By Hugh Murphy, Head of Collections and Content, MU Library
One of the interesting aspects of our special collections is when there is a clear ‘trend’ in our holdings. This can happen for several reasons, such as reflecting the scholarly interests of those who were responsible for the collection at a certain time in the library’s history. The founding collections of the Russell Library are representative of this as they reflect a European ‘enlightenment library’ in subject and form. Equally however, these trends can reflect the key events of the period which may stimulate contemporaneous collection in some key areas. One of the obligations on the current curators of the collections is to consider how these historic aspects should be managed in the current era and this can include filling gaps to make these trends more complete.
One of the areas where the collection was historically strong but has been enhanced is in the historical record of significant events of the late 18th century and early 19th. A good example of this can be seen when reviewing our collections for printed sources relating to the 1798 rebellion. Special Collections has a wonderful trove of such items in both physical and electronic format and some examples are offered below.
In terms of the general contemporary sources, the Russell Library holds one of the key works Musgrave’s History of the Rebellion in Ireland in the year 1798. Although ostensibly a history, it was anything but impartial, with Musgrave having a track record of promoting the government side in his published output. In this specific case, he considered the rebellion to be exclusively the fault of ‘Papist aggression’ and his views clearly found favour as the publication was a great success, running to 3 editions in quick succession. The stridency of his views would provoke replies however, including one from James Caulfield, Bishop of Ferns, also to be found in the Russell Library.
The lack of objectivity in such works was a consistent theme and can be seen in other titles too, including items which are found in the library’s electronic collections. Some examples include the wonderfully descriptive A narrative of the sufferings and escape of Charles Jackson, late resident at Wexford in Ireland which despite sounding like a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson is, according to its author fully authentic. In this case, the author might be forgiven his lack of objectivity, as he notes that the rebellion had “lost at Wexford all the property I possessed”. Wexford, having been such a locus for rebellious activity in 1798 it was perhaps natural that much of the public output would reflect this and our collections have multiple examples of accounts and histories relating specifically to the south east. A notable example is that of Edward Hay who was involved on the side of the rebels (although it is not clear to what capacity) and who was moved, like Caulfield to refute the accusations of Musgrave. His work, History of the Insurrection of the County of Wexford, A. D. 1798, while sympathetic to the rebels’ side, was more nuanced than many of its peers and found a strong market, with healthy sales.
Needless to say, while Wexford features prominently in the published record, it is not alone and works such as those of James Alexander focus on Kildare, which can be found in our eighteenth century collections online database, as well as works on the events that transpired in Mayo, as noted by Joseph Stock and others.
The above titles can typically be found both in physical and electronic form in our holdings. They represent handful of similar items in our collection on this topic – there are more histories as well as archival material, newspaper accounts and maps. However, the published record of such an event is always interesting as it often tells us as much about what people were interested in reading, as about the events themselves. A significant and contentious event such as the 1798 rebellion was always going to stimulate published views and as long as the reader approaches them with an eye for jaundiced viewpoints, they will deliver a wealth of information about the event, but as importantly about the society of the time and its preconceptions and partialities.
Photographs by David Rinehart, Special Collections & Archives, MU Library