Scott Flake from the University of Michigan reflects on his summer internship with Beyond 2022
Living and working in a foreign country presents a unique set of challenges. Adjusting to local time, understanding the local culture, possibly even learning a new language. In January of this year, these were all challenges I was ready to face when I applied for a summer internship overseas, farther away from my hometown than I had ever been before. Of course, 2020 has not obeyed anyone’s expectations, and my plans were forced to change. While I still found myself working in a foreign country this summer, it was from my childhood bedroom; quite a lot closer to my hometown than I’d been for some time. This arrangement provides its own challenges to overcome (not the least of which is attending midday meetings before the sun comes up due to time zone differences). Because of these challenges, however, my experience with Beyond 2022 has proven invaluable.
I study history and museum studies at the University of Michigan in the United States. Museum studies is, functionally, the study of bringing history to the public in the best way possible. Public history, as the endeavor is called, is an effort to remove history from the dusty halls of the library and university and make it accessible to as many people as possible. As a historian, my interests lie in every corner of the world, though I’ve always carried a particular interest in Irish history. Second-generation Americans themselves, my grandparents have always expressed great pride in their Irish ancestry. My grandfather was mortified when he explored his ancestry in greater detail and learned that he was only half Irish and not 100% (the other half was Scottish). As Beyond 2022 is an Irish public history project I was thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in it.
The bulk of my responsibilities within the project involve the act of calendaring. Calendaring entails reading through old documents and summarizing them, capturing the most interesting or relevant information. Because of the digital nature this work was forced to take on, I’ve been working with photographs of the documents rather than with the physical documents themselves. The documents that I’ve been calendaring are administrative documents and letters sent to and from the Public Record Office of Ireland before its destruction by fire in the Irish Civil War (1922-3). These papers were stored in the section of the office that was spared from the fire and so have survived in quite good condition. I’ve looked at documents from as far back as 1867, the year of the public record office’s founding, and as recently as 1922, the year it went up in flames. Monotonous though the work may sound to some, I find it exciting to pore through each new document for juicy details. Many documents offer nothing of note, but the thrill of reading one that does is unmatched. I’d like to share some of these noteworthy discoveries.
The Public Record Office received no shortage of letters from the public. The documents in the archive were of great value to people across Ireland and in other parts of the world. In order to receive the Old Age Pension, documentary evidence of age needed to be provided. People born around the 1840s and 1850s did not have birth certificates and so had to use some other form of proof. An acceptable form of evidence, as it turned out, were the censuses taken in 1841 and 1851, the results of which were held in the archive. An individual’s presence in the census proved that they were at least as old as the census itself, and therefore allowed them to receive their pension. They might also have their age listed alongside their name in the census. The public record office received so many such letters that mass-printed forms asking for name, place of birth, parents, siblings, etc. were sent out to those who had asked for proof of their age to ease the search for their name in the thick volumes of the census returns. Age-curious inquisitors would also need to provide a payment of two shillings in order to have their evidence mailed to them.
The Public Record Office of Ireland had many employees, but getting a job there, it seems, was no small feat. An internal document reveals that any applicant for a clerkship in the archive had to pass a number of tests. Apart from a knowledge of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (Books I and II), skills assessed included geography, history, proficiency in Latin and French, and even the quality of one’s handwriting. All of these skills were necessary, evidently, in order to serve the needs of the public in the archive.
Current events had limited impact on the curiosity of the public. During the occupation of the archive, and even after its destruction, letters continued to roll in to the Deputy Keeper’s mailbox, asking for documents to prove age, or of individuals researching their genealogy. When the archive was physically occupied during the fighting of the Civil War, the Deputy Keeper continued to respond to enquiries, promising the writer that once they could get back in the building, they would receive their answer. Of course, for many, these answers never came. Following the destruction of the archives, the deputy keeper responded to some writers, suggesting other places they may be able to find the information they sought. Old Age Pension seekers he often directed towards baptismal records at the church they were baptized at, for example.
Though I’ve only spent a short time with the Beyond 2022 project, it has been an incredibly interesting time. I’m very grateful to have been given the chance to work on something so important, and beyond that, something so cool. I look forward to seeing the fruits of everyone’s labors two years from now, on the centennial of the archives’ destruction.