OFFALY ARCHIVES

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2021), News, Volume 29

A new archives service in the midlands

By Lisa Shortall

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society (Offaly History) in 2019, the Society completed the building of its second premises, Offaly Archives, after four long years of design and planning. The new repository is a state-of-the-art archives building, managed by a professional archivist, and houses archival collections acquired over many years. It also manages, through a service-level agreement with Offaly County Council, the archival collections in the care of Offaly County Library. In this way it is a unique community-led approach to the matter of keeping local archives, a sector that has sometimes flown under the radar by comparison with better-funded national collections but which is immensely important in terms of preserving the documentary heritage of place. A community that does not have access to its records cannot confidently write its history.

A box of probate wills from the R.F. Barry & Son (solicitors) collection. (Offaly Archives)

Inadequate storage capacity, the lack of dedicated research space and non-compliant environmental standards were some of the issues that prompted Offaly History to undertake this rather daunting and expensive building project. From the outset, the project was managed by a professional archivist to ensure compliance with archival standards, while members of the Society with professional expertise in other areas generously volunteered their time and advice. Offaly History funded the entire endeavour, receiving significant support from the wider membership through donations. It also applied for part-funding through the LEADER rural development scheme and received further grants from Creative Ireland. The support of the county library was crucial to the success of the project, and Offaly County Council’s heritage officer provided a vital link between the council and the voluntary community group.

Today the collections of both Offaly History and the county library are housed in this new building, which is fully compliant with archives building standards. They have not been merged; rather, each repository retains its own identity and ownership of its collections, but from a researcher’s perspective all material is stored and accessible under one roof. Crucially, a joint online catalogue has been created to describe the holdings of both repositories while allowing for searches across all collections. Researchers can now virtually reunite related collections through place-names, authority records (persons, families, companies) and subject-matter. Over the past four years, with vital Heritage Council funding throughout, it has been updated and refined and holds a wealth of information on the holdings of both repositories. Digital images relating to collections enhance the finding aids and improve access to archives more generally. This has proven particularly important with the closure of archives reading rooms owing to the pandemic restrictions.

Above: Front elevation of the County Court House, Tullamore, by J.B. Keane, 1833. (Offaly Archives)

The types of archives now housed in Offaly Archives fall into two main categories.

Archives of local government and its predecessor bodies

Examples of these collections include the records of the King’s County grand jury; records of the King’s County infirmary; records of the boards of guardians for the Poor Law unions of Tullamore, Parsonstown (Birr) and Edenderry; records of the rural district councils of Tullamore, Birr, Roscrea and Kilbeggan; records of Offaly County Council; and records of town councils (town commissions and urban district councils) for Parsonstown/Birr, Tullamore and Edenderry. These archival collections constitute the formal record of the administration of the county. It is not a full record, however; King’s County/Offaly suffered a double calamity in 1922, when both the Public Record Office in Dublin and the courthouse in Tullamore were burned within weeks of each other during the Civil War. What remains locally dates from the mid-nineteenth century and is what has been salvaged and therefore incomplete.

Archives of private origin

Both Offaly County Library and Offaly History, through donation and sometimes through purchase, have acquired privately held local archival material over many years. Archives in this category derive from the residue of landed estates, local businesses and organisations, and solicitors’ offices. They can also be comprised of personal and family papers; literary papers; rare local publications; school records; maps, plans and drawings; and photographs. The social and economic history recorded in this private archival material, some of which dates from as far back as the seventeenth century, is vast and of significant value to users when read alongside the formal records of the county’s administration as described above.

The building and establishment of an archives service might seem a formidable undertaking for a voluntary group such as Offaly History. In reality, it was the culmination of several decades of its work in salvaging historical records which might otherwise have been lost, to the detriment of our understanding of the history of the county. This community-led effort, combined with Offaly County Council’s support, will ensure that the county’s archives are preserved for future generations.

Lisa Shortall is the Archivist at Offaly Archives, www.offalyarchives.com.

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