Research in a time of COVID

Research in a time of Covid

Tim Murtagh, Beyond 2022 Research Fellow at PRONITim Murtagh, Beyond 2022 Research Fellow at PRONITim Murtagh, Beyond 2022 Research Fellow at PRONI

The current pandemic has affected every aspect of life, and its consequences are reported daily in the headlines of every newspaper. While historical scholarship is far from the most important thing to be affected (to put it mildly!), the spread of Covid-19 has most certainly impacted the ability of researchers to consult the records which form the basis of their work. While many of the major archives and libraries have begun to reopen, they are now functioning in a very different landscape. Since the 24th of August, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) has reopened, on a limited and appointment-only basis. To use the archive, visitors must now book a slot online, at least two weeks in advance and on a first-come-first-served basis. Visitors can only request 10 items per visit and must submit their requests in advance.[i] Researchers can no longer use the self-service microfilm desk or reference material in the search room, which is now closed.  To ensure that staff and researchers are not at risk, there is a strict policy requiring hand washing, social distancing in the reading room, and most of all the quarantine of documents both before and after they are consulted by readers.  For both customers and staff alike, these new restrictions can be a frustrating experience, and similar restrictions are in place in almost every other repository that has recently reopened. But such restrictions are the only sensible way to provide access while still ensuring a safe environment. Moreover, with a little effort there are ways to adapt and make the most of the time you have in the archives.

Just as for any other user, the challenge I face is to try and get the most out of my requests each week. At the most basic level, this means being careful in consulting the catalogue. Thankfully, PRONI’s e-catalogue is quite impressive, with extensive listing at the item level, as well as some substantial abstracts (and in many cases full transcriptions) of items, accessible within the e-catalogue. This is partly a legacy of earlier hand-lists created for individual collections by twentieth-century archivists and which have recently been entered into the catalogue by PRONI staff. I’ve been looking at some good examples of these recently, including the Ellis Papers (D683), the Foster/Masserene collection (especially D207 and D562), and the Downshire papers (D607 and D671).  One only has to look through these reference numbers via the ‘browse’ function of the e-catalogue to see the substantial material that is already accessible digitally. Some of these earlier catalogues are well known to historians as they were published, such as the two-volume Eighteenth Century Irish Official Papers in Great Britain, which was edited by a former Deputy Keeper of PRONI, Dr Anthony Malcomson. Another very useful printed work is Thomas Bartlett’s volume derived from the Macartney papers, Macartney in Ireland 1768-72, which is a calendar of the papers of a highly influential chief secretary, Sir George Macartney. [i] Admittedly, substantial parts of these books are now accessible via the e-catalogue, but the printed copies are still useful (especially if you want to give your eyes a rest from looking at a screen).

Another category of sources that I tend to check before I submit requests, are PRONI’s own pamphlet series, as well as their other free-to-access resources. Most of these can be accessed at While these explain how to use the catalogue for specific categories of documents relating to family history, they also provide some useful information for Beyond 2022 researchers. Even more exciting are the collections of facsimile documents that PRONI has produced, with a great example being Plantation in Ulster, 1600-41 A collection of Documents, edited by the late historian Robert Hunter.[i] This volume, available for free via the PRONI site, reproduces some of the most important documents that PRONI holds relating to this crucial historical event. While nothing will replace the experience of handling and viewing these documents in person, such digital resources are a godsend in an age of COVID.

Unsurprisingly, the process of archival discovery means that I quickly go beyond what has been calendared or extensively catalogued. However, one of the effects of the current situation is that I now seek out items which I know will be more substantial, in that they incorporate multiple pieces of correspondence within a single object. For instance, one of the collections I’ve been looking at a lot is the Castlereagh papers, which consists of 37 volumes of bound correspondence.  A single volume consists of 80 to 100 letters bound together, but is still counted as a single ‘item’ within the catalogue. In contrast, in a collection like the Foster paper, one ‘item’ usually means a single letter. Obviously, if you have a limited number of requests, the priority goes to the item which has multiple documents within it. This doesn’t mean we are neglecting collections like the Foster papers (far from it), but simply that the schedule of what we consult is different because of the restrictions. However, the current restrictions definitely reinforce one of the prime aims of Beyond 2022; namely, to enhance online access to historical records. By enhancing the catalogues of partners, and pursuing an ambitious digitisation plan, we are hoping to help make repositories more resilient in the face of situations like the current pandemic.


[1] For more on how readers can make an appointment in PRONI, please visit:

2 PRONI also sponsored the only modern life of George Macartney, Peter Roebuck (ed.), ‘Macartney of Lisanoure’, 1737-1806 (Belfast, Ulster Historical Foundation, 1983)


The Rocky Road to London: travelling from Dublin to Westminster in the Middle Ages.

The Rocky Road to London: travelling from Dublin to Westminster in the Middle Ages

Elizabeth Biggs, Beyond 2022

The Medieval Exchequer Gold Seam material exists because a series of accounting scandals in the late thirteenth century around the finances of English-controlled Ireland meant that copies of the records produced in Dublin were sent to London to be checked. Once they had been checked, these records were stored at Westminster with the other records of medieval English government. Finally, they were moved in the nineteenth century to what is today the UK National Archives, where they are today. 

The documents written in Dublin were carried to London along well-trodden routes. And we’re going to retrace their steps today following the messengers who regularly made the journey carrying letters, orders, licences and other things that could be carried on horseback. There are regular references to messengers being paid for their journeys, but also regular notes about what could happen when things went wrong- delays, robbery at sea, accidents and more. 

The bag used to transport and then store Irish records in the 1290s,
(TNA (UK), E 101/232/1)

The Dublin Exchequer handled all the money for the English government in Ireland, based at Dublin Castle. Here the clerks have drawn up the long parchment lists of payments and receipts and carefully rolled them up to put them in the leather pouches that will keep them safe on their journey, and handed them to the waiting messengers – us.

The first thing we need to do is to get the ferry to Holyhead. We best hope that there are no strong storms in the Irish Sea otherwise we’ll be waiting here on the coast for a while! When there are calm seas and good winds, we make the crossing safely although it does take two whole days. We’re very glad to see dry land when we come into Holyhead, where there’s an inn we can get a meal and rent horses for the next few days. The next bit is going to be interesting. Once we’ve ridden across the island of Anglesey, we can stay at Beaumaris Castle, one of the castles built by Edward I to garrison North Wales, before crossing the Menai Strait on a ferry. The road across Wales from Beaumaris to Chester is the old Roman paved road. We’ll have to cross mountains, take ferries across rivers, and follow the road east. We’ll probably stay overnight at the royal castle at Conwy, built in just four years and one of the most impressive castles in Wales, and then at Denbigh Castle. But in between, there will be many nights of searching for lodgings. Finally, after a week or more of riding, we reach Chester.

Conwy Castle, one of many built by Edward I to control North Wales in the 1280s.

We’re now in England and the most difficult terrain is behind us. From Chester south is easier going. Chester itself has a royal castle and a thriving marketplace as well as being a hub for pilgrims. We could stay and watch the mystery plays, but no, we have to push on to bring the accounts to London. We ride south through the hills of Cheshire and then Shropshire, crossing bridges and passing through small towns on our way to Litchfield, where the cathedral dominates the town.

From Litchfield, the road gets even busier as we move south. We go from market town to market town until we reach the chalk Chiltern Hills at Dunstable. Almost there! It’s been a long month of travel. After Dunstable, we stay at the wealthy abbey of St Albans in their busy guest hostel and go to pay our respects to the very popular local saint. Speaking with travellers, the monks of St Albans gather the news from all over England and beyond to write their histories. There are twenty more miles to London – only a day more of riding ahead of us.

The martyrdom of St Alban, from Dublin, Trinity College Library, Ms 177, f.38r
(Matthew Paris, Life of St Alban).

The road down into London goes through the outlying towns and villages – first Barnet, high up above London itself with its own busy market, then through the small village at Whetstone and the steep hill down through Highgate. We have choices to make now. We can circle the city outside the walls and stay on horseback, using the roads to reach Westminster, past the abbey and finally to New Palace Yard. Otherwise, we can ride through the city, stable our horses and then make our way down to the river bank. There we find a whole fleet of boats for hire. For a few pennies, the boatman will take us up the river to the King’s bridge at Westminster.

However we reach Westminster, we are looking for the two towers by Westminster Hall. These are the buildings used by the English Exchequer, where we can hand over our letters to the clerks there. While we wait for any return messages or other orders, we can drink ale in the many inns nearby, including the taverns of Heaven and Hell in Westminster Hall itself.  

Map showing the places discussed in this blog post, over 300 miles of travel

Our journey is done. Assuming that we have run into no major delays, it’s been at about a month since we left Dublin. We might be able to arrive more quickly, or bad weather or other accidents might make us much slower. Travel is unpredictable!

Calling all conservators! We are Recruiting a Project Conservator for the 1922 Salved Records

Beyond 2022 is seeking applications for a 6-month contract working on the 1922 Salved Records collection at the National Archives of Ireland. This is a unique opportunity to work on these rare survivors from the cataclysmic destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1922. The Salved Records are an important part of Beyond 2022’s interdisciplinary work to virtually reconstruct the lost archive.

The successful candidate will be based at the National Archives of Ireland.

For full details please see

Recovered from the Flames: PRONI and the Creation of Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury

Recovered from the Flames: PRONI and the Creation of Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury

A digital event hosted by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, in conjunction with Beyond 2022
24 September 2020, 2pm to 5pm (+ Hedge School 7- 8:15 pm)

The summer of 2022 will mark the centenary of the explosion and fire at the Four Courts, Dublin, which destroyed the Public Record Office of Ireland (PROI) and, with it, centuries of Ireland’s collective memories. Now, a century later, a community of scholars are attempting to rescue and replace what was lost to the flames.  Beyond 2022 is an all-island and international collaboration, working to build a Virtual Record Treasury for Irish history—an open-access, virtual reconstruction of the Record Treasury that was destroyed in 1922. This model will be used as an interactive tool for engagement and research, whereby visitors will be able to browse the virtual shelves and link to substitute or salvaged records held by archives and libraries around the world.  As one of the successor institutions to the destroyed PROI, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland is one of the core partners of the Beyond 2022 project. 

This September, join us for a virtual research showcase and panel discussion, to learn more about the role that PRONI is playing in the reconstruction of Ireland’s Record Treasury. The event will include talks from scholars on key PRONI collections, explaining how they are being linked to collections from around the world, in order to replace the destroyed archive. There will be a demonstration of the new virtual reading room, allowing users to digitally visit the reading room of the PROI that was destroyed. The event includes a live broadcast from the present-day PRONI reading room, with staff presenting some of the jewels of the archive. The day will conclude with a History Ireland Hedge School at 7pm that evening, as a panel of historians and archivists respond to Winston’s Churchill’s quote, on the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1922, that ‘a State without archives is better than archives without a State’.

Registration is necessary for this event.

To register, simply follow the Eventbrite link for the event at