An 1818 petition from prisoners in Cork City Gaol to the Lord Lieutenant, asking for a regular allowance of tobacco, which the petitioners claimed had ‘become an absolute necessity of life’, provides an opening into one of the most important bodies of source material for historians of modern Ireland. For anyone interested in nineteenth and twentieth-century Irish history, the Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers (CSORP) in the National Archives of Ireland (NAI) is an indispensable collection of source material. These papers, contained in 3,770 cartons, reveal practically all aspects of British administration in Ireland between 1818 and the foundation of the Irish Free State in minute detail. Despite their undoubted significance, the CSORP are notoriously difficult to use. This difficulty arises from a number of factors, largely due to a change in referencing and cataloguing during the nineteenth century but more significantly, the destruction of the public record office at the Four Courts in 1922 has made researchers’ efforts daunting, to say the least. It is a common experience for researchers to identify items in the 337 registers and index books that line the walls of the NAI’s Reading Room, only to be told that the item cannot be found, usually arising from the source’s destruction in 1922.
Fortunately, the challenge of searching and negotiating the CSORP has been considerably alleviated by an ongoing project launched in 2008 by the NAI. On foot of a bequest from the late Professor Francis J. Crowley of California, the detailed entries for the CSORP material for the years 1818-22 have been made available online. The website could not be easier to use. By inserting your keyword into the ‘Search’ box, every appearance that word makes in the catalogue entries appears on screen. For my own research into street begging in early-nineteenth-century Ireland, this has (somewhat!) removed the intimidating spectre that hovered over the CSORP as a body of source material. For instance, the word ‘beggars’ appears thirteen times; there are twelve mentions of ‘mendicity’; ‘vagrancy’ and derivative terms appear twenty-one times; and there are 219 matches for ‘House of Industry’. Each one of these searches reveals sources of potential interest and relevance which I may otherwise have missed if I had been reliant on the index books. As with all websites reviewed under our ‘Resources for Historians’ feature, the use of the NAI CSORP site is free of charge and open to all.
Many of the sources have been photographed and digitised, and the visitor to the site can access a wide range of images not only of letters and hand-writing, but of close-up images of postal marks and a number of fascinating maps, one of a proposed new penitentiary in Waterford city. The context in which any source was created is crucial to the historian’s understanding of that source and in this regard, the CSORP website provides useful commentary on each year for the subject period (1818-22). Events and developments of significant social, cultural, economic, and political importance are outlined, and the weaving of select items from the CSORP into this narrative enhances the reader’s understanding. Those with an interest in archives are also catered, as the conservation methodology is also outlined using photographs and step-by-step guides through the conservation process. Articles on the use of wax and wafer seals, and watermarks on the CSORP are particular gems!
(Courtesy of the National Archives of Ireland)
This website is accessible at: http://www.csorp.nationalarchives.ie/index.html
Cataloguing for the years 1823 and 1824 is on-going. The petition from the smoking lobby of Cork city prisoners is available at NAI, Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers, CSO/RP/1818/116.
Further reading: Brian Griffin, Sources for the study of crime in Ireland, 1801-1921, Maynooth Research Guides for Irish Local History, no. 9 (Dublin, 2005); Tom Quinlan, ‘The registered papers of the Chief Secretary’s Office’ in Irish Archives, i, no. 2 (1994), pp 5-21.
‘Resources for Historians’ will be a monthly post reviewing a free, internet-based resource for historians and history enthusiasts. Potential contributors or alerts about possible sites for review are most welcome and should be sent to the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org