The Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies
The present Guide to the National Archives is one in a series of online publications by the Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies, which has been established as a focus for raising standards, disseminating reliable information and compiling educational material and reference aids. This Guide was published in hardcopy form in a limited print run in September 1998, and the present online and periodically updated version is designed to be accessible to a wider readership. Our web pages are primarily textual, in keeping with our belief that if the Internet's potential as a quality research tool is to be realised, the book should be imposed upon the Web, rather than the Web being imposed upon the book. Pending the incorporation of a full search facility into this site, a good time-saving device is to use your browser's Find facility (Ctrl+F) to search for key words in the various sections.
The National Archives
The National Archives (of Ireland), located at Bishop Street in Dublin, was established in June 1988, and is effectively an amalgamation of the former Public Record Office of Ireland and State Paper Office. The National Archives is open to the public from 10am-5pm Monday to Friday, a reduced service being maintained during lunch-time. There is no charge for using the repository, but a reader's ticket must be obtained in order to refer to records. For security reasons, all bags, coats and latterly even folders must be deposited in lockers in the foyer. In order to protect records, pencils only may be used to take notes, and there are facilities for using laptop computers. In an effort to conserve heavily used documents, an increasing number of records are accessible only in microcopy form. There is a bank of microfilm and microfiche readers, some of which produce copies on insertion of paycards, which can be purchased at the desk. There is no official published guide to the holdings of the National Archives, but small pamphlets entitled Reading Room Information and Sources for Family History and Genealogy are available, and general and selective information is included in the repository's website.
The premises of the former Public Record Office of Ireland and State Paper Office, in the Four Courts and Dublin Castle respectively, are no longer used as public archival offices, but the National Archives still has material in storage in the Four Courts. Records are made available to readers in the National Archives premises in Bishop Street, usually within 30 minutes of submission of completed dockets, but it may take longer on busy days. In the case of records still stored in the Four Courts, a day's notice is necessary before they are produced in Bishop Street, while material in temporary warehouse storage in Bishop Street may require longer notice before being made available. Certain classes of public records not deposited in the National Archives can only be inspected under conditions dictated by the department or office in whose custody they remain.
The most devastating event in the history of public record keeping in this country was undoubtedly the destruction of the bulk of the contents of the Public Record Office of Ireland during the Civil War in June 1922. The range and quality of the records lost can be adduced from Woods's guide, published only three years before the act of destruction. (1) Documents dating from Anglo-Norman times onwards were entirely obliterated or reduced to a fragmentary state, including journals and papers of the Irish Parliament, masses of State Papers, records of the courts, and ecclesiastical, testamentary and census records. The Anti-Treatyite Ernie O'Malley, one of those responsible for the vandalism of 1922, wrote pretentiously of the event in his memoirs, 'Flame sang and conducted its own orchestra simultaneously'. (2) The holocaust of national records was the result of innate disregard for archival heritage on the part of both sides in the Civil War, and it has to be said that in a country where imagination tends to outweigh documentation, O'Malley's careless attitude has still not entirely disappeared. Although the Public Record Office of Ireland was revived after 1922, it was never given resources adequate to the task of reconstruction, a legacy of neglect under which the National Archives has also laboured.
Reports and Guides
It has been rightly pointed out that another consequence of the devastation of 1922 was the entrenchment of the idea that this country does not really require a major national archival repository. The National Archives Act 1986, under which the National Archives was established, represented a belated attempt to bring Ireland's public archival policy into line with those of other developed countries. (3) Government has allocated funds for long-delayed expansion of storage facilities in Bishop Street, but slowness in releasing same and years of neglect and inaction mean that the National Archives is simply not equipped to fulfil all its statutory duties. Three-quarters of a century after the destruction of 1922, the National Archives remains an extremely tardy phoenix rising from the flames, with a large backlog in cataloguing of accessions and a growing problem of lack of storage space, while in the areas of reporting and publishing there has actually been regression.
Thus it is a remarkable fact, but one entirely symptomatic, that the last statutory Public Record Office of Ireland report was published as long ago as 1962, (4) and a report from that date to 1987 remains outstanding. Reports of the Director of the National Archives from 1988 to 1996 have also yet to appear, although reports for 1997-99 were published in 1999 and 2000, and copies of the report for 2000 and 2001 may be downloaded. (5) There was some embarrassment in January 2000 when a series of sensitive records dated 1969 and relating to Northern Ireland went missing in the Archives, but these were eventually located. (6) It is most unfortunate that Director's reports remain in arrears, those for 2002 and succeeding years remaining outstanding, as this makes it extremely difficult to be fully informed about recent developments, and cannot be said to aid attempts to persuade Government to increase National Archives budgetary and staff allocations. The writer frankly finds it inexplicable that archivists in state employ fell so behind in reporting over the years, and that a comprehensive guide to the National Archives has not been prepared. Mention should be made of the National Archives Advisory Council, which did issue brief yearly reports from 1990 onwards, and while a Strategic Plan was also produced in 1996, none of these publications details accessions. (7) The Strategic Plan demonstrates the urgent need to boost resources allocated to the National Archives, as usage has increased from 10,341 visits in 1991 to 19,422 visits in 1995, holdings have expanded from 90,000 boxes of records in 1988, to 190,000 boxes in 1995, to a projected 340,000 boxes in 2001, a nearly 300% increase within 13 years, and until recently staff remained static at about 35. (8)
Note: Part of the backlog of Director's Reports from 2002-06 have been published on the National Archives website in 2008 and are in the process of being digested.
The last printed guide to the Public Records of Ireland, by Margaret C Griffith, appeared in 1964, (9) so that the first edition of the present work was the first of its kind to be published in nearly 40 years. The National Archives does in fact have an unpublished Short Guide to its holdings, which is an incomplete draft kept behind the desk. (10) The present publication is significantly but not entirely based on Griffith's guide and the unpublished guide, and in particular amends some errors and omissions in the latter. As historian, genealogist, record surveyor and educationalist, the writer has long felt the need for a guide to the premier collection of public records in this state, and first opened a file of notes towards this end in the late 1980s. However, I only acquired sufficient information to complete the task following a commission from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast to survey southern records of northern relevance. Permission to incorporate relevant material gathered in the course of this survey is gratefully acknowledged, although the guide as it stands is of course entirely the author's responsibility.
Acknowledgement is due as well in respect of assistance and advice received from individual members of the staff of the National Archives over a period of twenty years. Lest it be thought that the writer proceeded with the present guide without reference to the National Archives, it should be pointed out that he corresponded with management on the subject, but received no reply. A work such as the present guide, prepared by an individual lacking behind the scenes access, support adequate to the task and comprehensive information, will almost inevitably contain errors and omissions, and if notified of these, the author will endeavour to correct same in any future editions.
Some further reference must be made to the role of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, the Belfast counterpart of the National Archives, whose principal remit is records relating to the Six Counties of the northern state. However, the northern Public Record Office also holds records relating to the three other Ulster counties, as well as a growing volume of material from elsewhere in the Republic, such as the Kenmare Papers (1½ tons in weight!), (11) the Gore-Booth Papers and the King-Harman Papers. With more staff than the National Archives, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland is the major archival repository on this island, is up to date with its cataloguing and annual reports, maintains an active publishing programme of guides to its holdings, has computerised its catalogues and document ordering systems and maintains a model website. It is clear that as well as securing additional resources, the National Archives will need to emulate the structures and methods of its northern counterpart if it is to overcome its long-standing problems.
Because of the destruction of 1922, the bulk of National Archives holdings is twentieth-century in date, consisting in particular of relatively recently acquired records of government departments not yet fully arranged and catalogued, and therefore not described in any great detail in the present guide. The main focus of public interest in the National Archives is the annual release of Government departmental records each January under the 30-year rule, and this interest is bound to increase as files for the early years of the Northern Ireland conflict are released, particularly those of the 1970s. Anticipating a problem which may arise, the criteria for withholding any documents on security or confidentiality grounds should be set out clearly in advance. Despite the above mentioned mislaying of documents in 2001, the releases of documents covering the years 1970-73, which saw Internment and Bloody Sunday, appear to have gone reasonably smoothly. However, in view of the fact that the Barron Report on the Dublin-Monaghan bombings of 1974 has referred to missing Garda files (12), it is reasonable to wish to ensure that there are no gaps in the governmental records covering those events. The writer submitted a Freedom of Information application to the National Archives in February 2005 seeking information on records withheld from release on security and other grounds, but this was not attended to, which would be a matter of concern in any public organisation, but is quite unacceptable in a national archives. As well as lacking sufficient space to store records, the Bishop Street premises are no longer adequate to the needs of the National Archives, and a plan to construct a new building has been unaccountably delayed.
While realising the importance as historical sources of records of the twentieth century, it seems to the writer that surviving records of previous centuries are of even greater importance in the Irish context, precisely because of the great quantity lost in 1922. These pre-Independence records should receive special care and attention, and indeed it can be seen that they are the principal concern of the present work. One particularly worrying example of continuing neglect is the case of Church of Ireland parish registers, for despite the fact that two-thirds of these were destroyed in 1922, it does not appear that the surviving registers have all been microfilmed and made accessible through the National Archives. The National Library of Ireland holds microfilm copies of most Roman Catholic registers (although there are problems of coverage and access there also), so the National Archives might consider adding the registers of Dissenting Protestant Churches to its brief. (13) The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland holds an almost complete collection of microfilm copies of church registers of all denominations within its area (and some beyond), which are now available on a self-service basis.
Older records still in the possession of Government departments and public offices should also be transferred ultimately to the National Archives, although this will only be practically possible when the management and resource problems of the repository are tackled. In this connection mention is made of the holdings of the Registry of Deeds from 1708, of the General Register Office from 1845, and of the Valuation Office from the 1850s, all still in the custody of the respective offices. While the Valuation Office has stated that transfer of older records is under way, the Registry of Deeds indicates that it will not be transferring its records, although to be fair it makes them available to the public in newly refurbished self-service search rooms. Unfortunately, against a background of stiff fees and delay in completing a computerisation programme, the General Register Office is unwilling to discuss the subject of transfer or wider accessibility of its records, or even to supply a full list of its holdings and their locations. While there is growing awareness of the need to protect records of contemporary local government bodies, there is neglect of detached older material, such as the remarkably complete records of the Dublin Weavers' Guild dating back to the seventeenth century, which were formerly uncatalogued and stored in a chest in a hallway, and are now presumably more securely stored. (14)
Overall, finding aids in the National Archives are not well organised, ranging from brittle nineteenth-century indexes to typescript or handwritten lists and calendars of records, which are sometimes incomplete and frequently difficult to understand. Certain important finding aids, such as the Testamentary Index, are kept behind the desk and are not generally accessible. Some printed reference volumes, particularly directories, are in a deteriorating condition, with detached bindings and loose pages, and many of these are simply being withdrawn from circulation. The Internet is developing rapidly as a source of information on and access to repositories, and while the National Archives has a website whose content is being augmented, it does not yet approach the standard of sites of similar repositories outside the state, for example, that of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. While the firm Eneclann has produced useful CD-ROM indexes derived from National Archives records, these are unaccountably not available to users in the Reading Room. In a repeat of the unusual arrangements applying in the National Library of Ireland, the Archives has signed an exclusive contract with the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland for the provision of genealogical consultations, and fitted out a controlled access room with a full range of hardcopy and electronic finding aids, including some not available in the Reading Room. In this connection, the writer was appalled to see the following assertion recorded in an official National Archives minute of a meeting with representative of APGI on 23 November 2001, which was secured under the Freedom of Information Act: 'NLI feels that disgruntled genealogists should join/rejoin APGI'. The National Library's contract with APGI has now lapsed, and a much improved genealogy reference room provided in Kildare Street, a progression which the National Archives might emulate.
Measures which would improve the situation with regard to finding aids in the National Archives include the clear titling of every volume and the insertion of an explanatory or summary page, the systematic use of colour-coded covers for volumes according to the various divisions of records they describe, consecutive numbering or alphabetical filing of all volumes on Reading Room shelves, standardisation of two- or three-letter abbreviations for all classes of records (eg, AGR - Department of Agriculture, CEN - Census, ILC - Irish Land Commission, RC - Relief Commission, and so on), periodic revision and refurbishment of volumes, procurement of multiple copies and facsimiles of the widest possible range of printed, microform and electronically-published reference works, and of course speeding up the process of computerisation and making adequate descriptions of all holdings accessible via the Internet, areas where considerable progress is now being made. In particular, the National Archives has a series of useful online finding aids in the form of databases and searchable lists relating to the following records:
Self-Service Microfilm Room
An important advance in services to users of the National Archives has been the introduction in 2004 of a self-service Microfilm Room in Bishop Street. This is located off the main Reading Room, and microfilms are arranged in cabinets, with lists available for consultation. The procedure is that users locate a microfilm reel they require, check it out at the desk in the Microfilm Room, and then refer to it on a reader machine in the Reading Room, returning it to the desk when finished. Researchers have the option of making their own copies from microfilms on one of the (limited number) of reader/printer machines in the Reading Room. Mention should be made of the introduction of an on-the-spot copy service in the Microfilm Room for small orders. Together, these new facilities greatly increase the amount of research work which can be performed during a visit to the National Archives, and are to be welcomed. There follows a selection of the principal classes of records now available on microfilm in the National Archives:
MFA 6 DMP Registers
MFA 24 RIC Registers
MFA 40-41 RHK Records
MFA 43 PO Archives
MFA 51 Thom's Directory 1844-1958
MFA 53 Tithe Applotment Books
MFA 60 Stormont Cabinet Papers 1921-71
MFA 61 Department of Foreign Affairs, Passport
Application Forms, Cards 1948-70
MFA 63 Tithe Applotment Books, Northern Ireland Counties
MFA 102 Thom's Directory, 1900-12 (microfiche)
MFCI 001-108 Church of Ireland Parochial Records
(Registers and Vestry Minutes)
MFGS 01-32 Census 1901
MFGS 33 Census 1911
MFGS 34 Nineteenth-Century Census Fragments
MFGS 35 Tithe Applotment Books
MFGS 36-37 Nineteenth-Century Census Fragments (contd)
MFGS 38 Betham's Abstracts
MFGS 39 Landed Estates Court Rentals
MFGS 40 Thrift Abstracts
MFGS 41 Will Books (mostly District Registries 1858-)
MFGS 42 Prerogative and Diocesan Will indexes pre-1858
MFGS 43 Irish Will Registers 1828-79
MFGS 44 Crosslé Abstracts
MFGS 45 Shipping Records 1863-1921
MFGS 46-48 Valuation Office House, Tenure and Quarto Books
MFGS 49 Board of Guardians Minute Books
MFGS 50 National School Roll Books/Registers
MFGS 51 Prison Registers
MFGS 52 Board of Guardians Registers
MFGS 53 Calendars of Wills and Administrations 1858-1920
MFGS 58 Petty Sessions Order Books (over 3,000 volumes)
MFGS 59 Census Search Forms
MFP 1 Ordnance Survey Names Books
MFP 3 Pembroke Estate Records
MFP 6 1798 Rebellion Papers
MFP 10 National Schools Applications for Grant
MFS 2 Books of Survey and Distribution
MFS 42 Lodge, Records of the Rolls, etc,
MFS 56 Transportation Registers
MFS 57 Prisoners' Petitions and Cases
MFS 58 State Prisoners' Cases
MFS 59 Convict Reference Files
MFS 60 Free Settlers' Papers
MFS 61 T Series (testamentary)
MFA - Microfilm Accessions
MFCI - Microfilm Church of Ireland
MFGS - Microfilm Genealogical Society of Utah
MFP - Microfilm Preservation
MFS - Microfilm Security
1911 Census Online
In 2007 the National Archives released online the 1911 Census for Dublin City and County, the first instalment of a project which aims ultimately to incorporate the 1901 and 1911 Censuses for all Ireland, with no charge for access. In December 2008 the 1911 Census for Counties Antrim, Down and Kerry were added to the service. While welcoming the fact that census material is being made available via the Internet, the writer notes that the project has produced only four counties after four years' work. While it may be free to view, this National Archives project has already cost 3.5 million Euros of public funds and it is not clear where further money can be found as the Irish economy (early 2009) continues in freefall. Furthermore, the online material has a very high rate of errors and omissions. Examples include misreadings such as Raster for Rafter, Mc surnames indexed with a space after the prefix, surnames indexed as forenames, a number of Valentia Island townlands misplaced, and nothing approaching a soundex facility. It is the writer's view that the Latter-Day Saints and/or commercial firms with a track record in digitising need to be drafted in to complete the Irish census project.
As is the case in many if not most other national archival repositories in the western world, a clear majority of users of the National Archives of Ireland are genealogists, mostly amateurs but with a significant number of professionals. The absence of a published guide to the National Archives holdings, and of a comprehensive set of finding aids, cannot but add to the difficulties of staff in assisting users. The perceived hauteur of some (not all) archivists in their dealings with genealogists, and the apparent tendency of some (not all) genealogists to make excessive demands on staff time, might at least be alleviated by making good the deficiencies in research aids. It is hoped therefore that the present guide can help to enhance understanding of the range and applicability of the holdings of the National Archives, enabling staff to identify records more easily and users to access them more efficiently. While few classes of records listed in the present guide can be ruled out as having absolutely no genealogical relevance, the following are the principal ones of importance to genealogists:
- Census Records
- Griffith's Valuation and allied records
- Tithe Applotment Books
- Wills and Administrations
- Church of Ireland Parish Registers
- Marriage Licence Bonds
- Betham and Other Genealogical Abstracts
- LEC Rentals
General genealogical information, guidance for beginners and a range of contact addresses and links can be found at our Directory of Irish Genealogy site.
While the status of local studies continues to improve, the discipline of genealogy could not be said to be very highly regarded as an academic subject in its own right, but the writer continues to develop his Adult Education courses in University College Dublin. It would be fair to say that confidence in the standards applying in Irish genealogy has not been raised by, among other things, poor management of the Office of the Chief Herald/Genealogical Office, fractious campaigns against reform and hostility to new information technology, the inefficiencies of the Irish Genealogical Project, the Mac Carthy Mór scandal, general neglect of genealogical education and training, and the continuing inability to exploit fully the Internet as a medium for distributing genealogical data. Yet in addition to the inherent value of the knowledge which their subject produces, serious genealogists typically tend to work with a very wide range of sources, in the process acquiring a more extensive familiarity with archives than that of specialist historians, and general expertise which archivists, librarians and administrators ignore at their peril.
Historical Truth and Archival Integrity
It is fitting that the first, hardcopy edition of the present guide should have been published during the centenary of the great pioneer Irish archivist, Sir John T Gilbert (1829-1898). Gilbert published a series of famous pamphlets in the 1860s in which he severely criticised the then standards of archival care and calendaring of documents in Ireland. (15) Perhaps inevitably, Gilbert's campaign offended entrenched vested interests, as a result of which he was to pay a high price in career terms. One hundred years after Gilbert's death, an independent Irish state has been created, yet the bulk of the archives he sought to protect and make more widely known has been destroyed in the fury of civil war, and the lack of urgency in caring for the remnant is shown by the failure to issue up to date and comprehensive reports and guides, and long delay in completing an adequate National Archives building. After the years of plenty, when Ireland was dubbed the 'Celtic Tiger' and opportunities and resources were squandered, the country is now undergoing a severe economic crisis. One of the money-saving proposals of Government in late 2008 has been the amalgamation of the National Archives with the National Library, an ill-thought out but frankly entirely characteristic move.
The writer was greatly influenced in his approach towards archives by the late Professor Robin Dudley Edwards of University College Dublin, who as historian and archivist imparted to his students awareness of the need both to conserve records and make them available for use. Edwards also had something more than a passing interest in genealogy, as demonstrated by the fact that he delivered a public lecture on the relationship between family history and archival studies, (16) while Margaret Dickson Falley acknowledged his assistance in the preparation of her well known genealogical guide. (17) In a statement as true now as when he made it, Edwards observed that 'the approach towards family history is frequently due to an obsession with personal prestige'. He warned against 'a prevailing falseness of values in which historical truth and archival integrity are of little concern', concluding by calling upon the historian 'to proclaim the truth', the archivist 'to insist on the pre-eminence of archives'. (18) It might have been a cause of disappointment to Edwards that it was not one of his archivist pupils who completed a guide to the National Archives, yet he could at least have derived some consolation from the fact that a modest effort to fill the gap has been made by an historian pupil who is also a genealogist.
Centre for Irish Genealogical
and Historical Studies
Last amended 1 February 2009
(1) Herbert Wood, A Guide to the Records Deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland, Dublin 1919.
(2) Ernie O'Malley, The Singing Flame, Dublin 1978 Edition, page 115.
(3) National Archives Act 1986. While other national cultural institutions contain the words 'of Ireland' in their titles, this act officially designates the institution as the 'National Archives' only, which will tend to cause confusion with counterpart bodies internationally if not corrected.
(4) 59th Report of the Deputy Keeper of the Public Records in Ireland, Dublin 1962.
(5) Reports of the Director of the National Archives 1997-99, Dublin 1999-2000; pdf copies of the Reports for 2000 and 2001 are available at http://www.nationalarchives.ie/about/pubs.htm.
(6) Report of the Director of the National Archives 1999, Dublin 2000, pages 26-27, 55-56.
(7) Reports of the National Archives Advisory Council, Dublin 1990-in progress; Strategic Plan for the National Archives, Dublin 1996.
(8) Strategic Plan for the National Archives, pages 3-5. The Director of the National Archives, Dr David Craig, gave evidence to the McEntee Commission of Enquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings in relation to missing security files, the report of which was issued in 2007. Dr Craig stated that having regard to the resources available to him, he was unable 'to ensure full implementation of the National Archives Act'. Dr Craig also informed McEntee that the Archives had effectively run out storage space, and that unless additional space was made available, it would be 'unable to accept annual transfers from departments in 2007'.
(9) Margaret C Griffith, A Short Guide to the Public Record Office of Ireland, 1964 (out of print).
(10) A Short Guide to the National Archives, undated (incomplete typescript draft).
(11) Anthony Malcomson, 'The Kenmare Papers (D/4151)', Statutory Report 1997-98 of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast 1998, pages 119-51.
(12) Report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings, 2003, page 12.
(13) Hence, for example, while the old Moravian Meeting House in Bishop Street is only a stone's throw away from the National Archives, one has to travel to Belfast to view copies of its records in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
(14) The records of the Weavers' Guild, dating from the late seventeenth century and consisting of minute books, lists of members and quarter brothers, and other material, are held by the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in Merrion Square, Dublin. Given that the National Archives already possesses some fragmentary records of the Weavers' Guild, it would make sense to concentrate the whole collection there.
(15) An Irish Archivist [John T Gilbert], On the History, Position and Treatment of the Public Records of Ireland, London 1864; Idem, Record Revelations Resumed, London 1864.
(16) R Dudley Edwards, Irish Families: the Archival Aspect, O'Donnell Lecture 1972, Dublin 1974.
(17) Margaret D Falley, Irish and Scotch-Irish Ancestral Research, 1, Strasburg, Virginia, 1962, page ix.
(18) Edwards, Irish Families: the Archival Aspect, page 39.