Thursday 27 October 2016

How centuries of census records were destroyed

Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30

Damage: Four Courts
Damage: Four Courts

Was it the most dispicable act of cultural vandalism ever perpetrated in the name of Irish freedom, or just the most unfortunate piece of collateral damage wrought by a savage Civil War? Almost a century on, the destruction of priceless documents in the Public Records Office remains a matter of hot dispute.

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In April 1922, six months after the Anglo-Irish Treaty brought the War of Independence to an unsteady end, 200 anti-Treaty IRA men took over the Four Courts. Bedding in for a long siege, they aimed to force the British back to arms, which they hoped in turn would reunite the pro- and anti-Treaty Irish camps. Late June arrived with the rebels still dug in. The British, with thousands of troops still in Ireland awaiting evacuation, pressurised the pro-Treaty side to take action.

Fearing threats of a terrifying new, scaled-up British invasion, the Provisional Government of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins had to get tough. On June 27th, the rebels were given an ultimatum to get out - or else.

A great deal of what happened over the next 48 hours is hazy. Most historians believe Collins gave the order to open fire with rifles and artillery, but others dispute this. Anti-Treatyites claimed they were preparing for an 8am evacuation when the bombardment began around daybreak.

The rebels' position was hopeless, but several hours before they surrendered a massive explosion shot a towering mushroom cloud into the sky. Raining down on the Liffey like black snow were the flitters of countless pages documenting Irish history, some dating back to the 13th century. The blowing up of the Public Records Office destroyed the Irish census returns of 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851. Most of the wills and testamentary records that had ever been proved in the country were incinerated, along with more than half of all the Church of Ireland records dating back to the establishment of Ireland's Anglican church. Centuries of unique law court and local government records went up in smoke.

The recriminations and conspiracy theories continue to this day. Some think the records were wantonly destroyed as another nail in the coffin of British rule, while others have claimed the Records Office was boobytrapped to kill Free Staters reclaiming the building. Perhaps the most widely held view is that a shell hit two truckloads of gelignite in the rebels' ammunition store, making the catastrophe an unhappy accident.

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