Thursday, May 3, 2012

Online Archives and Local History

The internet is an important part of our everyday lives and its global reach is a boon for the local history enthusiast.  For one whose early education was spent in the Christian Brothers in St. John’s Lane sitting at Victorian flip top desks with an ink pot in front and a pen to dip into it technologically we have made an extraordinary journey over the last 15 years. 

When I first started researching the history of Athy I spent many a day in the reading room of the National Library where my search for information was gleaned from long hours hunched over microfiche, bound volumes of newspapers and documents and books long forgotten by most. 

Increasingly many of our national institutions are making their resources available online.  Our own National Library has been to the forefront of making such data available and perhaps one of the most useful parts of the website is the section (Sources – a National Library of Ireland Database for Irish research).  This is quite an extraordinary resource containing over 180,000 catalogue records for Irish manuscripts and for articles in Irish periodicals.  A very simple search using the keyword ‘Athy’ produces a wealth of information.  The website records not only documentation and journals held by the National Library but also from institutions around the country.  For example I was able to find out that the Minute Book of Athy Rural District Council for the period 1913-1914, a particularly important period in this county and this nation’s history, is held in Laois County Library.  While other Minute Books for the District Council for the period 1903 to 1921 are held by Kildare County Library.

But online archives are not the only source of valuable information for the local historian on the internet.  The controversial digitisation of all printed books by Google has proved to be a useful source of fresh information.  I have previously written about the Athy Independents, a military unit established in Athy in 1779.  I was surprised to find that the Connoisseur, an American art journal, published in 1932 an article by A.F. Kendrick about a flag of the Athy Independents.  It is a record of an extraordinary survival from this short lived military unit.  Made of red silk with embroidery in silver thread and spangles, the flag shows a female figure with her right hand stretched out towards a soldier wearing the uniform of the Athy unit.  The soldier is holding a musket with a fixed bayonet and below is the motto ‘Decus et Tutam’, from the Latin, ‘honour and security’.  A quick check of G.A. Hayes McCoy’s book ‘A History of Irish Flags’ reveals no record of the flag. 

But perhaps the best internet source for local history for Athy and the county  is the very fine site maintained by the Kildare County Library and Art Service, being the 'County Kildare online electronic history journal'.  Regularly updated it has a wonderful range of information from newspaper reports going back to the 19th century to entries under a variety of headings such as Archaeology, Folk Tales and Folklore, Industrial Heritage, Trade directories, etc. 

One example is a report from the Nationalist and Leinster Times on 29th November 1900 regarding John Robinson, a native of Monasterevin, who at the time was residing in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Athy.  Robinson had fought in the American Civil War and recalled for the paper that on June 14th 1863 he had fought with an infantry regiment at Port Hudson for the union colours.  The siege of Port Hudson ran from 22nd May to 9th July 1863 when troops from the Union Army attacked the Mississippi river town of Port Hudson in Louisiana.  The attack in which Robinson was involved began at 3.30 a.m. in the morning on June 14th, but a heavy fog brought disorder to the ranks of the Union soldiers and the attack failed.  Robinson was one of 1,792 casualties suffered by the Union against only 47 suffered by the rebel Confederate Army.  It was the last major assault made by the Union Army against the fortifications of Port Hudson and after that the Union Army dug in for a siege which ended with the surrender of its garrison on July 9th 1863.  Robinson returned to Kildare in 1893 and told the reporter that at the time he was 6ft. 4 and weighed over 30 stone.  Dr. O’Neill, being the grandfather of our present Dr. Giles O’Neill, told the reporter that Mr. Robinson had many years to live and he still weighed 19 stone and he was as intelligent and his brain was as active as a man many years his junior.

As a resource the internet is ever expanding and it can only but assist in keeping our history alive.

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