1641 Depositions Project – Lessons for todays divided world


Speaker:  The landmark 1641 Depositions Project at Trinity College Dublin has digitised and analysed more than 8,000 witness statements made mainly by Protestants during the Rebellion which swept through Ireland in 1641 and 1642.


These often harrowing testimonies vividly capture the stories of homes and communities which were destroyed, the displacement of families who fled their homes, often never to return, and lurid and sometimes questionable descriptions of alleged atrocities which subsequently fuelled the deep religious divisions that characterised Irish history in the centuries which followed.


Begun in 2007, this unique project has been funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK and the library of Trinity College Dublin.  Throughout this time, the distinguished historian and author Jane Ohlmeyer, Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History at Trinity College Dublin has been at the heart of the project and in this programme, she tells publisher Mike Gibbs what the depositions have revealed about Irish society, the lessons that can be drawn today by countries which are similarly divided by religion and the group’s future research goals.


Mike Gibbs:  Jane, you and your colleagues have been responsible for developing and creating a most incredible project – the 1641 Depositions Project – which is a fantastic and fascinating story of historical research.  This is all based on materials that are held in Dublin.  Just describe for us if we were fortunate enough to be in the library in Trinity, in Dublin, and looking at the depositions, what would we would see?


Jane Ohlmeyer:  Mike, if we were in Dublin we would be in the Long Room, which is that exquisite library in Trinity, which is home to the depositions and has been home to the depositions since 1741.  They are in 31 huge volumes, the writing on them is extraordinarily difficult to read because it is like a hen has scratched on the page.  There are over 8,000 depositions and related examinations and papers naming thousands of people.  There is hardly a townland in Ireland that isn’t mentioned and they relate to every county, so they are geographically very, very extensive but they are primarily by Protestants who would have been colonising Ireland in the early 17th century.  They have been dubbed the most controversial records in Irish history but, prior to our project, only about 20 people a year would have read the depositions.  Now that they have been digitised, they are there for anyone anywhere to read freely online.


Mike Gibbs:  These depositions were made at a really critical and fascinating point in Irish history.  Firstly, what point in Irish history are we talking about – 1641 – what were the depositions and why are they important?


Jane Ohlmeyer:  In October 1641, a major Rebellion broke out in Ireland and the government realised very quickly that it needed to record what was happening, and so they set up a commission of Church of Ireland commissioners, Church of Ireland clergymen to be commissioners, to record the stories given by refugees who were coming – who fled to Dublin.


The depositions are legal documents and in the deposition, the deponents did a number of things.  They gave their name, their address, sometimes their occupation and their age and then they gave a list of everything that they had lost.  These laundry-like lists of losses are really quite extraordinary, because they would have told you whatever was in their kitchen, in their wardrobe, in their farmyard.  The level of detail is quite incredible: you need to see them as sort of modern insurance  claims.


Once they had done that, they would have told you about their experiences of the Rebellion, what allegedly happened to them.  They record the words of the insurgents, in other words what people – their assailants – said to them.  Once they had given you their eye-witness testimony, they then would have given you hearsay testimony, in other words what they had heard from other people.  Again, that is just fascinating in terms of what allegedly was occurring in other parts of their community.  Once we have the hearsay evidence, they would have signed it if they were able to sign, or they would have marked it with an X if they couldn’t, and then we would have had the name of the commissioner.  So these are legal documents and the format is very, very similar across them.  As I say, there are about 8,000 of them: there are 959 by women which is an extraordinary high number for this period.


The other thing that is really remarkable about these depositions is that the majority of them are given by ordinary people, in other words people who were practising trades, or who were working as craftsmen, very ordinary farmers, people who would have been apprentices.  These people, their voices are very often lost from history, particularly Irish history, so the depositions are fascinating from that perspective as well.  Let’s not forget they are legal documents and they have been explicitly collected in the knowledge that they are going to be used against the insurgents with a view to expropriating them of their land and, if you want, justifying an English re-conquest of Ireland.


Mike Gibbs:  Let me take you to a time that you first saw these racks or these shelves with all these depositions on: what did you think?


Jane Ohlmeyer:  I first worked on the depositions when I was doing my PhD, so let’s go back to the late 1980s – 40 years ago, Mike – and I was blown away by them in terms of just the detail that they gave about lived experiences of ordinary people.  But they were totally inaccessible, partly because they were extraordinarily difficult to read but they were also tucked away in the archives in Trinity.  I recognised just how important they were but people weren’t able to use them because they were so inaccessible but it was a moment of thinking – not just me but other colleagues – these really need to be published.


I was also very aware that they were the most controversial records in Irish history and had been used by Protestant polemicists and propagandists for political purposes across the centuries, so the only way to get away from that is publishing them in their entirety so people aren’t influenced by the extracts that the propagandists had been reproducing.  As soon as I saw them, I knew that they were hugely important but it then took until early, I think it was around 2005 that we began to put the money together that was needed.  We knew we needed €1.5 million to conserve, digitise and publish the depositions and there was no funding agency in Ireland that had a large enough budget to fund that.  Obviously, we went to the Irish Research Council but we also went to the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK, so it was a partnership between Trinity College Dublin, between Aberdeen University, between Cambridge University but we also worked with an Irish SME – small/medium enterprise company – called Eneclann, IBM was a corporate partner and we had some philanthropic funding as well.  So raising €1.5 million was the first challenge.


Then we put together an amazing team of researchers that spent three years transcribing the depositions and then publishing them online, and they were published online in 2010, so it took us seven years from deciding we were going to do it to actually publishing them online.  I am a great believer in publishing things in hard copy, the digital environment is a very fragile one, so the Irish Manuscripts Commission is publishing the depositions in 12 volumes, and that is an ongoing project that will be complete in 2024.


Mike Gibbs:  This is a very complex project that you have just outlined.  What were the biggest hurdles that you had to address and how did you address them?


Jane Ohlmeyer:  It is enormously complex but, at the end of the day, it’s all about the team and were just blessed that we had an amazing team, because this sort of project is only as good as the quality of the transcription.  So we wanted to make sure that our transcription was as good as reading the originals and I mean the team was amazing.  Also from a technological perspective, this was very early on in the days of digital humanities and truth be told, Mike, we made a number of mistakes early on.  Probably the biggest was that we didn’t work with computer scientists early enough.  We simply went to a company and said, ‘build the database for us’, which was the wrong thing to do because it was built in a closed environment.  Whereas if we had been working with our computer scientists, we would have built it very differently and made it much more open access than it is.  But, listen, we all make mistakes and we’ll never make that one again!  But it didn’t stop the project being, I suppose, a digital humanities flagship project as well as obviously being an important history project.


            They key to the success, in my opinion, was the quality of the team and the quality of the transcriptions, so we were very fortunate and it was led by an amazing colleague called Aidan Clarke, who had just retired as Professor of History at Trinity.  Basically, Aidan and the three researchers spent weeks – years – transcribing and checking.


Mike Gibbs:  And anybody who looks at those depositions – they are illegible.  They could be in Mandarin for all I know.  Just talk about those and not only the way they are written but the use of different descriptors for the same thing?


Jane Ohlmeyer:  What we wanted to do was have high quality transcriptions but also then to mark it up in TEI (Text Encoding Initiative), so that was happening as the transcribers went along.  There were three women who did the transcription and Aidan – they could read the depositions as if it was The Irish Times.  In other words, for them the abbreviations, the awful handwriting, they just were so talented and so expert at reading it that there was no word that the four of them couldn’t unpick.  I think if you look at the transcriptions, it’s only when it really is illegible that we don’t have a transcription.


Sadly, today a lot of that could be done – Artificial Intelligence and programmes like Transkribus would do automatically, so probably a machine could do in three months what it took us three years to do but, listen, this is technology just moving on at a phenomenal pace.  What is wonderful though is, because we did it manually, we now have a corpus of material that has fed into other projects because we were very confident of just the level of accuracy.  But it’s always a challenge and you can never be one hundred percent right.  Sometimes even having a full-stop in the wrong place can throw up all sorts of anomalies, so I’m not saying it’s perfect but we are very proud of what we achieved.


Mike Gibbs:  When in the process did you know that you were looking at some really exciting new information?


Jane Ohlmeyer:  We had always known the depositions were hugely significant but, for example, when we began this, we had thought there were 3,000 depositions; there turned out to be 8,000!  We didn’t know how many women had deposed and it’s only now we know that there were 959.  So you have that sort of information because it is complicated and there’s no consistency of anything here.  More importantly, I think the depositions have given us this insight into lived experiences that really we had no notion of what life was like in colonial Ireland, and the depositions have allowed us to explore that in a way that wasn’t possible before.


I think conversations around how news travels, there have been some very important doctoral theses done on the transmission of news from the manuscript of the depositions into print.  We have had some very important studies done on material culture – all of this has been thanks to the online publication of the depositions.  The depositions are now widely  used across Ireland, across universities in the United Kingdom, Europe, United States but also in 120 other countries.  I am amazed if you go across Latin America, if you go across Asia, people use the depositions usually in university classrooms and sometimes, of course, in secondary school classrooms as well.


I regularly get requests saying: can we translate the depositions into Hindi or another language and I say, be my guest.  If using the depositions is of value in your own educational and research environments, we are very happy that people take them, translate them and use them.  Nothing would have prepared me for the new knowledge nor the extent to which they would be used around the world.


Mike Gibbs:  You said basically that this is a very partial account of what happened in Ireland in 1641 and 1642.  You have also said that 1641 was a very seminal time in Irish history.  You began this project and throughout the project up until the Good Friday Agreement – you were carrying out this work against a very fraught period in Irish history.  What issues did that cause and what can current communities in Ireland and, as you just said, beyond learn from it?


Jane Ohlmeyer:  There were three attempts to publish the depositions.  The first attempt was in the 1930s and the Irish censor got involved and said these cannot be published, they are just so inflammatory.

Mike Gibbs:  And very lurid.


Jane Ohlmeyer:  And very lurid, and we simply won’t allow the Irish Manuscripts Commission to publish them.  As it turned out, the Second World War broke out and that put an end to that conversation.  There was another attempt in the mid-1960s to publish the depositions and the Troubles broke out in Northern Ireland in 1968, and at that point you couldn’t publish the depositions; again, they were just too inflammatory.


We could only approach this project after the Good Friday Agreement and Ireland being at peace.  You could not have this sort of project ongoing if Ireland was still at war, it had to be at peace, and we wanted the depositions to be a part of that peace process, because – and here I am paraphrasing Mary McAleese – you need to bow to the past, you can’t be bound by it.  But a project like this allows us to actually explore some of the most challenging moments in the past and issues around sectarianism, ethnic cleansing, genocide.  Contemporaries didn’t use this language – I am using it – but you need to do that when Ireland was at peace.  So, for me, the depositions all of a sudden became part of the peace process and I think that is why the Department of Foreign Affairs helped to fund a website aimed at school children that is linked to the main 1641 depositions website.


It is also why when we came to launch the depositions in October 2010, Mary McAleese, who was the then President of Ireland and herself had grown up in Catholic Belfast and talks openly about the sectarianism that she experienced and witnessed growing up, why she was then willing to launch the project in the Long Room at Trinity.  Even there, we were very conscious that Mary McAleese represents one side of the community; it is very important that the other side of the community is also part of the launch.  We invited Ian Paisley, who was then Lord Bannside, to, if you want, co-launch the Depositions Project with Mary McAleese.


The evening that they both did launch the Depositions Project was historic in and of itself, because here we have Ian Paisley who for decades had used 1641 and revenge for 1641 – and had used the depositions in a very polemical way to stir up anti-Catholicism – all of a sudden sharing a platform with Mary McAleese, the President of the Republic of Ireland, talking about an historic project about records that were deeply controversial but yet both recognising that, until we embrace our troubled past, we will never find a shared future.  So, for me, that is when the depositions then became part of a hugely important and constructive process.  They will never be used again for propagandistic and polemical purposes.  They will only be used – and certainly this is where we are very clear – to help address the very thorny issues of the past in a very constructive way.


Mike Gibbs:  Funders, politicians all over the world, often comment on the fact that history is history, it’s the past, we’ve got the future to think about.  Certainly, I think young people often think that way.  Do you think that your project actually shows that what happened in the past is valuable not only for today but for the future in somewhere like Ireland?


Jane Ohlmeyer:  Absolutely!  You said it so well there, Mike.  I think this project is a really good example – it’s not the only one – of an historical project that helps us better understand who we are and by understanding who we are, and by actually understanding just how contested myth and memory are, it allows us to move forward in a way and to shape the future, as I say, in a much more shared way.  It is not about being right or wrong, it’s about understanding, and doing so in a very respectful way.  I think a project like the 1641 Depositions really allows us to do this and with this project, all of a sudden we are seeing memory become history, and I think that is also very important as well.  And to pretend this didn’t happen and that it hasn’t – you can’t, you have to address the past and by addressing the past, it will really equip us to understand better who we are and where we’re going.


Mike Gibbs:  What does the future hold for the project?

Jane Ohlmeyer:  The Depositions Project has spawned a whole plethora of other projects and that’s really exciting to see.  We have something called the Down Survey Project that my colleague led after we completed the 1641 Depositions Project.  Then we have a number of big flagship European digital humanities projects that came out of the 1641 Project.  I am delighted to say, Mike, that very recently the European Research Council has awarded me a big grant that will allow me to continue to work on the 1641 depositions, so I am in the process of putting together a team and, over the course of the next five years, I want to focus on how we recover the lived experiences of women and children during times of peace and war, and the depositions are a hugely important part of that project.  We are hoping, again thanks to technology and something called knowledge graphs, to link the 1641 depositions website with other websites, for example the Civil War Petitions websites, and others that have a lot of Irish material in it, to really better understand how ordinary people – in other words non-elite people, particularly women and children – lived their lives during this period.


Mike Gibbs:  Finally, let me just take you back to when you were in the Long Room at Trinity: did you dream that the project would be as global in its reach, as important as it clearly has been and is to the history of Ireland and its future?


Jane Ohlmeyer:  Mike, nothing could have prepared me for the impact that this project has had.  All I really wanted was just to make sure that they were published in their entirety and everything else has been a phenomenal bonus.  I think for me the most significant moment that I realised that the Depositions Project really was incredibly worthwhile, I was giving a talk about them in Sri Lanka, in a place called Peradeniya which is in the northern part of Sri Lanka.  My audience was composed mostly of women but women who had all been involved in the civil war, so Sri Lanka like Ireland had a very brutal period of civil war where forces committed atrocities but the government forces committed crimes against humanity.  Those women had never had an opportunity to tell their stories, so here I was talking about what happened in Ireland, a country on the other side of the world, in the 1640s, so centuries ago, and how women and people in Ireland had experienced extreme trauma and through the process of giving a deposition had been able to tell their story.  The emotion in the room was palpable and you could see that, by telling the story of Ireland and the depositions, it actually was so meaningful in contemporary Sri Lanka because it allowed these women to imagine another way forward.


Sadly, they still haven’t had an opportunity to tell their story but it goes back to the power of telling a story and that is what the depositions are about and, if they can play any role however minor in contemporary conflicts and helping people to come to terms with trauma, violence, whatever they have experienced, I think that’s just fabulous.  Did we anticipate that when we began this back in 2005?  Not at all.  Are we absolutely delighted?  Absolutely, we are.  It has been a joy to work with hugely gifted and amazing colleagues, particularly John Morrill in Cambridge, Tom Bartlett who was then in Aberdeen and, above all, Micheál Ó Siochrú, who is my colleague in Trinity, along with the late Aidan Clarke and our three phenomenal researchers on this project – Edda Frankot, Annaleigh Margey and Elaine Murphy.  We are all hugely proud of it and really excited about what the future holds and where in five years’ time we could be sitting having a conversation about where the depositions have taken us, because for me this is a project that is still very much alive.


Mike Gibbs:  Jane, that is an invitation I am going to take you up on!  Next time, instead of sitting here in London doing it, I insist that I come to Dublin and maybe we can sit in the Long Room and have that conversation.  Thank you for your enthusiasm and thank you for a really phenomenal discussion.  Thank you.

Jane Ohlmeyer:  My pleasure, thank you, Mike.


Speaker:  You can access the digitised depositions and learn more about the 1641 Rebellion and its importance at the project’s website: www.1641.TCD.ie.

An additional programme is now available on our website, worldturnedupsidedown.co.uk, in which Professor Ohlmeyer discusses the Rebellion and its consequences for Ireland’s future, as well as the part it played in the origins of the Civil War which broke out in 1642 in England and Wales.

Meanwhile in her most recent book, Making Empire: Ireland Imperialism and the Early Modern World, published by Oxford University Press, Professor Ohlmeyer offers a fresh interpretation of the importance of Ireland and the Irish in the creation of the first English Empire.  To learn more, watch her discussion with well-known broadcaster and historian David Olusoga at our website and, while you are there, do register for our weekly newsletter The World Turned Upside Down: just click on the ‘subscribe’ button at the top of the home page.