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
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]
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.