Introduction to the Directory of Sources on Irish Women’s History, 1999.

Background to the Survey

The Women’s History Project was set up in September 1997 to meet three objectives:

  1. To survey and record sources relevant to the history of women in Ireland
  2. To list these sources and to make the list available to the public
  3. To publish historical documents relating to the history of women in Ireland

In order to survey existing records two strategies were followed: the construction of a questionnaire which could be completed by keepers of papers, and the organisation of visits to various repositories. We needed some way of ascertaining from existing repositories just what material was available and how best it might be entered onto our database. The questionnaire was an attempt to provide us with that information. We used as a model a questionnaire that had been devised in America in the mid-1970s as part of the Women’s History Sources, undertaken by the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota. We adapted this questionnaire for our own needs. We sought specific information about the repository, such as opening hours, facilities, etc. We requested relatively detailed information about the collection/collections, as they related to women, held by a particular repository. Once questionnaires were returned follow up visits were made by staff on the Project and material entered onto a database.

People are not generally used to thinking about or locating sources relating to women. Often material is discarded because it is thought to be useless. The criteria for inclusion in this survey were very broad. We were interested in finding material on women of all classes and in all time periods, contemporary material is listed as well as older material. We also attempted to include sources in the Irish language. (Unfortunately due to the database programme we were using we were unable to insert ‘fadas’ in Irish language material).

The main criteria for inclusion were that the collections contained material about women’s lives and roles. We used the following categories as a way of ascertaining where material relating to women might be found in particular archives or repositories:

  • collections of individual women
  • records of women’s organisations
  • religious/ecclesiastical records
  • records of an organisation, institution or movement in which women played a significant but not exclusive part
  • records of an organisation, institution, or movement that significantly influenced women’s lives
  • papers of a family (in which there are papers of female members)
  • collections with ‘hidden’ women.

It was this last category which we hoped would prove particularly fruitful, as it did. These were collections that contained significant or extensive material about women but whose title or main emphasis did not indicate the presence of such material. We concentrated our energy on listing manuscript or typescript material. Originally we did not expect to list published documents, however, in some repositories we came across rare copies of pamphlets that dealt with issues relating to women. We believed that it was important to bring these documents to the attention of researchers.

Once the survey was finished and the first editing process completed copies of the database entries were returned to the repositories. This was done to ensure that librarians and keepers of papers were happy with the entries made and to ensure that the information was as accurate as possible. The sheer size of some of the material returned for verification made it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for each entry to be checked individually for accuracy. However, we believe that given the limitations of time imposed on the Project, the entries are as accurate as they can be.

Limitations of the Survey

In some cases database entries were made for material held by repositories but for a number of reasons the material is not open to researchers and therefore the repository does not appear in this Directory. Often the material was not catalogued and staff are unavailable to handle research enquiries.

Where such repositories are listed the extent of the information placed in the database was very much dependent on whether a guide, list or catalogue was available within the repository for the material being entered. We used the lists provided to us by librarians and curators. Many of these lists were held on computer and are not accessible to the public. Some lists are published and we have provided details of those publications where applicable. Where no lists were available staff of the Women’s History Project constructed an outline list of the relevant material.

In all repositories, and in particular large repositories such as the National Library of Ireland and the National Archives in Dublin, we called up some material to ascertain the extent to which a particular collections related to women. This was done especially in instances were it was unclear whether women formed a part of the collection. However, given the time constraints placed on our work, not every document or collection listed in this Directory was called up and read.

Our national repositories, such as the National Library of Ireland and the National Archives, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and others, have extensive collections of material. From these larger repositories only a sample of the material relating to women was investigated and listed. It would have taken years and an enormous staff to go through every collection and every document in these repositories. However, we hope that the examples we have given will provide an indication of the richness of the holdings of these larger institutions for women’s history. We also wanted to extract information from the more obscure collections of those collections that are not normally quarried for material relating to women. We would urge researchers to use the catalogues of these major repositories to uncover other material relevant to women and to keep in mind that catalogues are constantly being updated and new collections donated to repositories.

There are variations in the quality and extent of the descriptions in this Directory. A diverse range of repositories was visited during this survey. There is a great variety in the way material is listed in these different repositories. Professional archivists have particular ways in which they list and categorise documents and collections. In many of the private repositories the archivist is often a volunteer and the listing can be more individualistic. There is no consistency in the way material is listed between institutions and that inconsistency is reflected in this Directory.

Contents of the Directory

This Directory provides information on repositories, details regarding access to the material, the name of the collection, where such exists, the manuscript reference number which allows that document or collection to be seen within the repository and a description of the material. Details of how to search the database are available in the Help section.

The material uncovered in this survey exceeded all our expectations. The variety, richness, quality and quantity of information revealed in the survey was astonishing. We have, for instance, listed the archives of convents, county councils, psychiatric hospitals, libraries, museums and public and private institutions and organisations. We have listed all known poor law records (with the exception of those for Counties Offaly and Cork).

What became so obvious from our surveys was that women were to be found in almost all official, public and private documents. They are spoken of in institutional records such as the minutes of a poor law board or the committal forms of a nineteenth-century lunatic asylum; they recorded the functionings of their convents, institutions and landed estates in finance ledgers, reports and correspondence; they were affected by the financial constraints imposed by local authorities such as county councils; they were tenants whose payments were noted in thousands of rentals. Women also recorded their personal lives in letters, diaries, journals and common place books; they painted, stitched, embroidered and wrote plays, poems, music and novels. All of these sources, and more, are listed in this Directory.

Maria Luddy
Director, Women's History Project