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The RIA Library’s collaboration with the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland

The latest library guest blog by Dr David Brown, Senior Researcher for the Virtual Treasury of Ireland, looks at how the Royal Irish Academy Library is helping to replace historical records destroyed by fire in 1922.

The Royal Irish Academy Library has been a key supporter of the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland (VRTI) since the research began to take shape, as Beyond 2022, in 2019. From the early support and guidance of former RIA Librarian Siobhán Fitzpatrick to the enthusiastic collaboration with the current Librarian, Barbara McCormack, it has been an exciting and productive partnership. The VRTI aims to make a virtual home for replacements and surrogates for the public records of Ireland destroyed in the explosion and fire at the Public Record Office of Ireland (PROI) in 1922.

Fig.1 People standing watching the Four Courts on fire, June 1922 (RIA C/24/5/A McWeeney Collection)

Given the vast range of such replacements at the RIA, the work program agreed between Beyond 2022 and the RIA settled on digitising major collections of the work of the former Irish Record Commission held at the RIA. The Irish Record Commission was established in 1810, under the direction of William Shaw Mason (MRIA), and charged with evaluating the state and extent of the public records of Ireland. The commissioners’ intention was to publish transcripts or calendars of the most historically significant parts of the collection as printed source material for scholars. Much of the commissioners’ work, including the recommendation to build a new public record office, was unrealised, but they created a detailed survey of the records and transcripts, and created calendars for much of the most important material.

For various reasons, only a very small proportion of what was a huge transcription project was ever published, but their manuscript copies survive, amounting to some 250,000 pages of handwritten text. Although the bulk of the Irish Record Commissioners’ output is preserved at the National Archives of Ireland, large parts of the original collections were dispersed to other repositories. Three key sets of Irish Records Commission manuscripts are at the RIA: their transcripts of early modern Kings letters, Charters and Grants to Irish towns and boroughs; the calendars of inquisitions post-mortem in the Ordnance Survey of Ireland collection and the Ferguson Collection of extracts from ancient records, remembrance rolls and charters.[1] So far, the town charters and inquisitions post-mortem have been digitised and are available to search and view in the VRTI.[2] This newly digitised resource was drawn from 38 manuscript volumes running to 4,700 pages. Every entry in the calendars has its own title and the handwritten text is fully searchable.

The true identity of the ‘Ordnance Survey Inquisitions’

The ‘Ordnance Survey Inquisitions’ (RIA OS EI), calendars of inquisitions post-mortem, are part of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland collection at the RIA. These inquisitions, some 25 bound volumes within a larger collection, arrived at the Academy in 1861, bearing the simple label ‘Presented to the Royal Irish Academy by authority of the Right Honourable the Secretary of State for War’. The ‘Ordnance Survey Inquisitions’ are drafts for calendars that were intended for eventual publication, prepared by the Irish Record Commission between years 1816-1819. Most of the drafts are unsigned, but those that are have all been signed by sub-commissioners of the Irish Record Commission, John Fowler, James Hardiman, Thomas Litton, Francis John Nash and Oliver Anselm Tibeado.

Fig.2 The bookplate of OS EI 32, a continuation of the
commonplace books of the calendar of inquisitions for county Galway.

An inquisition post-mortem was held following the death of a landowner. Under the feudal system, all land was ultimately owned by the monarch and all ‘landowners’ were in fact tenants of the crown, either directly or indirectly. A person who had a direct lease from the crown was known as a ‘tenant in chief’, and this lease was normally confirmed by letters patent to this effect. The tenant in chief could then sub-let as they pleased. Many leases were only for the life of the lessee, and when they died the lands were returned to, or ‘escheated’, back to the king. If there was an heir, a ‘livery of seisin’, or payment, had to take place before the heir could take up possession again. The inquisition post-mortem was a local inquiry, performed by an escheator appointed by the crown, to determine the facts of the landowner’s death, identify their heir(s) and to determine the extent and value of the escheated land. The inquisitions can therefore hold a treasure trove of information about lands, tenants and families.

Fig.3 OS EI 9, p. 6. Inquisition number 2 for County Clare,
taken at Ennis on 26 July 1578 by Edward White.

The completed inquisitions were normally returned to the Chancery, and a copy was also sent to the Exchequer. The collections of Irish inquisitions post-mortem, and inquisitions on attainder, commenced during the reign of Henry VIII and continued until the end of the reign of William III. They were kept in the Bermingham Tower, Dublin Castle.[3] An additional set of sixteenth-century inquisitions concerning the properties of dissolved monasteries were stored at the Chief Remembrancer’s Office.[4] Both collections were transferred to the PROI at the Four Courts in the late nineteenth century. In England the practice of taking an inquisition post-mortem was suspended under the Commonwealth of the 1650s, and abolished altogether by Charles II. However, the tradition continued in Ireland until the early eighteenth century where far more land was held directly by the crown as various land confiscation schemes were settled.

Two volumes of a calendar of the inquisitions, one each for the provinces of Ulster and Leinster, were published under the title Inquisitionum in Officio Rotulorum Cancellariae Hiberniae aservatarum Repertorium. A portion of an intended third volume for the province of Munster was prepared for print, but the project was incomplete when the Irish Record Commission was dissolved in 1830. Given the destructions of the original inquisitions in 1922, it is fortunate that the quality of the calendars is exceptionally high. The Irish Record Commissioners included far more detail than their counterparts in England, recording, for example, the ages of the heirs and the names of the jurors.[5] The original transcriptions and calendars made by the Irish Record Commissioners of the inquisitions for Ulster and Leinster are preserved in 31 bound volumes at the National Archives of Ireland.[6] The remainder, the unpublished calendars for Connacht and Munster, were believed to be lost but have, in fact, survived in the Ordnance Survey of Ireland collection at the RIA.

Fig.4 and 5 Irish Record Commission calendars recovered from the RIA Ordnance Survey Inquisitions for County Cork (Munster) and Galway (Connacht)

The Irish Record Commission manuscripts

The dissolution of the Irish Record Commissioners was a highly disorderly affair, with some work incomplete, some unpaid and recriminations all round. Sir William Betham, the Ulster King of Arms and one of the architects of this dissolution, found himself in possession of the keys to the Bermingham Tower record office in 1830 and the work of the IRC that remained in the building. Betham assumed onto himself the propriety of these transcripts and calendars, copying some and retaining others as his own genealogical business required. Sir Thomas Larcom took charge of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland in 1828. In addition to performing the first large scale survey of Ireland since the Down Survey of the 1650s he intended to produce a set of companion volumes to the maps, a series of county memoirs that were to be a definitive history of each county.

Fig.6 Portrait of Sir Thomas Aiskew Larcom (1801–79)
wearing his military uniform, by Sir Leslie Ward dated 1888.

As was the case with the Irish Record Commission’s publications, the Ordnance Survey Memoir of Ireland would also run aground; ultimately only one volume was published, for Templemore Parish in county Derry.[7] In order to have the resources to hand to research the county memoirs, Larcom approached Betham with a view to purchasing some manuscripts relevant to this research.[8] At this point, the Irish Record Commissioners’ manuscripts comprised a series of commonplace books, used for transcription and gathered together as each portion of the work was completed. Larcom had the loose commonplace books properly bound and these were, from the outside, indistinguishable from the remainder of the material gathered by Larcom, George Petrie and John O’Donovan for the Memoirs series.[9]

Fig.7 OS EI 88, p. 61. A rare example of a full list of local jurors assembled to assist the escheator in his inquisition.
The lands in question are in the Barony of Tinnahinch, County Laois, near Mountmellick.

The inquisitions thus became part of the ‘Ordnance Survey Topographical Collection’. In 1858 an antiquarian, the Reverend John O’Hanlon, prepared a summary list of the contents of each of the bound volumes but without realising their provenance as this information had been removed. By then, the Ordnance Survey was solely devoted to mapping and no longer in the business of publishing books. Also, Thomas Larcom had taken control of the records in the Bermingham Tower. He listed the Record Commissioners’ manuscripts in his custody in a report to the House of Commons in 1866.[10] This report embodied ‘all of the information I possess on the manuscripts in my charge’, and the murky early-career transactions of now Major General Sir Thomas Larcom were best forgotten. In light of the importance of the Ordnance Survey collections to historians, Larcom had already arranged for the entire library to be transferred to the Royal Irish Academy to make it more accessible.[11]

However, not all traces of the Irish Manuscripts Commissioners had been excised from the bound volumes. Occasional unnumbered sheets are bound in with the inquisitions that are tallies of the number of pages transcribed and initialled. These were the evidence recorded by the transcribers of the amount of work done and were used to calculate their pay. These initials tally with the individuals identified as having worked on the original project in the early nineteenth century, and with their respective offices.[12] John Fowler of the Rolls Office is prominent throughout the collection and was responsible for collation and the more general progress of the work.[13] Thomas Litton performed a similar role at the Chief Remembrancer’s Office.[14] Other Record Commissioners whose names appear on these tally sheets include John Conroy, Edward Groves, Francis Nash, Theobald O’Flaherty and Edward Tresham. Occasionally, the tally sheets are also dated, leaving no doubt as to their provenance. One, for example, was signed and dated January 1818 by Oliver Anselm Tibeaudo, a sub-commissioner at the Rolls Office when the work was at its most intense.

Fig.8 and 9 Tally page from OS EI 18, p.168 collated and indexed in OS EI 17 by John Fowler for Co. Cork

Machine transcription

The identification of this ‘lost’ treasure permits not only a re-assessment of the valuable work of the Irish Record Commissioners, but also the opportunity to complete a highly valuable project abandoned almost two centuries ago. At an early stage in the Beyond 2022 project, it became apparent that there was no point in amassing thousands of digital images unless the content was searchable. The collections are just too large to expect users to page through all of the pictures in the hope of finding the information they are looking for. At Beyond 2022, we began to experiment seriously with Transkribus.

Fig.10 screen grab from the Beyond 2022 project’s image processing account showing the
automatic transcription of a 17th century document from the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Transkribus is a machine learning platform that allows the computer to infer, from the ‘ground truth’ of pre-prepared perfect transcription, likely matches of words or letters, even if the computer has never seen that style of handwriting before. The ground truth is converted by the Transkribus algorithms into mathematical models based on the geometry of the letters and the shapes of the words. When the computer comes across a new letter in a new document, it compares all the words and letters in its memory and suggests the most likely match. The computer cannot ‘think’ as such, but it also cannot forget and this is where machine learning is such a powerful technology. The result is a truly remarkable resource with 4,700 pages of manuscripts from two of the RIA’s collections of Irish Record Commission calendars searchable for the first time. The handwriting models have also been applied to digital images of thousands of further pages from Irish Record Commission calendars drawn from archives around the world that will eventually enable the full reconstruction of this incredible resource.

By Dr David Brown, Senior Researcher|Archival Discovery Lead, VRTI


1. The town charters are located at 24 Q 7-18; the Ferguson extracts are part of the Haliday collection, 12 G 1-6; the volumes of inquisitions post mortem are RIA OS EI 9-11, 18-23, 31-4, 49, 50, 54, 62-4, 69-71, 74-7 and 88.

2. The town charters are available to browse in the Virtual Treasury of Ireland from here: The inquisitions can be browsed from here: In both cases, click on the ‘Next’ button on the far right of the screen opposite the item title, to open the first volume of the series.

3. Reports from the Commissioners of the Public Records of Ireland, II, (Dublin, 1812), p. 432.

4. Charles Cooper, An Account of the Most Important Public Records of Great Britain and the publications of the Record Commissioners…, I, (London, 1832), p. 341.

5. Charles Purton Cooper, An Account of the Most Important Public Records of Great Britain and the Publications of the Record Commissioners…, (London, 1832), p. 315.

6. National Archives of Ireland, RC5/1-31.

7. Thomas Colby, Ordnance Survey Memoir of County Londonderry, (Dublin, 1837). The prepared and abandoned text for much of Ulster was eventually published in 40 volumes by the Institute for Irish Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast, in the 1990s.

8. National Library of Ireland, Larcom MSs 7,553.

9. Rev. John O’Hanlon, ‘The Records of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland’, The Journal of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society, 3 (1858), p. 97n.

10. Record Commission (Ireland), ‘RETURN “of all Manuscripts, Historical or Legal, edited and prepared, or partially prepared, for Publication by the Irish Record Commissioners, or any other Persons employed by the Government for that purpose”…’, (London, 1866).

11. Royal Irish Academy, OS EI 9-11, 18-23, 31-34, 38, 49, 50, 54, 62-64, 69-71, 75-77, 88.

12. For these individuals see Margaret Griffith, ‘The Irish Record Commission, 1810-30’, Irish Historical Studies, 7, No. 25 (March, 1950), pp 37-38.

13. RIA OS EI 19, p. 3.

14. RIA OS EI 9, p. 3.