Gold seams

Beyond 2022 seeks to identify ‘Gold Seams’ of substitute material that can help us recover historical information by bringing us right back to the contents of whole series of records that were destroyed in in 1922.

The identification of Gold Seams is based on two primary considerations:

- Quantity: the existence of a critical mass of substitute material relating to a destroyed series of records (or multiple related series of records within a Department of State)

- Quality: the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the substitute texts (i.e., their proximity and fidelity to the destroyed originals), as well as their accessibility and state of preservation within their current repositories

Where both these criteria can be satisfied, a compelling case emerges for using the Gold Seam of substitute material to develop a more complete reconstruction of a destroyed series, down to the level of individual documents.

Examples of destroyed series successfully reconstructed at document level are the medieval Irish chancery rolls, which were reconstructed and launched as a fully-searchable online resource in 2012: CIRCLE: A Calendar of Irish Chancery Letters; and the Down Survey of Ireland, launched in 2013.  

Reconstructing whole series of records in this way would transform and potentially interconnect the evidence base from which Ireland’s history across many centuries can be written.

Two examples of such gold seams are the Records of the Medieval Irish Exchequer and the Commonwealth and Protectorate Records.

The Records of the Medieval Irish Exchequer

Many tens of thousands of medieval exchequer records survive in the collections of Beyond 2022’s archival partners — The National Archives (Dublin) and The National Archives (UK). These two collections complement, rather than duplicate, each other. They can be further supplemented by additional substitute sources in at least ten other archival repositories on either side of the Irish Sea.

Among the crown jewels of the archives of Irish government across eight centuries are the original medieval exchequer rolls dating to the early 1300s, which survived the fire in 1922 and are now held by the National Archives (Dublin). The National Archives also holds 50 volumes of nineteenth-century transcripts of the destroyed memoranda rolls covering over 200 years (from the late 1200s to the late 1400s), extending to approximately 26,000 pages of unpublished material, with perhaps half a million extractable data entities (persons, place-names, subjects). These memoranda rolls open a window onto the interconnected cultural worlds of late-medieval Ireland. They are an especially important, but under-explored, source for economic and social history at the national, regional and local levels.

The National Archives (UK) holds by far the largest collection of original Irish exchequer records from the Middle Ages anywhere in the world. These rolls and files were written up in duplicate on parchment in Ireland during the Middle Ages and one copy was sent to England for audit as part of the normal process of bureaucratic government of Ireland by the English Crown.  The ‘particulars’ (receipt rolls recording incoming revenue, and issue rolls recording outgoing payments) contain approximately 60,000 entries relating to late-medieval Ireland, with around half a million extractable data entities.

Taken together, the Irish exchequer records held in these two archives alone include up to one million extractable data entities concerning Ireland in the later Middle Ages. This makes Irish exchequer records the largest group of untapped sources for the history of late-medieval Ireland and its connected history with Britain and the wider world. These records have the potential to offer searing insights into politics and political culture, warfare and diplomacy, trade and economic activity, land and landholding, and into how royal government in Ireland as a whole was financed and administered by the English Crown.

The Commonwealth and Protectorate Records

The Commonwealth and Protectorate Records consist of the documents left by the English authorities in Ireland, who governed the country from 1649 until 1660, when the regime was replaced following the restoration of Charles II to the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Considered ‘lost’ for 100 years, the Commonwealth Records originally comprised a discrete collection of approximately 56 bound volumes in the Four Courts, containing 22,500 pages of handwritten records.

An initial survey of substitute materials — including printed or handwritten transcripts, calendars and rough notes — suggests that over 50% of the contents of these destroyed volumes is fully recoverable, while the survival of indexes provides information on the contents of the remainder of the volumes. The identification of this wealth of substitute material is the result of a major collaborative effort by institutions, large and small, in Ireland, the UK and USA who have been extraordinarily generous with their time and expertise.

The mid-seventeenth century was particularly turbulent in Ireland, marked by extreme violence, conquest and the mass transportation of people. At the same time, the occupying Cromwellian authorities laid the foundations for a modern state, with Dublin as its capital. A concentrated effort to reconstruct the records of the Commonwealth and Protectorate has the potential to transform our collective understanding of this deeply contentious period in Irish history.