Cork people asked to share stories, photos, letters and  objects from a century ago

Cork people are being encouraged to share personal stories, old photographs, letters and objects, documenting Cork from 1913 to 1923, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Cork people asked to share stories, photos, letters and  objects from a century ago

Mary Barrett with a picture of Terence MacSwiney Body guards. Picture: Clare Keogh 

A WATER bottle with an ammunition belt attached to it, found under the floor- boards of a building on Cork’s York Street, is one of the items that will be seen in The People’s Archive.

This website, funded by Cork City Council’s Commemorative Fund, is the brainchild of historian Doireann Markham and graphic designer, Kerry Sloane.

It is a community-based project that provides a platform for the people of Cork to share personal stores, old photographs, letters and objects documenting everyday life in the city between 1913 and 1923.

The public is invited to share artefacts from the period as well as witness accounts, letters and diary entries that vividly illustrate the lived experience of that time.

The objects will be photographed, documented and presented in The Revolution Collection on www.thepeoplesarchive.ie.

The aim is to explore and showcase ordinary life in Cork city against the backdrop of extraordinary events such as the 1916 Rising, the first sitting of Dáil Eireann, the struggle for independence, the foundation of the Irish Free State, partition, the Civil War and many other key events and themes from the period.

As Doireann says, it’s about “digging deeper into the idea of communities that were split apart and not talking to each other”.

But, as the project gathers momentum, Doireann says that “we realise that life had to go on and people had to interact. My interest is the lived experience of the post-Civil War period.”

Doireann Markham.
Doireann Markham.

Kerry, who is a friend of Doireann, was spring cleaning in his attic in Cork when he found a first edition copy of The Revolutionist, a play by Cork’s martyred Lord Mayor, Terence MacSwiney. Doireann and Kerry got talking about the find. Doireann reckoned that if Kerry had that book in his attic, there must be a lot of other material in Cork attics and under floorboards.

“We started to think how such memorabilia and artefacts could be brought to life. That’s how the project began. It’s very much based on the idea of bringing history to the people. 

"I love the idea of public history with people contributing to it. We really hope to get a wide variety of submissions. We want to share it with the widest audience possible.”

Military confrontations as well as the politics of the time are well documented.

“But you have to remember that even though the War of Independence was going on with unspeakable tragedies and atrocities, people still had the washing to do, they had to get their messages and pay their bills. Life was still being lived even in the midst of chaos. We’re really interested in the ordinary experiences of Cork people against that backdrop.”

What you might consider to be nothing but a piece of rubbish could be of interest to Doireann.

“Take a picture of it on your phone, send it to us and let’s find out about it. A receipt from a grocery store would give us information on what people were buying for their household. Everything tells a story.

“The nature of these things is that they’re usually inherited material or material you know is in the attic but you never bothered to look at it properly.”

Doireann says that the people’s archive website “is well tied in with Cork city’s own commemorative projects. For anyone who mightn’t be informed about the city’s revolutionary period, we have links on the website to tie in with commemorative events.”

While a lot of Cork history would have gone up in smoke due to the burning of the city in 1920, plenty of material has survived.

“Your grandparents might have been living out in Dennehy’s Cross and might have stuff relevant to that day. As well as making history accessible to people, we are also emphasising the ordinary lives that were being lived at this time,” said Doireann.

There would have been huge disparity in income between “extraordinarily wealthy people and those living in dire poverty — as was the case throughout Ireland at the time.”

Doireann says that “the eyes of the world were focused on Cork” when the Lord Mayor, Terence MacSwiney’s remains were brought back to the city after he died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison.

Mary Barrett with a picture of Terence MacSwiney Body guards. Picture: Clare Keogh 
Mary Barrett with a picture of Terence MacSwiney Body guards. Picture: Clare Keogh 

What if people have documents from 1913-1923 in poor condition?

“Whatever you have, submit it to us. We have the equipment to take clearer pictures or we could present a letter as a transcription. You don’t have to worry about the condition the things are in. The nature of an online archive is such that we can work with a lot of things.”

Doireann, who is a teacher on Inis Meain, one of the Aran Islands, is originally from Roscommon but came to Cork to do her masters, having studied for her primary teaching degree in St Patrick’s in Drumdondra. What brought her to UCC?

“My granny wondered the same thing. She wanted to know why I didn’t go to England because Cork is so far from Roscommon. I had never been to Cork. UCC has a good history department. Several of the academics had an interest in the area I wanted to pursue.”

This teacher and historian says she is “incredibly fortunate” to be on Inis Meain in the middle of a pandemic.

“It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. I’m like a tourist advocate for it! I couldn’t have come at a better time with the island kind of asleep. I love the Irish language. It’s a beautiful experience.”

In 100 years’ time, Doireann says that “maybe historians will be looking back to ask how we managed during the pandemic. As we know, ordinary lives continued in extraordinary times.”

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