The Great Famine Voices

Eva O’Brien takes a look at a Trinity-­led project aiming to bring the history of The Great Famine into the digital world.

FEATURESWe have always known that we are who we are because of our past, but this truism might be even truer than previously thought. Leading geneticists now claim that the experiences and traumas of people who go through extreme hunger, warfare or pain, can leave genetic impacts that persist through a number of generations. The newborn babies of African-American parents – those whose ancestors lived through and survived the torture of slavery – have significantly lower birth weights than babies born to white couples, or African couples – regardless of income, class and education. A lower birth weight puts a child at a higher risk of several diseases and significantly lowers their life expectancy. The legacy of slavery lives on in the very cells of African­Americans alive today, even two hundred years after slavery was abolished. (It’s one of several extraordinary scientific phenomena described in the book “The Edge of Uncertainty” by Michael Brooks.)

If this is true, then The Great Famine is a period in Irish history that has arguably shaped the lives of those of us now growing up and living in Ireland in profound ways that we cannot imagine. Many of us are descended not too distantly from people who found ways to survive the famine, by whatever means. We carry their suffering and their shame within us. It’s in our blood, in our genes, like it or not.

It seems doubly strange, therefore, that the famine is a period of our history which attracts relatively little discussion. We know surprisingly little about the lives of people who experienced the tribulations of living in a country stricken with hunger. Dr. Owen Conlan is one of two Trinity Professors at the head of a new initiative called The Great Famine Voices, attempting to bring to light the world of the famine’s lost sufferers by creating an interactive, online digital archive of the documents that remain to us. The bulk of these are held at the National Famine Museum at Stokestown House, whose history is in itself quite remarkable. Conlan explains that the surprising dearth of information on the famine is partly due to the very strength of its impact on Irish people – it may still leave a sting in our subconscious. “In our society,” he ponders, “the Great Famine is something that has received very little discussion as there is still a lot of guilt associated with it. People who survived the famine were the lucky (or opportunistic) ones. For example, the merchant class in Ireland profited greatly in many areas from the famine. This has led to a culture, that persists to this day, of the Famine being something that isn’t really discussed.”

There’s another reason that we lack records of life during the famine, also having to do with a not entirely unrelated part of our history. “The second main reason for the lack of sources stems from the destruction of documents in the Four Courts, in June 1922,” explains Conlan. This makes the collection of over 50,000 documents at Stokestown an invaluable resource, providing insight into an otherwise murky period of history.

Conlan speaks so enthusiastically about the history with which he is involved that you would be forgiven for assuming he makes his home among the maps and piles of papers filling the history department. In fact, he is a computer scientist – but one who is no stranger to the task of bringing history into the future using digital means. Through Dr. Danielle O’Donovan of the Heritage Trust (and also a research fellow in College), Trinity’s computer programmers have been instrumental in creating similar archives relating to the 1641 rising and also the earliest surveys of Irish land. These are extraordinary rich in raw material about the lived experience of the past, and the plan for “” is equally ambitious: “We’re going to be adding documents from the archive on a monthly basis, starting with as many petitions and rent records as possible,” Owen describes the vision for how the website will work. “These documents contain a lot of names and are very helpful in identifying where people came from. We are also hoping to source letters sent by emigrants and family records that people may have in their homes. There are details of how to submit these on the website.”

The website, designed by two Trinity Computer Science and Business students, was launched last month on August 28th. So far there are only three documents from the Stokestown record available to view – including one that, according to Stokestown’s current owner, Jim Callary, is the reason that there is a museum at Stokestown at all. In an interview with the Irish Independent he describes how he was about to buy the estate and quickly sell most of it off again, just so he could get some extra space for his filling station business – when one day he came across the Cloonahee Petition, and this changed his mind, ultimately determining the future of the house and estate.

Looking at the transcription of this extraordinary and “highly emotive document,” in Conlan’s words, you can see why it might have caused Jim Callary to stop in his tracks. The tenants of Stokestown are calling on the “Gentlemen of the Committee” to help them in a desperate situation, literally pleading “most humbly and respectfully” for relief. It makes for sobering reading. “Our families are really truly suffering in our present and we cannot much longer withstand their cries for food…Our potatoes are rotten and we have no grain.” Small details, such as complaints about bureaucracy, help to drive home the reality of this situation. “When we go to Mr Barton he would tell us to apply to Mr Warnock, and when we go to Mr Warnock he sends us back to Mr Barton,” grumble the petition’s authors, whose frustration can be well understood by many a victim of mazes of bureaucracy even today.

This is the only document on the website so far that has been fully transcribed, and taking a look at the Rent Book and Relief List also available to view, it’s not surprising. Creating an account allowing me to pitch in with transcription was very straightforward, to my relief – much trickier was trying to make out the quite beautiful, but barely­legible 19th century handwriting. Transcribing these is a very important task, but tedious in the extreme. After half an hour of squinting at columns of scribbled names of people who, according to my own amateur efforts at deciphering, seem to have lived at curious addresses like “Dlimmin” and “Gothlusta,” I declared my own brief foray into archival work at an end. I have a new respect for historians, but it got me wondering about the need for some long­suffering humans to wade through each and every historical document. With all of computer science at our disposal, can we still not find a way to make computers read handwriting and do the work for us?

“It’s a really interesting question,” said Conlan, when asked, conceding that “handwriting recognition is a technology that has come on in leaps and bounds in the past ten years.” However, there are a lot of problems with computers and handwritten words, he says. “It can often struggle with cursive handwriting. Modern writing interfaces on mobile phones rely on seeing how the letters are formed, for example the straight down line of a t and then the crossbar, to accurately detect what is being written. They also heavily rely on context, for example if you write a t there is a good chance the next letter will be an e.” This is one area, he explains, where humans have a lot of advantages over computers. “Another issue that exists with manuscripts is that they are noisy. Sometimes the quality of the paper has degraded making them difficult to read. Sometimes the ink from the other side of the page has leaked through, again obscuring the text. Human beings are good at quickly filtering out that noise.”

“So, humans do perform better. We are natural pattern matchers and we can accurately transcribe the hand of others, even though we’ve never seen it before. More importantly, the words on the pages are meaningful to human transcribers. They are both evocative and exciting ­ stimulating an exploration process.” It’s this exploration process that has been underway for years at Stokestown House, and that is now being opened up to the general public. The project is only in its very early stages now, but it is sure to become only more exciting as it progresses. “Once transcribed, we can unleash powerful computing tools on the text to identify the people, places and events held within,” says Owen, describing how eventually this could help to provide a map of the social networks of the period. And there are many plans to develop and improve the website into the future, not only to expand the quantity of content but to provide fresh ways of looking at it. The ADEPT centre which Conlan represents plans to use “personalisation and visualisation techniques” to “help guide people across the complex issues in the content, empower them to explore and give them tools to reflect upon their evolving understanding of it.” With each new document made available, each new word unravelled, each new discussion begun, we can begin to gain more of an insight into a dark, tragic, but ultimately fascinating part of our national heritage.

Illustration: Daniel Tatlow