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A Tragic Anniversary

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Four Courts On Fire From Essex Quay, June 1922, Photographer: Joe Rodgers, aged 17. (http://comeheretome.com/2012/06/28/90-years-ago-today/)

   It was in June of 1922 that the huge loss of Irish historical records occurred.  How did this come to happen?   The agreements that ended the Irish War of Independence were not universally accepted.  The Anglo-Irish Treaty fell short of complete Irish independence requiring elected representative to swear an oath of allegiance to the King and giving the north-east part of the Ireland the option of withdrawing from the Free State and remaining part of the United Kingdom.   In April of 1922, the anti-treaty IRA took over the Four Courts.  At first, the Provision Government did not try to dislodge them, but the murder of Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, the MP for North Down in London on the 22 June 1922 by two Irishmen brought the issue to a head.  The British government suspended their troop withdrawals and demanded that the Provisional Government act.   On the 29th of June, the Free State troops stormed the east wing of the Four Courts.  Shelling had already caused a number of fires, however, just before the surrender on the afternoon of 30 June, a huge explosion rocked the area of the Public Records Office.  Did the anti-treaty forces booby trap and blow up the PRO, or did a shell from the Free State troops ignite munitions stored by the IRA?  Whatever the cause, the result was the loss of 1000 years of Irish history.

   I frequently hear from people that you can’t do Irish research because all the records burned.  The fact is that the loss of records was devastating but not everything was lost.  Among the major genealogical collections lost in the fire were the census records from 1821 - 1851 (the 1861 - 1891 records were pulped by the government during World War I); about 60% of the Church of Ireland registers deposited after its disestablishment as the State church in 1869; most of the wills and testamentary documents (although transcripts may survive); and pre-1900 court records.

    But there are many records that were not housed at the PRO and survived.  All birth, death and marriage records from 1864 survive, as well as Protestant marriages from 1845.  the 1901 and 1911 census records are available online.  The land valuations from the mid 19th century, known as Griffith’s Valuation, as well as the follow on books, the Revision or Cancelled books survive.  And although almost all of the original wills and administrations were lost, there were many transcriptions done prior to the fire that survive.  Roman Catholic records were never stored at the PRO and although dates vary by location, most are available on microfilm at the National Library. Indexes and transcriptions of many church records are available at the Irish Family History Foundation and IrishGenealogy.ie .

    In addition to the major collections mentioned above, (which I have written about in the past) new records are becoming available through digitization and indexing…records that would have been impossible for us to use in the past.   A great example of this are the Petty Session records available on FindMyPast.ie.  Without knowing the date of a specific event there would be no way to work through these.  The indexing, however, allows  you to search for an individual.  These are the lowest court records and contain records on property damage, drunk and disorderly, petty theft.  If you think your ancestor wouldn’t be in these…think again.  Like all Irish records, you need to know enough about your ancestor and their locality to make certain you have found the correct individual and not just someone with the same name, but they are facinating to read!  This record set now contains over 20 million records.

   So although today marks a somber anniversary for genealogists, it’s still possible to do research in Ireland.  Perhaps next year you’d like to join the Ireland Research Trip to visit the major repositories and search for records of your family.  

   Happy Hunting!


© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2013