Could your family photos and letters help researchers examine 1916 Easter Rising?

Monday 23rd September 2013
Submitted by Emma McFarnon

Members of the public are being called upon to dig out old family letters and photographs, to help researchers better understand life in Ireland around the time of the 1916 Easter Rising.

From love letters to correspondence about politics or everyday life, families are being urged to submit letters written six months before and after the Easter Rising.

The Rising was an armed insurrection staged in Ireland during Easter week, 1916. Members of the Irish Volunteers, a nationalist paramilitary group opposed to Irish participation in the First World War, and socialist group the Citizen's Army, occupied buildings in Dublin and proclaimed an Irish Republic.

The Easter Rising was a crucial turning point in the history of modern Ireland, marking the emergence of physical force republicanism as a new dynamic in Irish political life.

Researchers at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) hope to better understand life during the Rising by examining letters and related photographs taken by ordinary people at the time.

The documents will be uploaded to a new online archive, due to launch in 2016. 

The public can also get involved by transcribing some of the 400 letters already contributed to the archive by public institutions. These include the National Library of Ireland, the National Archives of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin, as well as the Medical Missionaries of Mary.

“Allowing letters from personal collections to be read alongside official letters and letters contributed by institutions will add new perspectives to the events of the period and allow us to understand what it was like to live an ordinary life through what were extraordinary times,” said Dr Susan Schreibman, associate professor in digital humanities in the School of English and the project’s principal investigator.

“Through these letters we will to bring to life to the written word, the last words, the unspoken words and the forgotten words of ordinary people during this formative period in Irish history.

“All too often our emphasis is on the grand narrative, focusing on key political figures. But as we approach the centenary of the Easter Rising we want to try to get a sense of how ordinary people coped with one of the most disruptive periods in contemporary Irish history – from loved ones serving in the British Army and Dublin itself becoming a theatre of war, to the business of state carried out by government."

Gabriel Doherty, lecturer in history at the University College Cork, told historyextra: “I think it’s an excellent idea. It’s the type of venture the internet was made for in terms of the dissemination of something that, until now, would have only a limited audience.

“It brings letters and photographs to a wider audience.

“This is history from below. It’s a very interesting and commendable project; a boon for anyone working in this area.

“It will be interesting to see how many people respond, as this will involve digging around in the attic. Letters and photographs tend not to be discovered until someone is moving house, or when someone dies.

“But if a deliberate effort is made to heighten awareness, I am optimistic the researchers will find some gems.

“What they’ll probably find is a mixture of mundane and personal letters – for example, someone writing about having a baby or losing a great uncle - with the bigger issues, like ‘there was a revolution last week, don’t you know’. That’s the really interesting thing about history from below.

“These events were experienced in different ways by different people. It’s true social history.

“It’s only when you read how these bigger events related to the everyday experiences of ordinary citizens that their true significance can be gauged.” 

Dr Laurence Marley, lecturer in history at the National University of Ireland, said: "In this 'decade of centenaries', the challenge for historians is to advance a wider understanding of the complexity of the historial events in question, without cognisance of current sensitivities and sensibilities, especially in the context of the current Northern Ireland peace process. 

"This project is a very significant undertaking which should really advance our understanding of the rich tapestry of experiences during the period of the 1916 Rising, and of the social, cultural and political context of the event.

"The wider participatory nature of the archive-building process is also hugely important in itself. This archive, when available, should prove invaluable and compelling."

To upload pictures of letters written between 1 November 1915 and 31 October 1916 and related photographs, click here.

All themes – e.g. romance, local politics, literature, gossip, the Rising and the Great War – are welcome.

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