Irish Railway Record Society

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The situation of transport archives in the Republic of Ireland differed from the situation in Northern Ireland or in Great Britain because of a much earlier demand, especially in the Dublin area, for access by non-company users. Many of the papers published by non-company users in the 1920s and 1930s recorded current developments, but an increasing proportion of papers was devoted to transport history. "Enthusiasts", as these proto transport historians were called, published their work in the Bulletin, which they circularised amongst themselves, and, more conventionally, in the Railway Magazine. By 1944 they were so well regarded by the railway companies in Ireland that one of them was commissioned by the GNR(I) to write the company’s official history. The result was KA Murray’s The Great Northern Railway - Past, Present and Future (Dublin 1944), which is one of the classics of Irish transport literature. In 1946 these same enthusiasts had sufficient confidence to form the Irish Railway Record Society, and embark on the publication of the Journal. The amazing diversity of their interests and of the sources they used brought them into contact with railway officials at all levels of management and in most departments.

Early meetings were held in hotels, later in the CIÉ Staff Club, and eventually in rented premises in Blessington Street and Baggot Street. By that time the Society had a library, and was storing archival material, that would otherwise have been destroyed, in premises at North Wall. As well as material created by railway companies the Society was already assembling its own archives, which include material created by the Society itself, collections donated by individuals, bequests, the personal and working papers of individuals involved in transport, copies of material created by other societies and of material in other repositories, records of associations of shareholders, Parliamentary plans, agreements, accident reports, Board of Trade papers, proceedings of commissions, Acts and Bills, solicitors’ files, photographs and maps, Clearing House records, and miscellaneous groups and special collections.

It gradually became common practice for officers of CIÉ to ask members of the Society for particular information rather than research the question for themselves, and the value of the Society and its library, as a ready source of information, was increasingly appreciated. The Society’s dispassion was also increasingly appreciated, and, indeed, KA Murray’s greatest legacy to the Society will be that from the editor’s desk he taught dispassion: the Journal was there to record facts, not to comment. In 1968 CIÉ acknowledged the usefulness of the members and its appreciation of the responsible attitude of the Journal by leasing to the Society the disused Drumcondra Station in North Dublin. This made possible the centralisation of the Society’s assets, the expansion of its activities, and the accession of further non-current archival material of interest to the members of the Society.

The Society moved again in 1983. It seemed that the Drumcondra Station might be re-opened: the former Goods Offices building was becoming vacant on the CIÉ Headquarters site at Heuston, and internal re-organisation of CIÉ was about to cause archival chaos in several other Dublin locations. Mr Jack Higgins, the General Manager of CIÉ, saw that the time had come to rationalise the whole of the Board’s archives, and to formalise the Board’s relationship with the Society: the relationship which had worked informally, and so much to their mutual advantage, for forty years. And so the Goods Offices Building became the Record Society Building, with most of the ground floor reserved for archives: the non-statutory, non-current archives of the Board, and the Society’s own, complimentary, archives. CIÉ provided the building: the Society designed and built within it accommodation for our present holdings of 400 tons of archival material on 1,350 linear feet of steel shelving and in thirteen cabinets.

Crucially, the greater part of the archives of CIÉ and of the Society are on one site, at Heuston Station, Dublin, and are accommodated in CIÉ’s Headquarters Building and in the Record Society Building. The division is simple: CIÉ’s statutory records and current, non-statutory, records are in the Headquarters Building: the Society’s archives and CIÉ’s non-current, non-statutory records that have been selected for permanent preservation are in the Record Society Building. With the archives on the ground-floor and the Society’s library on the first-floor the Record Society Building contains the biggest single resource for transport research in Ireland, and the biggest single resource for research on Irish transport matters anywhere. All processing of archival material is done in the Record Society Building.

These arrangements mean that the transfer of non-current archival and printed material from CIÉ to the Society is continuous, and much material is transferred as soon as legal constraints allow. Where appropriate this material is then available to non-company users, but remains available to officers of the company through the records-management services that the Society provides for CIÉ. This systematic transfer is, in some ways, a passive policy. With regards to some of the collections, however, CIÉ and the Society operate an active, even aggressive, policy. Our collection of Ordnance Survey maps is a case in point, with CIÉ’s holdings and the Society’s maps all centralised in the Record Society Building, and together providing a resource of 2,700 OS maps for researchers and for the Secretary’s Department, Solicitor’s Department and Property Department of CIÉ, and the Engineering Department of Irish Rail. The collection is maintained by the Society but the large-scale index maps, for example, of which we had very few examples, have been purchased for the collection by CIÉ. And this close working relationship between the Society and the company has meant that over the last thirty years the material preserved has reflected changing demands, both from officers of the company and from non-company users.

In 1965 most officers in CIÉ had been recruited from school and they expected to work for the company until retirement. A generation later the officers recruited are often highly qualified and with previous work experience elsewhere, and may well move on to a fresh career opportunity outside the company. When the lifetime men left they took with them the experience gained over maybe fifty years with the company. They had amassed a vast personal knowledge of transport matters in general, and if they didn’t know the answer to a question they almost certainly knew someone who would know the answer. This pool of knowledge and personal experience is no longer there, and new skills and technologies have not yet replaced it: the archives are now the corporate memory. The point is underlined by the job specifications of staff advertised for by the new Railtrack Records Centres in Great Britain. As far as Centre Managers are concerned "A good knowledge of railway history and geography would be a distinct advantage", and for Senior Cataloguers "A basic knowledge of the railway industry, especially its history, geography and archives, would also be an advantage". It is no longer reasonable to expect that an officer of the company could name the terminii of the Midland Counties & Shannon Junction Railway. The specialised corporate history that each department now needs is having to be written on to computer discs to make it once more available. The necessity to computerise is an opportunity, of course, to reorganise data to make for more efficient retrieval, with consequent savings in officers’ time, and it reflects the changing role of the archivist who will increasingly have to interpret the archives even for the officers of the company.

The demand from non-company users has likewise changed over the last thirty years. Genealogical enquiries, which are about half of the total enquiries addressed to the Society from all sources, are a case in point. In 1976 when CIÉ and the IRRS set up the Irish Transport Genealogical Archive the question most often asked was ‘When was my grandfather born?’ The proliferation, over the last twenty years, of family history societies, books on how to research family history, and agencies willing to do the research means that now most enquirers already have the dates they want, as far back as the commencement of civil registration. To go back before that enquirers need parish registers, but the problem is the register of which parish, and so the question is no longer ‘when was my grandfather born?’ but ‘where was my grandfather born?’ Transport companies recorded the dates of birth of their employees as a result of the social legislation of the early twentieth century, such as the pensions acts, and workmen’s compensation acts, but no legislation ever required companies to know where their employees were born. And because the companies, therefore, never recorded where employees were born the Irish Transport Genealogical Archive cannot answer the question presently being asked. Should genealogical research broaden into wider family history then the Irish Transport Genealogical Archive will again come into its own, with the supply of career profiles.

The demand from the universities has been similarly fickle. The enthusiasm for social and economic history in the sixties and early seventies led to several theses heavily dependent on statutes and minute books. The seventies saw a heavy emphasis on econometric history, the raw material of which is statistics. The current distrust of minute books, which are statutory records, and liable to contain only what a board of directors know might become public, and econometric history, the conclusions of which do not necessarily agree with the facts as we understand them, has reduced the demand from universities to that material which will underpin pedestrian research on architectural history: a situation that will change.


Copyright © 2001 by Irish Railway Record Society Limited
Revised: February 25, 2011

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