The Letters of 1916 project is a crowd-sourced* collection of letters written around the time of the Easter Rising in Ireland. The Easter Rising was an attempted coup d’etat by militant Irish nationalists in April 1916 which, five years after, resulted in the London Peace Treaty of 1921 facilitating the formation of the Irish Free State and so forth. For the purpose of the Letters of 1916 project, this watershed event in Ireland’s story is nested in a 12 month period, 1 November 1915 to 31 October 1916, which is to say, six months before the mould-breaking events of Easter Week and six months after.
*The terms “crowd-sourced” and “crowd-sourcing” are used to define online projects that entail the active contribution of an undefined public (Wikipedia is, perhaps, the premier example of a crowd-sourced project). Old School cultural institutions are increasingly exploring crowd-sourcing initiatives as a means of forging novel paths of collaboration between institutions and their audiences. For a comprehensive account of crowd-sourcing and crowd-sourced projects in the humanities, see here.
The Letters of 1916 project is crowd-sourced in two main ways, firstly in the sense that if you or your family have a letter that was written within the date-range above from or to an address in Ireland you can — should you wish to — contribute it to the collection (it does not necessarily need to be about the Easter Rising — see below), and, secondly, in the sense that the whole project is designed as an engaging collaboration, to which end people are invited to transcribe the letters, i.e. in a really hands-on way to be part of the creation of something marking the centenary of the Easter Rising which, this time next year, will be front and centre on these here islands.
And, indeed, many have done so: over 700 people have registered with the project, which (at the time of writing) has had over 1,700 letters uploaded — indeed, I found it a little difficult to find letters that had not been transcribed (I’m reading for an M.A. in Digital Arts and Humanities at University College, Cork, and, for an assignment for one of our coursework modules, we have been asked to transcribe a number of these letters, for which, for assignment purposes, we had to find letters which had not already been worked on).
As I’ve said, not all the letters are about the Rising, indeed only a relatively small proportion of them are, reflecting the fact that, for the vast majority of people on the island of Ireland, especially in the early part of 1916, the Easter Rising was not that big of a deal (it was not that big of a deal until after a British military bombardment almost flattened the rebel-held centre of Dublin and the coup ring-leaders and their associates were rounded-up and executed, Banana-Republic style, thereby turning what was a PR disaster for militant Irish nationalism into a PR disaster for British Imperialism) — so the letters are about business, the Great War (i.e. the First World War), love letters, appointment-seeking letters, letters about railways, art, literature, theatre, summer holidays and so forth, some of which mention (or show an awareness of) events in Dublin, but, like I say, most do not. In short, the letters may be seen as a slice of life from one 12-month period very nearly a century ago.
Leading a team which includes people from Trinity College, Dublin, NUI Maynooth, and Queen’s College, Belfast, is Professor Susan Schreibman, professor of Digital Humanities at NUI Maynooth. The director of An Foras Feasa (which is an institute for research in Irish historical and cultural traditions), Dr Schreibman is a former senior lecturer in digital humanities at Trinity’s Long Room Hub (2011-14), director of the Digital Humanities Observatory, a national digital humanities centre developed under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy (2008-11), before which she was assistant dean for Digital Collections and Research at the University of Maryland (2005-08) and assistant director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (2001-04). Also noteworthy, of course, is the fact that (along with John Unsworth and Ray Siemens), Schreibman is one of the editors of the Companion to Digital Humanities (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), one of the standard pedagogic texts in the Digital Humanities sphere of influence: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/.
Altogether I transcribed three of the letters; here (below), for example, is the text of one of these, a letter from Patrick H. O’Brien of Strabane, county Tyrone, to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Wimborne,* dated 20 June 1916, seeking appointment to the office of Clerk of the Crown and Peace for the county of Westmeath.
20th June 1916
To His Excellency
The Lord Lieutenant General and General Governor of Ireland
May it Please Your Excellency
I take the liberty of asking you for the position of Clerk of the Crown & Peace for the County of Westmeath rendered vacant by the death of Mr P.R. Kelly.
I am fully qualified for the position being a practising solicitor of over twenty-two years standing, having been admitted to the profession in February 1894.
I have rendered valuable public services during my life to members of His Majesty’s Governments in Ireland and have taken a very active and prominent part in Recruiting both for the Army and Navy, besides acting as Secretary of our local Recruiting Committee.
I am well known to several military men and Government Officials from whom and other persons I hope to furnish your Excellency with testimonials in a few days.
I am a Roman Catholic aged about forty-seven.
I have the honour to be
Your Excellency’s Humble & obedient servant
Patrick H. O’Brien.
*Lord Wimborne, Ivor Chruchill Guest (1873-1939), former army officer, politician and statesman, was Lord Lieutenant in Ireland at the time of the Easter Rising (also, somewhat confusingly, in the period 1910-14 Guest was titled Lord Ashby St Ledgers — see below). A first cousin of Winston Churchill (with whom he crossed the floor of the House of Commons in 1904, switching from the Conservative Party to the Liberals), Guest was the member of parliament for Plymouth from 1900 until 1910, at which time he was elevated to parliament’s upper chamber (the House of Lords) as Baron Ashby St Ledgers, from where he served in Herbert Asquith’s government as Paymaster General. He succeeded to the title of Lord Wimborne (his father’s title) in 1914; the following year, he was sent to Ireland as Lord Lieutenant, succeeding Lord Aberdeen in that (mostly ceremonial) office.
Wimborne/Guest resigned in the wake of the Rising — taking responsibility for the failings of the British administration in Ireland (for which, indeed, he was ultimately responsible**) — however, he was immediately reappointed, continuing in the office until 1918. Nevertheless, Ireland appears to have been the end of his career in public life.
** Although the Lord Lieutenant was at the top of the British state hierarchy in Ireland, the position was analogous to that of the constitutional monarch, whom, indeed, he represented in the vice-regal lodge in the Phoenix Park; in practice, however, power was firmly in the hands of cabinet minister Augustine Birrell, Chief Secretary for Ireland, working in conjunction with Sir Matthew Nathan, who (as Under-Secretary) was head of the British civil service in Ireland, both of whom also resigned in the wake of the 1916 Rising.
Fortunately, I did not need to get into all of this who/what/where/when detail to transcribe the letter! (I provide this information merely to give context and human interest to my presentation, a little colouring, as it were.)
To transcribe a letter, one simply registers with the 1916 Letters website (a one-minute process which involves providing your name and contact details), go into one of the categories of letters (the above is from ‘Official Documents’), and call up one of the letters which needs work done on it. As freshers — and for the purposes of our college assignment — we were instructed to find items that had not yet been worked on.
Once you’ve found a letter to work on you simply start transcribing. One can zoom in and out on the photographic reproductions of the letters as much as a transcriber could reasonably wish for, and you put your transcription in the transcription box below.
For example, here are the links to the above letter; there are two links because the letter is on two sides of letter manuscript — recto and verso — and the two images of the letter are treated as separate for the purposes of presenting them for ‘zoomification’ and transcription, though linked, of course.
If you are not used to mark-up language then it may be that when you look at what’s in the transcription box you’ll feel that it’s like gobbledegook — too much to be borne — but, in fact, it’s far more complicated-looking than it really is and the technicalities are easily explained.
Along the top of the transcription box there is a series of buttons (if you hover the cursor over each button it will tell you what it is for). So, if you are inputting an address, you click on the ‘A’ button, which is the third one along from the left; this puts the mark-up code for the address of a letter around the transcription of the address and so on (the first button is for coding line-breaks ‘<lb/>’), such that, with our letter above, for example, the address is rendered as
The second button ‘pb’ is for page-breaks; the fourth button ‘P’ is for paragraph-breaks and so forth. The last button ‘D’ is for the mark-up code for the date of the letter — so that ’20th June 1916′ (with the ‘th’ superscripted) is marked-up as
<date>20<hi rend=”superscript”>th</hi> June 1916</date>
One can work in one of two ways: simply transcribe the letter and input the mark-up afterwards which is what I started doing; or, once you get comfortable with it all, mark-up as you go along (click the button for whatever you’re doing and type in the text in the space provided). In the long run I found it easier to mark-up as I went along.
Aside from actually contributing to the project — as in being part of something like this (which is the first public humanities of its kind in Ireland) — it is a really good way to learn (or to teach people) about mark-up language and the like (i.e. what ‘tags’ are, opening and closing tags and so on).
A detailed, well laid-out series of instruction sheets are available at the following link (instruction sheets that can be downloaded onto your computer as PDFs — ‘Getting Started’, ‘Transcribe a Letter’, ‘Upload a Letter’, and ‘Style Guide’)
FOR other items transcribed by me, see the letter from Ernest G. Moggridge to the Under-Secretary, Dublin Castle, 9 June 1916 (at the following link)
And the letter from John J. Ham to the Under-Secretary, 19 June 1916 (which, like Patrick O’Brien’s letter above, is a letter seeking appointment to the office of Clerk of the Crown and Peace for the county of Westmeath; however, Mr Ham’s letter includes a number of enclosures, testimonial letters supporting his application, hence the multitude of links) —