Ireland’s forgotten records fire of 1922

Just as truth is the first casualty of war, government records are the first victim of changes in administration. Some documents disappear with ousted officials, others are intentionally destroyed; many are legally shielded from public view for long periods.

Records were torched in the Jan. 16, 1922, handover of Dublin Castle, seat of the British administration in Ireland for more than 700 years, to the provisional government of the Irish Free State. As workman dismantled wire screens and other barricades that protected the castle from attack during the Irish revolution, “ashes of burning documents were sprinkled over the spectators outside,” the Associated Press reported to American readers.[1]Edited versions of the Jan. 16, 1922, dispatch from Dublin appeared in numerous U.S. and Canadian papers.

New York World[2]Clip from Baltimore Sun, Jan. 16, 1922, p. 2. correspondent P. J. Kelly was more direct in his reporting:

The Bantry, County Cork-born Kelly, then about 32, was editor of the Evening Telegraph in Dublin. He had covered the 1916 Easter Rising and during the War of Independence began stringing for the World, which distributed his work to U.S. papers including the Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Kelly was wounded in an April 16, 1921, bomb attack on Crown forces at the O’Connell Bridge in Dublin. A blast fragment tore his cheek.[3]”PJ Kelly, 1880-1958″, The Cork Examiner, Nov. 26, 1958, and other obituaries. Editorship detail provided by Dublin historian Felix M. Larkin. See separate note on modification of this … Continue reading

Digital resurrection

Note Kelly’s concern that “records of historical value will be made unavailable to Irish historians.” He reported the removal of documents to England. It is possible, perhaps likely, that copies of the burned records, whether originals or facsimiles, also were sent to London or other locations and still exist today.

Such document duplication and secondary storage, plus advances in digital archiving, are allowing the Beyond 2022 project  to virtual reconstruct the Public Record Office of Ireland, destroyed June 30, 1922, in a fire at the Four Courts. Irish historians have long bemoaned the documentary losses at the start of the Irish Civil War. The digital records resurrection goes public on the centenary date.

There’s no doubt that Michael Collins and his network of spies and sympathizers had already seen some of the Castle records burned during the handover. Some “records of members of the new government” that Kelly reported could be the Colonial Office 904, or “Dublin Castle Records“, held by the National Archives in London.[4]See “Keeping an eye on the usual suspects: Dublin Castle’s ‘Personalities Files’, 1899–1921” by Fearghal McGarry, in History Ireland, November/December 2006.

But what files were lost forever? Some of the Castle’s forgeries of Dáil Éireann proclamations, created on captured stationary? Secret propaganda files of Basil Clarke and the Public Information Branch? It seems impossible to know.

A few days after the Dublin Castle handover, the Irish Examiner suggested “most Irishmen with any historical sense would like to go through its many chambers, and not a few would like to examine its records. Why not convert the Castle into an Irish historic museum and record office, where students could congregate to write Ireland’s history.”[5]”Future of Dublin Castle”, Irish Examiner, Jan. 18, 1922.

That’s largely what happened. The Castle today is a tourist destination, now featuring centenary events about the handover. A new book by John Gibney and Kate O’Malley also details the handover. I’m curious whether it addresses the “bonfires of officials papers” reported by Kelly. I’ve reached out to the Castle archives department and will update the post as appropriate.

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NOTE: This post was modified Jan. 17 to add more details about Kelly, which were moved higher in the story. My Jan. 16 Twitter post, which referred to him as “an American reporter,” was corrected. Kelly’s citizenship was not mentioned in the original blog post. … See more of my American Reporting of Irish Independence centenary series. MH

Dublin Castle, the seat of the British administration in Ireland into 1922. This photo from late 19th or early 20th century. National Library of Ireland image.

References

References
1 Edited versions of the Jan. 16, 1922, dispatch from Dublin appeared in numerous U.S. and Canadian papers.
2 Clip from Baltimore Sun, Jan. 16, 1922, p. 2.
3 ”PJ Kelly, 1880-1958″, The Cork Examiner, Nov. 26, 1958, and other obituaries. Editorship detail provided by Dublin historian Felix M. Larkin. See separate note on modification of this post. Wounded: “12 Houses Burned For Irish Murder … Correspondent Wounded” The New York Times, April 17, 1921.
4 See “Keeping an eye on the usual suspects: Dublin Castle’s ‘Personalities Files’, 1899–1921” by Fearghal McGarry, in History Ireland, November/December 2006.
5 ”Future of Dublin Castle”, Irish Examiner, Jan. 18, 1922.

1 thought on “Ireland’s forgotten records fire of 1922

  1. Samuel Johnson

    See “The History Thieves” by Ian Cobain. Destruction of records was standard operating procedure for the British Empire as it collapsed.

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