The Boston Globe

Revising ‘saddest book’ in Ireland

Pages of history being recovered

- By Ed O’Loughlin

DUBLIN — In the first pitched battle of the civil war that shaped a newly independen­t Ireland, seven centuries of history burned.

On June 30, 1922, forces for and against an accommodat­ion with Britain, Ireland’s former colonial ruler, had been fighting for three days around Dublin’s main court complex. The national Public Record Office was part of the complex, and that day it was caught in a colossal explosion. The blast and the resulting fire destroyed state secrets, church records, property deeds, tax receipts, legal documents, financial data, census returns, and much more, dating back to the Middle Ages.

“It was a catastroph­e,” said Peter Crooks, a medieval historian at Trinity College Dublin. “This happened just after the First World War, when all over Europe new states like Ireland were emerging from old empires. They were all trying to recover and celebrate their own histories and cultures, and now Ireland had just lost the heart of its own.”

Perhaps it was not lost forever. Over the past seven years, a team of historians, librarians, and computer experts based at Trinity has located duplicates for 250,000 pages of these lost records in forgotten volumes housed at far-flung libraries and archives, including several in the United States. The team then creates digital copies of any documents that it finds for inclusion in the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland, an online reconstruc­tion of the archive. Still a work in progress, the project says its website has had more than 2 million visits in less than two years.

Funded by the Irish government as part of its commemorat­ions of a century of independen­ce, the Virtual Treasury relies in part on modern technologi­es — virtual imaging, online networks, artificial intelligen­ce language models, and the growing digital indexes of archives around the world — but also on dusty printed catalogs and old-school human contacts. Key to the enterprise has been a book, “A Guide to the Records Deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland,” published three years before the fire by the office’s head archivist, Herbert Wood.

“For a long time, Wood’s catalog was known to Irish historians as the saddest book in the world, because it only showed what was lost in the fire,” Crooks said. “But now it has become the basis for our model to re-create the national archive. There were 4,500 series of records listed in Wood’s book, and we went out to look for as many of them as we could find.”

A major partner in this hunt was the National Archives in Britain, to which centuries of Irish government records — notably tax receipts — had been sent in duplicate. The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom, has also been a major partner, contributi­ng records from the centuries before Ireland was partitione­d in 1921.

A considerab­le haul of documents has also been uncovered in the United States. The Library of Congress, for example, dug up dozens of volumes of lost debates from Ireland’s 18th-century Parliament.

The Huntington Library in California, and libraries of the universiti­es of Kansas, Chicago, Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard are among around a dozen US organizati­ons to respond positively to the hopeful request from the Irish: “Do you have anything there that might be of interest to us?”

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