A leprosy hospital in Pretoria

By Barbara McCormack, Special Collections Librarian, Maynooth University Library

EYA logo


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’.

20181122_125907 (1).jpg
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.

Blog Awards 2018_Winners Silver MPU

Fr William Purcell, CM and the Nordrach Sanatorium

By Sarah Larkin, All Hallows Archivist, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth

EYA logo

Following the closure of All Hallows College, Dublin in 2016, its archives (dating back to its foundation in 1842) were transferred to St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. The archives are currently being catalogued so that they can be opened to researchers. One of the many interesting items I have catalogued so far is a photo album which documents one of All Hallows’ past president’s time as a patient in a TB clinic in the Black Forest in Germany (AHC/4/1/2).

Sarah Larkin blog 1
Fr Purcell during his stay at the Nordrach Sanatorium, 1928-1929

Fr William Purcell, CM was born in Tipperary in 1891. He was ordained a Vincentian priest on 25 May 1918. His first appointment was to All Hallows College in Dublin, where he taught history and was also responsible for keeping an eye on the younger students who walked to Earlsfort Terrace for classes each day. Fr Purcell would be seen commuting back and forth on a bicycle, and during those commutes he witnessed many memorable scenes in the turbulent city. He later recalled:

‘The nearest I got to a graveyard was when an ambush took place on Tolka Bridge which I half saw from my window. I stood on Butt Bridge, too, when the Customs House was burning. And, of course, I was in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday. I should get a medal for that, because I took home a little child I met outside the gate!’

Sarah Larkin blog 2
Fr Purcell (second from the left) and other patients of the Nordrach Sanatorium, pictured outdoors in the Black Forest.

In 1927, Fr Purcell was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the lung. In the early decades of the 20th century, TB was a serious and very prevalent illness in Ireland. Consumption, as it was called, claimed thousands of lives annually. In October of that year Fr Purcell set out for Nordrach Sanatorium in the Black Forest in Germany, where he spent eighteen months as a patient. The photo album contains 34 black and white photographs taken in 1928. They show Fr Purcell and the other patients at the clinic, in the picturesque scenery surrounding it, and in the nearby town of Nordrach. Fr Purcell served as President of All Hallows College from 1948 until his death on 24 May 1961.

Sarah Larkin blog 3
Fr Purcell (front row, fourth from the left) and other patients outside the clinic.


The Nordrach Sanatorium was established in the late nineteenth century by Dr Otto Walther, for the treatment of advanced tuberculosis. The rooms of the clinic were some 460 metres above sea level, with windows to expose patients to the refreshing winds. Nordrach thrived as a clinic throughout the early 1930s. Dr Walther, as a Jew, came under increased scrutiny as the Nazis came to power in Germany, and the sanatorium was eventually forced to close.

This pencil portrait of Fr Purcell, which was inserted into the photo album, is signed at Badenweiler, another TB sanatorium in the south of Germany. It was drawn shortly before Fr Purcell returned to Ireland in 1929.

Sarah Larkin blog 4
Pencil portrait of Fr Purcell, signed by ‘[L.N. Brestaner], April 1929, Badenweiler.
However, after only a short time at home in Ireland, he was again obliged to return to a clinic for medical treatment, this time in Switzerland. By the 1950s, TB was being treated effectively with antibiotics, and many of the European sanatoriums previously devoted to it began to close.



All Hallows Annual (1929-1930): http://allhallows.ie/cms/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/1922-1930-Annuals.pdf Accessed October 2018.

All Hallows Annual (1962-1963): http://allhallows.ie/cms/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/1962-1963-Annuals-vol-38.pdf Accessed October 2018.

Buckley, Dan, ‘The silent terror that consumed so many’ Irish Examiner (24 August 2010): https://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/health/the-silent-terror-that-consumed-so-many-128709.html Accessed October 2018.

Blog Awards 2018_Winners Silver MPU

Document of the Day-Kilcock Leases

Post by Olive Morrin, Special Collections and Archives

Special Collections & Aexplore-campaign_identityrchives holds two Kilcock leases between Robert Fyan (Merchant) of Usher Quay, Dublin and John Colgan (Brewer) of the town of Kilcock.  The first lease which refers to a premises is dated 31st July 1810 runs for 61 years. The holding was for ‘All that part of Mathias Keating holding situate lying and being in the said town of Kilcock’.  Rent to be paid in half yearly payments of £10.00.

The second lease dated 11th March 1812 also between Robert Fyan and John Colgan runs for 41 years with half yearlkilcock-1y payments of £24.1s.  His rent includes “two fat hens or two shillings” every Christmas for each tenement he builds on the premises.  This lease includes additional membrane with a colour lined map of Kilcock.

In both cases the properties are situated in the Parish of Kilcock, Barony of Ikeathy and Oughterany, Union of Celbridge.

A cursory look at Griffith Valuation records that a Margaret Fyan was a landlord who owned considerable property and land in and around Kilcock and Cloncurry and leased to many tenants including members of the Colgan family.  An Anne Fyan is also mentioned as the owner of some property.  In Reports of cases argued and determkilcock-detailined in the Court of Exchequer in Ireland in 1841 refers to a Robert Fyan becoming bankrupt in 1815, his estate in both the premises was by indenture of the 8th January, 1816 assigned to John Pepper.

Griffith Valuation also records the Colgan family renting property from various landlords which apart from Margaret Fyan also included John Aylmer, John Dixon and William Coates.  Colgans also owned freehold property and were landlords themselves.

John Colgan’s seal

Document of the Day -The Ken Saro-Wiwa Audio Archive

Helen Fallon, Maynooth University Library, explore-campaign_identity
Dr. Anne O’Brien, Kairos Communications

Audio archives offer opportunities to explore and promote Special Collections and Archives in different ways. This blog post tells about the Ken Saro-Wiwa Audio Archive, created by Maynooth University Library
and Kairos Communications

Creating the audio archive was an interesting journey of discovery on many levels. There was extensive learning for both myself and Anne in the process; for me as a librarian, it was a journey of discovery into the world of sound; for Anne as a media producer, it was a journey through the fascinating world of Special Collections and Archives.

Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995)

The archive contains extensive recordings of people connected with Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. The most recent voice added to the archive is Noo Saro-Wiwa recorded when she visited MU Library  on 10th November 2015 to launch the Ken Saro-Wiwa Postgraduate Award


Background to The Ken Saro-Wiwa Audio Archive

Sister Majella McCarron (OLA) donated the death-row correspondence she received from Ken Saro-Wiwa – smuggled out of military detention in food baskets – to MU in November 2011. These letters are now part of the Ken Saro-Wiwa Archive

The audio archive aims to complement the letters, poems, artefacts, photographs and other items.
Perhaps the most unique feature of the audio archive is that it contains recordings of three of the people who were closest to Saro-Wiwa and the issues he died for. These are his daughter Noo Saro-Wiwa, his brother Dr Owens Wiwa, and Sister Majella McCarron.

Noo Saro-Wiwa views an Ogoni bible, part of the Russell Library collection, on a visit to Maynooth Library. 10 November 2015

The interview with Noo Saro-Wiwa was recorded on Tuesday 10th November the 20th anniversary of her father’s execution. Born in Nigeria, Noo grew up in England, returning during summer holidays to her father’s home village, Bana in Ogoni. In the recording, she portrays an interesting picture of her father as a family man as well as a political activist. When she was in second year at Kings College London, Noo’s mother broke the news of her father’s execution to her. Her award-winning book “Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria” tells of her return, in 2008, to the land of her birth. She reads an extract from the book on the audio archive.
Listen to Noo Saro-Wiwa

Owens Saro-Wiwa
Dr. Owens Wiwa

In his interview, recorded during his November 2013 visit to Maynooth University, Dr Owens Wiwa, brother of Ken Saro-Wiwa, speaks about growing up in an extended family in Ogoni; the growing realisation of the environmental destruction of the Niger Delta; his brother Ken’s efforts to organise non-violent protests against the international petrochemical industry and the hostility he and the Ogoni people experienced from the Nigerian military dictatorship. Dr Wiwa gives a firsthand account of his visits to Ogoni villages including Ka, which were destroyed during the hostilities. He recounts his efforts to save his brother’s life; going into hiding in Nigeria and subsequently moving to Canada; the identification of the remains of his brother and the eight others who were hanged with him and his gratitude that one part of his brother’s is going to be preserved in the Maynooth University archives. He read two poems written by his brother.

Listen to Dr Owens Wiwa

Sister Majella McCarron

Sister Majella McCarron talks about her childhood in rural Fermanagh; her education; her missionary work in Nigeria, the events that brought her to Saro-Wiwa and her campaign work to save the lives of the Ogoni Nine. Hearing her story told in her own voice offers an insight into her personality and character. Moreover, hearing her voice first hand, with the intimacy this creates in recounting events in Nigeria leading up to Saro-Wiwa’s death, provokes a compelling intellectual and emotional awakening to the horror of the environmental abuse and destruction of Ogoni that she experienced firsthand.

Listen to Sister Majella McCarron

There’s an old saying ‘the pictures are better on radio.’ In the case of the Ken Saro-Wiwa Audio Archive, that saying holds true. People listening to the recordings can construct mental images of the lives of the key characters in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s story and understand better the roles they played in his life. There are no actual pictures to distract the imagination and so the listener can create their own landscape in an imagined Ogoni. But listeners don’t just think in terms of pictures; audio allows the user to access the part of the mind that generates dreams, to conjure more than a three-dimensional picture of Ogoni. Audio allows the listener to smell, feel and taste the world it creates. Listeners to the Ken Saro Wiwa audio archive can smell the gas flares, taste the polluted water and touch the oil-encrusted land. In so doing they can clearly understand why Ken Saro-Wiwa created the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). The audio archive brings home the fact that it was, and is, the survival of the people that was at stake.

The Ken Saro-Wiwa Audio Archive is an example of how libraries can develop and extend Special Collections and Archives. Through collaborations, such as the MU Library collaboration with Kairos, libraries can maximise the visibility and use of archives. Increasing the visibility of such resources may help to acquire funding for new special collections, and may also encourage people to donate collections knowing that the library is open to exploring avenues to widely promote such collections.
For more information contact Helen Fallon, helen.b.fallon@nuim.ie

SP team with Noo BW
Noo Saro-Wiwa and Deputy Librarian Hellen Fallon with staff from Special Collections & Archives,  on a visit to Maynooth Library to view her father’s letters. 10 November 2015


Document of the Day – The Borrowes Archive


Olive Morrin, Special Collections & Archives

Special Collections & Archives hold a collection of the legal documents relating to the Borrowes family of Gilltown, Co. Kildare.  The legal documents relate to their property in Kildare, Dublin and Queen’s County and includes leases, mortgages, tenancies and marriage settlements.  The documents  are dated between  1720 and 1840 but mostly relate to the second half of the 18th century.

Kildare Borrowes (2)Sir Erasmus Borrowes was the 1st baronet.  He was married three times and lived at Gilltown, Co. Kildare.  He held the office of Sheriff of County Kildare from 1641 to 1642 when the 1641 Rebellion broke out.  He was created 1st Baronet Borrowes of Grangemellon, Co. Kildare in 1645/46.

The second baronet was Walter Borrows who married Eleanor FitzGerald daughter of George FitzGerald 16th Earl of Kildare.  This marriage raised the prestige and status of the Borrowes family within the landed gentry class.  Sir Walter acquired Barretstown Castle which had formerly belonged to the Eustace family and the family retained possession of the castle for over two hundred years.  Sir Walter also served as High Sheriff and represented  Kildare in the Irish House of Commons from 1703 until his death in 1709. Other members of the family such as Sir Kildare Borrowes also represented Co. Kildare and Harristown in the Irish Parliament over the years.

The 4th Baronet Sir Walter Borrowes added the Dixon to his name because of a condition in the will of Robert Dixon which stipulated in tail male of his “assuming and continuing the name of Dixon”.  But during the 19th century the five Borrowes baronets who spanned the century played no part in public life.

Barretstown castleIn 1918 the Borrowes family left Ireland and Barretstown was sold.  The Weston family presented the estate to the Irish Government in 1977 and it was subsequently leased to the Barretstown Gang Camp which Paul Newman setup in 1994 to care for seriously ill children and their families from Ireland and Europe.


Wikipedia, Journal of Co. Kildare Archaeological Society, Borrowes Archive and Google Images

Document of the Day -The Pearse Hutchinson Archive

Ciara Joyce, Archivistexplore-campaign_identity

In 2013, Maynooth University Library was fortunate to acquire the archive of renowned Irish poet and broadcaster Pearse Hutchinson (1927-2012). This fascinating and vast collection contains the papers from Hutchinson’s long and extremely varied career, from his childhood writings to his last draft poems.
Fortuitously the collection also contains Hutchinson’s family archive, including photographs and memoirs and the papers of his parents, Henry Warren Hutchinson and Caitlín McElhinney. While every family’s archive contains treasures with insight into the family history, what makes Hutchinson’s family history of particular interest is that his parents were involved in the republican movement throughout their lives, were members of Sinn Féin and counted the likes of Eamon DeValera and Constance Markievicz as friends.

Parents wedding
Henry Warren Hutchinson and Caitlín McElhinney on their wedding day. 1916
Letter by Henry Hutchinson to his wife Caitlín. Written while on board the H.W.S. Wolfhound bound for Dublin and posted by an unknown person. March 1923

Some of my favourite items from these family papers are letters between Henry and Caitlín, during his internment in Mountjoy prison in 1923, where he was held without charge after being deported from his home in Glasgow for refusing to give up his republican activities.

In March 1923, Hutchinson’s home was raided for the 15th time and he was arrested and dispatched overnight on a Royal Navy destroyer to Dublin. Despite calling to the local police station, Caitlín was not told that her husband and the other Scottish detainees were sent to Ireland. In his memoire Henry records writing a letter to his wife and leaving it to be found in the hope that someone would post it. On the page, with no envelope, he wrote ‘The finder might kindly put in envelope + post to address on other side – God will bless you’. The letter arrived, thanks to some unknown person and is now preserved in the Hutchinson Archive.

Caitlín and Henry’s letters during his detention were heavily censored by prison authorities, with sections cut out of the letters. In her letter of the 16th of March 1923, Caitlín writes; ‘The kidnapping created a most extraordinary sensation here. Huge headlines in all the papers’. He remained incarcerated for three months.

Letter from Caitlín McElhinney to her husband Henry Warren Hutchinson in Mountjoy prison, censored by prison authorities. 16 March 1923

Document of the Day – The John Sadleir Archive

Guest post by Professor R.V Comerford (Emeritus)

John Sadleir (1813-56) was one of the most notorious swindlers of the nineteenth century, whose ultimately disastrous speculations extended from Ireland to Britain and across much of Western Europe, ending with his suicide in 1856.

john sadleir 1814-1856
John Sadleir (1813-1856)

He was also a lawyer and an MP and was re-elected for Carlow in 1852 as one of the leading figures in the new Independent Opposition Party. Subsequently, and in contravention of party policy, Sadlier and a number of others supported a new government, in which Sadleir was appointed a junior minister at the Treasury. The recipient of these letters, Michael Dunne, was a prosperous farmer newly elected as MP for Queen’s County, but lacking the financial and social resources to maintain a conventional parliamentary lifestyle in London.

In these letters Sadlier is endeavouring generally to justify support for the government to an uncertain grass roots follower, and in particular he is trying to prevail upon Dunne to travel to Westminster for crucial House of Commons votes. Of particular interest is Sadleir’s attempt to prepare Dunne for the famous budget of 1853.

Sadleir P1
Letter from Sadleir to Michael Dunne. 18 April 1853

This removed the burden of accumulated Famine-era debt from the poor law unions, but at the price of extending income tax to Ireland. Sadleir endeavours to soften the blow by arguing that the sum involved will have been made up within a few years, after which income tax will be abolished! This collection is a small but revealing window into the internal workings of an early experiment in independent Irish parliamentary politics.

Sadleir P2
‘If Income tax extended to Ireland…the tax will be reducing + will altogether disappear I hope in 1860’. Sadleir to Dunne 18 April 1853













Document of the Day – The Littlehales Archive

Hugh Murphy, Senior Librarian explore-campaign_identity

Maynooth University acquired the archive of Edward Baker Littlehales in 2014. Littlehales had a long tenure in Ireland, first as Private Secretary to Lord Cornwallis (Lord Lieutenant of Ireland) 1798-1801 and subsequently as Under-Secretary at the Military Department, Dublin 1801-1819. In this latter capacity he was heavily involved in the work of the British Army in Ireland, from construction and maintenance of barracks, the provision of supplies, and the arrangement of transport facilities, through bigger issues such as the defence of Ireland from internal and external threats. Littlehales is particularly interesting as he is the only person working in post after the changes wrought by the Act of Union of 1800– once he retired his post was never refilled.

Sir Arthur Wellesley’s plans for the defence of Ireland, should an enemy invade. 1808

One particular item of interest in the archive was written by Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington in his capacity as Chief Secretary. Writing in 1808 he details plans for the defence of the country, should an enemy invade. Wellesley was famous as a tactician who was happy to fight defensively until the right opportunity presented itself and his plans reflect elements of this, noting the need to give ground in both Connaught:
if another of the Enemy Corps should have landed in the Shannon, the first Corps must be called out of Connaught, and a large collection of Troops must be made to cover the Capital

As well as the south:
If this second Corps should not be able to defeat or even cripple the Enemy’s Corps, which will land at Waterford, so much as to make it no longer an object of apprehension to Dublin, it must fall back upon that City

Sir Arthur Wellesley,  Duke of Wellington

Wellesley also notes the potential of insurrection locally and provisions for it: “The first measure to be adopted is, the seize all the Leaders of the Disaffection in all parts of Ireland, upon the first alarm
This fascinating 11 page letter offers is an insight into both the fears of the administration at the time (both the 1798 rising and Emmet’s Rebellion were still fresh in the mind) and also into the mind of one of a man who would soon be hailed as one of the finest military leaders of his age.

Document of the Day – The Wardell Archive

explore-campaign_identityNicola Kelly, Archivist

Captain George Wardell’s view of the battlefield from the Wardell Archive.

George Wardell was born in Toronto in 1840, to a family with a rich military tradition. His father Major William Wardell, and Grandfather Lieutenant Colonel Wardell, both veterans of several wars.

George Wardel
Portrait of Captain George Wardell c.1877

In 1872, Wardell was promoted to captain. As company commander, he was stationed at St Helena, before being posted to South Africa ‘to inquire into the late native disturbances, my Colonel has gone up with him’ (PP/2/61). Throughout the Wardell Archive, George Wardell documents his experiences in South Africa in letters to his parents describing his post at Fort Warwick; ‘what a knocking about my regiment has had since we came over to South Africa beginning in 1875 with the diamond fields expedition lasting some 8 or 9 months, and many hundreds of miles of marching.’ The archive also contains interesting sketches by Wardell, most notably one titled ‘Relief of Fort Warwick, Impetu, by Colonel Lambert’s column.’

Fort Warwick
‘Relief of Fort Warwick, Impetu, by Colonel Lambert’s column’ by Captain George Wardell

He served throughout the Ninth Cape Frontier War (1877-78), where he and his company successfully built and defended Fort Warwick against Xhosa attacks for several months. Wardell describes Fort Warwick in a letter dated 28 Novmber 1877; ‘it comprises of wattles interlaced,and spread over outside and in, with mud and cow dung well mixed together to make it hard, when perfectly dry we whitewashed it’. (PP/2/62).
Wardell notes in his correspondence the ‘continuous knocking’ of campaigning for his regiment and ‘hundreds of miles marching’, he predicted a war soon ‘as the Zulus are a far more powerful and better armed than the last.’ (PP/2/68).

The Wardell archive is available for consultation at Special Collections & Archives at Maynooth University Library on (01) 4747423 or library.specialcollections@nuim.ie.

Explore Your Archive- So what do Archivists do all day?

Ciara Joyce, Archivistexplore-campaign_identity

The annual Explore Your Archive campaign is now underway, with events taking place across the country. Each year the campaign, spearheaded by the Archives and Records Association, tries to help raise awareness of archival collections held in repositories in Ireland and the UK.

To kick things off this year I thought I would begin by answering a question that I generally get asked a lot, which is ‘So, what do Archivists do all day?’

Some are vaguely aware that the profession has something to do with dusty documents and white gloves, but beyond that it is a bit of a mystery to most.
As the majority of the work is carried out behind closed doors this is not surprising. So in the interest of shedding some light on the profession, here is just a quick look at what an archivist gets up to.

Firstly, yes we look after dusty documents and yes sometimes we wear white gloves but like most jobs there is a lot more to it.

Appraisal & Accessioning
One of the tasks undertaken by archivists is to appraise and accession new collections. Not all material that is offered to an archive warrants permanent retention, or sometimes it’s just that a particular collection does not fit in with the remit of the organisation. In Maynooth we try to take in items that support the teaching and research needs of the University and that fit well with our existing collections.

An archivist at work

Once we decide to take in a collection, we need to do a quick assessment of the immediate needs of that collection. Some of the first problems that come up include; ‘do we have the resources to properly catalogue and care for this collection?’ or ‘what condition is it in?’
Collections can sometime bring uninvited guests with them in the form or creepy crawlies or active mould, so when we accession a collection, as well as recording the basic details of where the collection came from and what it contains, we also check for pests and note the condition of the material.

In order for collections to be made accessible to the researching public they have to be processed. We do this by writing an individual description, in the form of a short summary, for each series of documents or each item in a collection and by giving each document a reference number. This allows researchers to select the documents of interest to them from a finding aid. Applying the reference number to the document then allows staff to easily retrieve an item when it is requested in the reading room.
We also research the documents creators in order to better understand the collection and to help arrange the documents into their original order. If it is not possible to restore the original order of the collection, documents are arranged into the most logical order.

Once the documents are described, arranged and numbered, they are also cleaned by the archivist. This involves using preservation standard cloths and brushes to gently clean dust and loose dirt off documents. If a collection has been badly damaged by water, mould or poor storage and handling, we don’t attempt to repair documents ourselves but instead we bring in a conservator to assess the archive and make any necessary repairs.

Cleaned documents are then packed in preservation standard packing materials such as acid-free folders and boxes and transferred to a secure, environmentally controlled storage area.

Archives in storage in acid-free boxes in our environmentally controlled storage area

Once processed, collections are ready to be made available in the reading room. A large part of the archivist’s duties involves dealing with queries from researchers, in the reading room, by phone and by e-mail.

A researcher consulting archival documents in the reading room
Pearse Hutchinson Archive Launch NUI Library. Photos by A. Monahan (6)
Vistors viewing an exhibition of one of our collections

Outreach & Digitisation
Promoting the collections and services offered by the repository is also a large part of what an archivist does. Putting on exhibitions of archival documents and giving talks and tours of the repository are great ways of creating interest in the collections. Increasingly digitisation is becoming more and more part of the archivist’s role. Many repositories make some or all of their collections available on line, which helps cultivate interest in the archives holdings.

Digitising archival documents

Like any job there is also housekeeping and administration to be taken care of in the archive. Report and policy writing, ordering of supplies and equipment, and attending and giving training, are all part of the job too.
Finally, why is this work important?
We all create information, some disposable, but some of vital importance that needs to be kept, studied and understood. Archival documents are our collective memory. They capture this information and help us to both interpret the past and to move forward.