Review: 1641 Depositions Project

 

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The 1641 Depositions collection consists of 8,000 witness statements recorded by commissions from the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and continuing through to the 1650s. The depositions were deposited in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin in 1741 where they have remained ever since (“The 1641 Depositions Project”; Darcy and Purvis; Clarke 112). They are regarded as a unique corpus of primary source documentation for the time-period; “unparalleled anywhere in early modern Europe” (Ohlmeyer 54). Nevertheless, for centuries, the collection was under-utilised as primary evidence for the historiography of the rebellion, as it was bounded in disarray with no apparent indexing system (Clarke 112-13; Bowcott). Also, the depositions were difficult to read, some “virtually ineligible”, due to the nature of the language, spelling and grammar (“The 1641 Depositions Project”; Ohlmeyer 54). Ultimately, in 2005 the 1641 Depositions Project was conceived in an attempt to bring this unique corpus into the public domain (“The 1641 Depositions Project”).

The 1641 Rebellion was initiated by a small group of Irish Catholic Lords and Northern rebels for the purpose of ‘the regayneinge of theyre lands & freedome of theyre Religion’ (TCD, MS 809, fols 024r-025v). It was also an attempt to reorganise the ‘constitutional position’ of the natives (Cal. SP. Relating to Ireland, Vol. CCLX, 342-3). It began on 22 October 1641, and although the plan to take Dublin Castle was foiled, before midnight, the Northern rebels had captured Dungannon and Charlemont, with rebellion soon spreading in Ulster, Cavan, Monaghan and North Louth (Perceval-Maxwell 149-152). Thereafter, the Rebellion was perceived as a massacre of Protestant settlers by Irish Catholic natives (Clarke 111; Perceval-Maxwell 144; Gibney; Associated Press). Indeed, Oliver Cromwell relied on such an account to gain support for a re-conquest of Ireland in 1649 and as justification for the attacks on the defeated garrisons in Wexford and Drogheda (Gibney; Bowcott).

As Protestant refugees fled the rebellion and made their way to Dublin for protection, a commission was set up to take their statements from the outbreak of the rebellion and up to two years thereafter (Ohlmeyer 54; Galloway Marshall 6; Maxwell-Perceval 147). These witness statements were called the 1641 Depositions. During the 1650s, further depositions were collected as evidence against defeated rebels who were being tried (Perceval-Maxwell 148; Ohlmeyer 54). While the depositions are mostly witness statements from Protestants, there are also some Catholic accounts. Over the centuries, ad hoc evidence from witness statements has been utilised to support the premise that a sectarian massacre had taken place, and for centuries the 1641 “massacre” was symbolic in terms of an Ulster identity (Gibney; “The 1641 Depositions Project”).

 

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“Orange banner, depicting the contested history of the drowning of Protestants in the River Bann in 1641 during a rebellion of Catholics and native Irish; courtesy Millennium Court Arts Centre.” Image Source: McBrinn, Joseph – Circa

 

The 1641 Depositions project was realised and implemented from 2007-2010 with the aim of conserving, digitising and transcribing the 1641 Depositions in order to make them available online as a resource for students, researchers, academics and the public at large (“The 1641 Depositions Project”; Ohlmeyer 56; Lillington). The project was a collaborative venture between Trinity College Dublin, the University of Aberdeen and the University of Cambridge. It received funding of over one million euro from the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the UK, the Library of Trinity College Dublin and the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. It also entailed partnerships with IBM LanguageWare and Eneclann (“The 1641 Depositions Project”).  Indeed, the project incorporated varied elements of interdisciplinary collaboration between humanities, historical research, computing and the management of information.

The project began with the conservation of the depositions and their bindings. Eneclann was then responsible for digitising the original depositions and for providing the expertise for technical aspects of the project plan, its design, and final production online (“The 1641 Depositions Project”). The digitisation of the depositions was a slow process due to the poor condition of the manuscripts. They were imaged “using an overhead digital array that conforms to archival standards” thus, alleviating stress on the binding (Ibid.). The use of a cold lamp technique prevented further damage from heat, UV or infrared light (Ibid.). The master images were captured at a higher resolution and “saved as uncompressed TIF files”, and further digital surrogates were saved as compressed jpg files with a lower resolution (Ibid.). Best practices from other institutions were observed, such as the Oxford Digital Library project, and the UK based Arts & Humanities Data Service which inspired and influenced the development of best practice guidelines for Trinity College Library Digital Resources and Imaging Services (DRIS) in its own right (Ibid.). The digital surrogates of the 1641 Depositions manuscripts are retained within the Trinity College Library Dublin’s Digital Collections Repository (Ibid.).

The transcriptions were encoded using TEI guidelines, to allow for interoperability between systems, but also with a view to sustaining the system in the long-term, and in terms of easy migration (Lillington; “The 1641 Depositions Project”). The texts were marked up using IBM LanguageWare software in XML, which allowed for data to be tagged (Lillington), and afforded more opportunity for detailed searches across the collection. Indeed, such an approach provides opportunity for the “Humanities researcher to ask new and more complex questions” (“The 1641 Depositions Project”). The project set a precedent in using LanguageWare for a digital humanities project, as it had only previously been used in law enforcement and the health sector (Lillington). Indeed, Ohlmeyer suggests that the project contributed to “revolutionising research in the humanities because large-scale views of complex documents have never been available before” (qtd. in Lillington).

The impact of the project as an accessible resource of primary source documentation provides researchers, scholars, academics and theologians with an opportunity to reassess the rebellion. Not only does it provide critical information on the nature of the rebellion, it also provides information regarding the plantations, the interaction of settlers, and the social, cultural, political and economic landscape of the era (Margey; Ohlmeyer). While it may have been customary to think of the 1641 Rebellion as a reaction to the Ulster Plantation, or a straightforward account of religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants, wider research through the use of this resource has proven these explanations to be over-simplified. The University of Aberdeen received further funding in 2010 to analyse the 1641 Depositions project database for linguistics purposes (University of Aberdeen-News; BBC News; Bowcott). The analysis encompassed the development of the English language in Ireland, the dissemination of the language of atrocity through the use of “forensic linguistics”, and the investigation of new methods for the presentation of historical information through the use of technology. Therefore, the 1641 Depositions Project has contributed towards transformations in digital humanities in the context of the analysis of linguistic patterns in the early-modern period of Irish history, which would not have been conceivable beforehand. More information on the linguistics project is available from Fennell in History Today.

 

Bibliography
Image Source:

“Orange banner, depicting the contested history of the drowning of Protestants in the River Bann in 1641 during a rebellion of Catholics and native Irish; courtesy Millennium Court Arts Centre.” Image Source in McBrinn, Joseph. “Orange Segments: A Historical Look at the Orange Order and Seeing Orange: Northern Irish Artists’ Use of Orange Imagery , Millennium Court Arts Centre, Portadown, July 2005, Article reproduced from CIRCA 113, (2005): 84-86 <http://recirca.com/cgi-bin/mysql/show_item.cgi?post_id=3140&type=backissues>

 

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