The Virtual Treasury; a reconstruction of the lost collection of the Public Record Office of Ireland

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Fig 1: A still from the Virtual Treasury video tour of the Public Record Office. This shows the top floor of the PRO with its central atrium providing light for researchers working in the building.

The original Public Record Office of Ireland was a state-of-the-art building located on Church Street in central Dublin. It was completed in 1867, and designed to house nearly 700 years of Irish records, and to continue to collect and preserve the papers of national and local public bodies.  The purpose-built archive consisted of an office and reception block, and a separate Record Treasury with a central atrium to provide light for researchers (See Fig 1).   The structure was stone and metal to prevent fire damage,  and records were arranged within ‘bays’ on each floor,  with reading desks positioned so as to take advantage of the natural light from the central atrium.

Fig 2. The Four Courts building (at right) showing the location of the Public Record Office (at left).

It was a vast resource of centuries of papers of direct relevance to Irish family history.  Regrettably, it fell victim to the hostilities of the Irish Civil War which started in 1922 and went on for over a year.   In April 1922, Anti-Treaty IRA militants occupied the Four Courts and several other buildings in central Dublin in defiance of the majority pro-Treaty forces who were in control of the city a nd most of the country.   Negotiations having failed, in late June 1922 an assault on the Four Courts was initiated to clear the buildings.   This involved shelling of the buildings with artillery.  On 30 June a fire began, which spread to the adjoining Public Record Office (see Fig. 2), entirely destroying its contents.

In 2016  a project called ‘Beyond 2022‘  was initiated to recreate a ‘virtual’  Record Treasury.  The concept was that copies of a proportion of the papers and documents in the building were in other national and international archives.  If these could be traced and copied,   a ‘virtual’ treasury of these records could be created. To quote the project’s purpose  “Many millions of words from destroyed documents will be linked and reassembled from copies, transcripts and other records scattered among the collections of our archival partners. We will bring together this rich array of replacement items within an immersive 3-D reconstruction of the destroyed building“.

In addition to finding copies of records in other archives, curation began on around 25,000 sheets of paper and parchment that had been retrieved from the rubble of the PRO in 1922.  These have been in storage in the National Archives of Ireland ever since. For much of this material,  the technology and expertise for its curation did not exist until recently.  These items are now being curated and copies will also be made available on-line.

The project was managed by core partners  Trinity College, Dublin,  National Archives of Ireland, PRONI and the UK National Archives.     It developed into an international collaboration with an ever-growing number of partner institutions taking part from Ireland, the UK, the USA, and Australia.  Beyond 2022 (Phase II: 2019–23) is supported by the Irish Government through the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.  It is funded by  Project Ireland 2040 which is  a long-term overarching strategy to make Ireland a better country for all, and to build a more resilient and sustainable future,  including access to cultural amenities.

You can now enter the Record Treasury  at VirtualTreasury.ie  and take a virtual tour of the inside and outside of the building. The scene is brought to life by a series of contemporary photos taken by professionals and amateurs; and, of course, you can search its contents.  The search facility is structured like a modern, internet database and responds to a name or a place.   The search bar and links to other information provided is shown in Fig. 3.

Fig 3: The search bar and other links provided within the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland.

By Aiden Feerick and James Ryan

Other articles in our series on Irish Family Sources:

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