A Seventeenth Century Camera: Johann Zahn and the study of optics 

by Alexandra Caccamo Special Collections Librarian

Digitisation is an important part of our work in the library. It increases access to our collections and helps us make them available online to a greater number of people. With the development of our Digitisation Suite and the arrival of the scanner to the library, it is interesting to look at our collection for early descriptions of the camera. 

The Russell Library holds a number of books that deal with the study of optics. One such item is by Johann Zahn (1641-1707) Zahn was the canon of the Premonstratensian monastery of Oberzell near Würzburg. He had an interest in natural philosophy and published several works, with the most notable being ‘Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium‘ or The Long Distance Artificial Eye or Telescope. This work was published in 1685 in Würzburg. 

Plate depicting Zhan’s design for a portable camera obscura

The book is a treatise on optical instruments and their uses. It describes magic lanterns, telescopes, microscopes and other projection types. Zahn also outlines and illustrates the first portable camera obscura. A camera obscura consists of an entire darkened room with a small hole at one end through which an image is projected. It should be noted that he was not the first to describe a camera-like device. The Han Chinese philosopher, Mozi (c. 470 – 291 BC) described the principle behind the camera obscura and detailed how light travels in straight lines from its source thus inverting an image when projected through a small hole. However, Zahn was the first to publish a design for a portable mirror-reflex camera, which you can see here. Although it is still relatively large, and perhaps not what we would think of as portable today, it was innovative at the time. This design did not become a reality until almost 140 years later. 

Plate showing how light travels in straight lines.

‘Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus…’ has 190 pages. The title page is printed in black and red ink, with an additional richly engraved title page facing the printed title page. This engraving depicts an oculus artifci, literally artificial eye or a telescope. The book is illustrated throughout and contains 8 double-page tables, 30 engraved plates and numerous engraved and woodcut illustrations. Many of the plates are quite elaborate including one examining optics and the structure of the eye. 

Plate showing the structure of the eye.

There are also a number of plates which depict the refraction of light. 

Although, cameras have come a long way since the seventeenth century, we are still developing new ways of capturing images. In the New Year, we hope to be able to image, digitise and share more of our collections online. 

Explore Your Archive: Document of the Day

The Knight of Glin Archive at OMARC, Castletown House

by Marie G. Cullen, Assistant Librarian, MU Library

In December 2014 the Office of Public Works (OPW)-Maynooth University Archive and Research Centre at Castletown House received a donation of the archive of  Desmond FitzGerald the 29th and last Knight of Glin. The archive contains personal papers, correspondence and photographs that reflect FitzGerald’s life’s work—fighting for the preservation of Ireland’s Great Houses.

It is appropriate that the archive is housed in the surroundings of Castletown House, a historic house which was saved by Desmond and Mariga Guinness as the focus of the archive relates to furniture of Irish and other origins in Irish historic houses. Guinness was the founder, patron and president of the Irish Georgian Society (IGS), and Fitzgerald served as President of the IGS from 1991 to 2011. 

In his article Early Irish Trade-Cards and Other Eighteenth-Century Ephemera Fitzgerald describes the importance of what in most cases are ephemeral items. 

PP/GLIN Del Vecchio, print sellers, trade label

The archive contains much that would be considered ephemera. Fitzgerald carefully and systematically collated and annotated details and examples of furniture of Irish and other origins.  Photographs, auction catalogue and sales listings, articles from magazines, journals and other publications often accompanied by notes handwritten or typed. 

Fitzgerald documented and noted trade labels, carvings such as coat of arms, lions’ feet and acanthus leaves. Through the information provided in catalogues, other often ephemeral sources, his own knowledge and connections, he provided more details regarding origin, provenance, and ownership of items.

The archive demonstrates the Knight’s knowledge, enthusiasm and the variety of connections and associations he could draw on for insights and knowledge, including members of the Irish Georgian Society

While the information gathered in the archive on furniture and decorative arts is invaluable, the ephemeral nature of some of the sources, receipts etc. gives an insight into people’s spending habits in relations to food, fashion and furnishing their homes. The combination of one person’s lifelong interest and work, beautiful furniture, decorative arts and social history makes this an invaluable, fascinating and intriguing archive. 

PP/Glin Gregory Kane, trade label


With sincere thanks to Nicola Kelly, Archivist, OPW-Maynooth University Archive and Research Centre for providing research sources and photographs. 

Explore Your Archive: Document of the Day

‘Party Tunes’ in the Littlehales Archive

by Hugh Murphy, Head of Collections & Content, MU Library

The archives of Sir Edward Baker Littlehales, held in Maynooth University Library contain a wealth of interesting information on the Irish administration after the Act of Union.  While much of it is fascinating, it lacks the ribald and risqué stories which can be found in some of the other archives under our stewardship (looking at you Marquis of Sligo!).  Almost every mention of ‘party’ by Littlehales refers to that of a political type, and despite being a significant player at various prominent social events in Dublin for nearly twenty years, he scarcely deigns to mention them in correspondence.  Indeed, with the exception of ‘political’ parties, the main concern he had regarding moments of jollity came when militia and yeomanry decided to strike up an air. 

Portrait of Edward Baker Littlehales, taken from The diary of Mrs Simcoe

What really concerned Littlehales was when these sizeable amateur military forces decided to use festivals and parties for the airing of political ideology.  And to be fair to the beleaguered undersecretary, this was a genuine challenge, with the militia being primarily Catholic and the yeomanry being primarily Protestant

A letter from the Chief Secretary in April 1814 noted that there had been accusations of bias on behalf of Dublin Castle, given that

‘regular militia regiments have been forbidden to play party tunes on certain days but they are still played by the yeomanry here’

(MU/PP12 Peel to Littlehales, 29 April 1814)
MU/PP12 Peel to Littlehales, 3 May 1814

In reality, the government had striven for years to present as neutral a front as possible on such matters and when called to account for the confusion by the Chief Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, Littlehales was quick to defend noting that both militia and regular forces had been expressly forbidden, but also regarding the Yeomanry. He observes

‘it has been the policy of Government invariably not to countenance their playing any party tunes on certain days, in any manner which might give Offence to their Fellow subjects many of whom are probably of different persuasions, from themselves, particularly in the North of Ireland’

(MU/PP12 Littlehales to Peel, 3 May 1814)

Oddly enough Littlehales had brought this to Peel’s attention the previous year noting in particular that due to the link with the burgeoning Orange Order, no military band was to play any tune on certain days of commemoration

‘and especially on the 12th of July’

(MU/PP12 Littlehales to Peel, 26 June 1813)

lest it offend.

As always, Littlehales proved himself to be far from the Georgian libertine, but in this instance at least his party instincts (or lack thereof) could be said to be for the greater good. 

MU/PP12 Peel to Littlehales, 3 May 1814

The Irish Race Congress 1922

Ciara Joyce, Archivist

On the 21st of January 1922, on the third anniversary of the establishment of Dáil Éireann and the Irish Republic, the Irish Race Congress took place in a Paris hotel.

Proceedings of the Irish Race Congress, Issued by Fine Ghaedheal Secretariat

This eight-day congress, attended by delegates from seventeen countries, was first mooted by representatives of the Irish Republican Association of South Africa and organised by the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain with support from the Dáil cabinet.

The purpose  of the congress was political, but it also sought to showcase highlights from Irish culture. Its objectives included:

‘1. To put a stop to the  excesses of the British troops in Ireland by securing their withdrawal.

2. To secure the International Recognition of the Irish Republic, and to afford moral and material assistance to the Irish Government.

3. To form a centre and rallying point for those members of the Irish Race throughout the world who feel the humiliation of the continued subjection of their motherland and recognise that to free Ireland is to exalt the status of the Irish Race in every land where it has found a home’.

Attendees at the Irish Race Congress, Paris, 1922

The congress was organised over the course of a year but its timing in January 1922 was unfortunate. The Treaty was signed on the 6th of December 1921 and ratified by the Dáil on the 7th of January. It was agreed that the congress should go ahead but a deeply divided delegation left from Ireland, the majority of which were anti-treaty republicans led by Éamon DeValera.

Some of the delegates at the Congress, 1922

England sent the largest number of delegates to the congress, but attendees also travelled from Scotland, Wales, the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, France, Belgium, Spain and from Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Mexico.

Among the delegation that attended from Scotland was Henry Warren Hutchinson, whose son was the Irish poet Pearse Hutchinson. Among Hutchinson’s archive held by Special Collections & Archives, are several items his father kept regarding his attendance at the congress including letters, photographs, notes and the published proceedings of events. He was conscious of the tensions between the pro and anti-treaty delegates, as all the attendees must have been. In a letter sent to his wife Cailtín, Henry wrote that:

‘somehow I feel that the conference is not a success – the treaty has knocked it out of gear’.

The congress’s main outcome was the establishment of Fine Ghaedheal, an organisation intended to represent Irish people throughout the world. De Valera was elected as Chairman of the organisation, with a committee made up of republican representatives only. Hutchinson, despite his reflection on the success of the congress, was delighted to be elected to the executive committee, writing to his wife:

Postcard from Henry Warren Hutchinson to his wife Caitlín McElhinney, January 1922

‘I have had a great honour in being elected one of the members of the Executive Committee for the Irish Race Convention out of representatives of 24 nations’

he also adds that:

‘we had a great fight -they were fighting & we were fighting, it was glorious but we beat them, it became evident from one or two test points that we were the stronger and after several attempts to defeat Dev -they gave in & he was elected unanimously’ .

His own admiration of De Valera is very clear, he writes:

‘everyone admits De Valera is the greatest man in the world & certainly there never was a more loved & honoured leader’.

Invitation to the Irish Art Exhibition at the Galerie Barbazanges, Paris, 1922

The cultural aspects of the congress were very successful, with lectures on Irish art and literature by W.B. and Jack B. Yeats, a talk on the Gaelic League by Douglas Hyde, an Irish traditional music concert and an exhibition of Irish art at the Galerie Barbazanges, where three hundred paintings and sculptures were displayed.

Fine Ghaedheal, failed to secure financial backing from the Provisional Government, and faded into obscurity. By the end of June 1922, the Irish Civil War had begun.

For more information or to access this collections please contact Special Collections & Archives at library.specialcollections@mu.ie or (01) 474 7423

Scripts and Scrawls

[Explore Your Archive 2021 (3 of 9): #Handwriting]

By Miriam van der Molen, Archivist, Special Collections & Archives

Historians need to come to terms with different kinds of handwriting when researching. Similarly, archivists have to decipher various styles of writing when cataloguing archival documents. We will show you a variety of styles, from scrawls through tidy-yet-still-not-very-legible texts to pretty handwriting.

Scrawled words

First is a letter from Robert Peel, who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom twice from 1834 to 1846. Yet before that, he had been Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1812 to 1818. The letter you see below, written to Edward Baker Littlehales, Under-secretary to the Military Department, Dublin, is from 18 December 1812. The date already shows the difficulty that handwriting can pose, as it looks like 1822, when in fact the date is 1812 which can be gleaned by the context. This date of receipt was written by Littlehales or his secretary on the arrival of the letter, not by Peel who was sending it.

If you try to read the letter written by Peel beneath the date in the first image below, you will see that it is not the easiest either! The transcription that follows shows that Peel had the habit of running numerous words together into one:

 I have rec[eive]d the draft of the bill relative to the pensions of Kilmainham, butitis [sic – all one word] now too late for us to do anything. The business in this partofthe[sic – all one word] [?Empire][?] but possibly be part through the [?] Laws.

I congratulate you most heartily with accounts from Russia. What a [?] for speculation on the future distances of Europe?

The second image shows the reverse of the letter and the topic under which it was filed after Littlehales received it: even trickier to read than Peel’s writing!

More information on our Littlehales Archives can be found here.

Medieval script

The next example of handwriting is tidier, but also hard to read due to the medieval script used. It is a German legal document from 1371, written on parchment. A previous blog post about it and two other medieval documents is here. The text is lovely and clear, but the letter-forms are so different to how we write the Latin alphabet today, that you need to know how people wrote their letters in the Middle Ages in order to decipher it.

Medieval legal document, 1371.

Gaelic script

The final example of handwriting is from our Peadar Ó Laoghaire archive. This time, we again have a different script for the Latin alphabet, this time the Gaelic one. This lettering was used for writing in the Irish language until about the 1960s. There is a previous blog post on this topic here. Peadar Ó Laoghaire was a priest who was ordained in 1867 after training for the priesthood at St Patrick’s College Maynooth. He was a member of the Gaelic Revival movement. The image in today’s blog post shows a page that is part of a manuscript in which Ó Laoghaire teaches how to read the numbers in Irish and how to apply this knowledge in mathematical problems.

Conus na h-uimhreacha do leiġe as Gaeluinn [How to read the numbers in Irish].

The  Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Collection

By Helen Fallon, Deputy University Librarian.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, courtesy of Noo Saro-Wiwa

On Saturday the 25th of September 2021,  BBC World Service will broadcast the documentary Silence Would be Treason. 

This blog post gives a short account of the background to the death-row correspondence of Saro-Wiwa, to Sister Majella McCarron (OLA), which was donated to Maynooth University. A fuller account is given in my essay in the book Silence Would be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro Wiwa.

On 10th November 2011, Sr. Majella McCarron presented a collection of personal correspondence and 27 poems she received from Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, to Maynooth University Library. The collection comprises 28 letters to Sr. Majella, 27 poems, a MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) cap and flag,  a collection of photographs and other documents, including articles, reviews, flyers and maps relating to Saro-Wiwa’s work and the work of Sr. Majella on the cause of the Ogoni people, both in Nigeria and Ireland.  Some of this material can be viewed in our Ken Saro-Wiwa Library Guide.

Letters and poems, (c) Maynooth University Library

We are grateful to Maynooth University sociology student, John O’Shea, who created the initial link between Sr. Majella and the University Library. In 2010, O’Shea interviewed Sister Majella while working on his MA thesis Societies in Transition. She told him about the archive and expressed an interest in finding an appropriate home for it, knowing the value this collection would have to present and future generations of scholars and activists. He contacted the Library and we immediately set about acquiring this unique collection.

The letters were mainly handwritten between the 20th of October 1993 and the 14th of September 1995. In May 1994 Saro-Wiwa and several other activists were placed in military detention in Port Harcourt. The letters, from this period until his execution with eight others (the Ogoni Nine), were smuggled out of military detention in food baskets.

The letters cast light on Saro-Wiwa as a political activist, a writer, a family man and a personal friend to Sr. Majella, who travelled as a missionary from Ireland to Nigeria in 1956. While lecturing at the University of Lagos, she met Saro-Wiwa, The oil problem in the Niger Delta region was severe, with major environmental damage being wrought from oil extraction by Royal Dutch Shell. Saro-Wiwa, the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), was organising a non-violent campaign against the environmental destruction of the Ogoni area of the Niger Delta.  Sr. Majella worked with him to highlight the issues and to raise funds for the relief effort when Ogoni villages were destroyed in September 1993. In May 1994, Saro-Wiwa and other members of MOSOP were arrested. The 28 letters from this time until his death were written in military detention.

MOSOP flag and cap, (c) Maynooth University Library

In August 1994, Sr. Majella returned to Ireland, having decided not to renew her contract at the University of Lagos. The conversations that had begun in the Lagos office continued on paper. She campaigned, with others, to save the lives of the Ogoni Nine. Sadly, this was unsuccessful and Saro-Wiwa was executed, with his eight colleagues, on the 10th of November, 1995. She received his final letter, hand delivered by his son, after his death.

Ken Saro-Wiwa is considered to be one of the great environmental activists of the late 20th century and his letters reflect his passion for peace and justice. In gifting these letters to Maynooth University, Sister Majella is ensuring the Ogoni story will continue to be told in many different contexts. A travelling exhibition has been developed from the archive and this has been exhibited at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and in public libraries across Ireland.

A number of articles have been published on the collection and the issues embodied therein.  Both Silence Would Be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa (edited by Íde Corley, Helen Fallon and Laurence Cox, and published by Daraja Press), and I am a man of Peace: Writings Inspired by the Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Collection (edited by Helen Fallon, and published by Daraja Press) are available on open access.

Queries on the Ken Saro-Wiwa Archive should be sent to Special Collections and Archives at: library.specialcollections@mu.ie

Cataloguing the Troubles

By Ruth O’Hara, Special Collections and Archives, Maynooth University Library

Figure 1: Selection of items from the MUL Tony Keane Troubles collection Northern Ireland

Maynooth University Library (MUL) is the custodian of a unique collection of books, pamphlets, periodicals and ephemera relating to the Northern Ireland Troubles. Dating mainly from the 1970s and early 1980s, these items provide a vivid insight into the lives of all parts of a society in conflict. We have over 600 items, ranging from political flyers and posters to newspapers, prayer leaflets and romance novels, that encompass all shades of opinion. Many of the pieces in this collection were never meant to be kept or they are the only copies of short-run prints, making it unique in terms of our library holdings but also in the Republic of Ireland more generally.

It is such an interesting time, one hundred years after the 1920 Government of Ireland Act and in the midst of ongoing Brexit negotiations, to be working with a collection which, in the main, was produced in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles by groups and individuals from all backgrounds. As librarians working in a publicly funded institution, we have an ongoing responsibility to actively capture the spectrum of memories of such a contested era. It is our obligation to preserve and protect the sources and objects not only of our “official history” or “memory” but also of those periods and groups we might want to forget, which don’t reflect well on us or which represent a viewpoint we may not agree with or even have never considered before.

Figure 2: Catholic Church relief committees: ephemera (LY (SP TCNI(E) 12/1-2)

Perhaps the most vivid evidence of life lived in a society in conflict is captured by the ephemeral items in the collection. Beside numerous election leaflets, there are many pieces produced by paramilitary and pressure groups who had limited access to the media for propaganda purposes and so cheap print publications were how they got their message across. However, it is objects like the church circular providing information on relief services for communities facing food and electricity shortages that bring home the reality of what life was really like at that time.

Figure 3: Danger. Keep out. Stay away from derelict buildings…they may be booby-trapped. Great Britain. Northern Ireland Office. LY (SP TCNI (LF) 6)

Our Troubles collection also includes several posters whose striking imagery is a visual testament to the events and controversies of the period. There is, for example, a poster issued by the Northern Ireland Office warning the public not to approach derelict buildings that might be boobytrapped. The posters in the collection are highly emotive with some even being collected from the gateposts of houses in the immediate aftermath of a horrific incident.

The events of this period impacted every aspect of society as in evident in the newspapers, pamphlets and even the romance novels that we have also preserved. This growing collection offers a bridge to those interested in finding out what happened and what was really written and produced during this turbulent period of history.

The centrality of culture in the struggle for a new world: Amilcar Cabral and Ken Saro-Wiwa


By Firoze Manji, Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow, Robert Bosch Academy, Berlin

This is a slightly shortened version of the Keynote address from the Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Seminar 15th November 2018


Firoze Manji delivers the keynote address at the Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Seminar, 15th November 2018

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A leprosy hospital in Pretoria

By Barbara McCormack, Special Collections Librarian, Maynooth University Library

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In late 1914 an interesting letter arrived at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth which outlined the plight of detainees at a Leper Asylum in Pretoria, South Africa. The letter was written by an Irish missionary, Fr. Thomas Ryan, who was fundraising for the construction of a Catholic church at the Westfort Leprosy Hospital. Admission rates to leper asylums had greatly increased in the late nineteenth century following the introduction of legislation such as the Leprosy Repression Act of the 1890s which attempted to segregate and isolate those suffering from the disease. Fr. Ryan writes:
‘I beg you to forgive me for making this appeal to you. In my parish of Pretoria there is a leper asylum, and there over 800 lepers are gathered together. Before the “Union” of the S. African States there were not so many lepers in our asylum but now the authorities are more careful – the leper asylum of Bloemfontein has been closed, & lepers are now placed only at Robin [sic.] Island & in the Pretoria asylum.’

Letter from Fr Thomas Ryan outlining the plight of detainees at a Leper Asylum in Pretoria, South Africa, 14 October 1914

Fr. Ryan was born in 1858 and was ordained for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate at Inchicore in 1882. His missionary work brought him first to Leeds and then to Australia in 1893, where he settled at Fremantle, before returning to Ireland due to poor health and later travelling to South Africa in 1908 as a missionary. In 1914 Ryan wrote to several individuals and institutions around the world asking for help to develop ‘a little sanctuary which shall afford to the leper worshippers the means of realising the beauty of Catholic workshop on however small a scale’.
Simone Horwitz in her article ‘Leprosy in South Africa: A case study of Westfort Leper Institution, 1898-1948’, states that ‘Once patients were admitted to the institution, close contact with non-leprous persons, in theory at least, was to be prohibited’ yet in practice, the authorities failed to fully implement these policies, leading to ‘inadequate facilities, lax management, modest medical care and haphazardly enforced segregation’.
Fr. Ryan’s letter states that ‘[t]here are 25 Catholics among the lepers & they & others also are anxious to have a Catholic church built within the asylum boundaries. The priests visit the asylum regularly but we cannot say Mass for the lepers as there is no place that we can call our own.’ Following a petition to the Bishop of Transvaal it was decided to fundraise the £400 needed to construct the church and Fr. Ryan appealed to the professors and students of Maynooth College ‘to keep alive the Irish missionary spirit’ by giving just one shilling to the cause.

Fr Thomas Ryan writes that ‘over 800 lepers are gathered together’, 14 October 1914.

Supporters of Ryan’s work included the former High Commissioner of South Africa, Viscount Milner and the Prime Minister of South Africa, General Louis Botha. Local people also offered their support and according to a report in the Sacred Heart Review a number of people had already committed to the work:
‘A carpenter who is now fighting for his country in German South-West Africa has promised to make the doors; the Trappist Community at Mariannhill will be responsible for the windows, and several very poor working men will contribute the stone’.
The Anglo-Welsh artist Sir Frank Brangwyn  painted a set of the Stations of the Cross for the church ‘voluntarily as a Catholic in keen sympathy with the work of Father Ryan, whom he did not even know’.

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Fr Thomas Ryan notes ‘The priests visit the asylum regularly but we cacnnot say Mass for the lepers as there is no place that we can call our own’, 14 October 1914

The new church was finally opened in December 1916 by Bishop Cox who commended the work of Fr. Ryan. A newspaper report at the time also praised the work of the Irish missionary: ‘The work of such a man in such a cause is a tangible asset to the credit of the old land and of its fidelity to the ancient Church.’
Seven years later Fr. Ryan travelled to London to recuperate from a recent illness. Before he left Pretoria a celebration was held in his honour, during which both the Mayor and a member of the Legislative Assembly spoke.
He died in South Africa on the 18th October 1929 at the age of seventy-one.

Barbara McCormack contributed an article on this topic to Treasures of Irish Christianity: To the Ends of the Earth, edited by Salvador Ryan and published by Veritas in 2015.

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Women of the Revolution : Hannah Condon Cleary on her service in Cumann na mBan 1918-1923

By Ruth O’Hara, Library Assistant, Maynooth University Library

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To read a firsthand account of the Irish War of Independence and Civil War is illuminating. When the eyewitness happens to be a woman a different and yet still relatively rare vision of these defining moments in Irish history presents itself. This is the case with the four-page manuscript acquired recently by Maynooth University Library written by Hannah Condon Cleary, a commanding officer with Cumann na mBan. It details her “active service” from 1918 to 1923 in Anglesboro Co. Limerick and brings to the fore the roles open to women in the fight for Irish liberty.

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First page of Hannah Condon Cleary’s manuscript detailing the year she joined Cumann na mBan

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