A Digital Education

Meredith Dabek, Maynooth University

Category: Assignment 1

Love Letters of 1916

Letters of 1916 ProjectLetters of 1916

In April 1916, during Easter Week, Irish republicans launched an armed rebellion aimed at ending British rule in Ireland. Though British forces quickly suppressed the insurrection, the event, now known as the Easter Rising, helped propel Ireland to independence.

To help preserve and document life in Ireland in the months before and after the Easter Rising, researchers at Trinity College Dublin and Maynooth University, led by Dr. Susan Scriebman, created the Letters of 1916 project. Launched in September 2013 as Ireland’s first crowdsourced (digital) humanities project, Letters of 1916 “aims to create a large scale digital collection of letters” written around the time of the Easter Rising, as well as create “an online archive of letters created by the public for the public” (Trinity College Dublin).

While many of the letters address the Easter Rising in some way, this diverse collection of correspondence includes a wide range of topics. From art, business and politics to family life and faith, Dr. Scriebman wanted to ensure that the Letters of 1916 would “bring to life…the unspoken words and the forgotten words of ordinary people during this formative period in Irish history” (Trinity College Dublin).

James and May

James Finn and May (Fay) Finn

James Finn and May (Fay) Finn

Among the thousands of unspoken and forgotten words of ordinary people catalogued by the Letters of 1916 Project are those of James Finn and May Fay. James and May were engaged sometime in late 1915 or early 1916, and between January and June of 1916, exchanged love letters as they continued their courtship and planned their wedding. The letters, donated to the project by granddaughter Tessa Finn, are filled with stories and anecdotes of everyday life in Ireland, friends and family of the couple and, in the weeks prior to and following Easter, the Rising.

James worked as a senior civil servant in Dublin, and lived in the city, while May remained at her family’s home in Mullingar, County Westmeath. They were prolific writers, exchanging the nearly 100 letters in just about six months’ time, and, in some cases, wrote and received replies on the same day – a testament both to their devotion to one another and a fairly efficient Irish postal service.

While the majority of James and May’s letters focused on their wedding plans and their future life together, several of the letters – James’ in particular – offer glimpses into the political climate of Dublin leading up to and following the Easter Rising. There are no letters between James and May during the days of the Rising itself; instead, James wrote about his plan to visit May in Mullingar for Easter, after which there is a gap of more than 10 days before he wrote again to reassure May of his safe return to Dublin.

Part of the reason for the gap between letters is that James was likely with May, visiting as planned. However, it also underscores the confusion and uncertainty that reigned in the days and weeks after the Rising, when accurate information was difficult to obtain, particularly for those outside of Dublin:

… News was so very scarce and uncertain that I very soon began to look out for another letter, it’s sickening not to know how long that suspense would last… (Fay, 7 May 1916)

In James’ case, he may have been wary of appearing to openly support the Irish Volunteers, especially as a civil servant. Many of his letters to May were sent from his office, on National Health Insurance Commission letterhead, and on 8 May 1916, he specifically mentioned his concern that his letters may not have gotten through due to the censors (Finn).

In later letters from the spring of 1916, James and May demonstrate a deliberate carefulness with the content they included in their letters. After sharing some of Patrick Pearce’s writings with May on 26 May 1916, James assured her that he “received the copy of [the] letter quite safely” (Finn), implying that possession of Pearce’s correspondence might be dangerous.

Their caution was not unfounded. In her contributor profile on the Letters of 1916 website, James and May’s granddaughter Tessa Finn wrote, “Many people they knew were either actively involved or suspected of…involvement” in the Easter Rising. On 18 May 1916, James’ letters informed May that one of his colleagues had been arrested because he “spoke Irish continually in his home and played Irish and German music on his piano” (Finn).

Due to his position as a civil servant (as well as the arrest of his colleague), James was probably questioned about his knowledge of the Rising events, a possibility May contemplated with a bit of humor:

We are always looking out for the paper & news we manage to get an odd paper now & then but I saw where all Civil Servants were to render an account of their Easter holidays… You need not be afraid to mention our names anyway; we are not very rebellious characters. (Fay, 10 May 1916)

Despite the heightened political atmosphere of Dublin (or, perhaps, because of it), both James and May’s letters suggest an increased appreciation for each other. In times of turmoil and upheaval, these two lovers naturally turned to one another for comfort, and to give thanks for what they had:

You remember how often I told you that both by letter and by mouth: that I might not have the good fortune or the grace from God to be married to you. Now somehow I feel that I may be thought worthy although why it should be so I cannot understand when I think of all the fine spirits that this calamity has called to their eternal account. Things are gradually getting more like their usual way and people generally are beginning to rebuild and restore all that has been shattered but it will be many a long day before Dublin is anything like its old self. (Finn, 8 May 1916)

In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, James and May’s letters illustrate a timeless fact: political uprisings can undoubtedly and irrevocably change a country, and yet life – and love – continue on. Thanks to the Letters of 1916 Project, the words of these everyday, ordinary lovers have been preserved and brought to new audiences, nearly 100 years later.

[Photo Credits: Letters of 1916 website; Tessa Finn’s contributor profile]

Works Cited

Fay, May. Letter from May Fay to James Finn. 7 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Fay, May. Letter from May Fay to James Finn. 10 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Finn, James. Letter from James Finn to May Fay. 8 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Finn, James. Letter from James Finn to May Fay. 18 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Finn, James. Letter from James Finn to May Fay. 26 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Tessa Finn.Letters of 1916. National University of Ireland Maynooth. 2014. Web. 8 November 2014.

Trinity College Dublin. Letters of 1916 Research Project Calling on Public to Contribute Family Letters. 24 September 2013. Trinity College Dublin Communications Office. Web. 8 November 2014.

Access & Accessibility in Digital Humanities

This year, from October 20th to October 26th, humanities researchers will observe International Open Access Week, a global event designed to celebrate and promote the benefits of open access and to encourage open access as the standard for academic scholarship. The organizers behind International Open Access Week define open access as the “free, immediate, online access to the results of scholarly research, and the right to use and re-use those results as you need.” Many projects, journals and scholarly resources within Digital Humanities promote themselves as open access, and many digital humanists support an increased commitment to open access research.

There is, however, a key difference between providing access to Digital Humanities research, and making that research accessible to all. While access can refer to “the right or opportunity to use or benefit from something,” accessibility specifically refers to something “easily obtained or used,” particularly by individuals with a disability (emphasis mine). If Digital Humanities, as a field of study, intends to maintain and perhaps even advance its commitment to access, then digital humanists must also consider accessibility when creating their projects. Far too often, the needs of individuals with disabilities remain neglected in digital spaces. According to George H. Williams, Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina Upstate:

Many of the otherwise most valuable digital resources are useless for people who are – for example – deaf or hard or hearing, as well as for people who are blind, have low vision or have difficulty distinguishing particular colors.

Indeed, despite its widespread use across many demographic groups, the Internet is “inherently unfriendly to many different kinds of disabilities” (Lazar and Jaeger, 70).

Accessibility on the Web

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), tracks how individuals with disabilities use the Internet and develops guidelines and resources to help ensure websites are accessible to everyone. In theory, the Internet is designed to improve communication by removing barriers and obstacles; in practice, however, when websites – or Digital Humanities projects – are badly designed, they can prevent a large subset of the population from accessing information. Furthermore, each individual has his or her own strengths, weaknesses, skills and abilities, all of which can affect how he or she uses the Internet. Digital projects that take a “one way fits all” approach limit their reach and impact when certain groups of people can’t use or access that project.

The WAI offers an overview of the diversity of abilities and disabilities, which can range from auditory, visual, cognitive or physical disabilities to age-related impairments, temporary or situational impairments and health conditions. Each disability may have its own set of barriers to accessibility, requiring different solutions or alternatives. An individual who is hard of hearing, for example, might find it difficult to view audio content presented without captions, while someone with a cognitive disability might react poorly to lots of animation or moving images. Even the computer itself, with its traditional set up with a mouse and keyboard, can become an obstacle to a person with a lost limb or injury that prevents use of his or her hands.

Why Does Accessibility Matter?

Accessibility should be an integral part of Digital Humanities projects, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps most obviously, there could be legal implications, since many countries have passed laws requiring web accessibility. Digital Humanities projects are also sometimes funded through federal grants and, as Williams points out, digital humanists may lose such funding if they cannot demonstrate accessibility and adherence to federal accessibility laws.

Additionally, despite the existence of accessibility laws, a central administrating organization or group for web and digital accessibility does not. In the United States, for example, there is no one government agency in charge of ensuring compliance with accessibility laws. According to Lazar and Jaeger, this haphazard approach places “the burden on people with disabilities to enforce their own rights” (76).

Of course, accessibility also helps expand the reach of a Digital Humanities project. By taking the needs of the greatest number of people into account when designing a project, digital humanists can ensure the largest audience for their work, which in turn could help further the research or provide new contexts and connections.

Ideas and Recommendations

Improving accessibility in Digital Humanities will require more than one solution, and should include collaboration between those with expertise and those ready to learn. It will also necessitate improved accessibility policies and laws, as well as the enforcement of those laws. Williams proposes a universal design approach, explaining that universal design “is design that involves conscious decisions about accessibility for all.” It’s also efficient, providing websites and digital projects with compatibility for multiple devices and platforms. This would allow a digital humanist to design and create a project just once, then easily adapt it for different audiences or devices.

The WAI also offers suggestions by highlighting some of the tools a disabled person might use to improve his or her Internet experience (for example, hardware or software meant to help bridge the gap between the individual and the website) and the strategies and techniques a person might develop to interact with non-accessible websites. These include voice recognition software to give commands, screen readers for those with poor vision, and alternatives to the keyboard and mouse (touch-screens, joysticks, etc).

Certainly, one important step towards improved Digital Humanities accessibility is awareness within the field. A coalition of American universities and research centers is leading the charge for increased awareness with the Building an Accessible Future for the Humanities project. The Accessible Future partnership, supported in part by the US National Endowment for the Humanities, hosts a series of workshops exploring technologies, design standard and issues with digital projects, all tailored towards securing accessibility’s place in Digital Humanities.

Access has long been an integral part of Digital Humanities, grounded in the idea that digital projects should be available to as many people as possible. If Digital Humanities intends to continue its commitment to open access data and research, then accessibility – and specifically digital accessibility – must also become an integral part of the field. Designing accessible projects may require some rethinking and adjustments, but it won’t be as difficult as one might expect. Lazar and Jaeger remind us “the technical solutions for web accessibility already exist” (80). It’s simply a matter of being mindful of different abilities, considering accessibility issues and concerns from the start of each project, and ensuring that the information, in its many forms, is accessible to the widest possible audience.

Works Cited

About.International Open Access Week. Andrea Higginbotham, nd. Web. 21 October 2014.

“Access.” The New Oxford American Dictionary. Version 2.2.1. 2011. Apple, Inc.

“Accessible.” The New Oxford American Dictionary. Version 2.2.1. 2011. Apple, Inc.

Accessible Future. Indiana University Perdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), 2014. Web. 20 October 2014.

How People with Disabilities Use the Web.Web Accessibility Initiative. W3C, 2013. Web. 20 October 2014.

Lazar, Jonathan and Paul Jaeger. “Reducing Barriers to Online Access for People with Disabilities.Issues in Science and Technology. Winter 2011: 69-82. Web. 20 October 2014.

Williams, George H. “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities.Debates in Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 202-212. Web. 20 October 2014.

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