It’s the result of a three-year project, led by researchers at the Universities of University of Cambridge and The University of Aberdeen and Trinity College Dublin, in which 19,000 pages of the original depositions were transcribed.
From the 1641 depositions website
Traditionally the rebellion was thought to be sufficiently explained as an inevitable response to the plantation in Ulster. Nowadays most scholars see that as an oversimplification and treat the immediate outbreak of rebellion as a response to political developments in all three of the Stuart kingdoms. The deterioration of the condition of Catholics under Lord Deputy Thomas Wentworth’s rule, the success of the Scottish revolt and the breakdown in relations between the king and the English parliament led Catholics in Ireland who retained property and social position to fear that they were in danger of expropriation and persecution if the power of the king were to be significantly limited. In the belief that the king was seeking allies to assist him in defending his prerogative, they entered into a complex conspiracy to seize control of the Irish government on his behalf.
As yesterday’s Irish Times reported, President Mary McAleese and Lord Bannside, Ian Paisley Snr, were at the launch.
It might have been a slightly awkward occasion. After all, as President McAleese put it, facts and truth had been casualties along the way in the “wildly divergent accounts in both the Catholic and Protestant historical narratives”, of the events of 1641.
But there was a sense of ease as Lord Bannside listened along with his wife, his son Kyle and daughter Sharon, in a room filled with academics and representatives from the National Library, the National Gallery, as well as the Indian ambassador, PS Raghavan, Andrew Staunton of the British embassy and Aurelie Bonal, of the French embassy.
They stood silently while President McAleese set that other October 22nd in context – “Ireland was a powder keg . . . in the wake of the Elizabethan conquest . . .” – and described a rebellion intended by the instigators as a “conservative coup, spun out of control”.
She said there was “everything to be gained from interrogating the past calmly and coherently, in order to understand each other’s passions more comprehensively . . . to help us transcend those baleful forces of history so that we can make a new history of good neighbourliness . . .”
Lord Bannside, occasionally fading almost to inaudibility, also focused on what the exhibition could teach us.
“Our fellow countrymen and women in the 1600s knew trouble as we have, thank God, never known it. The testimonials before us in this exhibition tell in graphic detail the losses they sustained and the crimes carried out against them. These troubles were not borne by one social class, or another, or by one gender or another. They were not limited by age, nor limited by religious belief.
“Perhaps the most telling aspect of this material is that it bears witness to the scale of the wrongdoing while at the same time individualising it. Here lie tragic stories of individuals – here too is a dark story of our land.
“To learn this story, I believe, is to know who we are, why we have had to witness our own trouble, and why we live in a divided island . . . May we really learn what this exhibition can really teach us.”
In the end, I suppose history is all about imagination rather than facts. If you cannot imagine yourself wanting to riot against Catholic emancipation, say, or becoming an early Tory and signing up to fight with the Old Pretender, or cheering on Prynne as the theatres are closed and Puritanism holds sway … knowing is not enough. If you cannot feel what our ancestors felt when they cried: ‘Wilkes and Liberty!’ or, indeed, cried: ‘Death to Wilkes!’, if you cannot feel with them, then all you can do is judge them and condemn them, or praise them and over-adulate them.
History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier. History is memory; we have to remember what it is like to be a Roman, or a Jacobite or a Chartist or even – if we dare, and we should dare – a Nazi. History is not abstraction, it is the enemy of abstraction.