In this week’s blog we get a glimpse into the work of Susan Bannigan, a twenty year old final year student of History and English at Maynooth. Susan worked with Dr. Jennifer Redmond on a small digital history project, ‘Transnational Families: The Letters, Land and Loss’. The project’s website can be seen here.
My time as a SPUR student has been an extremely rewarding and valuable experience. It involved working with a collection of letters dated from 1866 to 1875 that James O’Rourke, an Irish immigrant in America, sent to his brother Michael O’Rourke, who lived in Westmeath. These letters reveal details of James’ success as a port warden in Quarantine, New York, as well as information about the brothers’ relatives and friends. However, the most interesting aspect of these letters is that they shed light on a dispute between the brothers over land. James instructs Michael to buy Anneville House for him and provides him with the money to do so but problems with the water supply delay the sale and Michael is not very forthcoming with information. Anneville House was located in Ballymahon, Co.Westmeath and a map of Ballymahon can be seen here.
My first task was to finish transcribing the letters. I found James’ handwriting surprisingly easy to read but it was quite hard to tell when his ‘s’ was a capital letter or not. I found that handwriting the transcriptions out into a notebook and then typing them up later was the method that worked best for me.
I loved working with the letters as the handwriting was so elegant and it felt like I was really in touch with the past. It was a privilege to have had the opportunity to delve so deep into an individual’s personal life and affairs from so long ago. Another task that I completed during this project was producing high resolution TIFF copies of the letters. Maynooth University Library very kindly allowed me to use their high quality scanner in order to make the copies which took me two days to complete. I also spent a number of days researching background information on the family in the National Library of Ireland. I used the THOM’s directories to find out the address of the solicitors involved in the sale of Anneville House. I also viewed a number of editions of the Westmeath Guardian from 1871 on microfilm which featured the names of the solicitors that James had mentioned in his letters in relation to local court cases. The National Library proved to be an invaluable source of information and their website can be visited here. Dr. Redmond and I visited the genealogist’s office in the National Library one morning in an attempt to find out more information about the O’Rourke family. The genealogist suggested several websites that might be useful and I then spent the morning researching James. I tried to find records of James O’Rourke on passenger lists, lists of US passport applications, baptismal records, etc., but my efforts were fruitless. I was very disappointed that I couldn’t find any trace of him anywhere.
That night when I returned home, I was looking through the letters when I found one that gave me the information I needed. In this letter dated June 16th 1869, James tells Michael that he first arrived in America on this date eighteen years ago and he names the ship that he travelled on. I returned to the genealogists’ office in the National Library a couple of days later armed with this information and hopeful that I would be able to find him on a passenger list. I spent roughly an hour searching for this record and nothing was coming up when suddenly, one of my searches was successful and I was finally looking at the record of James O’Rourke on a passenger list for the ‘Montezuma’ in 1851. It gave details like his occupation and his estimated year of birth, information that we did not know before this. I almost shouted out loud with joy at having finally uncovered this piece of information after searching so hard. This was the moment that I realised what academic research is all about, when I realised why the hours of searching and finding nothing are worth it. I am so thankful that I was given the opportunity to take part in SPUR 2016. I have learned so many useful research skills that I will be able to use this year, the final year of my degree. I could not have asked for a more helpful and involved mentor than Dr. Redmond and I also made great friends in the form of the other SPUR students. I would urge anyone who has an interest in pursuing academic research and who is passionate about history to apply for SPUR 2017 as it is an experience of a lifetime.