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Archivists Research Brings Stories of Individuals’ Involved in War to Life

Archivists have been exploring hidden paper trails to build up personal pictures of individuals involved in World War One. They presented their findings, which aim to make the events of the First World War more accessible to people 100 years later, to a large crowd which filled the Lady Chapel of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, yesterday evening (Tuesday February 3).

Hidden Pages Speakers
Hidden Pages Speakers

Entitled ‘Hidden Pages from World War One’, the seminar was a joint venture between St Patrick’s Cathedral and the Irish Society for Archives. The speakers from a number of projects and exhibitions revealed their explorations of previously unknown archive material of soldiers and civilians.

Proceedings were chaired by RTE news anchor, Bryan Dobson, who following a welcome by the cathedral’s Dean, the Very Revd Victor Stacey and the chairman of the Irish Association of Archivists, Dr Ray Refaussé, explained that the event aimed to put a human face on the lives of those in the First World War.

“This will enable us in 2015 to have some context and understanding of those who went through this cataclysmic experience 100 years ago,” he said, praising the archivists for their vital role in sharing the information they had uncovered.

The first speaker, Nicky Ralston, National Library of Ireland, Curator of the ‘Ireland and WW1’ exhibition, gave a talk entitled ‘Meeting Michael O’Leary’. While this was not the Michael O’Leary of budget airline fame who is so well known today, the Michael O’Leary who fought in World War One became very well known and was much featured in the press at the time. She focused on the way in which the National Library of Ireland uncovered the extraordinary story of Michael O’Leary’s award of the Victoria Cross through the library’s collection of newspapers and periodicals and used the narrative to put a personal face on the Cork man who became a symbol of Irish heroism. 

Noelle Dowling, of the Catholic Diocesan Archives Dublin highlighted the extensive work archivists in the Archdiocese have done with the papers and diaries of Fr Francis Gleeson who was a chaplain at the front in World War One. In her paper ‘From Templemore to the Rue de Bois: the Fr Francis Gleeson collection’, she outlined Fr Gleeson’s collection of diaries, brigade roll books and correspondence, which give an insight into life at the front, including letters he received from the families of soldiers and gritty accounts of the hardship of life at war.

Andrew Whites ide, Archivist with Kilkenny College gave an account of his research into the life of ‘Jack Salter of Skibbereen’. He explored the mystery of a past pupil reported to have been killed in action with the Royal Irish Rifles on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. However, within weeks of the official notification his parents received a chipper letter from their son, who was in a prisoner of war camp, requesting supplies and asking that his address be passed on to friends so that they could write to him.

Hidden Pages contributor
Hidden Pages contributor

Susan Hood of the Representative Church Body Library talked of ‘Finding letters from the Western Front: a Church of Ireland parish story’. She focused on the 10 letters written to the Revd Arthur Barton, Rector of Dundela parish in East Belfast. The letters were found in a tea chest in the former Bishop’s House in Kilmore where Barton was Bishop from 1930 to 1939 before becoming Archbishop of Dublin. She highlighted her subsequent efforts to find out more about the men who wrote the letters which were digitized as part of the RCB Library’s Archive of the Month series and the story was subsequently picked up on by BBC Northern Ireland. Eight of the 10 letter writers were traced with the help of local historians.

Andrew Smith, Education Officer of St Patrick’s Cathedral detailed the background of the ‘Lives Remembered at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral’. He spoke of the overwhelming response the exhibition had elicited from the public with over 10,000 messages being written by visitors from around the world in remembrance of those affected by war. He said they were now examining how to archive these messages as a social commentary for the future.

Closing the seminar Bryan Dobson thanked the speakers for sharing their insights into the lives of people who were gone but not forgotten.

Photo captions:

Top – Dean Victor Stacey, Dr Ray Refaussé, Andrew Smith, Nicky Ralston, Noelle Dowling, Susan Hood, Andrew Whiteside and Bryan Dobson. 

Bottom – Members of the audience were invited to make contributions at the end of the seminar.


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