Letters Of 1916: The forgotten sources

old letter

The course of Irish history has, like nations all across the world, experienced events which can be identified as pivotal moments for that nation’s story and identity. These events are in many cases well documented by monks, scribes, diplomats and government officials in the retinue of the pivotal figures in society who wish to record their personal or official establishment version of the event for posterity. These official records of history, whilst extremely valuable, should therefore always be read with the potential for bias at the fore, the well-known phrase ‘history is written by the victor’, springs to mind in these instances.

In time professional historians became more prevalent but even their histories are susceptible to bias, influence and motive which can be challenged by their peers. How would Ireland’s perception in popular history as an ‘Island of saints and scholars’ read if the Scottish saint-stealer Thomas Dempster’s version of history had not been challenged and rebuked by the Irish historian James Ware in the 1600s (Empey).

What can be lacking in the official records which are recorded from the top down, and even many well respected histories of momentous events, is the personal story of the common man, the everyday lives which carried on whilst all around them great periods and events of historic change were taking place. Whenever we consider a great event in history, it must be remembered that the majority of people carried on their daily routines whether or not they were directly involved in the event. The official histories which document and discuss diplomatic actions, government policies, troop movements, lockouts, and pivotal historic figures comprise the bulk of many histories and chapter headings, yet the common man was arguably more affected by historic events than many of those who were highly involved.

What the Letters 1916 Project aims to do is to rectify that anomaly of the forgotten people, who in most cases were not significant figures of the period but fought, died, survived or simply lived through the period around the Easter Rising of 1916. It is the aim, according to Susan Schreibman of the Letters of 1916 Project, ‘to “unforget” those who have been forgotten by bringing their stories into a public discourse.‘ (Schreibman).

At the time of writing this blog, over 1600 letters have been collected by Letters 1916 which are separated into sixteen categories. While this may seem at first glance an overly broad number of categories, it is in the category titles themselves that the scope and value of the project to examining the many facets of life during this eventful period becomes apparent. Not only are the expected, but necessary and equally valuable, topics available such as Politics, World War I, Easter Rising and The Irish Question, but categorised also are letters on Art and Literature, Children, Country Life and Love Letters.

The Letters of 1916 home page states that ‘Through these letters we are bringing to life the written words, the last words, the unspoken words, and the forgotten words’, and it would seem it is also bringing the everyday words. What many of the letters bring to life is not only opinions and matters directly involving the Rising and its main protagonist, of which there are many, but how people lived their lives before and after, and that in some instances the Rising may have had very little effect on daily life.

One such example of how life carried on is demonstrated in the correspondence between Susan Fitzgerald of Stradbally in Queens County (now County Laois) and Michael Gorman who was attending Albert College in Glasnevin, Dublin at the time of the Rising. The letters, which dated throughout 1916, are essentially quite unremarkable letters from a seemingly young girl to her suitor. Yet they show the innocent life that a young girl from what would seem a prosperous middle class Irish family lived, and how her language, lifestyle and interests were in fact very much akin to the popular perception of this class during the period, evident in drama such as ‘Downton Abbey’. In a letter dated 23rd of May 1916, the first since the Rising occurred just a month earlier, and just eleven days after the last execution of rebel leaders, there is no evidence of caution or concern for Susan’s suitor in Dublin, her own position or her family, for whom life including trips to the recently ravaged city of Dublin continue. She begins:

My dearest Mickie

I have been threatening to write to you all last week and I made several attempts on yesterday but didnt succeed.  Mother & Fannie went to Dublin for the day. I was asked to keep an eye on the kids so I had a very busy time trying to keep them out of mischief. (Fitzgerald, 23 May 1916)

The letter continues in this light-hearted vein whereby discussion includes exams, photography, weather, holidays, friends, hobbies and clothes, but no mention of this recent event which is considered a pivotal event in Irish history. It is not that I would suggest that this is a nonchalant middle class girl and her family unconcerned by the recent turbulent national event however. What this letter can in fact portray is that life in the aftermath of the Rising for many continued as it had before, life then as now continues for many as normal throughout great periods of upheaval. In the midst of the official histories which chronicle the high level political aspects of the time, letters such as that by Susan Fitzgerald can show that life went on, Dublin was still vibrant, people continued to conduct business and pleasure even within Dublin City in the immediate aftermath of 1916.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Empey, Mark. ‘‘Value-free’ history?: the scholarly network of Sir James Ware’ in History Ireland. vol. XX, issue 2, (March/April 2012). Web. Accessed 14 November 2014. http://www.historyireland.com/early-modern-history-1500-1700/value-free-history-the-scholarly-network-of-sir-james-ware/

Fitzgerald, Susan. Letter from Susan Fitzgerald to Michael Gorman. 23 May 1916. Web. Accessed 14 November 2014. http://dh.tcd.ie/letters1916/diyhistory/items/show/489

Letters of 1916: Creating History. Web. Accessed 14 November 2014. http://dh.tcd.ie/letters1916/

Schreibman, Sausan. “Public invited to co-create 1916 letters project.” Irish Times. The Irish Times 4 August 2014. Web. Accessed 14 November 2014. http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/public-invited-to-co-create-1916-letters-project-1.1887075?page=1

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