As the result of what is thought to be a historical decision by academics at Trinity College, Dublin, historians, linguists, and specialists of all sorts – as well as members of the general public – are being invited to examine newly transcribed witness statements taken after the Irish rebellion and massacres of 1641.
It was this rebellion that was used by Oliver Cromwell to justify his slaughter of the defeated garrisons at Drogheda and Wexford, and it is therefore important, even at this late date, that any documents dealing with the rebellion be made available for full scrutiny.
For much of the first half of the 20th century, the Irish government was actively discouraging publication of any historical research into the rebellion because it well knew that some of the evidence emerging suggested that there was some basis for Cromwell’s allegations, and that the widespreadmyth that Cromwell and supporters had always exaggerated the ferocity of the 1641 rebels was just that, a myth. .
This is how The Guardian reported reported the Trinity decision:
In what has been dubbed as the ultimate in cold case reviews, historians, linguists, software specialists and the public are being invited to trawl through newly transcribed versions of the original documents held in Trinity College, Dublin.
The 350-year-old writing is barely legible, the spelling across 19,000 pages of text erratic. The events they chronicle, however, poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for centuries, focusing attention on atrocities inflicted predominantly by dispossessed Irish Catholic rebels on Anglo-Scottish, Protestant settlers. The barbarities are still emblazoned on Orange Order banners and loyalist murals in Northern Ireland.
As late as the 1930s the Irish government intervened to prevent publication of historical research about the accounts of arson, communal murders, mass drownings, lynchings and robberies because it was deemed to contain such incendiary allegations.
Academics from Trinity College, Aberdeen and Cambridge Universities are now co-operating on a series of research projects that could not only help bring resolution to ancient quarrels but will open up a treasure house of genealogical, linguistic and census information.
Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, one of the principal investigators at Trinity, believes that new language analysis methods will allow the documents to be explored “in a way we couldn’t have done 10 or 15 years ago during the Troubles”.
The rebellion, which broke out in October 1641, was a significant moment in the formation of identity in Ireland, she told the Guardian. Estimates of the numbers killed vary from 4,000 to up to 200,000. It began in Ulster but spread across the country.
The depositions were ordered by government commissioners, many of the Church of Ireland clergymen, who recorded the victims’ testimonies.
“They did it in the hope of obtaining evidence against the rebels and also as a crude form of insurance claim against lost property,” Ohlmeyer said. Cromwell’s commissioners were still taking evidence in the 1650s and the records form an extraordinarily detailed portrait of contemporary life, occupations and possessions in every Irish county.
The volumes were eventually donated to Trinity College in 1741, where they languished, rarely seen.
“In the 1930s a group of Irish scholars tried to publish them,” Ohlmeyer said. “But the Irish government blocked them because it was too contentious.
“There are about 4,000 claims altogether. Nine times out of 10 they are not far off the mark because we have other sources we can check from the period. Now we can systematically analyse how accurate they were.
“There were clearly some atrocities such as the drowning of Protestants at Portadown where around 100 people lost their lives. That year was on record as one of the coldest winters and people died of starvation and cold.
“I was most moved by the account of one man who escaped to Dublin where he heard that his wife and children had been killed. He was reported to have died of grief. There’s a lot of evidence from women, especially widows.
“The bloodletting was on both sides but Oliver Cromwell used this as justification for his [massacres at] Drogheda and Wexford. There were also a series of war crimes tribunals held by Cromwell in the 1650s.”
The multi-disciplinary project has been funded by both Irish and British research councils. Students of the Holocaust and more recent genocides – such as Rwanda and the Balkans – as well as groups supporting peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland have been among early users of the resources. It is hoped to have all the documents available online by the end of this year.
Another lead researcher, Barbara Fennell, a senior lecturer in language and linguistics at the University of Aberdeen, said: “These depositions tell us a lot about what English was like at the time.
“We hope to be able to synthesise some of the voices and make recordings of what they would have sounded like. They will be real echoes of the past.
“We know that different commissioners had different manners of speaking and writing. The language analysis software should be able to match up styles of speaking and writing … so it may give us insights into any bias of evidence being introduced by a third party’s influence. The historians say that Cromwell exaggerated the accounts to justify his actions. Is there any evidence of that as it was being written down?
“These collections are unique in early modern times. It is like doing a cold case review in the sense that we are using modern technological advances to provide insights into old evidence.”
An illustration showing images from the 1641 rising by Catholic rebels of an alleged massacre of Protestants during the Irish rebellion known as the Depositions. Photograph: Board of Trinity College/PA