Remembering the Rising: Letters of 1916 project launched

Crowdsourcing scheme attracts 1,500 people to transcribe 2,400 letters – all now public

 

The result of one of the most successful crowdsourcing projects ever conducted in Ireland is now public with the launch of the Letters of 1916: A Year in the Life website.

Some 1,500 people signed up to transcribe 2,400 letters all of which have been made public. They ranged from academics to schoolchildren.

The letters cover the period from November 1st, 1916, to October 31st, 1916, and all have an Irish theme. Some 700 alone are about the Rising, others are about the first World War, but many are just about the mundanities of life in an extraordinary period of Irish history.

Project leader Prof Susan Schreibman conceived of the Letters of 1916 three years ago. The response to her call was international. “I am really gratified that it has captured the public imagination so much. It has given people a chance to engage with the past,” she said.

“The letters paint a picture of the day-to-day lives of ordinary people which provide present day readers with the rare opportunity to be, however fleetingly, part of the world they inhabited.”

The documents include handwritten transcriptions of the final letters from the leaders of the Easter Rising. It was common at that time for people to transcribe important letters of the time, but often with subtle differences between one text and another.

The paranoia around the time of the Rising is exemplified in a letter sent to chief secretary Augustine Birrell just six days before it began from Joseph Dowdall: “I have under observation in this city, two men whom not only do I believe are German spies, but are in constant touch with the German Government in Dublin and London”.

Among the letters are one from Robert Monteith, one of the founders of the Irish Volunteers, to his wife Mary Florence Monteith. In Christmas 1915, Monteith found himself in Germany in his fruitless attempt along with Roger Casement to recruit an Irish brigade in German prisoner of war camps. He would later accompany Casement on the ill-fated submarine journey to Ireland.

‘Running wild’

He wrote: “Dear old pet, No letter from you yet. I am so lonely today – you remember last year in 8 Hartstonge St. with the little ones running wild – why do you grip me so much & why are my thoughts so cluttered around you? Mollie write me, I do so want your sympathy, my work is so hard, and difficulties so many.”

The fate of Irish prisoners of war in Germany occupied the activities of Lady Augusta Clonbrock who worked tirelessly throughout the war with the Irish Women’s Association to send items to Irish POWs, especially those belonging to the Connaught Rangers. At one stage she wrote looking to collect sphagnum moss which, in the absence of antiseptic bandaging, was in great demand in 1916.

The men wrote frequently to her. One Private Bernard Ward noted: “I have no friends who can send me anything and have received very little since I have been a prisoner. Consequently I have to depend on the generosity of my more fortunate comrades which to a sensitive person is not very agreeable. I should be very grateful if a little tobacco could be sent to me.”

There are many letters relating to the ghastly slaughter of the Somme including one from Jesuit chaplain Fr Henry Gill. “ It is a horrible and squalid business. Trenches full of mud with bodies of dead Germans and British lying unburied all along,” he wrote.

The website can be accessed at http://letters1916.maynoothuniversity.ie