Clericus: a new digital humanities research project at Maynooth’s Arts and Humanities Institute

This blog is from Dr Richard Fitzpatrick, a research assistant and content manager for the Clericus digital humanities research project based in Maynooth’s Arts and Humanities Institute (MUAHI). Richard completed his undergraduate degree and PhD with the History Department in 2013 and 2018 respectively. His work on the Clericus project commenced in January 2020 with the digitisation of St. Patrick’s College Maynooth’s class portraits and student records to help mark the 225th anniversary of the seminary college’s foundation. Since then, the project has expanded to cover clerical information from a diverse range of sources and time periods.

Since the early modern period tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Irish people have served as members of the clergy and played a prominent role in Irish, European and world history. However, compared to other groups within Irish society, such as the gentry, soldiers and merchants, we still know very little about the backgrounds and careers of the majority of these clerics.

Clericus is a digital humanities research project that aims to fill this lacuna in our knowledge by developing a database on the Irish clerical population for the early modern and modern periods (c.1535-1941). The project is based in Maynooth University’s Arts and Humanities Institute (MUAHI), and provides academic researchers, local historians and members of the general public with an invaluable resource on one of Ireland’s oldest and most diverse professional cohorts.

To date, the database (www.clericus.ie) contains approximately 18,000 individual biographical entries, including the student records of Ireland’s oldest and largest seminary, St. Patrick’s College Maynooth (SPCM). Collaboration with SPCM has also permitted the project to enrich thousands of biographical entries through the inclusion of unique college class pieces (class portraits) dating up to 1941. These combined resources provide an important snapshot into the early formation of the island’s clerical population during the period 1795 to 1941. Added to this are the student records of the Irish College Paris, a parallel seminary college linked to Maynooth, which provided over 2,000 additional entries to the database for the period c.1839 to 1940.

The database’s existing information on clerical students has also been expanded through the addition of biographical data relating to the ministry of a subset of the clerical population (Diocese of Meath). Furthermore, over the coming months additional information on the careers of several hundred clerics will be added to the system using obituaries found in Irish and international newspapers covering the period 1870-1900. This will help to bring into focus the international dimension of the Irish Catholic Church by capturing the careers and life paths of one generation of the Irish clergy, many of whom would be central to the establishment and growth of the Catholic Church in places such as the United States and Australia. At home, many more would become leading figures at both the local and national levels within various political and socio-cultural movements, such as the Land League and Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA).

The idea of capturing a specific generation of the Irish clergy has already been achieved by the project following the ingestion of the 1704 registration of the Catholic clergy. This unique resource covers the entire country and lists over 1,000 clerics active on the Irish mission following the introduction of penal restrictions against the Catholic Church and laity. The registration provides detailed information on each cleric regarding places of abode, parishes, ordinations and their lay support networks. Perhaps the most important aspect of this source is that it provides members of the general public with a different perspective and understanding of the clergy under the penal laws compared to older interpretations that focused on widespread and unremitting persecution. In a more general sense, the 1704 registration offers the Clericus project the foundation from which to build our dataset on Ireland’s early modern clergy.

Figure 1 The 1704 Registration of Ireland’s Popish Parish Priests (published Dublin 1705)

Database Model

As the previous discussion highlights, the Clericus database draws on a large, diverse and often uneven range of sources. Therefore, the project’s chosen data modelling schema combines simplicity, flexibility and extensibility to ensure data can be located and accessed in the most efficient manner by both the Clericus team and end users. To help accomplish this, all data hosted on the Clericus website is structured and linked based on four main entities: people, organisations, events and resources. The option to search/query these entities is permitted, with filters also available to assist navigation. For instance, the main people search can be filtered by event types, organisations, resources and dates.

Figure 2 The main People search

The website’s interface relating to specific biographical entries presents information based on these four main entities also. The entry for Kevin Clarke of Meath Diocese, for instance, records eight events in his lifetime, ranging from his baptism in 1917 to ordination in 1942 and eventual death in 1980. Found alongside these events are associated people (i.e. clergy, family members and other lay individuals etc.), organisations (i.e. dioceses, seminary colleges and parishes etc.) and the resources used to assemble the biographical entry itself (i.e. class portraits, diocesan histories and student records etc.). Furthermore, each associated label acts as an active link to the larger entity within the system. Thus, selecting the event label for Kevin Clarke’s matriculation or entry into Maynooth in 1940 will navigate the user to a more detailed record of the event, including associated locations and participants – in this particular instance, the majority of Clarke’s classmates were fellow students of the Irish College Paris who returned to Maynooth to complete their studies following the outbreak of World War II.

Figure 3 Biographical entry for Kevin Clarke

Visualisation Features

The dynamic nature of the database permits several levels of abstraction and interconnectivity to be achieved. This is assisted by a number of impressive data visualisation features, such as heatmaps, timelines and network graphs. The heatmap provides users with a graphical representation of the spatial distribution of dioceses, including approximately 200 non-Irish examples. These can be selected individually to reveal all database entries linked with a particular diocese and the nature of their affiliation. For instance, the heatmap image below focuses on the diocese of Lisbon and lists 21 Irishmen ordained there alongside three affiliated Portuguese bishops.

Figure 4 Heatmap

In contrast, the timeline feature takes the emphasis off dioceses and individuals by focusing on events across a chronological timeline. The example of 1666 illustrated below returns a total of 53 events in that year, split across ordination and birth events. Users can scroll through this content and select specific events to reveal the individuals and organisations involved. From there it is possible to select specific examples and navigate to their full entries within the database.

Figure 5 Timeline

Finally, the network graph visualisation presents the list of relationships between the various entities held in the Clericus database. Each node has a different colour according to its type, as explained in the legend at the bottom right corner of the screen. A network graph can be generated for each biographical entry in the system. Different nodes can then be selected to reveal a pop up window listing the details of their specific relationship(s). Taking the example of Kevin Clarke once again, the selection of one associated node, that of Bernard McMenamin, returns a total of eight linkages between both men, ranging from attending the same classes in St. Patrick’s College Maynooth and the Irish College Paris to appearing on the same class portrait just prior to ordination. Due to the number and type of links between these individuals, it is clear that both knew each other personally. Over the coming months, the Clericus team aims to identify and chart these inferred relationships within the database itself to help enrich our dataset further and thereby increase its value to researchers.

Figure 6 Network Graph

For more on the project see www.clericus.ie

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