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Where did all the documents go?

By Peter McDermott

“For a literary nation priding itself on such manuscript gems as the Book of Kells and the Annals of the Four Masters,” wrote leading genealogist Steven Smyrl in the Irish Times last year, “we should be appalled that our reputation internationally is one of a nation without records.”

This is in large part due to the catastrophic losses incurred at the Public Records Office in Dublin at the beginning of Civil War fighting in June 1922 – which included the census returns of 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 – and at the Custom House, towards the end of the War of Independence the previous year.

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Those disasters followed a simple bureaucratic error that resulted in the census returns of 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 being lost forever. From the 1880s onward, census officials at Whitehall in London advised Irish civil servants to destroy household returns. The backdrop to this was the fact that data had been copied into census enumerator’s books – or at least it had been in England, Scotland and Wales.

“Unfortunately,” Smyrl wrote, “no such policy had been followed in Ireland and the mandarins in Whitehall did not appear to know this.”

A rather better example of civil service administration was the 1867 creation of the Public Records Office, as an annex to the iconic Four Courts complex. Official documents, many of them dating as far back as the 12th century, were held in a series of temporary locations over time, but now parish registers, wills, court files, minutes and files of government administration and much else besides could have a permanent home. The treasure trove included the pre-Famine and the immediate post-Famine census returns. Interestingly, the 1821 and 1831 returns recorded individual names, which did not become the practice in the rest of the United Kingdom until 1841.

The Public Records Office quickly became popular with all manner of researchers in the late 19th century, but it found a brand new use with the emergence of the nascent welfare state.
After the passage of the Old Age Pension Act in 1908, the household census returns were sometimes consulted to establish an applicant’s year of birth.

The 1791-built Custom House, which in the 19th century became the administrative center of local government in Ireland, was another landmark building cum battlefield. In May 1921, units of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA occupied and burned it. Five IRA men died and 80 were captured; meanwhile, a great deal of irreplaceable historical material was destroyed

But it was the explosions and fires at the Four Courts 13 months later that resulted, according to Smyrl, in the “virtual annihilation of the largest body of material on the history of this island ever gathered together.”