John Joly (1857-1933) was one of Ireland’s most distinguished scientists of the early twentieth century. Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at Trinity College Dublin, Joly, a native of Offaly, was well-known and respected amongst the scientific elites of Ireland, Britain, and Europe, and published on disparate subjects, most notably the age of the earth. Joly had a curious and inventive mind; in the 1890s, he invented an early form of colour photography, and when war broke out in 1914, he set about applying his scientific knowledge to problems associated with modern warfare.
Amongst Joly’s papers, much of which deal with scientific correspondence, is MS 2312/4/26/1. These items – a number of post office ‘delivery return’ dockets – seem innocuous at first glance. Joly’s accompanying note (MS 2312/4/26/3) explains their deeper significance: the charred document pictured was one of a number which he removed ‘from the still-hot ruins of the G.P.O. Dublin’ between 29 April and 1 May 1916, following the cessation of the Rising.
Joly had been in Trinity throughout the Rising, forming part of an improvised garrison of students, staff, graduates, and soldiers on leave in Dublin who patrolled the College from Monday 24 April until the large-scale arrival of British troops two days later. Joly described it as it as an anxious time, where he and many of his colleagues feared that the College would be attacked: ‘so might perish Ireland’s most priceless treasure—the University of Berkeley, Goldsmith, Burke, Hamilton, and Lecky.’ Those present in Trinity during Easter Week, like people elsewhere in Dublin and Ireland, had limited access to accurate information about the fighting and the wider political situation. It was not until after the surrender of the rebels that Dubliners could begin to fully appraise themselves of the full extent of the fighting and its political consequences.
MS 2312/4/26/1 then, tells us much about the curiosity with which John Joly and many like him saw the Rising. They wanted to see the ruins at first hand and to make sense of what had happened. By retrieving and carefully filing away these charred dockets from the G.P.O., Joly showed that he was fully aware of the historical importance of the events through which he had lived, and wished to document them. The pictured docket boasts a deeper irony. It is dated 4 August 1914: the day on which Britain (and Ireland) entered the First World War. It is a simple post office document – and much more.
The Joly Papers are housed in the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library (M&ARL), a cumulative index for these papers is available in the M&ARL Reading Room.
Lecturer in Modern History
Department of History and Classics