Document of the Day: By Róisín Berry, Maynooth University Library
Working as an archivist, I am extremely fortunate to have access to a wide range of archival collections. Cataloguing each collection is a unique experience with different challenges involved. In some cases the hand-writing may be difficult to read, in others, closure periods may have to be applied due to the sensitivity of the content. Every project teaches you something new and allows you to draw on that experience further down the line.
Recently, I have been working on a small collection acquired by the Library at auction in 2013. Little background information was provided at the time of purchase, so there are many gaps in this story. The collection contains fifteen handwritten letters, each neatly signed “MEC”, and written between 1827 and 1828 from a number of addresses in counties Wicklow and Wexford. The letters are addressed to a ‘Miss Mordaunt’ with addresses at 19 Cannon Street, 2 Bedford Square, and Regency Square in the Brighton area in England.
We know little about the author herself, although we can glean a certain amount of information from the documents. The lady in question appears to be of some means and with certain connections. She is a married English woman residing in Ireland with her husband Horace, albeit on a temporary basis. The couple seem to have fallen on difficult times, as the author writes about her husband’s poor health, financial challenges, and her struggle to take on the management of the family’s affairs during her husband’s illness. She is a woman under pressure as her place in the world becomes a little less secure due to her husband’s ill health. In one letter she states “I am obliged to learn to understand all sorts of things wh. are very difficult & sometimes called upon to decide about things wh. makes me anxious & uneasy” (18 May 1827). Each letter is addressed “dearest friend”, revealing a level of intimacy between the two women.
What fascinates me most about this archival collection are the observations recorded by “MEC” on Irish life, customs, people and society during the late 1820s. Each letter is filled with detailed accounts of everyday occurrences as observed by an English Protestant woman living on the fringes, and very much an outsider. On the subject of Catholicism, the author notes: “The Protestants thank God! are making many converts – as far as I see with Popery, goes Beggary & idleness & error & fanaticism – & these amongst the lower orders are serious & mischievous evils. I was never so anti-Catholic as since I came to Ireland” [6 March 1827].
Another letter, dated 10 April 1827, describes funeral customs in Ireland, stating:
“Great respect of a peculiar kind is paid to the dead especially by the R. Cath.cs – you know the old custom of wakes – & besides this they make a point of carrying the body as far as possible about – thinking it is the nearer to heaven!…unlike us they neither hire, nor put on mourning faces – nor think any solemnity necessary – they have less value for life & less fear of death – this makes them brave but dangerous”.
The couple move from Wicklow to Glebe Hill in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, at some point in April 1827, and the letters are filled with descriptions of the county and its residents, observing:
“the country is more promising as to industry cultivation & soil than Wicklow…the race of people quite different…Horace observed the countenance of the people on the high road, said he shd. not be surprised if a colony of Welch or English had settled here…they retain to this day a striking difference of countenance & character – they are more sober & industrious than the inhabitants but very ugly’, with the residents of County Waterford described as ‘still more ugly – speaking nothing but Irish & very savage” (28 April 1827).
Not all of the comments are negative, however, and the author goes on to state: “be assured there is as much good sense & real refinement in the recesses of Ireland…& much pleasanter society, for they naturally easy & cheerful & without the English reserve…& quite as much real delicacy”. (28 April 1827).
This is a wonderful collection full of interesting insights and reflections, shedding light on everyday life in Ireland during the late 1820s. The identity of the author “MEC” has yet to be established as work continues on the material but the challenge of piecing together the different strands of the story is one of the most rewarding aspects of working as an archivist.