Historical records


Students should begin their research by consulting secondary sources to contextualise the topic or event they are researching. It is also useful to consult bibliographies of existing publications to locate sources previously consulted, including the reference codes used. Archival research can be time consuming and it is advisable for researchers to undertake as much preparation in advance as possible before visiting the National Archives. For further information on beginning your research see Getting started with archival research.

The National Archives holds the records of the modern Irish state from its foundation to approximately 1987. Departmental records refer to all records created or received by all government departments, the courts and 61 bodies listed in the schedule to the National Archives Act, 1986.

We also hold records inherited from the Public Record Office of Ireland and the State Paper Office, which were amalgamated to form the National Archives. These bodies existed prior to the foundation of the State and their holdings contain material relating to the administration of Ireland by the British. The majority of these records date from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but some collections date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The largest, and most important, of these collections is the Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers, which contains the administrative records of the representative of the British government in Dublin Castle. The collection dates from 1818 to 1923. For further information see the Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers.


The National Archives also accepts private collections that complement our existing holdings. These include private business records, hospital records, solicitors’ collections and landed estate collections. For further information on the holdings of the National Archives see Research guides & sources.

The National Archives does not hold records less than 30 years old. The National Archives Act, 1986 only applies to records of state over 30 years old.

We do not hold photographic or literary collections. These are generally found in the National Library of Ireland or local authority or university archives.

For information on searching online see the FAQ for the online catalogue.

Where departments have changed function, the records created in the course of that work will be transferred to the new section or department. This is more common for records created since the 1970s with the expansion of the number of government departments and public bodies. This can create difficulties for researchers in tracing relevant records.

It is useful to understand the government departments that may have had an input into the policy area in question, and to determine if the functions of particular departments have changed over time. This is possible by consulting various sources on the history of the Civil Service and the websites of current departments. It may also be useful to consult the Irish State Administration Database, a project developed by the Geary Institute at University College Dublin.

Where researchers are having difficulty locating records, it is useful to consult the archives of the Department of the Taoiseach, which has traditionally acted as a secretariat to government. All subject areas can be found in the central registry files of the Department of the Taoiseach. For further information see Getting started with archival research.

Private collections, particularly those of individuals directly involved in drafting policy, may be useful to researchers. Many university archives hold private collections of politicians, civil servants or organisations that may have been involved in contributing to particular policies. The archives of University College Dublin specialise in collecting the papers of political figures, but other collections may have been deposited in the National Library of Ireland or the alma mater of the individual in question. Irish History Online is a database of archival sources in Ireland and abroad compiled by the Royal Irish Academy. It is also worth noting that private papers may be retained by the individual’s family and access cannot be guaranteed.

Records of state are the official record of government created or received in the course of the work of Departments of State, the courts or public bodies listed in the schedule to the National Archives Act, 1986. These bodies are legally obliged to comply with the terms of the National Archives Act, 1986 in the management of their records and to transfer records older than 30 years to the National Archives that warrant permanent preservation as archives.

Private source is a term used to describe any collection not covered by legislation, but which is accepted by the National Archives for permanent preservation as it contributes significantly to the historical record and cultural identity of Ireland.

Private sources comprise a very broad range of collections and can include the papers of individuals, families, businesses, hospitals, solicitors or organisations. The private collections held by the National Archives include landed estate records, a number of major hospital collections, the archives of such organisations as trade unions and the Irish Girl Guides and the Business Records Survey, a national survey of business records that often provide valuable insight into the social and economic development of Ireland.

Access to some private collections is restricted and researchers are advised to contact the National Archives in advance or to speak to the Archivist on Duty in the reading room. For further information see Research guides & sources.

No. Departmental records are not digitised as a matter of course and it will be necessary for researchers to visit the National Archives to access these collections. The National Archives holds approximately 50 million items in its collections and the digitisation of such a large quantity of records would be impractical and of limited benefit compared to the scale and cost involved. Researchers may order copies of files for a fee. For further information see Obtain copies of archives.

All material transferred to the National Archives and listed in the online catalogue contains a unique three-part reference code. This reference code should be used when ordering material or when referencing material in theses or publications.

Where a three-part reference code has not been allocated to the records in question, a description of the record series, together with the archive creator should be given. This is generally the case in older material, particularly early court records, which were transferred before the current system of referencing records was implemented. For further information see Referencing archives.

To find out more about archival terminology see Glossary.