By Lisa Marie Griffith
On Saturday I was lucky enough to be escorted around the new exhibition at the Trinity Long Room: Ireland in Turmoil: The 1641 Depositions by the co-curator of the exhibition Eamon Darcy. The digitization of the depositions is Ireland’s largest digital humanities project to date. If you are not familiar with the 1641 depositions, they are over 3,000 testimonies which were taken by a team of government officials in the aftermath of one of the most violent events, the 1641 rebellion. There is a very nice explanation of the significance of these depositions, as well as the scope of the project from the RTE 6 O’clock news that you can watch from Youtube here.
I have just started teaching the early modern period and while preparing my lecture on the 1641 rebellion I have realised that the depositions are not only an incredibly useful way of explaining to students what the experience of such turmoil was, but that they tell us an incredible amount about life in Ireland in the seventeenth century. The deponents give a vast array of details about their lives from inventories of their properties, to house arrangements, to relations with their neighbours. They also show us how seventeenth century inhabitants of Ireland classified themselves and the social and ethnic groups around them. The exhibition really drove this home for me.
The other striking part of the exhibition was the international dimension. Their are printed sources from all over Europe which feature amongst original depositions on display and they highlight that Ireland’s rebellion was big news internationally and was placed in a context of the religious wars of the period. Ireland was far from a back water and was written about and discussed.
It was fantastic to have Eamon as a guide through some of these printed sources as his PhD focused on the use of the depositions as a printed source. He explained how particular depositions were focused on to represent ‘typical’ experiences and often had biblical tones.
The exhibition has a further element; it explains what the depositions are, how remarkable they are and how they have survived but also looks at how they have been interpreted historically so it works well for both newcomers and those who have encounatered the depositions before.
There is also an opportunity to search the depositions while in the long room, perhaps bringing family history a little further back than the 1901 census has allowed! Considering how often historians of the early modern period bemoan the lack of sources for Ireland it will be interesting to see the innovative ways in which this source will be used over the next twenty years to broaden our knowledge of society, integration and views of ethnicity. The scope of the depositions, over 3,000, as well as their fragility, has meant that it has been incredibly difficult for any one scholar to read all of the depositions. This has been made a lot more manegable through their digitization and has ensured they will be preserved. I look forward to seeing their impact on our historiography.
The exhibition runs until 3 April 2011 at the Long Room in Trinity College Dublin.