History at a click: New virtual archive recreates lost material from Ireland’s past

27 Jun 2022

Dr Peter Crooks, associate professor in medieval history at TCD; Dr Linda Doyle, provost of TCD; Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD; and Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin, TD. Image: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Computer scientists at SFI’s Adapt Centre worked with historians at Trinity to recreate the archive of the Irish Public Record Office that was damaged by a fire 100 years ago.

Thanks to the power of technology, the public can now take a step back in time and view a digitally recreated version of Ireland’s Public Record Office and its collections.

The Public Record Office was completely destroyed by a fire in 1922, meaning that thousands of documents relating to Irish life were potentially lost forever

But researchers at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and archives around the world have come together to develop the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland, a repository of digital replacement documents.

An image on the left shows the Public Record Office before it was destroyed, and an image on the right shows how it has been virtually recreated.

The interior of the Public Record Office before its destruction in 1922 (left) and the office that is open for (virtual) visitors for the first time in a century (right). Image: National Archives of Ireland/Virtual Record Treasury

The digital treasury is the outcome of a five-year Government-funded programme of research called Beyond 2022. The research programme combined historical investigation techniques and archive conservation with tech innovations to reimagine and recreate the archive that was lost a century ago.

Historians at TCD have been working with computer scientists at Science Foundation Ireland’s Adapt research centre on the project. They were also joined by five partners: National Archives of Ireland, The National Archives (UK), Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Irish Manuscripts Commission and the Library of Trinity College Dublin.

The resource was launched today (27 June) just ahead of the centenary anniversary of the fire that destroyed the original documents on 30 June 1922.

The digital treasury has been expanding over the past few years thanks to the continuous efforts of researchers and replacement documents found in partner archives. Material from more than 70 archives all over the world has been collated and recovered.

The resource contains seven centuries’ worth of searchable documents. Users can also ‘step inside’ the Public Record Office as it was in 1922 through an immersive 3D experience.

It is free and it will be permanently available online for anyone with an interest in the past.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD, described the treasury as “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.”

TCD provost Dr Linda Doyle added: “What seemed impossible has been made a reality by the fusion of historical research with technological innovation.”

She congratulated the team at the Adapt Centre in who worked “so creatively with historians and archivists to make this virtual treasury accessible to the public.”

“Technology should be at the service of society and, having watched this project evolve over the past four years, it gives me great pride to see that demonstrated today,” Doyle concluded.

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.