Public Lecture – Captain Smith’s Military Paintings

Captain Smith’s illustration of Fethard, Co. Tipp.. (MS 942)

As part of Heritage Week 2019 (17-25 August) the Library is hosting a public lecture, on 20 August, on its collection of 19th-century military paintings. Continue reading

The forgotten children: the conservation of a charter-school register

Damaged Kevin Street register before treatment. (MS 5632)

The conservation treatment of a register of children from a Charter School in Kevin Street, Dublin has been recently completed. The item (TCD MS 5632) is part of a collection of registers and documents given to Trinity College Dublin by the Incorporated Society for Promoting Protestant Schools in Ireland in 1971.

The Incorporated Society for the Promotion of Protestant Schools in Ireland was an initiative by the archbishops and bishops of the Established Church following the failure of the penal laws, introduced as a way of converting the Catholic Irish to Protestantism; the aim of this initiative was to convert Catholic children while instruct them in the English language and “the fundamental principles of true religion” and then to send the boys to apprenticeship programmes and the girls to employment as servants.  

The Society started after a grant charter in 1733 that gave to the Incorporated Society the power to accept gifts, benefactions and lands for the support and maintenance of the schools where the children of the “Irish natives” would be educated. In order to ensure their conversion and prevent regression to their old religion, the practice of “transplantation” was adopted and the children were moved to districts as far away as possible from their homes. Initially gathered together at the Kevin Street School in Dublin, they were sent from there either by canal or road, to their designated destination. 

By 1769 there were 52 schools with over 2000 students. The project garnered a bad reputation, a view held not only by Catholics, but also among Protestants, due to the children receiving little instruction or training, but rather being exploited as farm labourers or weavers.

Following several inspections carried out from 1780 and 1825 the reputation of the schools had become so poor that potential employers of the children leaving the schools were unwilling to accept the Charter School’s children because they were reported to be “slothful, dirty and vicious”.

Funds and public aid were gradually withdrawn from the Society from 1827 and government financial assistance ceased entirely in 1832. The Society remained in existence and changed into a promoter of second level schools for Protestant children.

The recently-conserved register, which is part of one of the largest archives in the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library,  contains the names of all the children who were transferred to and from the Kevin Street School in the years from 1793 to 1823. The entry for each child registered includes name, age, religion, the place where they came from and their destination, with a space left for special annotations, such as apprenticeships, or their return to their family because they had been “admitted without knowledge or consent” of their parents. Attempted elopement and subsequent transfer to the penitentiary for young criminals, illness and death were also documented.

The register is a full reverse calf stationery binding over pasteboards with two broad bands of Russia banded leather attached to front and back boards, and across the spine fixed with parchment tackets. It was originally sewn on four parchment straps laced into the covers. The text block is pen ruled machine-made paper, with watermarks: “C Taylor” on the first sheet of the bifolium and a crown atop of a shield containing a fleur de lis with a GR monogram below on the second sheet.

The book had been exposed to a high level of humidity and dust. The first and last sections were heavily damaged by mould as were the top half of the pages in the remainder of the book block. The back folds of the sections and the sewing structure had been also severely damaged by the mould resulting in the complete destruction of the spine. The leather cover was damaged and stained with losses in some areas.

Front cover (MS 5632)

The pasteboards were mostly delaminated and heavily damaged by mould resulting in an overall weakness and loss of structure.

 The treatment, which due to the poor condition and fragility of the register, took a period of two months, involved: paper consolidation, washing of some pages to remove soluble staining and stabilise the pH, restoration of losses using paper infills, and guarding of all the sections. The textblock was re-sewn and lined; restoration and reconstruction of the binding boards completed, followed by rebacking with new reverse calfskin.





Angelica Anchisi, Heritage Council Conservation Intern, 2018/2019

  1. Milne, The Irish charter schools, 1730–1830 (Dublin, 1997)
    J. Robins, The lost children: a study of charity children in Ireland, 1700–1900 (Dublin, 1987)

‘Objects of raging detestation’ the charter schools

The Moon Landing and Sir William Rowan Hamilton

Space exploration would be unthinkable without the contribution of the Trinity College graduate, mathematician, poet and Professor of Astronomy William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865), best known as the inventor of quaternions. Quaternions provide a mathematical notation for representing orientations and rotations of objects in three dimensions – essential for space flight. They are routinely employed by NASA, and were crucial in plotting the orbit of Apollo 11 around the moon. These equations are also used in many other established and emerging technologies, from the computer games industry to molecular dynamics.

Among the Library’s manuscript collections is the tiny notebook which contains Hamilton’s earliest surviving workings-out of the quaternion equation. As he recounted to Peter Guthrie Tait in a letter of 15 October 1858, ‘[I] felt the galvanic circuit of thought close; and the sparks which fell from it were the fundamental equations between i, j, k; exactly such as I have used them ever since. I pulled out on the spot a pocket-book, which still exists, and made an entry’.

The first ‘written’ recording of the quaternion equation was a piece of graffiti scratched by Hamilton on Broome Bridge in Dublin. In a letter to his son, Hamilton recalled the circumstances around his ‘discovery’ on 16 October 1843, ‘which happened to be a Monday, and a council day of the Royal Irish Academy – I was walking in to attend and preside, and your mother was walking with me, along the Royal Canal…yet an under-current of thought was going on in my mind, which gave at last a result, whereof it is not too much to say that I felt at once the importance … nor could I resist – unphilosophical as it may have been – to cut with a knife on a stone of Brougham Bridge, as we passed it, the fundamental formula … but of course, as an inscription, has long since mouldered away’.

Although the inscription degraded within Hamilton’s lifetime the site is now commemorated with a plaque. 

Mathematicians and scientists from around the world (some with NASA connections) have made pilgrimages to see the little notebook in the Manuscripts & Archives Reading Room. The manuscript was also filmed for tomorrow’s RTE broadcast ‘The day we landed on the Moon’, where Professor Peter Gallagher, Adjunct Professor of Astrophysics at Trinity and Head of Astronomy and Astrophysics at DIAS, will explain the direct relationship with the Apollo missions.

Hamilton’s significance for the moon landing itself was very eloquently expressed by Buzz Aldrin when he visited the Library of Trinity College Dublin a few years ago. Whilst being shown around the Old Library he stopped at the marble bust of Sir William Rowan Hamilton and spoke of how this was the man that got them all back from the moon.

Estelle Gittins



Silence in the archives

Today’s post is a backward glance at the Trinity Week collaboration between the Library and the School of English on the theme of SILENCE. We have looked at silence imposed by imprisonment; we finish by looking at silence imposed by compromised mental health.

Our Trinity Week collaboration, proposed and curated by Dr Julie Bates of the School of English, sought to use the Library’s Beckett collection to interrogate the politics of silence, the cultural value of poor writing materials, and the body as a site of resistance. The collaboration took the form of a Long Room exhibition, a series of blog posts, and a panel discussion by Julie and her colleague Feargal Whelan.

Beckett is the perfect ‘hook’ on which to hang the linked issues we wished to investigate. He had an affinity with the imprisoned, writing a play as a tribute to Vaclav Hável. He inspired the San Quentin Drama Workshop. Furthermore, in his literary work he chose to use very poor quality material which, because he is venerated, is itself venerated. In contrast (and on exhibition in the Long Room alonsgside the Beckett material) Bobby Sands wrote letters on toilet paper which were smuggled out of Long Kesh to subvert the enforced silence of the prison. Sands, and others, also engaged in a hunger strike, using his own body to further resist being silenced.

Self-portrait by Dorothea Herbert (c.1767-1929). (TCD Deposit Herbert Retrospections)

This final post looks at the silence of other marginalised individuals, those who are mentally ill. The Library has a memoir by an eighteenth-century woman Dorothea Herbert (c.1767-1829) which illustrates a number different kinds of silencing and resistance to it. Herbert’s record, though rare and unusual, was dismissed as a useful historical record for decades because it failed to address the historical political narrative when the historical political narrative was the only show in town. It was adjudged to have made insufficient mention of the land war even though the author lived in Tipperary, a hot-bed of agrarian agitation. It was not only silenced by politics, but by gendered cultural standards which renders some experiences inherently ridiculous: the memoir, when it was cited at all, was dismissed with a patronising smile because Herbert’s obsession took the form of an invented love story.

It is only in recent years that Herbert’s voice as a talented writer and poet has been valued, and her sophisticated use of literature to manage her mental illness has been recognised as a conscious and complex stratagem. Interestingly, when experiencing a period of mental distress, Herbert used her own body as a site of resistance, by dressing herself in an unorthodox manner to go to a church service. One scholar describes this action as Herbert turning herself into a ‘kinetic sculpture’ to express her opposition to imposed modesty. Also interesting for our overall theme, other attempts were made to silence Herbert during her lifetime and shortly thereafter. When her behaviour was particularly distressing to her family they locked her in her room and, after her death, family members destroyed some of Herbert’s diaries, due to the negative stories they recorded about particular individuals.

Fragment of Dorothea Herbert’s surviving diary (TCD Deposit Herbert Diary)

The Library also holds the literary archives of the poet Brendan Kennelly (b. 1928), formerly Professor of Modern Literature. His collection contains material which illustrates how difficult it is for a research institution to enable a suppressed voice to be heard even when this is desired. The Library is using his archive to curate an exhibition to mark the sixtieth anniversary of Kennelly’s first publication. One of the poet’s defining characteristics, as a poet and an individual, was his openness, about himself and to others. Because of this and because of his celebrity status, the archive contains works by prisoners, to whom Professor Kennelly taught poetry, and by members of the public – some possibly vulnerable – who sent him their own work. Despite wishing to include this material in the exhibition, it is impossible because of copyright restrictions. The instance particularly regretted by the exhibition curator is the case of a Kildare woman who hand-painted a greeting card for Brendan, on good quality art paper, but who then said she could find nothing suitable upon which to write the poetry she wished to send him. She reached for the nearest piece of paper which came to hand which happened to be a large, multi-page Allied Irish Banks wall calendar. To the untutored eye (my own) these poems are not without merit. However, they will probably never see the light of day.

Dr Jane Maxwell

Bobby Sands and the imprisoned voice

Continuing our series of blog posts as part of Trinity Week‘s theme of silence, we will today consider more closely the letter, currently on display in the Long Room, from Bobby Sands who died in prison after a hunger strike of 66 days in 1981.

Committed radical activists, if imprisoned, persevere in either recording their thoughts or communicating their beliefs using whatever material comes to hand. This is to undermine one of the purposes of imprisonment – the removal of the prisoner and his or her convictions from the national conversation. In the case of Bobby Sands he used toilet paper for his letter-writing campaign.

The Sands letter arrived in the Library in the late 1990s as part of the literary archives of the author John B. Keane (2018-2002). Keane was personally unknown to Sands whose strategy was to send letters to high profile individuals who, if they were persuaded to support his protest demands, could use their celebrity to advance them.

Letter from Bobby Sands (1954-1981), MP to John B. Keane (MS 10403/1b/1592)

The letter is written over several sheets of paper, in a cheap blue biro – obviously cheap because of the blots it produced. The writing is tiny, to save space, but clearly legible. The message is strong and coherent, as a result of Sands’ convictions and also, most likely, from the fact that he would have used the same phrases over and over in other letters to other recipients. The language is highly dramatic, as might be expected from an amateur poet, whether in telling of the torture the prisoners experienced or in the description of their appearances: ‘…faces … sharp and hollow … eyes piercing and intense … ghost-like, skeletal, ragged, wretched, naked …’.

The letter has been affixed to a slightly sturdier piece of paper upon which the recipient’s name is written. It is unknown when this was done or by whom; it may have been done by the person who smuggled the item out of Long Kesh prison. The Keane papers, when they arrived in the Library, were contained in several plastic fertiliser bags, each one containing hundreds of letters all of which had been impaled onto a length of heavy wire with a knot in the end. This seemingly bizarre treatment was not an unusual way to ‘file’ small-business records and is not unique in the Library’s collections. Thus the Sands letter, like all of Keane’s correspondence, has a small hole in it. Furthermore, due to the damage caused by storage in a bag in an outhouse, these papers spent their first months in Trinity in the Conservation Department, being ironed.

Mid-twentieth-century agricultural records ‘filed’ on a wire. (MS 11573)

This Trinity Week blog series has drawn attention to the artefactual nature of manuscripts which communicates information to the viewer separate from that communicated by the written text. It is certainly the case that the cheap paper used by Samuel Beckett is venerated because he touched it – but only by a particular audience. The Sands letter has attracted the same quality of veneration from a different audience, to whom the use of toilet paper adds to their appreciation of the sacrifice Sands made.