Sources for Women’s History in Ireland: Introduction

From the vantage point of 2023 the landscape of Irish women’s history has altered enormously from that which existed in 1999. The modern study of women’s involvement in Irish political, economic, social and cultural life has emerged since the 1970s and the volume of research in these fields continues to grow. The development of Irish gender history and Irish social history has been particularly evident over the last twenty years or so. Without access to archival sources, such as those listed in this collection of ‘Sources for Women’s History in Ireland’, the research for the many articles and books published would be more difficult. The original ‘Directory of Sources for Irish Women’s History’ was made available on CD-Rom in 1999. The introduction to that CD is available on this website and explains how we went about the collecting and inputting of data. With the advances made in technology the CD has now become obsolete and can no longer be read on more recent computers. In mid-2022 we asked the Irish Manuscripts Commission and the Mná 100 unit of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media to support transferring the contents of the CD to a website which would be freely and publicly available. Their support has made the creation of the website possible and has allowed us to update much of the information contained in the original ‘Directory of Sources’.

The aim of the update was to enable the database to be searched by topic, archival institution, region, date and key words. We also wanted to ensure that the addresses and contact details of repositories were accurate, and a number did need updating. We discovered in our updating that some records, particularly those relating to hospitals, and originally seen and listed by us in institutions that have since closed, had, to a large extent, been moved to the care of the HSE. Some of these institutional records remain in the buildings that housed the institutions, some have been placed in local county archives. Access to this material appears very restricted and the HSE has not yet devised an access policy for researchers who want to work on these sources. Other archives that had been in specific repositories when first surveyed have also been relocated, many to the care of local archive repositories supported by the local authorities. We believe that we have managed to locate all of the material we first listed in the late 1990s.

A number of the national repositories, such as the National Library of Ireland for instance, have digitised many of their catalogues, which is a great boon to researchers. Some repositories have digitised collections of documents which allow researchers to access material from anywhere in the world. For instance, the National Archives of Ireland have placed the Irish 1901 and 1911 censuses online. Similarly, the Military Archives have digitised thousands of pages from the Bureau of Military History which has deepened and broadened research in the period 1913-1923. A number of private or family papers have also been digitised since 2000 such as the correspondence of the writer Edith Somerville and Ethel Smyth available online through the Special Collections Library in Queen’s University Belfast. The Resource List provides further information and links to many repositories that have digitised a whole range of additional sources that can be investigated for the study of Irish women’s history.

Over the past twenty years, several of the archives listed here have developed websites, but most repositories still rely on general and brief descriptions of their collections. The ‘Sources’ website provides more detailed information on potential sources for the history of women, information that could otherwise only be gleaned from visiting the archive. When local or national archives have listed material in their custody online, they do not always direct attention to their value for women’s history. The ‘Sources’ website aims to do so. The focus for many archival institutions and libraries in recent years has been on the ‘decade of centenaries’, 1912-1922, but online manuscript resources relating to women for the period before 1900 are still relatively rare. We have added new material to this website dating to the pre-1900 period. In addition, our Resource List will direct researchers to the location of other online material.

The archives surveyed in the 1990s were in public or semi-public institutions. The majority are still in the public domain. The only qualification to this is that some of the diocesan or convent archives may now be closed to researchers, partly because of staff shortages but also due to restrictions imposed as a consequence of legal advice or an abundance of caution by Catholic church authorities. These archives will, hopefully, be reopened in the future but are likely to be accessible to individual researchers who make contact with the relevant archivist or repository as listed on this website.

One big change in the availability of archives for research has developed from the various commissions of inquiry that have reported since 2009 [see the Resource List]. For instance, The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation Final Report (30 October 2020), lists almost 100 pages of archival documents relating to their inquiry [see vol. 6, pp 2579- 2675]. How accessible these sources are to researchers has not been really tested, but records listed there, especially those of the local authorities should be available to researchers, within the limits of a thirty-year rule. There is still ambiguity around a lot of these archives, and there is no national policy on who can access this material, much of it held in publicly-funded repositories. Another consequence of the Mother and Baby Home inquiry is that many records of what were private mother and baby homes, or adoption agencies have been handed over to the care of Tusla. Inquiries made with Tusla reveals they now hold the records of over 100 organisations and societies, including publicly funded local authority records, that dealt with the adoption of children, the boarding out of children and mother and baby homes that were both publicly and privately funded. Such material is unavailable to any researcher. Other archives, for example those relating to industrial and reformatory schools or Magdalen Asylums, were returned to the religious orders and congregations that ran those institutions. Those archives can be accessed only by permission of those who hold them.

This website also provides useful guidance to researchers of collections that have been listed in detail since the original Directory was created. For instance, the Directory noted the existence of Kathleen Clarke’s letters in the Daly Papers Collection at Limerick University Archives. This collection has now been catalogued. However, the information contained in the ‘Sources’ website relating to these papers is still valuable for the researcher. It can be searched by keyword and a search for women in politics will bring up not just the Daly Papers but also other relevant archives. In other words, the ‘Sources’ website enables users to identify the existence of multiple collections on similar themes or individuals.

This website remains the only detailed all-island listing of archival-based documents relating to the history of women in Ireland. It has not been superseded by any online or hard copy catalogue of sources; web-based guides to sources for women’s history on an all-Ireland basis do not exist. The range of material listed reflects the state of women’s history in 1999 and the concern to demonstrate that all archival repositories have documents of relevance for women’s history even if they were not recognised as such. Not surprisingly, this resulted, in the case of some repositories, in a seemingly random collection of documents. While we have updated the contents and added new material, we have not eliminated any documents or records listed in the original database. The vast quantity of material listed vindicates the selection and work of the original team and demonstrates that there is still considerable potential for exciting research in Irish gender and women’s history.

Maria Luddy
January 2023