Posted: 16/02/18

A ground-breaking project to digitally recreate the building and contents of the Public Record Office of Ireland, destroyed by fire at Dublin’s Four Courts at the outset of the Irish Civil War, has been announced by Trinity College Dublin on February 8th, 2018.

The project has the potential to transform how we understand Ireland's past and will be of great interest to the Irish diaspora and anyone tracing their Irish roots. It is estimated that up to 70 million people around the world claim Irish ancestry and heritage.

When Dublin’s Four Courts went up in flames on June 30th, 1922, seven centuries of Ireland’s historical and genealogical records, stored in a magnificent six-storey Victorian archive building known as the Record Treasury, were lost. In one afternoon, hundreds of thousands of English government records concerning Ireland, dating back to the 13th century, were destroyed—seemingly forever.

Commenting on the significance of the project, Dr Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity, said: “Ireland's Virtual Record Treasury will be a public and academic resource with global reach and impact. This international, collaborative project makes a significant contribution to the national commemorative effort by reuniting collections destroyed by war. It forms part of our strategic research theme ‘Making Ireland’ — a transformative collaboration in Irish studies. By reconstructing a lost treasure, Trinity is seeking to create a lasting and meaningful legacy and an invaluable resource for researchers and educators at all levels which will continue to grow beyond 2022. By moving beyond the divisive legacy of the period, the project will also reopen Ireland’s deeper past to the general public at home and in the wider diaspora.”

Now, new technology being utilised by the ADAPT Centre along with historical research and careful archival practice mean that these losses are not irrecoverable. The ADAPT Centre have unveiled plans to bring Ireland's Public Record Office back to life by creating a 3D virtual reality reconstruction of the destroyed building and refilling its shelves with fully-searchable surviving documents and copies of the lost records, which have been identified by the team in archives and libraries around the world. The project will bring millions of lost historical and genealogical facts to a global audience and will allow historical research to reach back four centuries earlier than most currently available genealogical resources.

Dr Séamus Lawless, Assistant Professor at the ADAPT Centre, commented on the scientific and technological aspects of the project: “This is a true digital humanities project, with exciting research in both computer science and history. The development of a fully immersive recreation of the archive allows us to blend the physical with the digital, and study how people search for information when using the archive. It will also develop approaches to allow people to seamlessly search for information within the virtual archive, and in archives across the globe that hold related or substitute content. Beyond 2022 has the potential to have significant impact on how people search for, interact with and consume information in virtual reality experiences.”

The completed project will be made available on the centenary of the Four Courts blaze in 2022. A project website was launched, which demonstrates the scope of the project and technology involved. This includes an animation of the 3D model being developed which allows the public to experience the magnificent Victorian archive as it was on the eve of its destruction. In December 2018, this website will be enhanced to make the full catalogue of the record treasury available to the public for the first time since 1922. At the launch event today, a virtual reality showcase was demonstrated, which allowed users have a fully immersive, three-dimensional experience of moving through the destroyed building, using VR headsets.

When complete, users of Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury will experience a fully immersive virtual tour of the digitally reconstructed Public Record Office. They will be able to enter a 3D virtual reality reconstruction of the destroyed building and request a historical document in the beautiful Victorian Reading Room. Users will then be able to enter the destroyed Record Treasury itself where the records were held, and move through its 100,000sq ft of archive shelving to the very spot where the record was once stored in order to access any surviving fragments or substitute copies in digital form. The record on the shelf will be a launch pad to substitute records stored in libraries and archives around the globe.

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