Thérèse McIntyre is the presenter of ‘Herosongs: Where History and Song Meet’, an AthenaMedia Production for RTE Radio 1 as well as being a key member of the Oral History Network of Ireland (OHNI). Thérèse told us about her involvement with the Letters of 1916 project.
Years ago, I remember when the National Library of Ireland (NLI) had posted on social media a letter that they had acquired for their collections. It was a seven-page ‘note’ from Special Constable William Samuel to his mother in Ireland that described the events on the day that the Manchester Martyrs were hanged. As a researcher, I’ve always had a fascination with ‘first-hand’ accounts – letters, diaries, travelogues – particularly with examining how these marry with the more formalised versions of academic History. What struck me most, however, about the NLI’s publishing of this letter in such a public forum, was that they were looking for assistance from the general public in order to transcribe it; it was probably the first time that I became aware of the term ‘crowdsourcing’. When I first heard about the ‘Letters’ Project, I started to follow it with a keen interest, not only because of the rare material that it would make available online, but because it was an opportunity to allow the public to engage with historical materials, the methods of creating metadata, and the process of digitisation. I was delighted to be asked to collaborate with ‘Letters’ for their pre-launch showcase in Galway, as it is one of the pioneering projects of this type and it opens so many doors to further scholarship on 1916.
What excites me about ‘Letters’ is the potential that it has in changing perceptions about oral history. While it may seem an oxymoron to refer to written materials as ‘oral history’, I strongly believe that there is a case for examining ephemera, such as letters, as ‘oral’ data. Letters, after all, tell stories – they are narratives. They are also one-half of a conversation – things that would be said between people were they in the same room – albeit in written form. And, more often than not, they are emotive – they convey not only information, but sentiment, how people ‘felt’, rather than simply presenting the cold, hard ‘facts’ of History. Letters are the ‘voices’ of the past…ink and paper the primitive ‘recorder’. These days I consider myself a bit of a ‘failed’ historian because my research, which primarily concerns songs and ballads, has made me re-think the traditional historian’s view that ‘facts’ are the core of an accepted narrative of a particular event; essentially, History from the ‘top, down’. ‘Letters’ gives researchers, both academic and independent, the opportunity to scrutinise more closely History from the ‘bottom, up’ – the ‘grassroots’ version of events – which, although sometimes lacking in ‘facts’, nevertheless, has scholarly value in chronicling the ‘People’s’ History.
The ‘Letters’ Project contributes not only a more extensive view of the key events of 1916 to Irish History, but also provides valuable source material for other historically-based disciplines – social, geographical, economic, oral – as well as other areas of scholarship such as memory studies. The digitisation of the materials guarantees that, while the physical letters may not survive the test of time, there will be a permanent record of these often personal pieces of memorabilia. The model of the ‘Letters’ Project serves as a blueprint from which, hopefully, other projects will be developed. The possibilities, in terms of creating online archives, digitising rare and fragile materials, bridging the gap between ‘formal’ and informal’ histories, and connecting people in a very real way with their national history, are only limited by the amount of cloud space available. So far…so good…
If you want to get in touch with Thérèse, you can find her on Twitter: @cailinrua1