For the record
Reporter David Medcalf stepped back into the past when he visited the county archive managed by Catherine Wright on the top storey of the county council, who told him of efforts to get the valuable archive online
Catherine Wright looks well for someone who has spent more than a decade in an attic. While colleagues at county council headquarters work away under her feet, she has her own refuge up in the roof. This is her domain among the rafters, with its unplastered grey block walls, where the county archivist presides over an empire of paperwork.
The treasure trove of documents goes back as far as the 17th century when the proceedings of Wicklow Borough were minuted and put on the leather-bound record. The stock of official papers covers close to four hundred years, embracing everything from ancient ducking stools used to test alleged witches to modern vehicle registrations. Catherine is delighted to confirm that much of the material of which she is the guardian is being made available over the internet.
The latest online development is a slick web-site allowing worldwide access to records of the old Coolattin estate, with it hundreds of tenants and employees. This development is good news for anyone in the Wicklow diaspora with local connections, whether living in Sidney, Shanghai or San Francisco. Yet the soul of the archive remains the attic at the local authority HQ in Whitegates where the originals, the hard copy, dusty manuscripts are on tap.
Catherine Wright, originally from Dublin and a graduate from Maynooth College in history, took over as archivist for Wicklow in 2010 when she succeeded Cecile Chemin in the post. Before then, she worked as a genealogist across Wicklow, Kildare and Meath, putting families in touch with their past, and she continues to run Wicklow's genealogical service to this day, fostering 'roots tourism'.
Encouraging people with Irish connections living abroad to come and see where their forebears come from is good for the economy. The internet increasingly allows them research beforehand so that they arrive knowing already which town or townland they should visit. The process of making the research easier has taken up much of Catherine's time since her appointment.
She realised from the start that there were genealogical, sociological and historical riches in amongst the papers which surrounded her in the attic. The challenge was to harness the power of OCR to make this hoard of material web-friendly. OCR? The initials stand for Optical Character Recognition, the ingenious software which allows documents to be 'read' by scanners.
The process does not (at least not yet) work its magic on most handwritten material but it is wizard at picking up typeset records.
The first significant stash of papers given the OCR treatment was the Wicklow Grand Jury archive covering 1818 to 1899. The Grand Jury system brought together local big wigs to decide on matters of local importance before elected councils took over the running of the counties of Ireland.
They considered the record of their proceedings important enough to have them properly printed up by a Dublin printing firm. The result is a wealth of detail which may be mined by anyone with a computer and a connection to the web anywhere in the world. Suppose, to take a random example, a typeset page from the year 1818 contains reference to the town land of Kilmurry in Baltinglass.
The OCR technology not only scans the page and posts it on the web archive but then allows a researcher to key in the word Kilmurry in order to search for all references to the townland. At a stroke, it has become unnecessary to turn the pages of the original document in search of the quarry, while it is also unnecessary to climb the stairs up to Catherine's attic.
The exploration of 19th century west Wicklow may be done instead at home. So it is that we may learn that three gentlemen - Thomas Dennis, Pat Flint and Pat Lennon - were commissioned to repair a section of the road 159 perches long, from the Carlow border through Killaleash and Kilmurry. This hard-working trio were paid to lay gravel at the rate of half a crown per perch.
Skip ahead to 1897 and another Kilmurry, this one near Arklow where Wicklow meets Wexford. The Grand Jury, led by 'foreman' Colonel CG Tottenham, decided to in that year to allocate the impressive sum of £22 for maintenance of footpaths in and around this second Kilmurry.
As the era of the Big House crumbled around them, Colonel Tottenham was joined at the assizes of 1897 by 22 other gentlemen of similar pedigree. The list included knight of the realm Sir Robert A Hodson, a host of Justices of the Peace, one more Colonel, three Lieutenant-Colonels, and a Major. Such pillars of the Unionist establishment were soon to be blown out of office, never to return, by the local government reforms which bought in the county councils.
The first few years of the new regime produced handwritten records but by 1906, the deliberations of the county council were properly typed up and open to inquisitive 21st century minds through the wonder of OCR.
The record discloses a special meeting of the County Council convened at the courthouse in Wicklow with Cllr EP O'Kelly in the chair, later making way for Cllr Michael Byrne - no hint of any commissioned officers or of any baronets in the line-up. Members gathered to co-opt JJ O'Reilly of Kilmullenas, a replacement for Cllr Simon T Doyle, deceased.
Incidentally, a quick computer search through the same minute book reveals yet another Kilmurry, this one in the Rathdrum district as one Peter Kelly, Kilmurry, Kilbride, was listed as guarantor on a road maintenance contract.
The record for 1906-1909 discloses a weird and wonderful basket of responsibilities which fell within the remit of these councillors, with references to the appointment of a veterinary inspector, to the analysis of butter samples and to sewerage in Bray - to mention only a few.
The process of putting more and more material online has continued with local records being added to the menu available to everyone and anyone with a browser, from the serious academics to the most casual of web surfers. The minutes of Arklow Town Urban District Council are on the list with the equivalent material from Bray and Wicklow town set to follow before the end of this year.
Also 'digitised' are the records detailing the admissions and discharges from the workhouses at Rathdrum and Shillelagh. They illustrate the reality of poverty from shortly before the Great Famine through to the time of the Great War.
As they are handwritten, they are not susceptible to the magic of Optical Character Recognition to assist those who wish to pick out individual names. However, Victorian bureaucrats had their own system of cross-referencing which provides a very useable means of sifting through the mass of names on the workhouse rolls.
The latest venture involving the county archivist and her local authority employers is the digitisation of the tenant records for the Earl of Fitzwilliam's estates in County Wicklow between 1841 and 1868. The project is presented to the world as the 'Coolattin Lives' website featuring thousands of tenant records from the hungry years when the Fitzwilliams encouraged many of the tenants on their vast Irish estate to move to Canada.
The original material is handwritten and held in the National Library but the initiative, inspired by TCD professor of history Ciaran Brady, has made it globally accessible.
Coolattin Lives started at the Courthouse Arts Centre, where Professor Brady is a member of the board, who called in the support of the county council archive, Wicklow Tourism and commercial sponsors. The hard work was put in by the professor's colleague Ciaran Wallace who transcribed the tenant rolls into OCR friendly text, a process that stretched over years charting the land holdings and movements of 15,000 individuals. The new website then links into the existing Grand Jury and workhouse sites, making Wicklow one of the most productive areas for genealogical research in Ireland.
'Thousands of tenant records have been transcribed, digitised and mapped allowing descendants of these tenants - in Ireland, Canada and around the world - to trace their ancestors, find the district where they lived, and make their way back to the family home place,' summarises Catherine. 'This is all gold to the descendants and we are very proud of it.'
The door to her attic is always open to the steady stream of PhD students and family historians who find their way in person to the county council complex. However, new ways of releasing the material stored to the wider audience at home and abroad are constantly being explored.
Health board records, motor tax records, prison records, correspondence, minutes and drawings - the local authority is obliged to hold on to the lot.
'I strongly feel these records should be out in the world,' says the archivist. 'They should be enjoyed.'
Some day soon, they will be.