Taking stock


From the IAR Archive

Prompted by the splendid facsimiles of the Irish Parliamentary bindings, Judith Hill recalls the journey taken by the originals from Dublin Castle to a purpose-built repository

The great explosion of 30 June 1922 in the Four Courts, that was the culmination of the battle between Free State and anti-Treaty forces during the civil war, destroyed the Public Record Office, and with it substantial legal, ecclesiastical, estate and government records from the 12th to the 19th centuries. Burnt, sundered from their bindings, released from their presses and racks, made monumentally meaningless in the smoke-filled air, the cloud of papers mesmerised onlookers:  ‘… thousands of white snowflakes [could be seen], dipping, sidling, curtsying, circling, floating as snowflakes do. But the shower was not falling, it was rising. Higher it rose, and higher. All around us as we stood, 300 yards away, the bricks and mortar of the great explosion were dropping like hail, but the great white snowstorm eddied ever upward till, at the height of 600 feet it drifted …’1

It is an image of total destruction that reaches beyond buildings and institutions into the lives of all those who had lived in pre-independence Ireland. As such, it is an avatar of revolution. But the break with the past was illusory. The care and curation of public records, essential for practical present-day purposes – establishing ownership of property, for use in legal disputes – as well as for the writing of history, could not be denied. The Public Record Office reopened in 1928, and today the National Archives is a modern, innovative organisation, which has received huge transfers of records and supported a flowering of 20th-century Irish history.2 This summer, Dublin Castle held an exhibition of a recently recreated selection of the wondrous Irish Parliamentary Journal bookbindings, the orginals destroyed in the explosion in 1922. This is a story of the renaissance of a craft and the recovery of objects of true magnificence. By following the original journals back to an older repository, we find that the Public Record Office retains concrete, architectural links with the past that can still be seen and appreciated.

The recreation of the bindings of the pre-Union Irish Parliamentary Journals recovered what has been described as ‘probably the most majestic series of bound volumes in the world.’3 With not a single volume surviving the conflagration, it was fortunate that blueprints of each individual volume existed; rubbings of the original 149 journal bindings made by the book collector and amateur bookbinder, Sir Edward Sullivan in the 1890s. Over half a century later Maurice Craig, in his book on Irish bookbindings, illustrated some of these beguiling ghostly images, and remade the case for the bindings as the pinnacle of the bookbinder’s art. Forty years later, his account inspired the book collector, Philip Maddock, in association with the bookbinder, Trevor Lloyd, to recreate fifteen of the bindings using tools designed and made for the project, which were exhibited with the bindings in Dublin Castle. Elaborate and controlled, sumptuous and restrained, exuberant within well-defined parameters, the bindings display the qualities of classical design that Craig celebrated in his writing and which are widely appreciated as hallmarks of 18th-century Irish cultural achievement.

In 1919, three years before the destruction of (most, but not all of) the contents of the Public Record Office, Herbert Wood, assistant deputy keeper of records, published a comprehensive guide to the repository.4 This guide not only listed the ‘beautifully bound’ ‘fair copies’ of the Lords’ (1634–1794) and Commons’ journals (1613–1800), but also the originals and printed copies of the journals, indexes and digests. All of these records had been removed from the Irish Parliament building on College Green after the Union came into effect in 1801. Under the auspices of the newly established parliamentary record office, the records were sent in cart-loads to a house in Angelsea Street, subsequently described as ‘insecure, but not much more insecure than most private houses.’5 At that time a significant number of official documents were lodged in officers’ houses, various government offices, and : in the Bermingham Tower in Dublin Castle.

In the early 19th century none of these repositories was considered satisfactory. The Bermingham Tower had been rebuilt in 1775–7, giving the records a third of the space previously allocated,6 while the Board of Works architect, Francis Johnston, judged the buildings housing the Courts of Justice records to be in poor repair, vulnerable to fire and malicious attack.7

The historical value of Irish records had been intermittently appreciated during the 18th century, but it was the first Chief Secretary of the Union, Charles Abbot, who made the preservation of public records a priority. As a British MP, Abbot chaired a select committee established to inquire into the preservation and publication of public records in 1800. This did not extend to Ireland. However, Abbot included provision for a purpose-designed record office in the brief for the Viceregal Chapel in Dublin Castle drawn up in August 1801.8 The brief requested, ‘A Plan and Estimate for a Building in the Seite [sic] of the present Castle Chapel to contain in a Basement a proper Repository, fire proof and damp proof, well Ventilated & lighted, for the State Papers, and Public Records: – and erected upon that a Chapel on a level with the upper Castle Yard’. Because of the slope in Lower Yard, a basement accessed from the south could be discreetly accommodated under a new chapel without interfering with the chapel’s presence within Lower Yard. This arrangement was realised in 1815, when the chapel was completed, though by then the vaulted undercroft housed not the records but the tower keeper, who had formerly been accommodated in the adjacent Record (formerly Wardrobe) Tower, where the records were now lodged.

One reason for the delay of Abbot’s project for the preservation of Irish public records was his departure for Westminster in January 1802. Before he left, however, the project had received the influential support of Bartholomew Duhigg, a barrister and junior librarian of King’s Inns, who argued in a public letter addressed to Abbot that the preservation of Irish records could promote the amalgamation of Irish and English statute law, and that these measures would cement the Union.9 The preservation of Irish records was reignited as policy in 1810 when an Irish Record Commission was appointed. It functioned for twenty years with mixed results: two deputy keepers were appointed to the Bermingham tower to organise the records, make indexes and a catalogue, and there was an abortive plan to centralise records from different government departments. The most successful venture was the realisation of Abbot’s plan to provide new premises for, among others, the Bermingham Tower documents and the Irish Parliamentary records. The decision to locate them in the Record Tower had been made by September 1811.10 The Record Tower is the largest surviving medieval structure in a castle that had been almost completely rebuilt in a classical idiom after a fire in 1684. A massive battered structure, with five-metre thick walls, it had been the strongest corner tower in medieval Dublin Castle. However, slightly lower than the adjacent arcaded ranges of the rebuilt castle and largely bereft of its battlements, it was, by the end of the 18th century, a forlorn fragment of the medieval building. In 1793 there was pressure to demolish it. This was resisted,so that the tower, which abutted the site of the new chapel, became part of the chapel project. The 1801 brief for the new chapel merely stipulated that the tower be retained, but by 1807 it had been decided to alter the tower’s battlements and windows ‘to make it harmonise with the style of the Chapel’.11 Francis Johnston, who designed the new chapel in a gothic style using ashlar limestone, added a storey to the medieval tower in rubble limestone to match the original structure. He crowned the structure with battlements placed over round-arched machicolations resting on four-tiered corbels. Pre-eminent and well-defined, conveying an image of strength, the tower acted as a picturesque and semantic backdrop to the new chapel, drawing attention to the medieval roots of the castle. It was not an inappropriate place for records to reside; it was safe from fire and theft, and it conveyed viceregal commitment to the application of contemporary British standards to Ireland.

It is an irony, and one that we are all too familiar with, that progress which centralises and purports to ensure safety, fosters vulnerabilty

Inside the tower, Johnston faced the central circular chambers and staircase shaft with brick, inserted a cantilevered stone stair, lined the circular chambers on each of the original three floors with presses, and converted the vaulted embrasures within the thick walls into repositories by enlarging some of the windows and closing off passages. He constructed five brightly lit rooms on the new fourth storey. The tower was ready to receive the records by March 1814.12 The Lords’ and Commons’ journals were allocated to the third floor, and to the room to the right of the entrance on the new upper floor. Tables were provided for consultation.13

The Irish Record Commission ceased to function in 1830, and the early 19th-century project to rationalise and protect Irish records was superseded by a much more ambitious initiative. Like the earlier initiative, this was influenced by developments in England, where a general repository was established in 1838. Almost thirty years later the Public Records Act (Ireland) of 1867 made provision for a centralised public record office in Dublin under a single authority. By then Enoch Trevor Owen and RJ Stirling of the Office of Public Works had designed and built the Public Record Office and Record Repository on a site to the west of the Four Courts. The Public Record Office was a three-storey granite-faced classical block. The six-storey repository, situated to the rear of the office, had an internal iron structure and partially glazed roof, and its masonry skin was fenestrated with a dramatic arcade of 30-feet high round-headed windows. The composite construction, echoing the design approach taken in the late 1830s for the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, was forward-looking and reflected the ambition of the project.

It is an irony, and one that we are all too familiar with, that progress which centralises and purports to ensure safety, fosters vulnerabilty. The comprehensiveness of the destruction in 1922 was enabled by the efficiency of those who created the Public Record Office in the late 19th century. It should perhaps come as no surprise that the less ambitious Record Tower of the early years of the Union is the one that has survived, now housing the museum for An Garda Siochána. While we admire the intricacy and balance of the Parliamentary Journal bindings – six volumes of which are to remain indefinitely at Dublin Castle – we might think of the medieval tower where they once resided, which was restored by people who celebrated the strength and historical associations of the medieval castle, and set in motion a project to bolster the Union which became the bedrock for the modern institution of the independent state that we have today.

Judith Hill is an architectural historian and historic buildings consultant.

1 Eoin Neeson, The civil war in Ireland, 1922–1923 (Cork, 1966), p. 122.
2 http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/ruin-of-public-record-office-marked-loss-of-great-archive-1.1069843, accessed 14 June, 2017.
3 Quoted in Maurice Craig, Irish bookbindings (London, 1954), p. 4
4 Herbert Wood, A guide to the records deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland (Dublin, 1919)
5 Quoted in R.B. McDowell, The Irish administration 1801–1914 (Westport, Connecticut, 1964), p. 269.
6 Wood, Guide, p. ix
7 House of Commons Papers, Reports of Commissioners, Second report from the Commissioners, appointed by His Majesty to execute the measures recommended in an address of the House of Commons respecting the public records of Ireland (16 Mar. 1812), appendix A.
8 In a letter the architect, James Gandon mentioned that Abbot asked to see him on 8 August 1801 about a ‘Public Work [that] was in contemplation’ (British Library, Hardwicke Papers, Add MS 35733, f 312, James Gandon to Hon. C. Lindsay, 30 Mar. 1802; f 314, brief enclosed with letter).
9 Bartholomew Duhigg, A letter to the Rt Hon. Charles Abbot on the arrangement of Irish records and the assimilation of Irish to English statute law (Dublin, 1801)
10 National Archives of Ireland, OPW Secretariat branch, records of a general nature, letter books, OPW I/1/2/2, 3 Sept. 1811.
11 Dublin Evening Post, 7 April 1807.
12 House of Commons Papers, Reports of Commissioners, Fourth report from the Commissioners, appointed by His Majesty to execute the measures recommended in an address of the House of Commons respecting the public records of Ireland (21 Mar. 1814).
13 House of Commons Papers, Reports of Commissioners, Third report from the Commissioners, appointed by His Majesty to execute the measures recommended in an address of the House of Commons respecting the public records of Ireland (29 Mar. 1813).