Eyewitness accounts of 1641 Irish rebellion released online

The first-hand testimonies of thousands of people who witnessed the bloody rebellion that paved the way for centuries of sectarian conflict in Ireland have been released online.

The unparalleled collection of accounts, which provide graphic details about the massacres and plunder accompanying the Catholic uprising of 1641, will be available for free at http://www.1641.tcd.ie/, giving users the chance to scrutinise their contents in depth for the first time.

It follows a painstaking three-year research project in which all 19,000 pages of the original depositions (more than 5,000 separate sworn statements), many of which are almost illegible, were transcribed by a team of researchers, led by the Universities of Cambridge and Aberdeen and Trinity College, Dublin.

The project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, with substantial contributions from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences and Trinity College, Dublin.

Researchers believe that the site’s launch will enable historians to understand much more fully what remains one of the least-understood massacres in European history, in which many thousands of men, women and children lost their lives.

Experts are still divided over whether the uprising by Irish Catholics in October 1641, which followed decades of simmering tension with English Protestant settlers, was meant to be bloodless, or if violence was always intended.

In the event, the rebellion only enjoyed brief and partial success, before it sparked a decade of savage warfare that culminated in Oliver Cromwell’s equally brutal conquest which began in 1649 (with the infamous Drogheda Massacre).

In its aftermath, half of all the land of Ireland was taken from Catholics born in Ireland and given to Protestants from Britain. So deep was the impression left on the national consciousness that images of the massacre are still used on banners by the Orange Order.

Despite their significance, however, the depositions have never been studied in full – partly due to their poor condition, and partly because of the sheer quantity of material involved. The digitisation means that they can now be examined by historians and members of the public anywhere in the world.

Professor John Morrill, from the University of Cambridge, one of the project’s principal investigators and chair of the management committee, said: “The events of 1641 transformed Irish history and, as a result, can be justly said to have transformed British and world history as well.”

“GK Chesterton once wrote that the problem with the English conquest of Ireland is that the Irish cannot forget it and the English cannot remember it. Now, for the first time, the Irish will be able to read about what happened in full and the English will have complete access to an episode that they have frequently overlooked.”

Professor Tom Bartlett, Chair in Irish History and principal investigator from the Aberdeen arm of the project team, said: "The sheer volume of witness testimony is what makes the depositions so valuable. Transcribing them has enabled us to get down to what ordinary people were saying about these events and is of interest not just in terms of what they were saying but how they were saying it. “

“There is a huge amount to be learned from the language they were speaking and the words they were using about the make-up of the population and everyday life from their views of the world around them to the agricultural instruments they were using.”

“We knew when we began that this was a very significant resource but the range of what we can learn from it has been wider than any of us expected and will be of interest to economic, social and cultural historians, linguists, genealogists and anyone interested in popular action.”

As a result of the digitisation of the depositions, linguists from the University of Aberdeen were awarded £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 the manuscripts.

The year-long project, which began in March, will see a team of researchers 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.

Few gory details were spared when the testimonies were first compiled, as the newly-digitised collection reveals. One of the best-known is that of Eleanor Price, a widow and mother of six from County Armagh, who was imprisoned by insurgents before five of her children were drowned, along with other settlers, in the River Bann at Portadown Bridge.

The account describes how the rebels “then and there instantly and most barbarously drowned the most of them: And those that could swim and come to the shore they either knocked them in the hands and so after drowned them, or else shot them to death in the water.”

As a result of the new online resource, users will be able to view both the transcription of the testimonies, and a digitised version of the original document, side-by-side on their computer screens.

Ahead of the launch of the digitised collection, and to mark the 369th anniversary of the rebellion itself, an international seminar was held at Trinity College Dublin on Friday, October 22. Professor Jane Ohlmeyer of TCD spoke about the project, Professor John Morrill of Cambridge spoke about the consequences of the Rebellion and Massacre for Britain and Ireland, and Professor Ben Kiernan of Yale compared the Irish massacres of 1641 with massacres in modern times.

An exhibition, “Ireland in Turmoil: the 1641 Depositions”, was also opened by the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, and Dr Ian Paisley spoke at the event. The display runs until April.