Trinity seeks ‘ordinary’ letters relating to 1916 events

Letters project aims to create digital collection

Eileen Corrigan  with her mother and  father. Photograph: Trinity College, Dublin

Eileen Corrigan with her mother and father. Photograph: Trinity College, Dublin


Like any young student caught up in momentous, violent events, Eileen Corrigan was anxious lest her parents were worried about her welfare.

It was Monday, April 24th – Easter Monday, 1916 – and bullets were flying around Dublin city centre. Eileen arrived from Belfast that evening to sit her exams in the Trinity College examination hall over the next two days, and thought it best to drop a note home.

“Just a line to let you know I arrived safely, in case the papers should make you anxious,” she wrote to her parents. Her father was the Rev William Corrigan, minister at the Green Road Methodist Church in fashionable Knock, a part of east Belfast. The little postcard was sent from Eileen’s digs at the Young Woman’s Christian Association in Rathmines.

“All communication is stopped from Dublin”, she continued, “but a lady promised to post this to-morrow from the North. Everything will probably be all right to-morrow, as the military are coming from Curragh.”

The card was signed “With love Frog”, presumably a pet name for the young woman.

Eileen Corrigan was one of just four women students who sat their exams as rebellion and counter attack swirled about outside Trinity’s walls. They were rewarded with lunch in Provost Mahafy’s house hosted by his wife, Frances Letitia.

Eileen passed Tuesday’s written exam and Wednesday’s oral. She graduated in 1917 and became a teacher. She spent time in Scotland and died in 1993.

Recollection of Rising
Before she died, however, she gave some papers to her old alma mater, describing in detail her recollection of that traumatic week in Ireland’s history. The value of her note to her parents is that it records the reaction of an ordinary person, as opposed to a participant, to the dramatic events of the Rising. It is exactly what Trinity hopes there is more of – in drawers, shoeboxes or perhaps the attics of families all over the country and perhaps further afield.

The Letters of 1916, “the first public humanities project in Ireland”, aims to create a crowd-sourced digital collection of letters written around the time of the Easter Rising, from November 1st 1915 to October 31st 1916. The project will be launched on Friday with a Discover Research Night from 6pm to 10pm at the Long Room Hub in Trinity.

People are invited to bring with them any letters they have relevant to 1916 events during the specified period. They will be assessed by archivists and the owners advised how best to preserve them. Already some 400 letters have been given to the archive by public institutions, including the National Library of Ireland, the National Archives of Ireland, TCD and University College Dublin, as well as the Medical Missionaries of Mary.

‘New perspectives’
“Allowing letters from personal collections to be read alongside official letters and letters contributed by institutions will add new perspectives to the events of the period and allow us to understand what it was like to live an ordinary life through what were extraordinary times,” says Dr Susan Schreibman, of the School of English at TCD, the project’s principal investigator.

Through these letters, she said, the digital archive would aspire to bring to life the last words, the unspoken words and the forgotten words of ordinary people during this “formative period” in Irish history.

“All too often our emphasis is on the grand narrative, focusing on key political figures. But as we approach the centenary of the Easter Rising we want to try to get a sense of how ordinary people coped with one of the most disruptive periods in contemporary Irish history – from loved ones serving in the British Army and Dublin itself becoming a theatre of war, to the business of State carried out by Government.”