One hundred years ago, on the evening of Holy Thursday 1922, Anti-Treaty forces occupied the Four Courts and the Public Record Office of Ireland. Ten weeks later, the Four Courts lay in ruins and centuries of historic records were destroyed. On the centenary of the occupation of the Four Courts, Inside the Railings provided a flavour of ordinary life in and around this busy part of the city—before the fighting and the smoke obscured them from public memory.
The Public Record Office of Ireland was established in 1867 to bring together all official papers and state records into one secure archive. These documents, some of them up to 700 years old, were stored in a specially designed building called the Record Treasury. The staff worked in a second building called the Record House which was in front of the Record Treasury, separated by a fire-break. Together, the two buildings made up the Public Record Office of Ireland (PROI). The PROI was in the north-eastern corner of the Four Courts, designed by the architect James Gandon in the eighteenth century.
Between the Public Record Office and the quays was the ‘Four Courts Hotel’ so you could not see it from the river. But it was clearly visible through the railings on the Church Street side of the courts complex, the Record Treasury with its ten tall arched windows stretching almost 60 metres back towards the Bridewell police station.
The Public Record Office of Ireland was actually built in two parts.
The first part, to the front, was the Record House. This was a three-storey building over a basement. Here the Deputy Keeper and clerical staff worked and researchers came to consult the records.
Visitors entered through a narrow entrance hall with a handsome double staircase curving up both sides to the offices above. The head foreman, Richard Tucker, and his family occupied a flat in the basement.
Straight ahead on the ground floor was the public reading room, or Search Room. This double-height space had no external windows. Instead, the ornate coved and glazed ceiling provided natural light to the reading desks below.
Behind a large counter, the archivists used their catalogues, indexes and finding aids to help researchers identify the records they needed, sending Searchers to fetch them from the Record Treasury beyond the fire-break.
Just off the public Search Room, behind the archivists’ desks, was the Strong Room, with its heavy metal door and iron bars protecting the ground-floor window. Here, records still in use at the close of business, were stored safely overnight for readers who intended to return to consult them the following day.
From the Search Room metal double doors led through a fire-break, or isolation zone, to the six-storey repository known as the Record Treasury where the precious records were stored. The fire-break was 3 metres wide with no windows facing into it and only one point of contact. Double doors made of metal at ground level opened from the Search Room into a short metal passageway, at the far end of which another set of metal doors opened into the larger premises.
The fire-break was designed to protect the precious documents from an accidental fire breaking out in the Record House to the front. You can see from the many chimneys in the photograph that the Search Room and offices in the Record House were heated by coal fires, the officials and the researchers worked with the aid of gas-lamps. With open fires and flaming gas a single spark might easily start a blaze in this building, so it was completely separated from the Record Treasury behind it.
In the event of a fire in the Record House both sets of doors could be shut, creating a fireproof barrier between the flames and the Record Treasury. A dry moat and wall surrounded both buildings, isolating them from the neighbouring courts offices.
In 1922, the fire-break did prevent the fire from spreading between the two buildings – but no one had expected that a fire would start inside the Record Treasury itself.
The isolation space between the two buildings proved effective though rather in the opposite way from what was intended, as the design was to prevent a fire starting in the Record House spreading to the Treasury.
55th Deputy Keeper’s Report (1928)
Walking through the metal double doors into the Record Treasury you were struck by the sense of space and light. In front of you rose a large atrium five storeys high. Its black and white tiled floor covered a vast expanse almost 60 metres long and 30 metres wide. Along the side walls, ten tall arched windows let light in among the shelves of records. High above, framed in ornamental iron-work was a huge glass roof giving dramatic views of the changing sky above. As the sun moved across the sky during the day’s work, the space was lit up from East to West.
The atmosphere in the Record Treasury was very different to the hushed sounds in the Search Room. Here archivists, searchers and workmen moved busily between the shelves, the noise of their footsteps on the metal stairs, and trolleys moving bundles of documents, echoed through the atrium over the conversation of the staff.
Walking further into the Record Treasury, galleries full of documents opened on each side. In the centre of the floor workers stood at sloping work stations sorting files and bundles of records. Half way along the floor iron stairs zig-zagged up to walkways joining the east and west sides overhead. A motor-driven winch carried baskets filled with heavy volumes and ancient apartment rolls between the floor.
At each level above wide shelves, fixed to the balustrade, overlooked the central atrium. Staff used these to examine records in the daylight pouring from the enormous glass roof above.
Beneath this main hall was a vaulted basement storing more records. In total, the Record Treasury contained an impressive 9,000 square metres of storage space.
The Record Treasury had five levels of ornamental iron-work galleries above the tiled floor. Level 1 was on ground level and Level 6 right up under the glass roof. On each level walkways ran right round, joined by crosswalks which spanned the atrium.
To reduce the risk of fire, iron was the main building material for the galleries. Where wood was required, the designers used sycamore because it burned more slowly. They soaked the wood in fire-proof liquid, removed all lead paint and treated the walls with lime-wash.
Each level, or gallery, in the Record Treasury was divided into compartments called ‘bays’. Every bay contained racks of shelving arranged to store particular types of records. Tall volumes required tall shelves and wide medieval rolls needed wider shelves. The six floors of galleries contained 120 bays in total.
How the bays were numbered
The bays were labelled alphabetically on each level from ‘A’ to ‘U’. The alphabetical sequence ran clockwise around the building from the north-east corner. Bays on the East Side of the Treasury ran from ‘A’ to ‘K’ and continued on the West Side, running from ‘L’ to ‘U’.
As you entered the building on the ground floor Bay 1A was in the very farthest right corner, and the two bays on either side nearest the door were:
The Public Record Office of Ireland regularly produced diagrams of the Record Treasury’s 120 bays drawn as a grid. They were published annually from 1868 to 1892 to show how the building was filling up, and to indicate the location of important collections.
These bay numbers were also used by the staff and readers to describe the locations of documents. This location information is valuable a century later. We often know exactly where in the Record Treasury important documents were stored, down to the exact bay, the precise shelf location and the precise place on the shelf.
Using this information, we can reconstruct not only the architecture of the Record Treasury, but also its system of arranging the documents, and finally the content of the documents themselves.