The Most Ambitious Irish Research Project in the Humanities Commences in TCD

Posted on: 19 October 2007

‘Massacres, Myths and Memory’ – the 1641 Depositions Digitisation Project receives €1 million, the largest humanities research grant in Ireland

The 1641 Depositions Project to help all traditions both North and South of the border come to terms with their history

The most ambitious collaborative research project in the humanities ever undertaken in Ireland has commenced in Trinity College Dublin. ‘Massacres, Myths and Memory – the 1641 Depositions project’,  a cross-institutional initiative between TCD, Aberdeen University and Cambridge University has received €1 million in grant-aid, the largest research grant in the humanities ever to be awarded in Ireland. The money has been granted by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS), the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in the UK, as well as Trinity College Library¹.

The three-year project aims to transcribe and digitise the manuscript collection comprising 3,400 depositions, examinations and associated materials, in which Protestant men and women of all classes told of their experiences following the outbreak of the rebellion by the Catholic Irish in October, 1641.  The digitised documents will be made available online for the benefit of both the academic community and the general public.

Collected by government-appointed commissioners, the witness testimony runs to approximately 19,000 pages, and constitutes the chief evidence for the sharply contested allegation that the rebellion began with a general massacre of Protestant settlers. As a result, this material has been central to the most protracted and bitter of Irish historical controversies. In Ireland, both North and South, that controversy has never been satisfactorily resolved and successive generations have invented and re-invented the past in response to contemporary developments. Propagandists, politicians and historians have all exploited the Depositions at different times. The 1641 ‘massacres’, like King William’s victory at the Boyne (1690) and the Battle of the Somme (1916) have played a key role in creating and sustaining a collective Protestant/ British identity in Ulster.

Commenting on the significance of the project which commences this month on the 366th anniversary of the 1641 rebellion,  TCD’s Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Head of the School of Histories and Humanities and one of the principal investigators of the initiative said: “This body of material, unparalleled elsewhere in early modern Europe, provides a unique source of information for the causes and events surrounding the 1641 rebellion and for the social, economic, cultural, religious and political history of seventeenth century Ireland, England and Scotland”.

“Through making this relevant material easily accessible to a wide audience it will help all traditions both North and South of the border reach a better understanding of and come to terms with their own history. It will make it possible to resume the debate on the alleged massacres on a constructive and thoroughly informed basis”.

The 1641 Depositions are currently held by Trinity College Library and were first acquired in 1741. The research potential of this material has never been fully exploited due to the current condition of the material which allows for restricted access and is very difficult to read.

 “Trinity College Library welcomes this project as an exemplar for its policy of opening up its rich historical collections to wider scholarship. The project offers an exceptional opportunity to make this primary historical record available for research and the wider public. It will also enable our Conservation Department to take forward its conservation science programme by analysing materials used in the Depositions,”commented the College Librarian, Robin Adams.

The project will also promote interdisciplinary dialogue and research between history, literature, linguistics, gender studies, computer science and anthropology among many other disciplines. There are significant opportunities for future interdisciplinary research in these areas and initial discussions have already begun.

Commenting on the significance of the project for Trinity College, Provost, Dr John Hegarty said: “As a university we are committed to world class excellence in research. This major collaborative research programme in the humanities is at the heart of Trinity’s research agenda and will have a significant role in re-addressing  Irish history and enriching civil society.”

The methods employed in the collaborative research will include digital imaging and transcription of the source material, online publication of both the digital images and transcripts as well as the formulation of databases which will be searchable across a wide variety of fields.  The project will also deliver a working methodology for the  transcription and digitisation of manuscript collections which can be applied to other unique historical collections.  It is one of many initiatives linked to the Long Room Hub at Trinity and the Research Institute for Irish and Scottish Studies at Aberdeen.

The Depositions team consist of Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, Dr Micheál Ó Siochrú and  Prof Aidan Clarke of the School of Histories and Humanities, TCD  along with the Keeper of Manuscripts, Dr Bernard Meehan in Trinity College Library who will be collaborating with   Prof Tom Bartlett of Aberdeen University and Prof John Morrill of Cambridge University. The team will be assisted by three postdoctoral researchers and technical support will be provided by the company, Eneclann.

Over the  three-year project,  a major exhibition on the Depositions will be held in the Long Room in TCD which will tie in with an international conference on the source material on which proceedings will be published.

Notes to the editor:
1. The breakdown of the  €1 million in grant-aid consists of the following: Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) –  €247, 000;   Arts and Humanities Research Council  in the UK-  € 650, 000 and Trinity College Library –  €105, 000.