Public invited to co-create 1916 letters project

Opinion: ‘Letters of 1916’ aims to ‘unforget’ the lives of those in Ireland during the Easter Rising


In December 1915, Lawrence Brown, a gunner on the HMS Defence, sent a Christmas card to his sisters, Mary and Nellie, back in Dublin.

The card was naval issue, with the printed message “Fondest memories ever cling / Through all the changes / time may bring”. Inside, he wrote: “To his dear little sisters Mary and Nellie with love. Will write later on as we are on our way to malta or the dardnells”.

Within five months Gunner Brown was dead: perished when his ship was sunk during the largest naval engagement of the Great War, the Battle of Jutland. His body was never recovered. He was 22.

Over the next four years we will learn the stories (or fragments of stories) of thousands of individuals like Lawrence Brown. In many cases, except for the letters left behind, they might be forgotten, known only via a census or death record.

As the historian GM Trevelyan wrote in his autobiography: “The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more and is ours today . . . all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone.”

The online project Letters of 1916 is uniquely placed to “unforget” those who have been forgotten by bringing their stories into a public discourse. Its goal is to bring these voices out of the libraries, archives, museums and private collections to reclaim the complexity of Irish history – from divided loyalties to the ordinariness of life – to convey the rich fabric that was life in Ireland a century ago.

Sliver of time

Letters of 1916 focuses on a sliver of time: November 1915 to October 1916 – the period six months before and after the Easter Rising. It aims to create a “year in the life” of this island through a crowd-sourced digital collection of letters. It is doing this by collecting any letter, postcard or telegram that falls within its date range as long as it has something to do with Ireland.

The project began in September 2013, with some 300 letters for transcription. We have hundreds of transcribers from all over the world, along with nearly a dozen collaborating institutions.

Today we are releasing our 1,000th letter for transcription: a letter from a Alfred Gerald Crofton to his aunt, Lady Clonbrock. He was an Irishman who had emigrated to Canada, and who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in December 1915, and was sent to the western front.

We will officially launch in November 2015, on the centenary of our first letter.

For our purposes, what the letter is about is immaterial, as long as it meets the criteria above. It does not matter if the political perspective is unionist or nationalist; if the author is a Connaught Ranger held as a prisoner of war in Limburg, Germany or a Volunteer held at the Frongoch internment camp; if the subject matter is love or business; if the card is as simple as confirming an appointment, or advising next of kin to visit a man condemned to die the next day.

‘Messy’ mosaic of the past

Letters speak to us, with an intensity and genuineness, providing a window onto the past that no other medium conveys. They create a mosaic of life lived, messy and complex, eschewing our notions of a collective past that tends to be flattened by a method of narrative that historians employ in writing for the page.

This project is unusual in that we are not creating a collection behind the scenes and releasing it at the project’s end point. Rather, the public is invited to co-create the collection with us. From depositing digital copies of their letters in the archive (if people can’t digitise their letters, we do it for them) to transcribing previously uploaded letters.

The project has been funded by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Digital Repository of Ireland, the National University of Ireland Maynooth, and Trinity College Dublin.

Its next phase will involve building a database that will not only allow users to search and browse, but to explore the collection through many visual paradigms, combining time, space and themes to answer questions such as: what topics were people writing about in Kerry prior to the 1916 Rising and did this change after it?; what were soldiers serving in the Great War writing home about?; what was the typical business of state leading up to April 1916.

This is a collection created by the public for the public, one that provides an intimate picture of life as it was lived a century ago, revealing a rich mosaic of stories of many thousands of ordinary lives in extraordinary times.

Access to the project, Letters of 1916, is on

Susan Schreibman is professor of digital humanities at the National University of Ireland Maynooth

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