Historical records

Guide to the archives of the Office of Public Works

The following guide draws on the archives of the Office of Public Works (OPW) held in the National Archives.


The Office of Public Works, or Board of Works, was established as a department of state by legislation passed in 1831 entitled An Act for the Extension and Promotion of Public Works in Ireland (1 & 2 Will. IV, c.33).

It immediately took over functions previously performed by the Directors General of Inland Navigation, the Fisheries Commissioners, the Postmaster General and the Civil Buildings Commissioners.

As well as having at its disposal a large expenditure of public funds to carry out these functions, the OPW also operated as a lending agency with the power to give loans for the establishment, extension or improvement of any existing or proposed public works, provided the project was considered feasible.

Development of Responsibilities
Inland Navigation

The early responsibilities of the OPW with regard to inland navigation were the upper Shannon, Lough Ree and Lough Derg, and the Tyrone, Maigue and Boyne navigations. Other projects were added as the century progressed, as well as the continuing extensive works on the Shannon with respect to both navigation and drainage. Extensive arterial drainage schemes were sanctioned and supervised by the OPW after 1842 with the granting of drainage loans to encourage land drainage.


While initially the OPW’s responsibilities with respect to fisheries were the collection of debts from fishermen and the completion of unfinished piers along the coast, from 1842 it was given considerable powers and responsibilities in the development and organisation of the fisheries and from 1883 it had the power to give grants and loans for the whole or partial cost of the construction or improvement of fishery piers and harbours.

Roads and harbours

Functions taken over from the Postmaster General and the Directors General of Inland Navigation were in relation to the maintenance of hundreds of miles of public roads. The OPW also took over responsibility for the completion of Dunleary Harbour, then newly named Kingstown, Dunmore Harbour, and in 1836 Howth Harbour. The other Royal Harbours of Donaghadee and Ardglass were taken over by the Board in 1838.

Civil buildings

In 1831 the Board took over the responsibilities of the Commissioners of Civil Buildings, which involved it initially in the maintenance of the Law Courts, the official residences of the Lord Lieutenant and the officers of Government in Dublin and the Phoenix Park.

Over the course of the following years, the OPW took charge of the buildings occupied by the Irish Constabulary at Dublin Castle, the Nisi Prius and Rolls Courts and the Law Library at the Four Courts, the Law Library, the Royal Constabulary Depot and the Royal Hibernian Military School at the Phoenix Park, the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham, St. Patrick’s College Maynooth, and the Queen’s Colleges at Belfast, Cork and Galway, the Royal University (later University College Dublin) at Earlsfort Terrace, The Royal College of Science (later Government Buildings) in Merrion Street, the General Post Office in Dublin, the National Museum and National Library, as well as district lunatic asylums, post offices, custom houses and inland revenue buildings, coastguard buildings, schools, constabulary barracks, glebe houses, schoolteachers’ residences, training colleges, dispensaries and employment exchanges.

Disused churches

Under the Irish Church Act of 1869 the OPW was entrusted with the care of disused churches deemed to be National Monuments, and in 1882 it was constituted the authority for the preservation of National Monuments.


From 1851, the OPW arbitrated between railway companies and landowners over land acquisition under railway legislation passed in 1851, 1860 and 1864. Under the tramways legislation passed in the early 1860’s, the OPW supervised the financial arrangements made by the promoters where a railway company was formed especially for the purposes of the undertaking.

Further legislation in 1889 provided for state assistance by grant or loan to railway companies with a line open for traffic, which meant that the OPW had to make advances out of money at their disposal for local loans. Further legislation in 1896 allowed the OPW, with the sanction of the Treasury, to construct or contract for the construction of a railway in a congested district county.

Using the archives of the OPW

The archives of the Office of Public Works comprise the surviving papers (files, bound volumes, maps and plans) which the OPW accumulated in the carrying out of its business, as described briefly above, since its formation in 1831 and, in some cases, the inherited papers of the bodies whose functions it took over. These papers are held here at the National Archives because of the passing of the National Archives Act, 1986, which provides for the transfer of all government records to the National Archives when they are more than thirty years old. The collection contains upwards of two thousand bound volumes and several hundred thousand documents.

Arrangement of Finding Aids

The archival lists of the Office of Public Works have been arranged according to the functions which that body has performed since its inception in 1831 according to the following scheme:

  1. Buildings
  2. Piers and Harbours
  3. Railways
  4. Roads
  5. National Monuments
  6. Inland Navigation
  7. Drainage

The collection is arranged according to the following series reference codes. The OPW collection, with the exception of the OPW/5HC/ series of architectural drawings, is not currently searchable in the online catalogue. Hardcopy finding aids are available in the Reading Room.

OPW/1: Minute Books and Letter Books (held in off-site storage)

OPW/2: Financial Account Books (held in off-site

OPW/3: Engineering Reports

OPW/4: Bound Volumes on all subjects

OPW/5: Pre-1935 Registered Papers

OPW/5/HC: Architectural and engineering drawings

OPW 5HC/1: Dublin public buildings

OPW 5HC/2: Phoenix Park buildings

OPW 5HC/3: Royal Hospital Kilmainham

OPW 5HC/4: Other buildings under the OPW’s remit

OPW 5HC/6: Roads, Bridges, Canals, Drainage and Navigation

OPW/6: Property compensation claims

OPW/7: Unregistered papers on all subjects

OPW/8: Material relating to maritime structures (OPW 8 / KIN (Kingstown sub-series of OPW 8 ) is consulted using a card index in the Reading Room of the National Archives)

OPW/9: Post-1935 Registered Files on all subjects

OPW/10: Records of the Grand Canal Company

OPW/1 and OPW/2 series are held in off-site storage and will not be available until the following working day if requested in person, or three working days if requested by email. Further information is available in Ordering Archives in Advance.and must be ordered in advance.


Additional Online Resources

‘The archives of the Office of Public Works and their value as a source for local history’, by Rena Lohan.

‘Sources in the National Archives for researching the Great Famine’, by Marianne Cosgrave, Rena Lohan and Tom Quinlan (parts 1 and 2).

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