Exhibition telling the story of the Public Record Office, destroyed 100 years ago today, opens in Dublin

Exhibition telling the story of the Public Record Office, destroyed 100 years ago today, opens in Dublin

A UNIQUE exhibition of photographs, architectural plans and drawings, maps and elevations, video and salvaged records opens today in Dublin, marking the centenary of the destruction of the Public Record Office on 30 June 1922.

The exhibition is presented by the National Archives in partnership with the Irish Architectural Archive and tells the story of the once magnificent building that was the Public Record Office of Ireland; from its construction to its burning during the Battle of the Four Courts in June 1922 to its final reconstruction.

When the Public Record Office of Ireland was completed in 1867, its contemporaries were the National Gallery of Ireland (opened in 1864) and the National Museum (opened in 1857). It was seen across Europe as a state of the art public record office and treasury building.

The exhibition brings to life a building that no longer graces the Dublin skyline. Built between 1864 and 1866, it consisted of a 3-storey over-basement Record House with staff offices, a caretaker’s apartment, a library, a binding room and a public reading room. Behind the Record House was the Record Treasury, an enormous 6-storey building containing 100,000 square feet of shelving with records accumulated over seven centuries.

The archives’ collections touched on almost every aspect of life in Ireland including census records, wills, maps, parish registers and town records from across the island. It also documented the growth of the State, recording the payment of taxes, the enactment of laws and the birth of the Irish parliament.

In April 1922, anti-Treaty forces occupied the Dublin’s Four Courts buildings, where the Public Record Office of Ireland was located. The occupying forces established their munitions factory and store in the Record Treasury building.

On 30 June 1922, an explosion in an adjacent building at the Four Courts started a fire which spread to the Record Treasury central archive storage, where the munitions were being manufactured. The fire destroyed so much of the building that only the outer wall remained standing.

On 2 July, Minister for Finance, Michael Collins visited the Four Courts complex and noted in his diary that the site needed to be secured to protect the remains of the records. Within a matter of days the Office of Public Works received official notification from Collins, that the coordination of the salvage operation was their responsibility.

Staff of the Public Record Office began the momentous task of retrieving the records from the rubble.

Gathering documents found amongst the ruins, staff then sorted and identified them. In just under a year they packed 25,000 sheets of paper and parchment into nearly 400 bundles.

Everything that was retrieved from the wreckage was wrapped in brown paper, labelled and secured with string, preserved, and patiently waited to be dealt with. It would be a century before staff of the National Archives would begin working on these salved records.

By 1923, the Public Record Office was repaired and staff resumed working on site. Reconstruction works then started with a more modest building restored. This building is now occupied by the Court of Appeal to the front and the National Archives to the rear and basement.

Speaking at the exhibition opening, Minister Catherine Martin, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, said:

“This is a truly remarkable story of a building, built to house and protect centuries of precious records from Elizabethan times to the present day. Yet on that day in 1922, fire destroyed not only the building but most of the records inside. The commitment and vision of the staff to salvage what they could was a powerful gesture of resilience and fortitude. Their work has enabled staff today at the National Archives to continue in their footsteps and preserve and conserve the records they salvaged from the rubble in 1922.

"The photographs, plans and drawings presented here today have never been on public display before. Visitors will also have unique access to the inside of this extraordinary Victorian records treasury through contemporary film footage of a building closed to the public for over 150 years. I am delighted that as part of the State’s Commemorations Programme, this exhibition provides us with an opportunity to step back into the history and story of a building that continues to protect and preserve the archives of the State as a second site of the National Archives.”

The exhibition is part of the Government of Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries Programme 2012-2023, and will run from 10am to 5pm Monday-Friday until 19 August.