Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tuesday's Tip: Palaeography: The art of reading the seemingly illegible

An ideal find: Donabate Parish Register April 1764, Donabate, County Dublin.
If you are lucky enough to have a very old hand written document or family letter come into your custody, then you have the proverbial pot of gold, so to speak. Now, if you could only read it, you would be all set. Even if you don't own such a treasure, perhaps it is just that you find it difficult to decipher the handwriting in parish registers or civil registrations. 

Historians of all stripes — family historians and professional historians alike— often have to spend time deciphering the handwriting found on documents essential to their work. Recently I was reminded of this issue in the course of my research for a history project on which I am currently working. Thankfully I have studied enough palaeography to get me through it, but it is always helpful to engage in further practice, just to ensure your skills are at their optimum.

What is palaeography?

Palaeography, translated from the Greek, means 'old writing' (palaiós meaning 'old' and graphein meaning 'to write'). Strictly speaking, it is the study of ancient writing, but also includes the transcription and dating of historical documents, and in some quarters, the whole study of any book or manuscript written by hand.

While you may not wish to commit yourself wholly to the study of palaeography, you may find a tutorial in the practice to be quite useful. The National Archives UK offers resources which you may find helpful in improving your ability to read and transcribe historical records.

There is also a handy currency converter on this page, as well as a link for help with reading Roman numerals.

On this page you will find an excellent tutorial, which begins with an easy to read document and moves through documents of increasing difficulty to help you develop your skills. Also, in the further practice section, there are a number of interesting documents included, which date from the 16th to the beginning of the 19th century, including one 17th century report from English State Papers which refers to Oliver Cromwell's banning of Christmas.

Just a little historical information on that score:

Cromwell's fundamentalist Puritan views on religious observance and public behaviour prompted the first law banning Christmas. In an effort to rid the country of what he perceived as decadence, Cromwell banned any and all traditions connected to Christmas, including the Christmas feast, carolling, and traditional Christmas decorations such as holly. Soldiers were authorized to use force, if necessary, when they were ordered to confiscate from citizens any food being prepared for a Christmas celebration. Even the use of the word 'Christmas' became a serious offence, since it was viewed as taking Christ's name in vain. Suffice to say Cromwell's banning of Christmas was very unpopular with the people of the kingdom, many of whom secretly ignored the ban. Thankfully, the grinch Cromwell died in September of 1658. With the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, the Puritan regime was removed from power, and Christmas celebrations were once again in vogue.

NA UK also has a page on Latin Palaeographyhttp://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/latinpalaeography/

There are a number of tips and tricks included here for deciphering the text and understanding abbreviations. You can even try your hand at transcribing a document with the online transcriber. As you type in the text any incorrectly transcribed words are highlighted in red, so you can instantly see any errors.

Be sure to stop by these pages on NA UK to improve your transcription skills, or simply to check out some of the fascinating documents they have included.

Parish Register, County Mayo: Both the state of the register and some of the script may prove a challenge.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Formation of the Irish Volunteers: 25 November 1913

From my collection of ephemera,
a facsimile of the circular sent out to announce the meeting.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the first recruitment meeting of the Irish Volunteers. If you google the phrase 'formation of Irish Volunteers' you will find a plethora of histories about this landmark day — some are accurate, some not so much. As is usually the case when it comes to any history, the most accurate picture of an event can be gleaned by looking at a wide variety of resources, including witness accounts of those in attendance1, newspapers of the period, and texts which rely on original documents. When you look at all of the sources together, you have a better chance of coming up with something which best approximates what actually took place.

The first recruitment meeting of the Volunteers took place at the Rotunda Rink in Dublin on 25 November 1913, and two members of my family were present. From my father's side of the family, my paternal grandmother's then sixteen year old brother Michael Francis Magee was present in the audience2.

From my mother's side of the family, Laurence Joseph Kettle, one of two honourary secretaries of the Provisional Committee of the Irish Volunteers, took his place on the platform as one of the planned speakers3. Although he was a member of the Provisional Committee, Thomas Michael Kettle, brother of Laurence, did not attend this first meeting — citing illness — but he was fully onboard with the plans in place for the formation of the Irish Volunteers. He later wrote, "I am personally grateful to the founders of a scheme which restores to me my self-respect as a citizen."4

By all accounts there was tremendous excitement in the Rotunda Rink on the evening of 25 November. Clearly many Irish were ready to commit to the creation of a volunteer movement to free Ireland from British rule, and persons from all walks of life and all religious persuasions filled the hall that night. 

A clipping from the Irish Press,
25 June 1948.
The image of Kettle is from May of 1914.
Initially the Provisional Committee had rented out the large concert hall of the Rotunda hospital as the site for the meeting; however, as the date approached it was clear that the number of attendees was going to far exceed the capacity of that space, and so the Rotunda rink was taken5. On the night of the meeting, not only was the rink filled to its capacity of 4,000 persons, but as many as 3,000 additional persons filled the Rotunda gardens and the streets outside, prompting meeting chairman Eoin (John) MacNeill to ask Seán T. Ó'Ceallaigh to chair a concurrent overflow meeting in the large concert hall6.

There were a number of speeches made, including one by Eoin MacNeill in which he exhorted the numbers in attendance to volunteer, telling them not to deliberate but to take action. He told the crowd he wanted only three things from the volunteers: courage, vigilance and discipline. MacNeill then called upon Laurence Kettle to read the Manifesto of the Irish Volunteers. Unfortunately, some segments of the crowd — especially those affected by the lockout — became quite raucous when Kettle stepped up to read the Manifesto. He was alternately booed and cheered, screamed at and applauded. There were reports of blanks fired in the hall and detonators being set off.  Some persons were escorted out of the hall to prevent a full-on riot from breaking out. The din was so loud Kettle's recitation of the Manifesto could not be heard. Nevertheless he read it straight through, reportedly ending his reading with the comment, "This work we are engaged in tonight is a national work. This is not the place for the introduction of small quarrels"7,8.

The laudable object of the Irish Volunteers, as stated in the Manifesto, "is to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland", with the ranks of the volunteers open to all "without distinction of creed, politics or social grade"9.

Despite the disturbances that occurred during the meeting, the outcome cannot be viewed as anything other than a huge success for the independence movement. After the speeches ended, registration forms were given out, and it is said that between 3,000 and 3,500 people signed up. Among the numbers filling out a form on that night was 16 year old Michael Francis Magee. Clearly the speeches had met their mark in the heart and mind of that young man. He kept the pledge he made that night, and went on to fight in the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence10.


1. Bureau of Military history archives has many statements in which witnesses give their recollections of the meeting.
2. Military Pension Record, held privately.
3. Martin, pp. 29, 78, 81, 96, 105. Also, as of late Laurence Kettle has been mistakenly identified as a north county Dublin farmer. Although he was the son of farmer and land leaguer Andrew J. Kettle, and brother of farmers Patrick and Charles Kettle, Laurence was not a farmer. In 1913 he was Deputy City Electrical Engineer for Dublin City.
4. The Irish Volunteer 1:1, 7 February 1914.
5. Bulmer Hobson BMH Witness Statement #51, page 6.
6. Martin, page 91. Interesting to note that Seán T. Ó'Ceallaigh — anglicized Sean T. O'Kelly — served as the second president of Ireland from 25 June 1945 – 24 June 1959.
7. Martin, page 108.
8. Martin, page 29. Bulmer Hobson cites the shouting down of Kettle as a consequence of Kettle's involvement in what Hobson terms as "a local labour dispute", a significant detail considering this inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteers took place during the Dublin Lockout of August 1913 - January 1914. This treatment of Kettle was likely a consequence of Kettle's support of family member Patrick Kettle, a north county Dublin farmer, who while willing to negotiate with his farm employees, flatly refused to negotiate with union representatives. 
9. Martin, page 100.
10. Michael Francis Magee served in 'A' company, 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade. He was a Section Commander during the Easter Rising, and held the rank of 2nd Lieutenant during the Irish War of Independence. Michael was chosen to serve in the Active Service Unit and in 1921, just six months before the truce which ended the hostilities of the Irish War of Independence, at the age of 24, Michael Magee died 22 January 1921, as the result of gunshot wounds he suffered during the abortive ambush at Drumcondra.

For further reading:

1. Bureau of Military History Archives

2. Hobson, Bulmer. A Short History of the Irish Volunteers, Candle Press, Dublin, 1918. (access this text online at Archive.org)

3. Martin, F.X., editor. The Irish Volunteers 1913-1915, James Duffy & Co., Dublin, 1963.

All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wordless Wednesday, almost: Commemorating the 1913 Dublin Lockout

Dominating Eden quay in Dublin, Ireland, on the sixteen story SIPTU Liberty Hall building, this 50 metre high wrap of banners commemorates the lockout of 1913. The work of artists Robert Ballagh and Cathy Henderson, this beautiful tapestry instantly draws your eye down the quays from O'Connell Street, successfully keeping the lockout at the forefront of memory.

To read about the history of the 1913 Lockout, and to find out about the artists who created the tapestry, visit:
Lockout 1913

Click on images to view larger versions.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Travel Tuesday: By the sea...

Looking toward Lambay Island in the Irish Sea, North County Dublin
It is not simply that I am deeply attracted to the sea off of Ireland because of its beauty. Being near the sea gives rise to thoughts about how important a role the Irish sea and the Atlantic ocean played in the lives of my ancestors and family members who lived on the island of Ireland.

The sea brought my mother, father and brother to Canada, and although none of my ancestors further back emigrated away from Ireland, some of them did travel on holiday across the sea to England and to France. One family member in particular — Tom Kettle (1880-1916) — travelled across the Atlantic to New York City by ship, and to Chicago, in the very early years of the 20th century, to raise funds for the Irish Parliamentary Party.

In the west of Ireland, members of my father's family farmed land in Leckanvy, Murrisk, near the natural ocean bay called Clew Bay, on the Atlantic ocean. The tides of the sea, with their rhythmically moving waters, would have been a part of each day for them. My father's grandparents briefly farmed there before migrating to Dublin, but his great-grandparents, and other family members farmed in the area for generations.

On my mother's side, my great-great-great grandfather Thomas Kettle (1799-1871) farmed land near the Irish sea in North County Dublin, as did generations before him and after him. His granddaughter, my mother's grand-aunt, Alice Fitzpatrick Ward was married to a Master Mariner, Captain James Joseph Ward. The sea brought her husband to her, and tragically, life on the sea took him away from her.

When my mother was a child, sometimes her father would take her and her siblings out to Dublin Bay at low tide. The children would use little lengths of wood, the ends of which their father had whittled to a sharp point so that together they could dig through the sand, uncovering and collecting cockles and mussels. Grand-aunt Alice would cook the selection of clams in a large pot over the fire, and the family would sit down together to enjoy them with fresh baked soda bread and sweet butter. Mom had such fond memories of those days, with little granules of sand clinging to her socks, the scent of the sea in her hair, and the saltiness of the day's catch upon her tongue.

Just down the road, on the way to Howth Head.
Across the bay from the Poolbeg Power station. The lines of mist are from the rain on the opposite side of the bay.
Recently deceased Irish poet Seamus Heaney uses the sea as a metaphor in a favourite poem of mine:

Lovers on Aran

The timeless waves, bright, sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas

To possess Aran. Or did Aran rush
to throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?

Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves' collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity. 

From the Summit of Howth Head, looking toward the light house.
Occasional gorse fires change the colour and contour of the landscape.
Early evening, and the light and colours change again.
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Monday, November 4, 2013

GRO Research Room: A very low priority: An Open Letter to Brian Hayes, T.D.

Dear Brian Hayes, T.D.,

How are you? I am writing to give you a little feedback about the location of the General Register Office (GRO) research room. Since the research room has been in the new location for a few weeks now, I'm including a few photographs, and a little information to help you out, along with my thoughts.

When you were rationalising the move of the GRO research room from the rented premises at the Irish Life Centre to a state owned building on Werburgh Street, you described the building as "at the rear of Dublin Castle". Since I've actually been to the place, I thought I would write to let you know that the building at 1 Werburgh Street which houses the new GRO research room is not at the rear of Dublin Castle.

At the rear of Dublin Castle is a beautiful garden and green space, complete with a labyrinth walk. It's quite lovely and welcoming. When I'm in Dublin I often take a walk around the labyrinth. The open airy space is quite conducive to helping one when there is a difficult decision to be made, or when one needs to give his head a shake about a poor choice he made. You might consider taking a labyrinthine walk. It's very beneficial.
The Labyrinth Walk and grounds to the rear of Dublin Castle.
You might even consider getting your driver to swing by the place on the way to the Dail. You could get out of your lovely car and take a walk from the labyrinth along the streets which take you to the new home of the GRO research room. 

The street I had to walk along in order to get to the new research room was neither lovely, nor welcoming, and although I was harassed by a group of ne'er-do-wells on my way to the building, at least I didn't get mugged.

Just over the road from the GRO Research Room. Look closely, you'll find it.
Click on the image to view a larger version.
It's good that you didn't choose to move the GRO research room elsewhere, such as into the under-utilized former Tourist Office on Suffolk Street. That might have made too much sense, and would have had us doubting whether or not you are a real politician. It's better that you made this backward move into a substandard building surrounded by prison-style fencing. It helps to remind some of us of our family members who were incarcerated during the Land War, the Irish War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War, without the need to once again stop by Kilmainham Gaol. Thanks. You've killed two birds with one stone. Such a time saving idea.

You mentioned that the new GRO research room location had undergone "extensive renovations". I guess I need to get a new dictionary to help me understand this new meaning of 'extensive', and maybe the meaning of 'renovations' too, or perhaps you could tell me, what do you mean by these terms?

It's just a short jaunt to the entrance down this lovely alleyway.
The entry gate: I love the spikes; perfect prison motif.
With respect to health and safety, I have a couple of questions, so please do read on.

Most of the windows at ground level are covered with metal caging, and with the exception of the one in the picture above, they are all opaque, so you cannot see outside — probably best given the dodgy area in which the building is located — but giving me some safety concerns with respect to the building itself. There is ONE single exit from this site for patrons using the reading room. Mr. Hayes, if there was a fire or any other sort of emergency, and that single exit were to become blocked for any reason, how would GRO patrons and staff escape from this building?

Also, there is a single toilet for the use of ALL patrons. There are enough tables in the room to seat about 40 researchers at a time, and throughout the day there are always many people who stop in to pick up birth, marriage and death information. Any person with even an ounce of sense would conclude that a single toilet for the use of more than 40 people is not just unhygienic, it is simply disgusting. Would you be satisfied if there was only one single toilet available for the use of the members of the Dail Éireann?

As to the exterior of the building, the ugly colours chosen are perfect — the sad grey facade and the teal to match the prison gates — because they remind us that maybe Ireland really isn't on the road to recovery after all. I especially like the old grey wall covered with graffiti, and the lovely lot next door to the building, and all the garbage moored up against the fencing. Was all of that part of the extensive renovations? Perhaps you can find a couple of heroin addicts and get them to hang out there. Doing so will make complete your apparent plan to bring a real gritty urban feel to the place. The tourists will love it.

By the way, leaving the GRO research room last week was a real treat too. In the pouring rain, I had to close my umbrella in order to make my way around a delivery van — pictured below — that was completely blocking the entry gate which leads to the building. Thanks for that narrow entry gate.
The delivery van which hampered my escape from the building.
The staff of the GRO research room are surprisingly upbeat, considering the prison-like nature of their new digs. Their work space is very cramped and there are no windows other than the very small ones at the top of the building. In terms of work ergonomics it does not strike me as a very conducive space, nor a particularly safe one. Some of the staff seem happy just to be employed, but even if there are some who are not content, who cares if employees are happy anyway? For that matter who cares about any Irish citizens who are very unhappy about the move? It's not as if they vote in elections.

The choice of this site makes it very clear that the Irish Government views the GRO research room as a very low priority.

In the future, it is likely I will be returning to the GRO research room simply because of my work as a historian, and I will deal with things as I find them. Clearly the Irish government is not interested in bringing the GRO research room into the 21st century. The promised research terminals are not in place, and I doubt online access will come into play anytime soon. Perhaps next time you need to save money, before you consider moving a facility such as the GRO research room, you might look at areas in which the savings would be of a more significant nature. For example, you might consider TD pension reform. Just a thought.

Have a nice day.

Click on images to view larger versions.
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