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Funds and public aid were gradually withdrawn from the Society from 1827 and government financial assistance ceased entirely in 1832.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

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.

In the Cells: writing with improvised materials

In our most recent post Dr Julie Bates and Dr Feargal Whelan, collaborators with the Library in a Trinity Week project, touched on the question of the quality of literary writing materials. Does the cultural value of poor quality materials alter depending on who wrote on them, or where they were produced or where they are read? In today’s post the two authors consider this question in relation to the manuscripts of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814).

Parchment roll containing the writings of the Marquis de Sade in the Bibliotheque national de France. (Getty)

The eighteenth-century libertine Le Marquis de Sade created his most challenging work Le 120 Journées de Sodome (The 120 Days of Sodom) while incarcerated in the notorious Bastille prison in Paris in 1785. The book itself is a deeply disturbing work of cruelty, nihilism and indulgence – a book that is aggressively pornographic and transgressive, yet its method of composition and the artefact of its manuscript are remarkable in their own right. It should be noted that Beckett was a great admirer of the book, seeing beneath its surface obscenity a brutal examination of the limits of literature – Beckett even considered translating the book into English!

Having become involved in the French Resistance during the war, Samuel Beckett had to flee Paris with his partner Suzanne, going on the run before eventually seeing out the war in the village of Roussillon in the south of the country. Throughout the whole period of adversity he carried a notebook in which he wrote what eventually became the novel Watt which was published in 1953. He wrote it ‘in dribs and drabs’ as a way ‘to stay sane’ he said of the book. The manuscript contained in the notebook, now at the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas at Austin, contains an inflated version of the novel, adorned with doodles and drawings, which has been compared to an illuminated manuscript such as the Book of Kells. Beckett’s notebook has become an artefact with an aesthetic value beyond the mere narrative it contains. When Beckett returned to Ireland through England at the end of the war he was debriefed by the intelligence services who suspected the manuscript was written in code!

Manuscript of Beckett’s novel Watt from the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

Sade’s book was written on small pieces of parchment which de Sade had smuggled in to his cell. He glued these fragments together to make a continuous scroll, 12 metres long, on which he wrote the piece in tiny handwriting, and which he kept in a copper cylinder. Following the storming of the Bastille which led to his release at the beginning of the Revolution, he hid the scroll in a crevice in his cell fearing its confiscation. The manuscript appeared to have been lost but resurfaced a number of years later, changing hands on a number of occasions, until it ended up, in 2014, in the possession of a Swiss investment broker who was subsequently convicted of fraud. When the scroll came up for auction, the French Government intervened to declare the item a national treasure.

The questions raised by the story of Sade’s manuscript and the creation of the Watt notebook echo some of those in this blog and the current exhibition in the Long Room. Sade’s scroll was fashioned by an incarcerated individual from poor materials into a medium for their work, and was transformed by the story of its creation, hiding, discovery, and passage from one owner to another into something beyond its material status and the words it carries – indeed, into a national treasure. Similarly, in hiding from persecution, Beckett filled this notebook and ended up with a multi-faceted and highly valued artefact. This prompts a series of questions, including: Are these manuscripts works of art in themselves, independent of their narrative content? What relationship exists between the writing as script and the material on which it is written? Does one intensify or moderate the other? Sade’s scroll is now a national treasure but would the book it contains have ever gained that status had it only existed on paper and ink? Does the act of creation under duress make either the work or the author any greater? And a final question to which we find ourselves returning during this project: what effect does incarceration have on creativity?

Dr Feargal Whelan (Centre for Beckett Studies) and Dr Julie Bates (School of English)