Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Ireland: 1641, Contexts and Reactions

Reviewed by Naomi McAreavey

Micheál Ó Siochrú and Jane Ohlmeyer (eds), Ireland: 1641, Contexts and Reactions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013). ISBN 978-0-7190-8817-9, 304 pp., HBK £75.00.

NM[1] October 2010 marked the culmination of the 1641 Depositions Project, which digitized, transcribed and made available online ( thousands of witness testimonies collected in the wake of the Irish rebellion of 1641. Overwhelmingly representing the voices of Protestant settlers, the 1641 depositions are at the heart of one of the most notorious periods in Ireland’s troubled history, and central to the heavily disputed allegation that the rebellion began as a massacre of Protestants by Catholic natives. The publication of this unique resource on an open and fully searchable website is truly groundbreaking, and the possibilities for the scholarship of early modern Ireland is only beginning to be realized.

[2] Ireland: 1641, edited by principal investigators Micheál Ó Siochrú and Jane Ohlmeyer, is one of two essay collections produced by the 1641 Depositions Project: the other, The 1641 Depositions and the Irish Rebellion (2012), was edited by researchers Eamon Darcy, Annaleigh Margey and Elaine Murphy. While Darcy et al’s volume showcases the work of the new voices in Irish history who have already utilized the riches of the 1641 Depositions Project, Ó Siochrú and Ohlmeyer’s Ireland: 1641 brings together an established group of early modern historians, some well-known names in Irish historiography, and some specialists in British, Dutch, French, Spanish and Southeast Asian history, to think more abstractly about the 1641 Depositions Project and the future of Irish historical scholarship. Many of the essays in the volume do not directly address Ireland, and some are only tangentially connected with the 1641 rebellion, but the intention is that each contributor brings a new context or perspective to 1641, suggesting innovative possibilities for future research. Ireland: 1641 is the second title in Manchester University Press’s new Studies in Early Modern Irish History series, which seeks ‘to identify key themes for exploration and thereby set the agenda for future research’ (p. xv). Given the nature and scope of the 1641 Depositions Project, as well the timing of this volume, this approach has enormous value because it throws open the resource, illuminating its rich research potential, and demonstrating the exciting possibilities of the digital humanities more broadly.

[3] A pithy and informative introduction outlines the nature and background of the 1641 depositions, then provides a description of the context and objectives of the 1641 Depositions Project, outlining its immediate impact and future potential. It explains the rationale for the volume in which contributors ‘adopt a variety of historical, geographic and anthropologic perspectives’ to ‘situate the massacres in their early modern Irish, European and global contexts and suggest fresh ways of conceptualising how we might study both the depositions and the events they record’ (p. 6). The introduction finally ends with a reflection on the status of 1641 in Irish memory and history. Essays cover themes as diverse as the conceptualization of historical violence, the definition of ‘massacre’, reports of the Irish rebellion in contemporary Europe, the public memory and commemoration of atrocity, the orality of testimony, the context of New World colonialism, the history of localized rebellions in Ireland, and the mapping and geography of the rebellion. The volume presents broad conceptual essays alongside those that showcase new research on the digitized depositions, and the overall balance is stimulating and effective. The international contexts provided, from the Thirty Years War to genocidal massacres in Southeast Asia, are pertinent and interesting, and they also help to bring Irish historiography into conversation with scholars grappling with similar issues in different national contexts; they also publicize the fertile collaborations that already exist in related fields internationally (co-ordinators of the network on Early Modern Memory, based in Leiden University in the Netherlands, for example, contribute to the volume). By offering a wide range of fresh, innovative and often provocative new approaches to the 1641 rebellion, Ireland: 1641 challenges the limits of current research and raises important new questions.

[4] Given the sheer range and diversity of persectives presented in the volume, and especially the looseness of the Irish connections in several essays, the editors might have done a little more to draw out the implications of the contexts and perspectives selected. The involvement of other disciplines might have further refined the conversation: a lone geographer (William Smyth) flies the flag for discipines other than history, and the exclusion of literary or cultural scholars was disappointing. The redolence of 1641 in Irish memory permeates the volume, and this will undoubtedly stimulate further discussion and debate with scholars in the burgeoning field of (Irish) memory studies. But the volume’s central assumption that ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland has provided the necessary environment for the publication of the controversial depositions is something that needs to be further scrutinized. Added to questions about the cultural memory of 1641 are issues relating to the workings of memory in the depositions themselves, which involves further investigation into the mechanics of the collection and delivery of testimony. The editors and contributors raise some of these questions, but further enquiry will be significantly enriched by dialogue across disciplinary boundaries – such collaboration which the 1641 Depositions Project facilitates and encourages. This is an exciting time for the scholarship of early modern Ireland, and there is no doubt that our understanding of the 1641 rebellion and its varied contexts is likely to be dramatically revised, expanded and complicated in the light of the project and the kinds of possibilities presented in the volume.

University College Dublin, September 2015

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