The Incredible Story of the Public Records Office of Ireland

Dr. Brian Gurrin is a specialist on Irish censuses and census substitutes and author of such books as Pre-census sources for Irish demography and The Irish religious censuses of the 1760s.

In this week’s video premiere he joins me for a discussion of the incredible story of the repository that held early census records and much more: the Public Record Office of Ireland. 

Dr. Gurrin will take us back through the history of the building and the surprising and ironic catastrophes that destroyed countless valuable records. Then he will share the truly inspiring ways that records are being restored, some of which will be available soon!

Watch Live: Thursday, June 9, 2022 at 11:00 am CT 
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Show Notes

Downloadable ad-free show notes PDF for Premium Members

(This interview has been edited for clarity.)

If you’re looking for Irish records that were created prior to 1922, and you’re in the right place, today, we are talking about the Beyond 2020 to Ireland project, which may just be the best hope for Irish research in a long time.

Dr. Brian Gurrin is a specialist on Irish census records and substitutes. He’s also the author of the books Pre-census sources for Irish demography and The Irish religious censuses of the 1760s and he’s here today to tell us about this exciting project.

Lisa: What was held at the Public Records Office of Ireland prior to 1922? What kind of records would somebody have found there?

Dr. Gurrin: The Public Record Office (PRO) opened its doors in 1867. Prior to that the Irish records, the various state records, records of Parliament and so on, they were dispersed around in various repositories, around Dublin and around the country. Many of them were stored in locations that were unsuitable for maintaining records in good condition. The records were getting damaged, some records were getting damaged by damp and so on.

So, when the PRO opened, they started to take in records from these unsuitable repositories. There were a vast quantity of records available. Our earliest census records, our first census was held in 1813. That wasn’t a particularly successful census. And then are our next census was the first time that Ireland was fully enumerated by statutory census in 1821. And thereafter, we held censuses every 10 years on a year to terminal digit one. So, we held our census in 1821m 1831, 1841, 1851, and so on, right up to 1911, which was the last census that was held in Ireland, when Ireland was part of the United Kingdom.

And so, they were very important, very important for genealogists. And an interesting thing about the census: when the Public Record Office opened, and it just goes to show how research is changed, they published annual reports every year, the Deputy Keepers Reports. And when they opened, one of the earlier reports, I think it might have been the second report or the third report, made a comment about the census records. It talked about that the census records were just clutter taking up space and that they weren’t very important. And that they were just taking up taking up an enormous, inordinate amount of space in the Public Record Office. They didn’t want to receive any more census records because there were just basically clutter. And when you think about the census and how important the census is for genealogical research and family history research now, it just goes to show how historical research has changed, and how these records are vital records for historical research and historical study.

Overview of the background and contents of Public Record Office of Ireland:

  • Public Record Office of Ireland opened to public in 1867.
  • National repository for records:
    • Census returns (1813-5, 1821, 1831, 1841 & 1851)
    • State papers
    • Parliamentary records (Ireland had its own parliament until 1800).
    • County records; accounts, administration; grand juries.
    • Charters, corporation records
    • Maps
    • Testamentary (wills), parish registers (Established Church)
    • Tax records (poll taxes, hearth tax)

The building destroyed on 30 June 1922; and almost all records lost.

So it was a really vast collection and it built up from 1867 right up to 1922 when it was still receiving records into the record office.

Let’s just go back and talk about the 1821 census. Again, Ireland’s first census. When that census was held, the census recorded the names of all householders in the country, but also the act that initiated the census specified that at the each of the individual counties where to make a copy of the census as well to hold locally as their own local copy of the census. But then when the county records came in after 1891, after the fire, in the Cork courthouse, all those copies of the 1821 census also came into the Public Record Office as part of the county records collection. In 1922 the Civil War the civil war commenced, and the public record was on the north side of Dublin City in the Four Courts complex, just north of the River Liffey on the north bank.

The anti-treaty IRA occupied the Four Courts complex. We’re not sure what happened. There are two schools of thought. One is that the Anti-treaty IRA deliberately mined the building and blew up the building when they were evacuating it to destroy the records which were primarily records of British administration in Ireland. So, it was a great strike for Irish republicanism, destroying the records of the British administration in Ireland. The second thought on it is that when the anti-treaty IRA started shelling the Four Courts complex to drive out anti-treaty Republican forces there, a shell went in into the Public Record Office, exploding munitions that were stored in the Public Record Office.

Whatever happened, it was quite a disaster for Irish record keeping the beautiful fantastic archive was destroyed. It was explosions that occurred on the 30th of June 1922. It was a catastrophe for Irish history. The building was destroyed, this beautiful archive was destroyed. Records going back 800 years were blown up. The records were scattered around Dublin City. Records were blown on the wind over 10 miles out around Dublin. People were picking them up and handing them back in. There were very little handed back in. It was a catastrophe for Ireland and a really great tragedy. So that’s the backstory.

There was two parts to the records office. In designing this, they were really careful to try to ensure that nothing, no catastrophe, could happen that these records could be destroyed. There were two parts to the building. There was a squarish type building (on the left in the photo).

Ireland Public Records Office

Ireland Public Records Office

That’s called the Record House. That’s where the researchers went. If you want to access records, you went into the Record House, (it was like the Reading Room of the archive) and you filled out a form. You filled out the details of the record you wanted.

The building on the right was called the Record Treasury. It was called the Treasury because these were Ireland’s treasures. This was where Ireland’s treasures were store. It was a beautiful archive containing beautiful records of Irish history over 800 years.

If you look up towards the roof, between the two buildings, you can see a gap. This was a fire break that was that was installed because it was thought that if any fire broke out, it wasn’t going to break out in the Record Treasury, it was going to break out in the record house where the where the public came in and where the heating systems were. So, they wanted to ensure all the collections of records that were in the Record Treasury were going to be protected from fire. So that building isn’t actually joined together. That’s a false wall there. That firebreak gap between the two buildings was to ensure that there was no possibility that a fire could spread from the Record House into the Record Treasury and destroy the records.

The great irony is that when the fire broke out, when the explosions occurred, the explosions occurred in the Record Treasury. That meant that the firebreak operated in reverse protecting the Record House from the Treasury. And by coincidence, whoever was working on records on the day that the record office was occupied, those records were moved from the Treasury to the Record House for them to access. Those records remained in the Record House. So, a small quantity of records survived just by pure accident because people were using them in the Record House at the time. So, the firebreak operated in reverse, protecting the Record House from the fire that was in the Record Treasury even though it was designed with the idea that it would protect the Treasury from any fire that was going to occur in the Record house.

Lisa: Did you say that there was actually munitions stored there?

Dr. Gurrin: Just to take up on the first question that yes, they did. They were really careful to ensure that no damage could come to the records. It wasn’t just that they installed a firebreak, but they also made sure that there was no wood in the Record Treasury to ensure that there was no possibility. So everything was metal. Initially there were wooden shelves in there. But then, maybe 10, 15 years in, the Deputy Keepers annual report says, that’s it, there’s no wood left in here, We have it perfectly protected, so there is no possibility of fire occurring in here.

A  view inside the Record Treasury:

Ireland Record Treasury

(enhanced and colorized photo)

There were six floors in that building. You won’t see any wood at all.

These people are called searchers. So, you go into the Record House:

Searchers

The Record House

You’d sit down in one of those benches down the back, you’d fill out your document, and you’d hand it up to the clerk behind the desk. They give it to one of the searchers who then goes in through those double doors. That’s the way in between the firebreak and the link into the Record Treasury. They wander up to the steps to whichever floor the record was on and find the record, and bring it back down into the Record House for you.

Now we do have a great knowledge of what was in the Record House.

record treasury chart

record treasury chart

There was a kind of a central aisle down. On either side there were what were called “bays”. There were six floors to it. This chart is giving you an indication of what was in the Record Treasury and what type of records were in the bays.

Public Record Office inspection document:

docket image

Tennyson Groves was a great hero of mine. He was a genealogist who sat in the Public Record Office and transcribed vast amounts of information from various census records. A lot of what we have surviving now are transcripts that were transcribed by Tennyson Groves.

Lisa: You mentioned the copies of records that were often made. We see that in genealogical records around the world that sometimes copies get made, and then the original set may go to a central location, and then they would keep a set locally. You mentioned that with some of the census records they actually sent the second set into the public records office as well. Do you have a sense of how many duplicates are out there? I mean, how much hope is there that there are copies of some of the things that were in the building and lost that day?

Dr. Gurrin: That’s a really good question.

Once the fire occurred in the courthouse in 1891 in Cork, they said, ‘right, we cannot have, we can’t have a situation where local records are stored in unsuitable accommodation like this. They can’t be destroyed. We have a perfectly fireproof location here. So, we’re going to take them all in.’

So, whatever records counties produced, like as I said, the 1821 census, they were required to make copies. Not all counties produced copies, and not all counties produced complete copies for their county, but many counties did. And many counties produced partial copies. All of those went into the Public Record Office after 1891 as per instructions of the Public Record Office. They all went in except for one county, which is county Cavan. About 40% of the census records survive for Cavan. They were the only county that didn’t send in their local copies into the record office. All the others transferred.

If the fire hadn’t occurred in Cork, maybe the Public Record Office would have let the records stay locally, and they would have survived. In terms of survival of records, Cavan is the only county that copies of the 1821 census survived. Now there are four volumes of 1821 census original volumes that survived. Some bits of partial sets of records have survived. That’s four out of 480 original volumes that existed. So, it’s like 1% of the original volumes from 1821 to survive. But for Cavan 40% of the county is covered by copies that were made under the terms of the census act.

Then there are transcripts for various parts from genealogists and local historians. Prior to 1922, they made copies. But in terms of survival there’s probably about, I suppose, 50 or 60,000 names surviving from 1821 and transcripts. Now that’s 50 or 60,000 names out of the 6.8 million names that were enumerated in 1821. So it’s really, really tragic.

And it’s even worse as you go as you go to the next census for 1831, the survival rate is even lower. And for 1841, it’s very low as well. And there are about two and a half thousand civil parishes in Ireland. And for 1841, there is only one parish that the original record survived. The scale of the losses is just catastrophic.

We are very lucky in that we do have census substitutes. In some instances, we have a wonderful land value taxation valuation that was conducted in the 1860s or in the 1850s called Griffiths Valuation, which is effectively a census substitute. But that’s what we’re down to as Irish genealogy. We’re down to using census substitutes in a lot of instances because unfortunately, this wonderful census records were lost.

There was one other very interesting census that was conducted in Ireland in 1766, a religious census. And that’s a real focus of our project now. It’s a magnificent survey that was conducted that is in the second book of mine that you mentioned. Some original records survive from that as well. So, that’s a really interesting focus of our project, which I could talk for hours!

Lisa: How has this loss of records been coped with over the last 100 years? Were there efforts to try to reconstruct them and fill it back in?

Dr. Gurrin: There were. As soon as the Record Office was reconstructed they did put out calls for records or records transcripts that were taken before 1922. Those came back in and were donated back into the facility. They did make efforts to recover them.

A lot of the records like the charred remains of records that were picked up around the streets of Dublin and in the vicinity of the Four Courts were collected and boxed and cataloged. Many of those records weren’t accessed again until our project started.

The National Archives has been cataloging those records that were picked up almost 100 years ago on the streets of Dublin, and they’ve been cataloging them they’ve been trying to recover them to try to treat them to make them accessible again.

There were various efforts made and donations came in from genealogists like we had a lot of genealogists who transcribed records previous to 1922. If genealogical transcripts came up in auctions the government was very active in trying to secure those. They did as much as they could do, I think, to try to recover the losses, but it was only going to be a drop in the ocean in comparison with what was there.

Lisa: Now you’ve got a brand new project called Beyond 2022. Tell us how this gets started. And what’s your end goal?

Dr. Gurrin: It’s part of the decade of the decade of Centenaries in Ireland. There were a lot of things happening around 1916, with an Easter Rising around 1918, with a general election, which saw Sinn Fein’s win the majority of the seats. It saw the War of Independence, the Civil War, and then the government of Ireland enacted the partition of Ireland. So, it was a lot of things happening around there.

Beyond 2022 really fits into that as a part of the Decade of Centenaries. It’s a two year project that’s been going on with the intention of identifying material that still exists in archives around the world and local archives here in Ireland. It’s an effort to recover it to make it freely available digitally online. They’re being digitally imaged as high-quality digital images. They are being transcribed as much as possible. And that’s not being hand transcribed. This is a transcription package, which is reading the handwriting and trying to transcribe that handwriting into searchable text.

At the end of it, it is the intention of the project to make 50 million words available and searchable through the Beyond 2022 website. So you will be able to enter a name, enter a name, enter a townland name, enter a place name, enter free text and search these documents and come back with whatever we have. The launch date is June 30, 2022.

Learn more about Beyond 2022

Resources

Downloadable ad-free show notes PDF for Premium Members

Genealogy Gems Premium Membership

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Episode 196

The Genealogy Gems Podcast
Episode 196
with Lisa Louise Cooke

ggp-196

 

In this episode, expert Kate Eakman from Legacy Tree Genealogists joins us with some tips for those starting to trace their Irish ancestors into Ireland. She shares some great websites for Irish research and places to look for that elusive Irish home county;and an exclusive coupon code for anyone who could use some expert help on a tough research problem.

Listen now – click the player below

In this episode, expert Kate Eakman from Legacy Tree Genealogists joins us with some tips for those starting to trace their Irish ancestors into Ireland. She shares some great websites for Irish research and places to look for that elusive Irish home county;and an exclusive coupon code for anyone who could use some expert help on a tough research problem.

Additional episode highlights:

  • Gems listeners respond with strong opinions on sharing gossip about our ancestors;
  • Genealogy Gems Book Club surprises: a past featured author has a new book out?and something different for the new Book Club pick;
  • Mark your calendars and make some plans for big conferences in 2017;
  • Organize your DNA test results and matches to help you get the most out of them, now and in the future.

NEWS: 2017 Conferences

RootsTech 2017 open for registration

FGS 2017 hotels are open

 

BOOK CLUB NEWS: NEW FROM NATHAN DYLAN GOODWIN

British author Nathan Dylan Goodwin, featured in the past on the Genealogy Gems Book Club with his novel The Lost Ancestor has a NEW novel out in same forensic genealogy mystery series.

The Spyglass File: Hero Morton Farrier is back, and he’s on the trail of his client’s newly-discovered biological family. That trail leads to the fascinating story of a young woman who provides valuable but secret service during World War II?and who unknowingly became an entry in the mysterious Spyglass File. The connection is still so dangerous that Morton’s going to have bad guys after him again, and he may or may not be kidnapped right before he’s supposed to marry the lovely Juliette. Meanwhile, you’ll find him anguishing over the continuing mystery of his own biological roots?a story that unfolds just a little more in this new book.

 

MAILBOX: School Records Suggestion

Responding to Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #194:

“For those that have these old school records, consider donating them (even a digitized image) to the school from whence they originated. I shared class photos taken in the 1940s with my parents’ grade schools. The school was so appreciative! I hope another researcher down the road benefits from the pictures as well.” – Laura

MAILBOX: Passing on the Gossip

Blog post with Jennifer’s letter, my response, and several more comments

Here’s a link to a post about the stamp pendant Jennifer sent me

Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. From within RootsMagic, you can search historical records on FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com. In the works: RootsMagic will be fully integrated with Ancestry.com, too: you’ll be able to sync your RootsMagic trees with your Ancestry.com trees and search records on the site.

 

Keep your family history research, photos, tree software files, videos and all other computer files safely backed up with Backblaze, the official cloud-based computer backup system for Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems. Learn more at http://www.backblaze.com/Lisa.

 

INTERVIEW: Kate Eakman and Getting Started in Irish Genealogy

GENEALOGY GEMS EXCLUSIVE OFFER: Go to www.legacytree.com/genealogygems and use coupon code SAVE100 to save $100 on your purchase of research services.

Legacy Tree Genealogist specialist Kate Eakman shares tips about getting started in Irish genealogy. Here are the highlights:

Q: Where would you recommend the hobbyist start their Irish search?

A: Not a lot of Irish records are available online for free. Top sites for Irish records include: FamilySearch.org (click here for their Ireland landing page), National Archives of Ireland, Irishgenealogy.ie and Findmypast.com (click here for their Ireland page).

Q: What does a researcher need to know before crossing the pond?

A: Where the person was born in Ireland. The county. Find out if they were Protestant or Catholic. Click here for an interactive map of Irish counties, including those of Northern Ireland.

Q: Where do you recommend they look for that info in the U.S. crossing the pond?

A: Death records, marriage records, church records (keep an eye on extended family), passenger lists, naturalization papers. Keep an eye out for extended family members who may have come from the same place. Be aware of traditional Irish naming conventions and patterns.

Q: At what point in the Irish research process do hobbyists usually get stuck?

A: Common names regularly recycled, so it can be tough to sort out who is who. Also, a huge fire at the Public Records Office in Dublin in 1922 destroyed the bulk of government records. Click here for a description of what was lost and what surviving fragments are coming soon to Findmypast.com.

Q: How does it work to work with a professional genealogist at Legacy Tree Genealogists?

A: Here’s the process. A manager calls or emails the client to discuss their needs and parameters. They identify the goals and determine what the client already knows. A goal is settled on and then a researcher is assigned to the client. A written report of the research conducted is provided.

GENEALOGY GEMS EXCLUSIVE OFFER: Go to www.legacytree.com/genealogygems and use coupon code SAVE100 to save $100 on your purchase of research services.

The Legacy Tree Discovery package provides for 3.5 hours of preliminary analysis and research recommendations. It’s a great way to get started if you’ve hit a brick wall in your research and could use some expert guidance. Click here to learn more.

This episode is sponsored by MyHeritage.com. the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Click here to see what MyHeritage can do for you: it’s free to get started.

 

 

DNA GEM with Your DNA Guide buy bv medication Diahan Southard: Organizing Your DNA

I can tell whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher by the state of the silverware drawer. If either of the boys have done it (ages 13 and 11), the forks are haphazardly in a jumble and the spoon stack has overflowed into the knife section, and the measuring spoons are nowhere to be found. If, on the other hand, it was my daughter (age 8), everything is perfectly in order. Not only are all the forks where they belong, but the small forks and the large forks have been separated into their own piles and the measuring spoons are nestled neatly in size order.

Regardless of the state of your own silverware drawer, it is clear that most of us need some sort of direction when it comes to organizing our DNA test results. Organizing your matches entails more than just lining them up into nice categories like Mom’s side vs. Dad’s side, or known connections vs. unknown connections. Organizing your results involves making a plan for their use. Good organization for your test results can help you reveal or refine your genealogical goals, and help determine your next steps.

The very first step is to download your raw data from your testing company and store it somewhere on your own computer. I have instructions on my website if you need help.

Once that is complete, we can get to the match list. One common situation for those of you who have several generations of ancestors in the United States, you may have some ancestors that seem to have produced a lot of descendants who have caught the DNA testing vision. This can be like your overflowing spoon stack, and it may be obscuring some valuable matches. But identifying and putting all of those known matches in their proper context can help you realize these abundant matches may lead to clues about the descendant lines of your known ancestral couple that you were not aware of. In my Organizing Your DNA Matches quick sheet I outline a process for drawing out the genetic and genealogical relationships of these known connections to better understand their relationship to each other and to you. It is then easier to verify that your genetic connection is aligned with your known genealogical paper trail and spot areas that might need more research.

This same idea of plotting the relationships of your matches to each other can also be employed as you are looking to break down a brick wall in your family tree, or even in cases of adoption. The key to identifying unknowns is determining the relationships of your matches to each other, so you can better see where you might fit in.

Another helpful tool is a trick I learned from our very own Lisa Louise Cooke, and that is Google Earth. Have you ever tried to use Google Earth to help you in your genetic genealogy? Remember that the common ancestor between you and your match has three things that connect you to them: their genetics, surnames, and locations. We know the genetics is working because they are showing up on your match list. But often times you cannot see a shared surname among your matches. However, by plotting their locations in the free Google Earth, kind of like separating the big forks from the little forks, you might be able to recognize a shared location that would identify which line you should investigate for a shared connection.

So, what are you waiting for? Line up those spoons and separate the big forks from the little forks, your organizing efforts may just reveal a family of measuring Spoons, all lined up and waiting to be added to your family history.

 

GENEALOGY GEMS BOOK CLUB: Sarah A. Chrisman

Author spotlight: Sarah A. Chrisman, living icon of the Victorian age.

Sarah and her husband Gabriel live like it’s about 1889. They wear Victorian-style clothing and use a wood-burning stove and antique ice box. Sarah wears a corset day and night Gabriel wears 19th century glasses. No TV, no cell phones?and Sarah isn’t even a licensed driver.

For this Book Club, you can take your pick of Sarah’s books! Which would you like to read?

This Victorian Life: Modern Adventures in Nineteenth-Century Culture, Cooking, Fashion and Technologies, a memoir Sarah’s everyday life. The Book Club interview in December will focus mainly on this book.

Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present and Myself;

True Ladies and Proper Gentlemen: Victorian Etiquette for Modern Day Mothers and Fathers, Husbands and Wives, Boys and Girls, Teachers and Students, and More;

First Wheel in Town: A Victorian Cycling Club Romance. This is from her series of light-hearted historical fiction set in an era she knows well!

In honor of the Book Club theme, Genealogy Gems is going Victorian! From now through the end of the year, you’ll find Victorian-inspired crafts, recipes, décor, fashions and more on our Instagram and Pinterest sites, which of course we’ll link to regularly from the Genealogy Gems website, newsletter, podcast show notes and Facebook page. Nobody does sumptuous holiday traditions quite like the Victorians, and we look forward to celebrating that.

 

BONUS CONTENT for Genealogy Gems App Users

If you’re listening through the Genealogy Gems app, your bonus content for this episode is a PDF with instructions on accessing the new free Guild of One-Name databases on FamilySearch.org.

The Genealogy Gems app is FREE in Google Play and is only $2.99 for Windows, iPhone and iPad users.

 

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Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

 

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