Last week I attended two days of a three-day symposium at The National Archives (TNA), Kew, entitled ‘Dominus Hiberniae / Rex Hiberniae’. The conference was a mix of keynotes and papers on Irish history, historiography and the records used by historians to write the histories of medieval and early modern Ireland. I attended the conference because I hope to work with Prof. Brendan Smith on the creation of a TEI/XML version of an Irish Exchequer Receipt Roll (TNA, E 101/233/16) from the reign of Edward I with visualisations of the encoded data. Brendan talked about the roll at the event, pointing out that it is part of an underused series that can provide a rich source of information beyond royal finances with information on places, communities, individuals and trade networks.
Although not a Digital Humanities event per se, I attended the symposium to get a better understanding of the subject area, the types of things historians of Ireland and Britain are currently interested in, and the machinery of government that produced the primary sources used by historians. Talks covered historiography, the role of cartography in state adminstration, the neglect of gaelic sources in favour of English and Latin, and much more. However, DH and digitisation was mentioned in a number of papers, touching on opportunities and pitfalls. I also met a lot of friendly historians and archivists.
One thing that struck me was how lucky we are that anything has survived at all. Until the nineteenth century, with the establishment of the Public Record Office in London (1838) and the Public Record Office of Ireland (1867), the records of government were stored in poor conditions and suffered from vermin, damp and fire. The records of Ireland suffered a catastrophic loss in 1922 during the Irish Civil War when the Public Record Office of Ireland was destroyed. Peter Crooks’ Beyond 2022 project plans to reconstruct the lost archives from substitutions, such as calendars and transcripts created before the destruction of 1922, as well as contemporary duplicate documents that had been sent to the royal administration in England. For example, the receipt rolls of the Irish Exchequer that Professor Brendan Smith is interested in digitising. In fact, if funded, the work on E 101/233/16 will be useful to the Beyond 2022 project and will hopefully be a source of collaboration.
Some talks touched on the work of archivists and historians that created the vast body of indexes and calendars that are used by historians today to navigate and find primary sources. In fact, in my past M.Phil research and current (hobbyist) research, I use Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII extensively to navigate the State Papers, patent rolls etc. These guides have an impact today since they are what Gale use as the index for search facility within State Papers Online. However, these calendars vary significantly in detail and accuracy, often reflecting the interests and concerns of nineteenth-century historians and archivists. The abstracts they provide can leave out interesting details for the sake of brevity. In fact, in the case of Ireland, the calendars were so insufficient the Irish Manuscript Commission commissioned revised volumes. Despite the deficiencies, Bernadette Cunningham pointed out they have shaped the early modern Irish History that has been researched and written.
The symposium also reflected on how current DH and digitisation projects – subject to the lottery of research council funding – might have a similar impact on how Irish history is written in the future.