Letters of 1916 revisited

As a continuation of this post, I want to share my experience of transcribing two letters for the Letters of 1916 project. I believe strongly in this project because handwritten letters and other items from the pre-digital world have taken a special place in my heart of late. For me, letters are records of thoughts and feelings from a distant and different world, and survive now as little pieces of history.

I was first introduced to this project when I attended a workshop entitled ‘Digital Skills for Research Postgraduates in the Humanities and Social Sciences’ (it wasn’t at all as scary as the title suggests).

The project invites members of the public  to upload any letters they may have in their possession which date from this period (ie, November 1915 – Oct 1916), and are urged to search attics, old filing cabinets, and long-forgotten boxes of keepsakes in an effort to add to the already impressive collection, (1600 letters to date). It’s an all-out treasure-hunt, and a wonderful opportunity for everybody to get involved in the first public humanities project to take place in Ireland.

envelope Ireland 1


The first letter I  was worked on was written by S W Griffin to James Smith on February 26th 1916, and concerned  a complaint made by Miss Mary O’ Leary regarding the appointment of Bridget Cremin as dressmaker and nurse at Killarney District Asylum. What really struck me when I read this letter was learning that an ‘Office of Inspectors of Lunatics’ actually existed and that one could be an inspector of lunatics by profession. How times have changed!

My second choice was a letter from Malachy J Kelly to the Administrative Area Officer, and this was a strange one because there was no address, nor any official stamp. Another puzzle was that although the letter was from Malachy Kelly, and bears his signature, the words ‘The Administrative Area Officer’ appear at the end of the letter, almost under the signature, which would seem to indicate that Kelly and the aforementioned officer were one and the same person. I have no idea how to deal with this, and although the site offers very helpful guidelines for transcribing and uploading letters, along with a styleguide for metadata, I found no mention of anything relating to issues such as this one.

The website itself takes a little getting used to. Personally I found it very slow to load – so much so that at times I wondered if I had actually hit the button at all. I suppose this is understandable, given that all the letters are images, and images always take more time to load. I had trouble at first in finding letters which hadn’t been worked on already, not realising that clicking on one of the category headings, (‘Love Letters’, ‘Official Documents’ etc), allows the user to see at a glance those letters which are editable. Of course, it would have saved time if I had read the instructions first…Oops!love-letter-cropped

I would also have like to have seen a really obvious ‘Save’ button at the end of the letter I was working on, instead of one which read ‘Edit transcripts’. Although it has the same function, it’s not obvious enough for the new user. Perhaps this is all down to how slowly each page loaded, but I felt that I spent far too much time overall having to think about what the next step might be. Perhaps the site might benefit from a clearer, more user-friendly interface?  In his bestselling ‘Don’t Make Me Think‘, Steve Krug tells us that when he looks at a webpage he expects it to be “…self-evident. Obvious. Self-explanatory”, and goes on to explain that he (or anyone else) “should be able to ‘get it’ – what it is and how to use it -without expending any effort thinking about it”. For such projects as this, where public participation is heavily relied upon, I think it’s very important to make usability a priority, and to ensure that the interface is as fool-proof as humanly possible.

Having said all this, I did have a great deal of fun with this project, and I found that the actual transcribing part, (the part I had been most wary of), turned out to be the best fun due to the cleverly designed Transcription Toolbar. Both of the letters I happened to find were typed, so I didn’t need to wrestle with deciphering handwriting, which no doubt would be far more difficult. I also found it was easier if I wrote out the letter myself before I started because this dispensed with the need to flick between screens. I will be returning to Letters of 1916 in the future to do some more transcribing, and I’m delighted to have been able to contribute in some small part to this great project.


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The view from here…

None of the old words are left now.

I speak an alien tongue, a coarse, soulless language that tastes bad and hurts my ears. It means nothing. The music has died.

I write from the emptiness of this dark space, where the air is dry and full of dust, and rasps at the heart. It used to be much easier, in the world of before, way back when we lived – the words had colour then, and meaning, and magic. Dreams were brighter in the past, and when you closed your eyes you could watch them unfold in delicate shades and tones. We don’t dream anymore, not here. We’re left instead with scraps of broken memories of a distant life, and cries that won’t be heard.

The old man I met at the station told me that I shouldn’t leave. He said the light wasn’t good. He told me nothing was real and that I should turn back. He wore a thin, ragged coat and there was no life left behind his eyes. He had crazy hair and smelled of pipe-smoke and whiskey, and his words held the sadness of one who knew that time was running out.

I got on the train. I was young and foolish, and thought I knew everything. I thought I could fight it, and worse, I believed I could win.

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1916 Letters and other reflections

In early February, I took part in the Digitalfountain-pen-cropped Skills for Postgraduates workshop, and as part of this we participated in the Letters of 1916  project run by TCD. I was encouraged by this project simply because these letters are just that – letters! Lovely, handwritten pages of news and greetings and joy, and sadness too. Close your eyes for a minute. Travel back to 1916 where a person (a mother, a son, a soldier) sits at a table somewhere with pen in hand and a carefully selected blank page on which to transcribe their thoughts. If you concentrate really hard, you can breathe in that ‘new-paper’ smell, and with it, the air of tingling possibility that comes before the first word is written. It’s easy to imagine their pausing in the composition of a thought so as to perfectly convey a feeling or an idea, or gazing through the window at the landscape beyond, wishing they could see their loved ones in the flesh.

Isn’t it amazing how time soaks into the pages of a letter in the same way as the ink that forms the words?

In this digital age, receivingpen and paper a handwritten letter is a rare event. Most of us find it so much easier to send an email or a text, and I wonder if this is perhaps because we don’t properly engage anymore with people. Digital communication doesn’t require that we give so much of ourselves away, because we no longer need to think in thesame way when we communicate by text or email. The physical writing of a letter took more effort, it took thinking about, and organizing. We can quite easily answer an email using our phones now, and barely remember afterwards what we’ve written because the process has required so little actual thinking. Something comforting has been lost in this transition from paper to screen, I think, something fundamentally human, and there’s a great sadness in this.

This has led me to think about the very nature of our communications, and how all of our correspondences now seem that much less personal and human and more automated and curt. All of the amazing technology we have access to has served only to reduce our interactions with others to a ‘like’ on Facebook, (or other equally flimsy acknowledgement). It seems easier too, to ‘talk’ online, where we can hide our humanity behind a screen, where we can be anybody we choose. Our responses can be as cold and unfeeling as we please, without fear of recrimination, even our human emotions seem to be diminished, because what we feel needs to fit nicely into one of a handful of emoticons. It all seems terribly ‘flat’ somehow, as if all the colour has been bleached out of our language, as if we are slowly being forced into the neat little boxes technology has provided us with.

old envelope

Call it exaggeration, but it all brings to mind George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, and in particular, a scene where Syme, a work-colleague of Winston Smith, gushes over Newspeak (the official language of Oceania. It was a language devised to meet the ideological needs of English Socialism).

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten”

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My journey in XML, or ‘Blood, Sweat, and Tears’!

Whoever thought that I’d be taking my first steps in XML?  Wow, this is a real challenge. I can see the brilliance of the concept, and the logic of it, and the reasoning behind it, but I do certainly believe that I’d need a lot more time at my disposal than I have at present, as I don’t think this is something one could learn in a few days, not me anyway. One sure thing I’ve learned from this MA is that I am a slow learner – even moreso than I suspected. I need to take things away with me and turn them over in my mind for a good while in order to ‘grok’ them, and I’m beginning to think that a university setting is not the place in which to do that, there isn’t time. I think I need to get myself an ‘XML for Dummies’, actually, I’d be surprised if there isn’t one 🙂

<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”UTF-8″?>
<!DOCTYPE TEI PUBLIC “-//TEI P5//DTD Main Document Type//EN” “tei_all.dtd”>
<TEI xmlns=”http://www.tei-c.org/ns/1.0″>
<title>To One in Paradise</title>
<author>Edgar Allan Poe</author>
<p>This poem was published without a title as part of the short story ‘The Visionary’. It evolved to become ‘To Ianthe in Heaven’ and then ‘To One Beloved’ before it was finally named ‘To One in Paradise’ in 1843</p>
<p><ptr target=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poems_by_Edgar_Allan_Poe”></ptr></p>
<p><ptr target=”http://www.poetry-archive.com/p/To_One_in_Paradise”></ptr></p>
<l>Thou wast that all to me, love,</l>
<l>For which my soul did pine—</l>
<l>A green isle in the sea, love,</l>
<l>A fountain and a shrine,</l>
<l>All wreathed with fairy fruits and flowers,</l>
<l>And all the flowers were mine.</l>
<l>Ah, dream too bright to last!</l>
<l>Ah, starry Hope! that didst arise</l>
<l>But to be overcast!</l>
<l>A voice from out the Future cries,</l>
<l>”On! on!”—but o’er the Past</l>
<l>(Dim gulf!) my spirit hovering lies</l>
<l>Mute, motionless, aghast!</l>
<l>For, alas! alas! with me</l>
<l>The light of Life is o’er!</l>
<l>”No more—no more—no more”—</l>
<l>(Such language holds the solemn sea</l>
<l>To the sands upon the shore)</l>
<l>Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree,</l>
<l>Or the stricken eagle soar!</l>
<l>And all my days are trances,</l>
<l>And all my nightly dreams</l>
<l>Are where thy dark eye glances,</l>
<l>And where thy footstep gleams—</l>
<l>In what ethereal dances,</l>
<l>By what eternal streams!</l>
<l>Alas! for that accursed time</l>
<l>They bore thee o’er the billow,</l>
<l>From love to titled age and crime,</l>
<l>And an unholy pillow!</l>
<l>From me, and from our misty clime,</l>
<l>Where weeps the silver willow!</l>

I used a free program called XML Copy Editor for this, because my 30-day trial with Oxygen ran out, and there isn’t an option that allows you to pay for it on a weekly basis.


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On Editing and Creation

It always strikes me as funny to write here in this blog, funny peculiar, I mean, because I feel as if I’m talking to myself, and I suppose I am, for the most part. It’s difficult to imagine an audience, and why on earth my audience should want to read my ramblings. Anyway, there it is – I’m writing, and presumably somebody, somewhere, is reading. Who though, is my audience, (if I may presume to have one), and isn’t this one of the great difficulties facing all writers and editors?

I’ve been doing some reading on the subject of editorial theory of late, and it seems clear that one of the most important things to establish before beginning a revision of a text, or a digital edition of some great work, is to consider who you believe will want to read the text, and what the reader will expect from your edition/revision.

George Bornstein, in his book Palimpsest warns us that ‘ We may never hope through textual scholarship to recover an ideal text like a well-wrought urn, but only to increase the self-awareness of the choices that we make in constituting the monument for our own time’. In this way, we, the editors, need to decide what is important in a text, and what may be omitted – not, I presume, due to a shortage of space as would be the case in a printed version, but because ultimately, it would be impractical to include everything. So, do we include the doodles  in the margin of an original text where the author was struck by an idea for a character for the next book, or the ‘note to self’ written because the author was unhapy about the phrasing  of a certain paragraph which he wanted to  later revisit? How does the editor decide what’s really relevant? Given that there is no ‘ideal’ text, no ‘best’ version, how are we to present our new edition? This idea of multiple versions of a single text, as Bornstein, (as above), says ‘shifts our conception of the artwork from product to process’, and so we should begin to consider texts not as static, lifeless things, but as living works that continue to evolve.

An interesting example of this occurs in a poem by Edgar Allan Poe entitled ‘To One in Paradise’ which I used as an example in learning to create an XML file (I know-me? XML? really?).The poem was originally published in 1833 without a title as part of a short story called ‘The Visionary’. From there it evolved into ‘To Ianthe in Heaven’, and afterwards ‘To One Beloved’, before finally becoming ‘To One in Paradise’ in 1843 (see here). Should we look upon these revisions as distinct ‘versions’ simply because the title has been altered? We need to ask ourselves what it is that constitutes a ‘version’ of a text. The Collins Online Dictionary gives this definition,  and if we follow this thinking, it means that this text here is itself a version, because it started out as something else altogether (and had a different title). I know this because I wrote it.

As you’ve come this far, it might be fun to take a look at this post, where I attempt to create an XML file from the Edgar Allan Poe poem I mentioned.




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On being run over

Let it be so
if it would change your heart
and mend the tear.
If it would help you to forget
we didn’t really fit,
and make believe that we could carry on,
and put us back,
then let it be.

If it would take away the hurt
and bring you quickly here,
to this hushed space
where you might take my hand
and speak,
and hope I wouldn’t hear,
I’d go now to some busy street,
and lie down in the dust,
and wait.

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A fitting poem by a Master

shropshire picThe Land of Lost Content
by Alfred Edward Housman

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

This is how I feel at the moment 🙂 I’ve lost my old ‘un-digitial’ life somewhere along the way, and as Sam Anderson puts it, ”it’s too late to just retreat to a quieter time”. This quote appears in The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, (a book I’ve been raving about for ages). It comes from an original article called ‘In defense of distraction’, written by Anderson for New York magazine in 2009.

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It’s beginning to look a lot like…

And so it’s the end of the first term already, the ‘C’ word is everywhere, and the shop windows are blinding in their kitchy, screaming glitter. I should be shopping!   I’m not used to semesterisation, and I must admit, I’m not liking it. The end has crept up suddenly, like a dark shadow, and it’s relentless, you could say it ‘looms’. I’m not ready to submit everything, I haven’t read enough, I’m not prepared. Please can I have some more time? I was never that person who delayed starting an essay until a few days before the due date, I never left things so late that I needed to stay up all night to work on them. I wouldn’t have felt ‘right’, but this term has been a completely different animal.

I believe that from day one I didn’t gel with what was happening here. I don’t know why – maybe I’m actually a bit slow to catch on, you know, a can short of a six-pack, that sort of thing. Whatever, it’s all just trundled happily downhill frome then on. While I fully understand that people operate on different levels, (wouldn’t it be so dull if we all had the same thoughts, or believed the same things, or saw with the same eyes?), there comes a point when you need to be realistic. Here, then, is my reality, (at 12.55 am on a Wednesday in November), I’m trying to wade through an MA that I jumped into without thinking enough about whether it was the right move or not. There, I’ve said it! I’ve come to realise that just because you put your mind to something it does not mean that it gets easier, or ensures that you feel better about it, or even that you learn quicker – none of the above apply here.

Yes friends, this is a low point, and there have been many like it since this began in September. But I’m stubborn, and I’m not going to give up, not just yet anyway, not tonight. I’m posting a poem here because it just popped into my head – my head is like that – it’s full of wonderful poems to suit every occasion. Obviously, Henley wrote this about something far more troubling than what to put in a portfolio that would earn him a degree, but that’s of no matter here –  read this, it will do you good:



By William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

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Presentation time – Digitizing the Voice

  • This presentation is called Digitizing the voice, because it seems that we have digitized almost everything else in this age of technological wonders. Also, the presentation concerns the spoken word, and the power that words have in today’s world.
  • I’ll begin with a nod to Melissa Terras who blogged about tweeting an open-access paper: http://melissaterras.blogspot.ie/2011/11/what-happens-when-you-tweet-open-access.html. I didn’t realise that this was an unusual act, and that academics didn’t do this all the time. I believed this was the norm, and because they had written the paper, it was up to them what they did with it. How wrong can you be?
  • So, following on this lead, I’m going to talk about the journey of a piece of writing of my own that’s very non-academic. It’s called Storm and it’s a slice of consciousness, only a ‘slice’, because I believe a ‘stream’ would be much longer. This piece is not new, but Mike Cosgrave says that’s ok, as he uses some of his own older poems as demonstrations in class from time to time.
  • Slides 4-11 is where I’m reading my work – I’ve chosen some images to accompany the reading, and these are they.
  • In an effort to be digital, I tried to create a nice visualisation of the text using Many Eyes. I found though, that it wasn’t such a user-friendly piece of software. The user needs to create an account in order to use the programme, and it won’t allow you to leave with a file of your creation, only a thumbnail sized image, and this isn’t very useful as it can’t be resized without it becoming terribly pixelated. I used WorditOut instead, and the result was a lot more visually pleasing, I thought.
  • I took the first few words of the piece ‘Sometimes there are too many words’ and ran them through 8 different search engines (some I had never heard of) to see what they would each return in terms of results. As I expected, Google came back with the greatest number of results – weighing in with 91’200’000. I did think that Yahoo would be the next in line, but it was in fact Aol with 87’800’000
  • I published my piece on Medium.com on Saturday 15th November at 12 midnight, and I tweeted it immediately afterwards to see what would happen. To my surprise, 30 minutes later my work had been favourited! Like Melissa Terras and her tweeted paper, I have no way of knowing whether this person actually read my work, or was just congratulating me on publishing it – writers do that, they support each other.
  • I also ran my text through Google translate and converted it to Latin. I did think that this would result in a different wordcloud from WorditOut, but it turned out to be the same shape as the English one.
  • Being unusually brave, I went to O Bheal on the night prior to delivering the presentation. There, on each Monday, an ‘open mic’ night is held for anyone who wishes to read their work. I had the idea that I would get a friend to record me while I was reading. Sadly, the technology let me down on the night so I have no recording to include here – maybe it’s just as well 🙂


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Farewell John Smith’s


Well said, Stephen!

Today was a sad day in the history of University College Cork, as it saw the closure of the university’s bookshop. I can’t begin to describe how devastated I am on realising I can no longer wander in to browse through the treasures on the shelves, exchange a few words with the friendly folk who work there, and probably forget my umbrella because I’m so distracted at finding the perfect read to go with my cuppa.

I was going to write something to the tune of ‘given the current economic climate, it’s not surprising to see even university bookshops closing down’ and blah blah blah,  because that’s what people keep saying when I moan about it, but that would be a lie. It is surprising, it’s shocking even, come on, this is a university – who ever heard of a university without a bookshop? Really?  I understand that the decision to close was not up to UCC, and that there is no doubt a John Smith’s head-office somewhere which, in its wisdom, decided we didn’t actually need a bookshop – hey, we’re just a university, why would we need a bookshop?

I don’t hold with the reasoning behind the closure at all- that ‘most’ students are going online now to the likes of Amazon to source their books for the coming year, how many is ‘most’?  Not everyone is prepared to do that. Some still enjoy leafing through a physical book before they make a purchase, they like to see if it’s reader-friendly, what size the font is, the chapter layout, the overall ‘feel’ of the book, if it ‘speaks’ to them. Amazon won’t go to the trouble of organizing all your first-year English books by module and wrapping them nicely together so you know you have everything you’ll need. Amazon has no comfortable red couch downstairs for you to sit and breathe in the quiet book smell, or launch into the first few pages of your latest exciting find because you just can’t wait until you get home.

Perhaps another bookseller will see this as an opportunity and come to fill the John Smith’s-shaped space left now in Aras na Mac Leinn.  Let’s hope so!



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