Centuries of Irish history lost in 1922 Four Courts fire to be recreated digitally

8 Feb 2018

A courtyard within the Four Courts. The distinctive tall arched windows of the ruined Record Treasury reveal the tangled ironwork within. A destroyed car lies amid the rubble. July 1922. Image: Irish Architectural Archive

As part of a major historical project, a team of researchers is attempting to recreate records lost in the 1922 Four Courts fire.

On 30 June 1922, the Four Courts in Dublin went up in flames during intense fighting between the forces of the then new provisional Irish Government and a section of the Irish Republican Army during the Irish Civil War.

Aside from the damage inflicted on the historic building – which can still be seen today in the bullet holes on its exterior – seven centuries of Ireland’s historical and genealogical records, stored in a six-storey Victorian archive building known as the Record Treasury, were lost.

This included hundreds of thousands of English government records concerning Ireland, dating back to the 13th century. Since then, genealogists have resigned themselves to the thought that they were lost forever – until now.

As part of a project called ‘Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury’, an international team of genealogists and computer scientists has unveiled plans to bring Ireland’s Public Record Office back to life by creating a 3D virtual reality reconstruction of the destroyed building and refilling its shelves with fully searchable surviving documents and copies of the lost records.

The documents have been identified by the team in archives and libraries around the world. The aim is to bring millions of lost historical and genealogical facts to a global audience, allowing for historical research to reach back four centuries earlier than most currently available genealogical resources.

Complete for centenary

The project is led by Trinity College Dublin’s (TCD) School of Histories and Humanities as well as the Adapt Centre for Digital Content Technology in the School of Computer Science and Statistics.

They will be joined by the university’s four archival partners: the National Archives of Ireland, The National Archives (UK), the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and The Irish Manuscripts Commission.

With funding from the Irish Research Council, the team’s goal is to have the complete project available on its website in time for the centenary of the fire in 2022.

By December of this year, the website will make the full catalogue of the record treasury available to the public for the first time since 1922.

Records House interior

Elevation of the entrance hall and staircase in the Record House. Original architectural drawings (1864). Image courtesy of the director of the National Archives of Ireland

A boon for Irish family trees

Giving an indication of what people can expect in about four years’ time, the team said users will be able to move through the 100,000 sq ft of archive shelving in the Victorian Reading Room to the very spot where the records were once stored, in order to access any surviving fragments or substitute copies in digital form.

The records on the shelf will be a launchpad to substitute records stored in libraries and archives around the globe.

Key to the recreation of the lost documents will be the ‘gold seams’ that will offer full reconstructions of the whole series of destroyed records based on particularly rich collections of substitute materials held in partner archives.

“By reconstructing these records, which collectively comprise millions of historical and genealogical facts, we have the potential to transform the evidence base on which Irish history is written,” said the project’s principal investigator, Dr Peter Crooks.

“Because the archival collections date from such an early period of history, the reconstruction effort will allow anyone with an interest in researching their families or localities to engage in deep history, reaching back almost half a millennium earlier than most readily available genealogical resources.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic