New project could unlock secrets of bloody rebellion

A major research project has been launched, which could shed new light on one of the most violent moments in Irish history by marrying the investigation of eyewitness reports with the latest research technology.

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen have been awarded almost £334,000 under the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Digital Equipment and Digital Enhancement for Impact scheme, to help devise new techniques to analyse a rare manuscript collection held by Trinity College Dublin.

The 1641 Depositions are witness testimonies, mainly by Protestants but also by some Catholics, describing their experience of the 1641 Rebellion – one of the most violent chapters of Irish history.

The testimonies document the loss of goods, military activity, and alleged atrocities committed by the Irish insurgents, including assault, stripping, imprisonment and murder.

An earlier £1 million project involving collaboration between Trinity College Dublin and the universities of Aberdeen and Cambridge led to the recent digitisation of the archive.

Now linguists from Aberdeen have been given further AHRC funding which will allow them to interrogate the database for a variety of information including the development of the English language in Ireland and the settlers’ lifestyle there in the 1640s, the language of atrocity appearing in the witness testimony and the reliability of the evidence in the depositions. 

As a major focus of the overall project, the findings of the Aberdeen-led study could contribute to new ways of presenting historical information with the aid of available technology, such as the synthesisation of the voices behind the testimonies and visualisation of the events that occurred.

The archive contains more than 19,000 pages in 31 volumes. Of these, 11 volumes contain depositions relating to Leinster, 10 to Munster (seven of these cover County Cork), two to Connacht and eight to Ulster. 

Researchers will work closely with IBM in Dublin, one of the world’s leading technology companies, and use its LanguageWare© technology to analyse the depositions and to cross-correlate an array of features of the text – a process which would be too complicated and potentially take a lifetime for a scholar to undertake manually.

Dr Barbara Fennell, Senior Lecturer in Language and Linguistics at the University of Aberdeen, who will lead the project, said: “This body of material is unparalleled anywhere in early modern Europe, and provides a unique source of information on the 1641 rebellion.

“It has now been digitised but we have only scratched the surface in terms of the wealth of information that can be extracted from the depositions.

“This project will greatly enhance our understanding not only of the events surrounding the 1641 rebellion – a key moment in Irish history – but also the social, economic, cultural and political situation in 17th century Ireland.”

Researchers will use the manuscripts to investigate language variation and change in Ireland during the period and the development of Irish-English dialects.

Dr Fennell added: “As linguists we are interested in the language of violence and atrocity. This will give us insights into the definition of atrocity and link with many other organisations investigating violence and genocide.

“By using the software to analyse the text, we should be able help historians understand who was associated with which violent acts in which areas, and with our linguists’ eyes, we should be able to find clues as to whether the witness statements were genuine or perhaps exaggerated by specific court reporters in the service of Oliver Cromwell. 

It is important to remember that these depositions are mediated by the commissioner who wrote them down so there is inevitably manipulation of the descriptions.

“We hope to reach a stage where we can attribute certain formulations to certain commissioners in certain areas and conclusions can then be drawn from this new information.”

The year-long project will bring together linguists, historians, digital humanities experts, geographers and computer scientists to create a new interactive research environment.

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen will work with the Department of History and the Centre for Next Generation Localisation at Trinity College Dublin, the Digital Humanities Observatory, Dublin and the IBM LanguageWare© Group, Dublin to gather and evaluate their findings.

Jane Ohlmeyer, one of the PIs for the 1641 Depositions Project and Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History, Trinity College Dublin, said: “We are delighted that the AHRC has funded this exciting project which will allow for innovative linguistic analysis of the 1641 Depositions. 

“This represents an important ‘next step’ in the project and will allow Dr Fennell and her team to work with the historians and computer scientists based in Trinity and with technology experts from IBM Ireland to interrogate the Depositions in ways hitherto unimaginable.  We see this as the beginning of a very fruitful collaboration.”