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Heritage, History and Memory Celebrating the Legacy of the 1641 Depositions

23 October 2020 - On the 22 October, the Trinity Long Room Hub hosted a special research showcase to mark a new impact study on the 1641 Depositions Project 10 years after its launch in Trinity College Dublin. Here, Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, School of Histories and Humanities, and one of the leading PIs on the project, discusses the significance of the rebellion and what the launch meant for the Irish peace process.

The 22 October marked the 379th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1641 Rebellion and the 10th anniversary of the launch by then President Mary McAleese and the late Ian Paisley, of the online publication of the 1641 Depositions. A decade on, we ask what impact has the 1641 Depositions Project had?

The rebellion that broke out in Ulster on 22 October 1641 quickly spread throughout the island and triggered the onset of a decade of bloody civil war. Catholics attacked, robbed and murdered their protestant neighbours.  The Protestants retaliated with equal force in what became one of the most brutal periods of sectarian violence in Irish history.  Refugees overwhelmed Dublin and other towns throughout the country. The total number of men, women and children who lost their lives will never be known.  Yet it is likely that more people died during the course of the 1640s – as a result of war, famine or plague - than in the rebellion of 1798 or in the civil wars of the twentieth century.  It was one of the darkest moments in Irish history.

The popular memory of the 1641 rebellion, like the folk memory of Oliver Cromwell in 1649 before Drogheda or Wexford or of the 1798 Rebellion, has lived on till the present day. The 1641 Depositions constitute the chief evidence for the sharply contested allegation that the rebellion began with a general massacre of protestant settlers.  As a result, they have been central to the most protracted and bitter of Irish historical controversies, exploited by propagandists, politicians and historians to stir up anti-Catholic hysteria at moments of political instability. In fact, the 1641 ‘massacres’, like the siege of Derry (1688), 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. 

No wonder they have been dubbed the most ‘controversial’ records in Irish history. This also explains why we wanted to publish them in their entirety. The 1641 Depositions record the events that surrounded the outbreak of the 1641 rebellion primarily from the perspective of the protestant community. In all about 8,000 Depositions or witness statements, examinations and associated materials, by thousands of men and women of all social classes, amounting to 19,010 pages and bound in 31 volumes, are extant in the Manuscripts and Archives Research Library of Trinity College Dublin. They document losses of goods and chattels, military activity, and the alleged crimes committed by the Irish insurgents, including assault, imprisonment, the stripping of clothes, and murder. They reveal as much about debt as they do about death and recapture the life stories, hopes, fears and trauma of ordinary folk. 

The Depositions are legal documents and certain information was standard to each document.  The name and address of the deponent was always recorded, leaving us with a wealth of information of interest to genealogists and historians, and in many instances the occupation and age of the deponent was also noted.  In all, the names of over 90,000 victims, assailants, bystanders and observers are noted, along with references to every county, parish and barony in Ireland. 

In October 2010 the Depositions were published online ( and over the course of the decade the Irish Manuscripts Commission has published them in 12 volumes.  Almost immediately the project captured the popular imagination and made headlines around Ireland and the world.  Today over 23,000 people worldwide use the website.  Pre-2010 roughly 20 scholars a year consulted the Depositions in Trinity.  We took the 1641 Depositions to Northern Irish schools, thanks to a grant from the Reconciliation Fund in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Working closely with the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) and secondary school teachers throughout the province, modules aimed at 14-year olds were developed for the classrooms (  Easy access to the Depositions has allowed undergraduates to study them as part of their curriculum.  A new generation of early career researchers work on a myriad of subjects relating to the Depositions. The fruit of their scholarly endeavour has been published over the decade but much remains to be done.

The 1641 Depositions also allowed us to reimagine how we engage with digital cultural heritage.  As emphasis shifts from the generation of digital data to how these resources can be interrogated and as technology becomes increasingly sophisticated and user-friendly, scholars and citizens alike will be able to interrogate big data, like the 1641 Depositions, and represent their findings in ways currently unimaginable. The Project’s process of digitisation and semantic tagging also benefited from and contributed to IBM’s LanguageWare, a natural language processing (NLP) technology. The Depositions and subsequent projects provided new software insights to a technology that is now being used by IBM Watson, a suite of services and tools that combine artificial intelligence (AI) and sophisticated analytical software, and in 2011 defeated two human contestants to win the popular quiz show ‘Jeopardy!’.

While it is heartening to see the scholarly impact of the project, the Depositions are essentially about memory and identity at an exceptionally traumatic moment in Irish history.  Even today in Ireland the seventeenth century is alive in public memory in ways that it is in few other places in the modern world, but with the easing of sectarian tensions in the twenty-first century, seventeenth-century Ireland may finally be passing from memory into history.  The 1641 Depositions Project was - and remains - a part of our own ongoing peace process. 

To find out more about the 1641 Depositions, visit the website here.

Click here to read the Research Impact Case Study on the 1641 Depositions by Professor Ohlmeyer, Dr Giovanna Lima, Research Impact Officer at the Trinity Long Room Hub, and others.

The 1641 Depositions Project received support from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the UK and the Library of Trinity College Dublin. An additional grant from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs’ Reconciliation Fund supported the development of educational resources for second level school students in Ireland and Northern Ireland based on the 1641 depositions. The impact case study is supported by the Research Impact Unit, an initiative by the Office of the Dean of Research and the Trinity Long Room Hub at Trinity College Dublin.

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