Centenary of the Publication of Herbert Wood's Guide 

to the Public Record Office of Ireland (1919)

Herbert Wood

Herbert Wood,  1860-1955 (National Archives of Ireland)
See centenary biographical account at

    Although a 'Decade of Centenaries' is in progress (https://www.decadeofcentenaries.com), insufficient attention has been drawn to the fact that the year 2019 saw the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Herbert Wood's Guide to the Records Deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland (HMSO, Dublin 1919). Wood was a dedicated civil servant but a somewhat self-effacing man who somehow managed to evade inclusion in either the Dictionary of Irish Biography or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (oversights which are hopefully in the process of being corrected, but for the present see the writer's biographical account of Wood at https://www.academia.edu/41278716).
    Although most of the original Public Record Office of Ireland (PROI) holdings listed by Wood would be destroyed during the Civil War in 1922, there is more to his Guide than a mere catalogue of lost records. Herbert Wood was born in Trinity Square, London, on 6 September 1860, the son of an Irish-born surgeon, William Wood, and Jane Mary Jeffries. In 1884 Herbert Wood joined the staff of the PROI in Dublin, which repository had been founded in 1867 with the aims of accumulating, arranging and cataloguing the official archives of Ireland.
    In the early 1900s Wood was assigned the task of preparing a 'general guide to the records of Ireland' to aid users of the PROI. World War I delayed completion of the project and Wood's Guide was finally issued in 1919. To mark the centenary of its appearance, this important work was republished online in February 2019 by the present writer, with a prefatory analytical essay (https://bit.ly/2V5jp3V, 3rd item, 30 MB download; the prefatory essay alone is accessible at https://www.academia.edu/38482627).
    In the introduction to his Guide, Wood sketched the history of the public records of Ireland, noting the 'great vicissitudes' they had undergone, including periodic losses of some records due to theft and fires. Wood concluded proudly that the 'centralisation of the public records in one building has been attended with excellent results', perhaps not foreseeing possible dangers posed by such concentration.
    As is well known, in June 1922 most of the contents of the PROI were destroyed in the Four Courts complex during the Civil War which followed Irish independence. Debate continues over whether occupying anti-Treaty forces or attacking Free State forces were most to blame for this catastrophe, but it is clear that in the fury of internecine conflict neither side was greatly troubled by the loss of archives.
    Wood had been appointed Deputy Keeper or head of the PROI in 1921 and despite the destruction of 1922 he continued to serve in that position until he retired in 1923. In several articles published in the decade after 1922 Wood itemised surviving copies, abstracts and published versions of the destroyed records. Wood returned to England and died in Bath in 1955, maintaining during his later years an interest in Irish public records and the work of archival reconstruction.

Public Record Office of Ireland

Public Record Office of Ireland, Four Courts, Dublin, before destruction in 1922 (National Archives of Ireland)

    From the genealogist's point of view the worst loss in 1922 was undoubtedly that of most of the pre-1901 census returns. The censuses of 1821-51 were among the records burnt in the PROI in 1922, but the censuses of 1861-91 had in fact been destroyed earlier as a result of a bureaucratic misjudgement. Some fragments of the 1821-51 censuses survived and can be searched on the National Archives's website, as of course can the full censuses of 1901 and 1911, which were not deposited in the PROI until after 1922 (http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie).
    This reminds us that a considerable quantity of public records was not lost in 1922 because they had never been deposited in the PROI. Prominent among these are the records of the Valuation Office (local taxation), the Ordnance Survey (maps) and the General Register Office (births, marriages and deaths), all commencing in the nineteenth century.
    The transfer of the records of the Valuation Office and the Ordnance Survey to the National Archives of Ireland is already well advanced. Digitisation of these records is also proceeding, with the printed Griffith's Valuation accessible via Findmypast (https://www.findmypast.ie,
pay-to-view) and Ask About Ireland (http://www.askaboutireland.ie, free). Manuscript pre-Griffith valuation records are accessible on the National Archives website (https://www.genealogy.nationalarchives.ie), while post-Griffith records are still held by the Valuation Office and are in process of digitisation.
    Historic and modern maps are freely viewable at the Ordnance Survey’s website (https://geohive.ie). GRO records of births, marriages and deaths again are of prime importance to genealogists, and despite legends that they were 'destroyed in the Four Courts' or even 'in the Custom House', they have survived intact and can now be searched online at the free government website Irish Genealogy (https://www.irishgenealogy.ie). Many surviving Church of Ireland parish registers are held by the Representative Church Body Library and are also in process of digitisation (https://www.ireland.anglican.org/about/rcb-library/online-parish-records).
    The records of the Registry of Deeds survive intact from 1708 onwards, and while an official digitisation programme is under way, images of indexes and deeds can currently be viewed at the Mormon FamilySearch website (https://www.familysearch.org/search/catalog/185720). Another great archive is that of the Irish Land Commission, which dates in main from the late nineteenth century, but is held in Portlaoise where it is very hard to access and urgently needs to be digitised.
    While of more historical than genealogical importance, it should be noted that the records of the Office of Public Works are now located in the National Archives of Ireland. Fortuitously, a substantial portion of the records of the Chief Secretary’s Office had been retained in Dublin Castle and therefore survived. These include Rebellion Papers from the 1790s and Chief Secretary's Office Registered Papers from 1818, now transferred to the National Archives of Ireland and with the latter in process of digitisation (https://www.csorp.nationalarchives.ie). The second great archival repository on this island, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast, holds much pre-1922 material of relevance to the ‘south’ of Ireland, in addition to ‘northern’ portions of valuation and some other national records (https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/proni).

Wood's Guide to PROI

Cover of online republication of Wood's Guide, accessible at https://bit.ly/2V5jp3V (30 MB download)

    As the hundredth anniversary of the destruction of the PROI approaches, the Beyond 2022 project based in Trinity College Dublin plans to digitally reconstruct the repository, but its publicity to date does not sufficiently stress that this project can only be partial in scope due to the scale of destruction of records in 1922 (https://beyond2022.ie). Trinity has indeed shown that substantial portions of certain archives can be reconstructed successfully, eg, the medieval Irish Chancery Rolls (https://chancery.tcd.ie) and the seventeenth-century Down Survey (http://downsurvey.tcd.ie). However, Beyond 2022 strangely fails to give sufficient recognition to prior digitisation work by other parties - see the projects listed and linked above and indeed the writer's republication of Wood's Guide. Beyond 2022 is sometimes vague about what exactly was lost in the PROI in 1922: 'The household records from the national censuses from 1841 to 1891 were lost forever in 1922' (https://beyond2022.ie/?page_id=1049#preview, accessed 9 December 2019). As noted above and as genealogists in particular will be well aware, fragments of the 1821-51 censuses survived 1922, while the 1861-91 censuses were destroyed by government order after compilation and thus were never lodged in the PROI.
    In summary, the loss of archives in the PROI in 1922 was indeed terrible, but perhaps not as total in all areas as is sometimes thought. It is a salutary fact that the lack of regard for public records shown in 1922 has not entirely disappeared, as demonstrated by the current crisis in the National Archives of Ireland in terms of underfunding, understaffing particularly in relation to trained archivists, information technology deficiencies and lack of space to receive records (Fórsa trade union report, https://www.forsa.ie/national-archives-creaking-under-pressures). It is puzzling that government can allocate €2.5 million to Beyond 2022 (https://www.rte.ie/news/ireland/2019/1205/1097086-beyond-2022-public-records) without adequately supporting the National Archives, which is without a serving permanent Director at the time of writing.
    Wood’s Guide to the Records Deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland is crucial to understanding which archives were lost forever in 1922 and what has survived in original, copy or fragmentary form. Wood’s Guide is indeed a template for archival reconstruction in the digital age, although this task should be approached making fair allocation of resources and taking due account of the full range of knowledge and skills necessary for its successful completion.

    Sean J Murphy
    13 December 2019

This is an independent webpage maintained by Sean J Murphy, who can be contacted by email at sjbmurphy1951@SPAMOUTgmail.com (remove 'SPAMOUT').
Copyright © 2019 Sean J Murphy, Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies, Carraig, Cliff Road, Windgates, Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland. This work may be freely stored on library systems for reader use and reproduced offline for fair personal and educational use, with proper acknowledgement.