This morning I proofed and made public about 10 letters for the Letters of 1916 project. The letters were uploaded by one of our volunteers, Philip Costello, who began as an avid transcriber and now helps us by uploading letters too. The letters all come from the Trinity College Dublin Manuscripts Department.
Each of the letter relates to the death of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (1878-1916), journalist, author, nationalist, pacifist, feminist and radical. Opposed to violence of any sort, on the outbreak of the Easter Rising on 24 April 1916, Sheehy-Skeffington attempted to organise a civilian defence force to prevent the looting in the city. Coming home on 25 April, he was arrested and brought to Portobello barracks and fell victim to an unstable officer, Captain John Bowen-Colthurst (1880-1965). On the morning of 26 April, Sheehy-Skeffington and two other civilians were executed by firing squad on Bowen-Colthurst’s orders. Sheehy-Skeffington’s death was one of the key events that facilitated the shift in public opinion in favour of the Rising and secured a legacy for him as a nationalist martyr. Bowen-Colthurst was declared guilty but insane at a court-martial for his offences but was able to emigrate to Canada after a short confinement.
The correspondence comes in the aftermath of the Rising and emanates from Francis’ wife, political activist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (1877-1946). In an attempt to cover up his actions, Bowen-Colthurst had the Sheehy-Skeffingtons’ home raided and the included are accounts from Hanna and her landlady, Alice Schmutz, about the raids. Correspondents include John Dillon MP of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Francis Vane, who had complained about Bowen-Colthurt’s actions and British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith.
The letters, and many more relating to the Easter Rising, can be found and here and are ready and waiting to be transcribed.
Working on the Letters of 1916 project (letters1916.ie) is my first experience of the digital humanities. My history training was very much of the traditional, paper and pencil variety.
Digital humanities was, however, an important part of my PhD research, even if I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. In 2012 the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements were released online (bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie) by the Military Archives of Ireland. I had spent plenty of time in the National Archives looking at duplicate paper copies (the originals are in the Military Archives in Cathal Brugha Barracks) where one had to order a document based only on the name of the witness and the position they held and hope for the best. They are now fully word-searchable which totally revolutionised the way I used them – I could search for words or phrases based on my research interests or find individual statements instantly. There are 1,773 statements so this allowed me to find isolated references that I would otherwise never have seen.
Most, if not all, historians now make use of digital archives. The digitisation of newspapers, a staple for history research, has made them more accessible than ever. I am repeatedly grateful for access to resources like the Irish Newspaper Archive, the Irish Times Archive, JSTOR, the Dictionary of Irish Biography and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, paid for by my institution. It is difficult to imagine my research without them. It is also revealing that the hugely important Military Service Pensions records have been released exclusively online. Letters of 1916 will bring documents from a wide variety of public institutions together in one place and make documents otherwise inaccessible to researchers freely available. It will potentially change the way we think and write about Ireland in 1915 and 1916.
Working on a digital project has been exciting. For years I used digital resources without fully thinking about how they were created and being involved at that level, and seeing the processes first-hand, has been an eye-opener. Not being the most tech savvy (note the absence of images or flashy graphics) it has been daunting at times but I am learning skills that will allow me to take advantage of the digital to bring my research in new directions.