On the 3rd and 4th September 2014 the letters of 1916 project visited the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) to collect and photograph letters held in its archives. PRONI was established in 1923 and operates as the archival home for millions of documents ranging from official correspondence to privately deposited archives.
Among the letters relevant to Letters of 1916 are a series of letters which offer some of the most interesting and poignant findings in PRONI’s archives: the Perceval – Maxwell Papers 1 and the Shaw family papers 2. Both collections include correspondence from sons fighting at the front. Far from the adventure and daring escapades which might be expected, in fact the letters portray a largely mundane existence through much of 1916. Some notable exceptions, however, can be found, particularly among the letters sent by Samuel Shaw 3 in July 1916 during the battle of the Somme. Shaw described how the Ulster Division had ‘made a name for itself’ during the fighting; the 36th Ulster Division achieved legendary status taking the Schwaben Redoubt with a loss of 5,500 killed, wounded or missing on 1 and 2 July 1916.4
With the centenary of the declaration of hostilities having passed on 4 August 2014 and the current interest in the conflict these particular letters offer an extremely personal account and represent the only emotional connection between a parent and a son separated by some of the bloodiest warfare of the twentieth century.
The search through hundreds of letters also produced two letters sent from eye witnesses to the Easter Rising in Dublin. The letters sent by Hariot Blackwood5 and Julia Taylor6, on 27 April and 4 May 1916 respectively, give an insight into the thoughts and feeling of those who experienced the rebellion from the city itself, albeit from a wealthy South Dublin perspective. The letters shine light on the daily inconveniences that were caused to the upper classes of Dublin, whose daily routines were rudely interrupted by the uprising. There was no post or newspapapers and being able to freely walk the streets became extremely difficult and for much of Easter week cutting them off from information and their social circles 78. In a letter sent from Belfast resident Maria Duffin 9 to her daughter Celia on 29 April, she sardonically comments on one impact the rising had on her: ‘I suppose the chocolate cake we sent you must have perished in the Post Office. Whenever we try to be generous something always happens’10.
Another selection of letters offering a significant insight into political events of the time is found in the papers of Hugh de Fellenberg Montgomery 11. Montgomery, a prominent Ulster Unionist, wrote a number of letters discussing the political situation and the Unionist perspective in relation to the question of counties be allowed to opt out of Home Rule, then on the statute books but suspended until the end of the war. In one letter sent to Edward Carson 12 on 9 June he discusses the option of pursuing a six county exclusion of Ulster, rather than the entire nine that make up the province 13. Montgomery stresses that an explanation must be given to those Unionists in Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan who will be left out of what would later become Northern Ireland. The importance of the Ulster Covenant in the minds of those who signed it in 1912 is also apparent through the despairing tone that Montgomery uses as he argues that having signed the covenant, with all of its religious symbolism, any compromise requires justification. In another letter sent to William Coote 14, an Ulster Unionist MP, on 27 May, Montgomery indicates how perilous and vulnerable the Unionist position is in 1916 from a fall out among its supporters both in Ireland and Britain.15 The risks of limiting exclusion from Home Rule to six counties looks like ‘surrender’ and could encourage many of the more stern Unionists lose confidence in Carson as a leader. A firm supporter of Carson, Montgomery stresses how if Carson did not lead the Unionist struggle that it would be doomed to failure.
Over a two day visit to PRONI over one hundred letters relevant to the project were photographed and descriptions recorded in preparation for their eventual upload onto the Letters of 1916 online archive. These letters cover a wide variety of important military and political subjects and are a valuable resource for historians and researchers alike.
Ryan McKeown is a a 3rd year History student at Queens University Belfast. He is doing do a dissertation on the topic of Protestant experiences during the 1916 Rising.
1. Perceval- Maxwell Papers (P.R.O.N.I, D1556/27/4/2)
2. Shaw Papers (P.R.O.N.I, D1962/17-40)
3. Samuel Henry Shaw (b. 1896)
4. Samuel Shaw to Martha Shaw, 23 Aug. 1916 (P.R.O.N.I, Shaw Papers, D1962/38)
5. Hariot Georgina Blackwood (1843-1937)
6. Julia Taylor (b. 1874)
7. Hariot G. Blackwood to Hermine Blackwod, 27 Apr. 1916 (P.R.O.N.I, Dufferine and Ava Papers, D1231/M/2/69)
8. Julia Taylor to Elizabeth Savage Armstrong, 14 May. 1916 (P.R.O.N.I, Savage Armstrong Collection, D618/166)
9. Maria Duffin (b. 1855)
10. Maria Duffin to Celia Duffin,29 Apr. 1916 (P.R.O.N.I, Duffin Papers D2109/10/1/D)
11. Hugh de Fellenberg Montgomery (1844-1924)
12. Edward Carson (1854-1935 )
13. Hugh Montgomery to Edward Carson, 9 Jun. 1916 (P.R.O.N.I, Perceval- Maxwell Papers, D1556/27/4/2)
14. William Coote (1863-1924)
15. Hugh Montgomery to William Coote, 27 May. 1916 (P.R.O.N.I, Perceval- Maxwell Papers, D1556/27/4/2)