1641 Rebellion massacre reports based on hearsay, study shows

CHARGES THAT thousands of Protestants settlers were massacred during the 1641 Rebellion in Ireland were often based on hearsay…

CHARGES THAT thousands of Protestants settlers were massacred during the 1641 Rebellion in Ireland were often based on hearsay, according to a new high-tech analysis of thousands of 450-year-old witness statements.

The new research by University of Aberdeen and computer experts, aided by up-to-the-minute linguistics software, will be unveiled this morning.

The witness statements, now known as the 1641 Depositions, which were converted into more accessible digital form by Trinity College last year, played a key role in Oliver Cromwell’s justification for subsequently pillaging much of the country.

The Aberdeen research questions the value of “the depositions as evidence, pinpointing hearsay as a basis for testimony and demonstrating that many of the most atrocious incidents were reported second or even third-hand more often than in the first person”, the university said yesterday.

The statements were used to convince public opinion in London “that women and children were constructed as the primary victims of the rebellion – feeding into the popular conception of the rebels as barbaric and alien”.

Forensic linguist Dr Nicci MacLeod said: “The atrocious acts committed against women and children are a central image of the Rebellion as it was reported in London newspapers and other propaganda texts of the period”.

However, the IBM-supplied software, specially adapted to deal with the 19,000 pages, showed that “believeth” and “thinketh” and the phrase “hath credibly heard” appear far more frequently than “saw” or “witnessed”.

She added: “We have been able to show that there are significant differences between the use of words and phrases meaning ‘heard’ as opposed to ‘saw’ when it comes the worst atrocities reported within the depositions, such as an act of cannibalism and many of the more infamous events”.

The project team was led by University of Aberdeen language and linguistics expert Dr Barbara Fennell, along with computer specialist Dr Deirdre O’Regan, language specialist Dr Mark Sweetnam, historian Dr Elaine Murphy and Trinity College’s Dr Séamus Lawless.

The 8,000 depositions, totalling 19,000 pages in 31 volumes, were gifted by Bishop John Sterne to Trinity College’s library in 1741, though some are nearly illegible and spellings are erratic.