Archivists are an austere and lofty bunch, forever struggling with the contradiction between preserving their beloved records and having to make them available to the grubby-fingered public. And utter impartiality is required – that collection of 1930s postcards has to be just as important as a set of medieval royal charters.
So it is a rare and wonderful day, the archival equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome, when an archivist is captured by a set of records and devotes herself to understanding and making them intelligible. That seems to have happened to Frances McGee, former director of the National Archives of Ireland, and the result is her extraordinary The archives of the valuation of Ireland, 1830–65 (Four Courts Press, 2018).
More than any other set of Irish records, the manuscript maps and notebooks that predate the publication of the Primary Valuation are difficult to grasp in their entirety. Partly, this is because they can be very technical, concerned with producing a uniform property-tax base across the entire island under difficult and changing physical and legal conditions. Partly, it is down to the records having been held by different institutions. For researchers, there can seem to be a bewildering plethora of overlapping record-types.
Parts of her book are painful but necessary, a systematic analysis of each of the class of notebooks produced at each stage of the different valuing processes. But the pain is well worth it. Finally it is possible to see how and why they all relate to each other.
The section on Valuation maps is a revelation. The notebooks were only one part of the valuing process – the field and office maps were absolutely central. Once NAI completes the conservation and digitization of its more than 12,000 valuation maps, there is no doubt they will revolutionise Irish local and family history before 1865.
The book comes to life when the author allows her enthusiasm for the documents’ worms-eye view of pre-Famine Ireland to shine through, quoting numerous examples: one valuator’s description of the state of a building in Ballina, Co. Mayo in 1841:
“This was used as a cholera hospital and in consequence could not since be let as a dwelling. Is now let to the hunting club for the huntsman and the offices as kennels”;
Muff, Donegal in 1834:
“a place of no trade and only two fairs in the year”.
The townland of Ballyrune in Limerick in 1849:
“All the tenants in this townland were ejected on 1 April 1849.; There is no part of the land at present occupied.”
My main criticism of the book is that it treats only the 30,000 items currently held by NAI, saying very little about records held elswhere. It also works on the unspoken assumption that all of these records are currently available to the public, which is far from the case. The treatment of the collection online at genealogy.nationalarchives.ie, the only current access for the grubby-fingered public, is a little too austere and lofty: “Some documents are searchable online for free …[at] census.nationalarchives.ie/search/vob/home.jsp“. Well, yes. Which ones?
If you’d like more, I’ll be speaking about the full Valuation Office archive (and channelling Frances McGee’s book) on Friday next at the Celtic Connections conference in Boston.