The Office of the Chief Secretary of Ireland

Dr. Julie Brooks, Project Archivist

Under British rule, the Irish executive government based at Dublin Castle was led by the Lord Lieutenant, or Viceroy, the king’s representative in Ireland. His immediate subordinate was the Chief Secretary, and directly below this post, a resident Under Secretary was responsible for the day to day running of the administration. After the Act of Union in 1800, despite the abolition of the Dublin parliament, Ireland retained its own executive government; an anomaly which emphasised ‘Ireland’s incomplete integration into the enlarged United Kingdom’.1 Moreover, in the years after 1800, the power dynamic between Lord Lieutenant and Chief Secretary altered fundamentally. With all Irish parliamentary business henceforth conducted in London,2 Dublin ceased to be the hub of the Irish political scene: resident in Dublin for much of the year, the Lord Lieutenant found himself increasingly cut off from decision-making. By contrast, the Chief Secretary, travelling regularly to London for parliamentary sessions, liaising with the British cabinet, and representing Irish matters in the House of Commons, found himself exercising the real influence in Irish affairs, as a participating member of the British government. 

Even prior to the Act of Union, the Chief Secretary’s responsibilities, and thereby his power, had been steadily increasing: ‘he superintended the administrative boards, was the channel for all military business, attended councils, maintained a large correspondence with the ports and the magistracy, dealt with the army of applicants for favours and patronage, regulated the revenue, and prepared legislation’.3 

Whilst the personalities and zeal of individual Lord Lieutenants inevitably shaped the relationship between the two men, by 1818, it was the Chief Secretary, although still theoretically holding the subordinate post, who ‘was the effective political head of the Irish administration’.4 The Lord Lieutenant had come to be something more of a figure-head in the Irish administration, increasingly focused on the many ceremonial duties which accompanied the office. As a result of this increased status for the Chief Secretary, his office was the centre of government in Ireland during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.5

The Registered Papers

Unsurprisingly then, the records of the Chief Secretary’s Office constitute one of the most valuable collections of original source material for research into Ireland in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They offer a rich source for scholars of Irish political, social, economic, labour, and women’s history, as well as for local historians and genealogists.

The registered papers comprise the incoming letters, petitions, memoranda, accounts, reports, and returns, received by the Chief Secretary’s Office. Crucially, as well as including material relating to all aspects of the administration of the country, a large proportion of the registered papers are compromised of letters and petitions from individuals and organisations across Ireland, on a wide variety of topics relating to national importance, as well as personal stories and plights. The registered papers, therefore, are much more than the ‘official’ records of government; they offer a window into the Ireland of the period.
The papers contain material relating to patronage; job applications; appointments to government civil and military posts; public health; fever epidemics; hospitals and asylums; prisons and penitentiaries; crime and punishment; transportation of convicts; the Irish judiciary and law courts; public works; construction of roads, bridges, canals and harbours; drainage of bogs; Irish fisheries; trade and manufacture; early trade union activity; famines; emigration; agrarian unrest; political disaffection; illicit distillation; smuggling; education; poor relief; charitable institutions; Catholic emancipation; religion; and ecclesiastical appointments, to name but a few.

In addition to the main sequence of registered papers for each of the years 1818, 1819, 1820, 1821 and 1822, the year 1821 also contains a separate sub-section of material designated by the Chief Secretary’s Office as ‘State of the Country’ papers. As the title suggests, these are chiefly concerned with law and order across Ireland, and comprise letters, reports, and affidavits, sent by local magistrates, landowners, police magistrates, Church of Ireland clergy, and ‘loyalists’, reporting on instances of unrest, symptoms of disaffection, and anti-tithe agitation. In particular, they detail the serious agrarian disturbances which occurred throughout the summer and autumn of 1821.
Whilst maintained with, and complementary to, the registered papers, the State of the Country Papers for 1821 were not subject to original numbering and indexing by the Chief Secretary’s Office; they were simply organised into alphabetical and chronological sequence.

The registered papers were originally arranged chronologically by year. The title of the series derives from the fact that details of each incoming communication to the Chief Secretary’s Office were entered into registers by the clerks employed in the office, and each item assigned a unique reference number (usually in numerical or alpha-numerical sequence within each year).6 This was recorded in both the register and on the individual item. In the current cataloguing process this overall arrangement has been retained, and although new reference codes have been allocated, a link to the original CSO registered number has been maintained.

What is particularly interesting, is that although the papers are incoming correspondence, they frequently contain accompanying notes and even detailed draft replies. These shed light not only on the administration’s response to matters, but also more generally on office protocols, thus demonstrating how matters were dealt with.  Frequently, this additional information was recorded in the form of multiple annotations added to the original items. For example, a letter might contain an annotation from Under Secretary Gregory, accompanied by an annotation in reply from the Lord Lieutenant.  Equally annotations were frequently added by those in other branches of governance. For example a letter received at the CSO might have been forwarded to an individual, such as the Inspector General of Prisons or the Attorney General, to obtain additional information on a particular matter. These items were then returned to the Chief Secretary’s Office. Therefore, it is often possible to trace the chain of command and decision-making in the Irish administration at Dublin Castle, and most importantly, to discern the government’s response on a wide variety of subjects.

 

Hitherto, the chief problem with the papers has been accessibility: prior to the commencement of this project, the only ‘finding aid’ available to researchers for locating material of interest, were the original annual CSO registers. Whilst a very  interesting example of early 19th century record-keeping practices, using a 200 year old filing system as a means of access for the modern user has proven difficult and inadequate, and as a result, the papers remain something of an untapped resource. As has been documented previously, the researcher first needed to grapple with the registering and indexing practices employed in the registers;7 these could be complicated and tended to change over time, as the office experimented with new procedures, especially as the incoming correspondence grew in volume. Moreover, the clerks responsible for the registering of items varied widely in diligence and competence; the project has revealed a surprising number of items which were inaccurately indexed, for instance correspondents’ surnames incorrectly cited.  

A more fundamental problem was the fact that, as the papers had never been archivally processed at item level, no inventory of what actually still existed had ever been made. As a result, locating a possible reference of interest in the volume register for a particular year, offered no guarantee that the item or items in question would still exist when the boxes of material for that year were consulted.  Additional difficulties were also created by the removal of items already registered under one year and number, to a subsequent registered number, for instance in the case of the receipt of a second letter from a particular  correspondent on a particular topic. Sometimes, the original item was removed and filed with the most recent letter, but just as often, this could apply in reverse, whereby the second letter was automatically filed with the original item – both cases explain the frequent appearance of material from other surrounding years, within the papers for any one particular year.  At the same time, the consistency with which such changes were applied, and the movement of items recorded, appears also to have been largely dependent on the competence of individual clerks. 

Finally, the original process of registering could hide as much as it revealed; whilst the subject matter of some correspondence was included in its register annotation, more often it might just have comprised a surname, with no hint at possible subject content.  It is evident, therefore, that all these factors have hitherto seriously mitigated against the widespread use of the papers by all types of researchers.


  • 1 Brian Jenkins, ‘The Chief Secretary’, in D. George Boyce and Alan O’Day (eds.), Defenders of the Union: A Survey of British and Irish unionism since 1801, p.42.
  • 2 New History of Ireland p.5.
  • 3 Brian Jenkins, Era of Emancipation: British Government of Ireland 1812-30 (Montreal and Kingston, 1988), pp.55-56.
  • 4 Brian Donoghue, The Irish County Surveyors 1834-1944: A Biographical Dictionary (2007), p.3.
  • 5 Tom Quinlan, ‘The Registered Papers of the Chief Secretary’s Office’, Journal of the Irish Society for Archives, Autumn 1994; also available at http://www.nationalarchives.ie/topics/Chief_secretary/CSORP.pdf
  • 6 Quinlan, ‘Registered Papers’
  • 7 Quinlan, ‘Registered Papers’