Destruction of the Irish Chancery Rolls (1304–1922)

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Introduction: The Four Courts Fire 1922

As we stood near the gate there was a loud shattering explosion … The munitions block and a portion of Headquarters block went up in flames and smoke … The yard was littered with chunks of masonry and smouldering records; pieces of white paper were gyrating in the upper air like seagulls. The explosion seemed to give an extra push to roaring orange flames which formed patterns across the sky. Fire was fascinating to watch; it had a spell like running water. Flame sang and conducted its own orchestra simultaneously. It can’t be long now, I thought, until the real noise comes.

Ernie O’Malley, The Singing Flame

So runs Ernie O’Malley’s romanticized account of the destruction of the Record Treasury of the Public Record Office of Ireland, part of the Four Courts complex occupied by IRA ‘irregulars’ during the Easter vacation of 1922. After temporizing for over two months, Free State forces began to shell the Four Courts on 28 June, and Ireland slipped into civil war. On the afternoon of 30 June 1922 the ‘munitions block’ went up. The precise sequence of events remains unclear. The record treasury was under fire from the National Army and a shell could have caused the massive explosion; but, according to one account, the ‘irregulars’ trapped in the Four Courts detonated two lorry-loads of gelignite as a final act of defiance. What is not in dispute is that the blast destroyed most of the records of English government in Ireland stretching back to the thirteenth century.  The Irish Times on 3 July 1922 has this sorry report:

[T]hose precious records, which would have been so useful to the future historian, have been devoured by the flames or scattered in fragments by the four winds of heaven. [The record treasury], with its glass roof and its tall side windows, is now a sorry-looking wreck.

The Four Courts under bombardment, June 1922. Photograph © RT… Cashman Collection.

The Four Courts under bombardment, June 1922. Photograph © RTÉ Cashman Collection.

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Custody of the Chancery Rolls before 1810

The inferno of 1922 was, however, only the last in a succession of disasters―fiery or otherwise―to befall the chancery rolls. It is something of an irony that the survival rate of records documenting these disasters is healthy. Among the few facsimiles to have been made of an Irish chancery roll is an image of the dorse of Close Roll 2 Edward II [fig. 5]. It contains a memorandum of a great fire in 1304 which destroyed most of the thirteenth-century chancery records then lodged in St Mary’s abbey, Dublin, a Cistercian foundation on the north bank of the Liffey:

Memorandum that all the rolls of the Irish chancery with writs, inquisitions, bills and all memoranda touching the said chancery from the time of master Thomas Cantok, formerly chancellor of Ireland, up to the twenty-eighth year of the reign of Edward I [1299–1300] were burned by accident in the abbey of St Mary near Dublin in the great fire in that abbey, except two rolls of the twenty-eighth year, one of patent writs and the other of close writs.

After 1309, although the chancery remained ever on the move, the chancery rolls found a home in the south-west tower of Dublin castle, which became known as Bermingham tower. An administrative upheaval occurred in 1361 when the two sedentary departments of English government in Ireland―the exchequer and common bench―, together with their records, were transferred to Carlow by order of Edward III’s son and lieutenant of Ireland, Lionel of Antwerp (†1368), there to remain until returned to Dublin during the first Irish expedition of Richard II in 1394–5. Throughout these decades, however, the records of the itinerant chancery remained at Dublin. Thus in 1380 we hear that ‘Dublin castle is ruined and devastated and in many places greatly undermined because of the negligence of the king’s ministers who ought to attend to repairs, so that the king’s cousin, Edmund Mortimer, earl of March and Ulster, lieutenant, cannot hold a great council … in that castle … nor can the rolls and records be safely kept there for their protection, as is customary, to the king’s great disgrace and detriment’. This is an early statement of what was to become a familiar refrain. On 22 November 1430 the chief governor and council of Ireland agreed that £13 6s. 8d. should be spent on the repair of Dublin castle because ‘the king’s castle of Dublin and the great hall and other buildings and towers within the castle in which the books and records of the chancery, both benches and the exchequer are kept are ruinous and greatly in need of repair, and for lack of repair of the hall, towers and buildings the books and records are greatly damaged by rain and storms, and greater damage may easily occur for lack of repair.’

Even after adjusting for the embellishments that accompany all attempts to crank medieval administrative machinery into action, we may well believe that the medieval rolls had suffered much by the dawn of the Tudor era. Accommodation remained inadequate (the archbishop of Dublin sneered c.1531 that the chancery in Dublin castle was ‘more like a swine-sty than a stable’). Records wandered from their rightful keepers (in May 1537, when the king’s serjeant-at-law was searching the records in the treasury house, ‘he found by chance a piece of a roll of the Chancery of Richard the second’s time’). Matters had scarcely improved by the eighteenth century. In 1758 the Lancashire-born antiquary, John Lodge (†1774)―deputy keeper of the records in Bermingham tower c.1751 and deputy clerk and keeper of the rolls before 1758―, reported to parliament that the rolls office in Dublin castle was ‘in a very ruinous state, being supported by props from top to Bottom’. His protest continues: ‘The Roof is shored up from end to end, and in danger of falling in by every high wind. The slates and the windows cannot be kept in repair, so that the Records daily suffer by Dust and Moisture. The whole Building is so shook by Tempests that the Clerks have quitted their Desks through fear and locked up the Office’.

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The Irish Record Commission (1810–30)

The first concerted effort to bring chaos into order was undertaken by the short-lived Record Commission of Ireland, established in 1810. The records they were tasked with bringing into order were by that time in an appalling state. A first obstacle to be negotiated was the fact that the records were scattered among several different repositories. In 1812 two sub-commissioners, William Nash and James Hardiman, reported in detail on their findings in the rolls office, and they further returned that around fifty chancery rolls were deposited in Bermingham tower, citing the opinion of Lodge that they had been ‘left there by mistake’. The keeper of Bermingham tower was William Betham (†1853), the famed genealogist and later Ulster king of arms. He had been appointed as a sub-commissioner in 1810, but resigned in 1812, after which his dealings with the secretary of the record commission, William Charles Monck Mason (†1859), were marked by acrimony. When asked to surrender the patent rolls in his care, Betham proved recalcitrant. So began a tussle for their custody. The commissioners used their annual reports as a means of commanding the moral high ground. In March 1813 they presented their case in strenuous terms. Of the rolls in Bermingham tower, they argued:

there are some that clearly belong to the Rolls Office, as, for instance, the Patent Roll of 29th Edward III and 22nd Edward IV, which have the common heading of the Chancery Rolls, viz. “Rotulus Patens Cancellariae”. Such rolls as the last mentioned should doubtless be removed to the Repository, to which they so evidently belong.

At length the transfers were authorized and an inventory of all the chancery rolls was prepared and published in 1819. This inventory unveils the alarming state of the chancery rolls by the early nineteenth century. For the period before the accession of Edward II in 1307, there survived only three membranes from the patent roll of 31 Edward II (=RCI roll §2). From 1307 until the death of Henry VII in 1509 there were 208 regnal years, giving a putative total of 416 original medieval rolls, one patent and one close for each regnal year. Only ninety-seven rolls (or just over 23%) were extant in 1828, and in only eleven regnal years do we find both a patent and close roll. To put the picture in the negative, there were 116 regnal years for which no chancery roll had survived to modern times. Stark as these figures are, they only begin to hint at the true scale of the losses. We gain a more realistic impression of the damage by remembering that each roll was made up of membranes of parchment. A smattering of chancery rolls appear to have been complete or near-complete in the nineteenth century, and these varied between 18 and 26 membranes in length. It would be foolhardy to pretend that we can say with any precision how many membranes would have constituted an ‘average’ Irish chancery roll in the Middle Ages, not least because their length fluctuated over time; but a roll of c.20 membranes would not have been exceptionally large in the later fourteenth century. (If this estimate is low then the next point has still greater force.) Of the ninety-seven rolls extant in 1828, only thirty had more than 10 membranes. Sixteen were fragments, consisting of only one or two membranes.  Three were utterly illegible. Most of the rest had suffered extensive damage, being especially prone to rubbing or tearing at the beginning and ending of the rolls. In sum, the vast majority of the Irish chancery rolls had already been lost by the early nineteenth century. Those that remained were in an appalling state of disrepair. And every one of these survivors perished in 1922.

It is fortunate, then, that in 1828 the record commission published a Latin calendar (=RCH) of the surviving medieval chancery rolls, a volume planned by James Hardiman and brought through the press under the principal editorship of Edward Tresham. In 1830, within two years of the publication of RCH, George IV expired, and with him the patent of the Irish Record Commission. For the next three decades archival policy in England and Ireland proceeded on divergent paths.

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The Struggle for a Record Office

The foundation of the Public Record Office at London in 1838 heralded a period of major archival reform. The same period across the Irish Sea was one of archival stagnation. The American-born archivist, James F. Ferguson (†1855), advertised the need for a remedy in an open letter of 1853 to the Gentleman’s Magazine, in which he disclosed that Irish records ‘are suffered for the present to sleep in perpetual darkness, damp, and dust, and are undoubtedly from this neglect sustaining a considerable amount of injury’.  Ferguson spoke with some authority. He had recently made a chance discovery of a previously-unknown patent roll of 16 Edward II (1322–3) ‘amongst a heap of dirty parchments which had been thrown upon the floor of one of the public offices in Dublin’. Moved by Ferguson’s discovery, the editors of the organ that would become known as the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland intoned that:

The records of a country are its noblest inheritance. Few countries possess a more ample store of records than our own, but they have been, and are, sadly neglected. Much has been irretrievably lost by damp, by fire, and by peculation. The vaults of a custom house, the oubliettes of a state prison are thought good enough to be the depositories of much that remains. How long will it be ’ere their value is understood aright, and even common care taken to preserve them from defacement and decay?

An answer of sorts was given by the Four Courts (Dublin) Extension Act of 1858, which conceded the principle of collocation. The records were soon to be under one roof; but under whose custody? A divide now emerged between ‘professional’ Irish archivists and the courts of law, whose control over the chancery rolls was to become a matter of scandal. Among the ‘professionals’, the young historian of Dublin, J. T. Gilbert (†1898), proved himself to be a firebrand. Thinly disguising himself as ‘an Irish archivist’, he spewed forth a series of pamphlets on the public records of Ireland between 1863 and 1865. His target was the rolls office of chancery, under whose auspices a two-volume calendar of the chancery rolls of the Tudor monarchs was published in 1861–2. The editor was one James Morrin, a clerk of enrolments in chancery. Deriding the volumes as ‘the miserable results of audacious charlatanism’, Gilbert branded Morrin as a plagiarist and set out in merciless detail the wholesale ‘appropriations’ the editor had made from the labours of ‘professional’ archivists. By way of self-absolution, Morrin had prefaced his calendar with the comment that, of necessity, he had worked on the calendar ‘at intervals snatched from the labours of official duties’. Gilbert seized on this confession as proof that the task of editing records was best left to ‘professionals’. The allegations were not without substance, but neither was Gilbert a disinterested critic: he was jockeying (in vain as it turned out) for an appointment as head of the new record office in Ireland. Little wonder, then, that he was so venomous about the ‘clerks of the Dublin Four Courts’, whose credentials as suitable custodians of the public records he sought to undermine once and for all:

The entire affair resolves itself practically into the narrow question―whether the Public Records of Ireland shall be still subjected to be garbled and capriciously manipulated by law clerks, and pedigree agents, with results prejudicial to the Community, costly to the Revenue, and discreditable to the Country, or whether they shall―as in all other civilized nations―be committed to the management of Archivists of recognized capacity, whose labours would be advantageous at home, and redound abroad to the honour of the Empire.

The squall that Gilbert stirred up escaped its tea-cup. Questions were asked in the House of Commons. A public inquiry was held. The credibility of the rolls office collapsed. And the whole scandal paved the way for the passage of the Public Records (Ireland) Act of 1867.

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The Public Record Office of Ireland before 1922

The establishment of the PROI brought an end to the petty turf wars that had characterized the past several decades. Responsibility for the preservation and publication of Ireland’s records was now vested in a single body; and, for the first time, proper facilities were provided both for the records and those members of the general public who wished to consult them. Work proceeded apace. Before the end of 1870 the chancery rolls had been transferred to their new home in the east side of the record treasury, where they occupied the first eight shelves in bay 3D. The safety of the chancery rolls at this time became a matter of concern. Previous to their transfer to the PROI they had been stored ‘in pigeon-holes in closed presses’, with unfortunate results for the parchment, which had become ‘dry and brittle for want of air’, and the rolls were not made available for consultation until repairs had been carried out.

By the early twentieth century Ireland’s public records had been brought into an ordered and manageable state for the first time in their history. So much is clear from the appearance in 1919 of Herbert Wood’s Guide to the contents of the Public Record Office of Ireland,  aptly described by David Edwards as ‘one of the most depressing books in Irish history’. For in hindsight, there was one distinct advantage to the havoc that reigned before the establishment of the PROI. Housing records in multiple locations increased the likelihood of small-scale attrition, but the risk to the archive as a whole was widely dispersed. Wood himself remarked on this irony in an address to the Royal Historical Society delivered eight years after the final disaster. ‘The tragedy of 1922’, he commented wistfully, ‘lies in the fact that the method of assembling the public records under one roof was the very means of making such a destruction possible’. Indeed the irony was thicker still. The first deputy keeper of the PROI― poet and archivist Sir Samuel Ferguson (†1886)―was fastidious in the matter of taking precautions against fire. In his eleventh annual report (1879) he set out his achievements with evident pride:

These newly fitted bays, as all others at the north end of the Record Treasury, which have been fitted up since the building was placed at the disposal of this Office, are perfectly fire proof. … I hope hereafter, from time to time, to eliminate the existing wooden shelving from the central and southern sections, as well as the wooden flooring from the galleries of communication, so that there shall be nothing inflammable within the building (which is brick-arched underneath, roofed with slate on iron, and has, during the past year, been counter-ceiled with zinc), except the records themselves; and these, I may observe, would be extremely difficult of combustion.

Nor did the safeguards end with the fittings in the record treasury. To make assurance doubly sure, the record treasury and record house had been designed as two distinct structures separated by an ‘isolation’ space that was spanned by a covered bridge with iron doors at each end. The record house (which contained the search room) did not burn down in 1922. To this extent the firebreak between the two buildings proved effective, albeit ‘rather in the opposite way from what was intended, as the design was to prevent a fire a starting in the Record House and spreading to the Treasury’. No one had foreseen that one day the treasury might be used to house live ammunition. Ernie O’Malley’s description of the interior of the record treasury on the eve of the blast of 1922 is chilling: ‘The inside was a jumble of lathes, moulds and mine cases; hand-grenade bodies lay in heaps; electric detonators, electric wires and explosives were piled between the racks which held the records … In the lower rooms there were explosives, including a large amount of TNT.’ When all this was sent up the destruction was near total: ‘The fire left little but tangled iron work, blocks of masonry, mason rubbish and the charred fragments and ashes of what had once been Public Records.’