyone. The beautiful reading room has been meticulously re-created with the smallest architectural details faithfully preserved, just as it appeared on the eve of the fire. The archival boxes on the virtual shelves link to saved or substitute records held by archival repositories around the world.
The project ethos throughout has been characterised by trust, openness, partnership, and a generosity of spirit deriving from a shared ideal and common goal, on an unprecedented scale in this field.
The results of this mutual goodwill and the resulting all-island and international collaborations are extraordinary. The contributions from the core archival partners and all of the participating organisations – over 70 in total - are greatly appreciated.
It is a timely opportunity to acknowledge the invaluable role of archives and libraries spanning across Europe, North America, Australia, and further afield.
As custodians of Irish heritage, our international archival partners highlight Irish history and culture for a global audience. The Virtual Record Treasury will offer a substantial, freely available research and teaching resource for Irish studies programmes in academic institutions around the world.
I would like to acknowledge the research carried out by the Computer Science team in the ADAPT Centre. Their imaginative and ground-breaking data framework has reunited historical records separated across continents and scattered for a century. The innovative technology behind the Knowledge Graph for Irish History underscores Ireland’s reputation as a world-class leader in the field of technological innovation and cutting-edge research. The knowledge graph illuminates and inter-links a wealth of evidence about people and place, across Irish history. The project’s positive restoration of a critical loss of archival heritage will resonate with many other international experiences of cultural loss.
Each record or fragment adds layers of meaning. What was previously unknown, indecipherable or obscure is now accessible, allowing for new perspectives and a richer understanding of the complex relationships forged over centuries with our neighbours. These exciting new knowledge graph technologies allow all visitors to navigate the rich digitised collections of the Virtual Treasury with ease, making connections spanning centuries between people, places and official administration. This is a completely new and imaginative approach to making our shared history engaging and interesting for everyone, revealing many fascinating aspects of everyday life across the island.
I cannot overstate my interest in this project. The scale of this achievement is quite simply breath-taking.
Throughout the Decade of Centenaries, the Expert Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations has advocated for meaningful opportunities that will encourage original research and scholarship to flourish.
As a historian, I am fascinated by the potential of the Virtual Record Treasury to transform how we approach local research and local history studies.
And today is a timely opportunity to acknowledge the great contribution of local historians, librarians, genealogists, and custodians of archives, in furthering fields of study that lead us to a more nuanced engagement with local, regional, national and international events. By bringing stories from the personal realm into the public domain, we gain a much richer understanding of our history, in all its complexity.
Free public access to this wealth of digitised archival material will encourage new generations of historians and genealogists – professional and amateur – to share previously unexplored stories and narratives, which have left their imprint in our collective memories and on the local landscape.
It is worth taking a moment to acknowledge the extraordinary nature of the archival collection which was lost in 1922. The continuous collection of a State level archive spanning seven centuries meant that the lost Treasury was one of the great archives of Europe – a loss not only for Ireland but for world heritage.
When we see what has survived around the world, the sheer scale and geographical spread of the archival diaspora has been a revelation.
The extraordinary materials comprising the Medieval Gold Seam are particularly exciting, dating back to the earliest points of political and administrative connection between Ireland and England.
The partnership with The National Archives UK has resulted in the digitisation of the largest collection of original parchment documents concerning medieval Ireland to survive anywhere in the world. Everyone can freely access a wealth of information, dating back to the 13th century, about society, economy and politics in the centuries after Ireland was conquered.
We have fresh insights into many different aspects of everyday life across most of the island – the distribution of wealth and power; war and diplomacy; trade and economic activity; law and landholding; religion and political culture. The parchments reveal how Ireland was administered by – and for – the English crown.
The attention to detail is noteworthy – the meticulous preparation of the parchment, a specially prepared animal skin usually that of sheep or goat, which was used before paper was commonly available.
The records were written up by the clerks working in the Irish exchequer in triplicate. A copy remained in Ireland, with the others being sent to the English exchequer in Westminster for audit. They remained there for centuries – first at Westminster, later in the Tower of London, and now held at The National Archives UK.
The 17th century brought extraordinary upheaval across Ireland, with the wholesale confiscation of land – Ireland became the most intensively surveyed and mapped country in the world during this time. The Virtual Record Treasury brings together for the first time, the key maps and documents describing this transformation of ownership and power on the island, including the maps of the Down Survey of Ireland and the Books of Survey and Distribution. They are an astonishing record of Irish place and locality in a traumatic time of change.
Next year (2023), the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) will mark the centenary of its establishment, serving as the official archive for Northern Ireland. The early staff of PRONI had worked in the Public Record Office in Dublin, notably D.A. Chart.
The collections that Chart and his colleagues gathered in PRONI illuminate the history of the whole island but are particularly rich for the 18th century. PRONI has been extraordinarily generous in sharing this wealth of material with the Beyond 2022 research project and hosting a research fellow in Belfast to explore their collections over the past two years.
The Beyond 2022 research project has made it possible to open up digital access, for the first time, to one of the most substantial and significant holdings in Washington D.C. – the manuscript collections of the Library of Congress - to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Transcripts of debates of the Irish House of Commons, 1776 – 1789 comprises 78 volumes of manuscripts, which give a fascinating insight into the dissemination of ideas and debate in the Chamber of the Irish House of Commons following the American Declaration of Independence.
Five volumes of this material are now searchable online, with further riches to follow. The history of the Irish parliament in the late 18th century resonates with parliamentary democracies worldwide.
It is interesting that, while the documents record the everyday lives of people in Ireland in extraordinary detail, there were very few Irish language records in the Public Record Office.
The Record Office required Irish language as a linguistic attainment among its staff, indeed it was the first Government Department to have an Irish language requirement! Samuel Ferguson, the first Deputy Keeper, was politically a unionist. He was also a poet who studied and wrote about the Irish language and translated ancient Irish literature.
There is so much more to be explored and said, as we delve deeper into the riches contained within these archival collections. I would like to thank Minister Catherine Martin, for her Department’s support for this really significant project. I am looking forward, as I know many of you are too, to diving into the virtual shelves in the weeks and months ahead.
Thank you again sincerely for your work, and for your invitation to join you this morning.
I wish you all the very best in your endeavours.