One of the many mixed blessings to emerge from the destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922 is the attention that we have been obliged to give to records that are fragmentary, or very local in scope, or just downright peculiar. After almost a century, however, it is hard not to feel that desperation has already forced us into every nook and cranny. There are just a few unexplored frontiers left, and estate papers are probably the most valuable of these.
Between 1700 and 1850 the majority of the population lived as small tenant farmers on large estates owned by English or Anglo-Irish landlords. Inevitably, the administration of these estates produced mouth-watering quantities of paper: maps, tenants’ lists, rentals, account books, lease books and much more. But the records are not systematic, vary enormously in the areas and periods they cover and in their level of detail, and in many cases have simply not survived. Those that have survived are scattered across multiple archives and libraries. As well as Ireland, many of the larger landlords also had holdings in England and Wales, and many records of Irish estates have ended up in English and Welsh archives. Tracking down these surviving records has long been beyond the stamina of all but the most stubborn of researchers.
The Landed Estates website (landedestates.ie), a project of the Moore Institute at NUI Galway, has been a precious beacon of light since 2008, bringing together precise location data, photographs, published material and information on the scope and location of surviving records for estates in Connacht and Munster. The level of detail is exemplary, providing an extrordinary insight into just how interlinked many of the landed families were. The integration with Google maps allows a visualisation of the relative positions of the estates, a good rough guide to an area you’re interested in.
Above all, the project should be providing a wonderful central storage point for all the information emerges in the future. However, nothing has been added for at least five years. What about all those juicy Headfort estate papers in Meath or the wonderful Ulster collection in PRONI?
Yes, the glass is nicely half-full. Please fill it.