Witness to History: the story of the 1641 depositions

  • Institution
    Trinity College Dublin
  • Department
    Trinity Long Room Hub, School of Histories and Humanities, Trinity Library
  • Summary Impact Type
    Commemoration; Cultural Heritage; Digital Humanities; Public Humanities; Community Engagement; Educational; Memory and Art; Public Policy
  • Research Subject Area(s)
    History; English; Geography; Library; Linguistics; Language and Literature; Computer Science; Information Science; Digital Humanities


The 1641 depositions provide the chief evidence for the sharply contested allegation that the 1641 Rebellion began with a massacre of Protestant settlers in Ireland. As some of the most controversial documents in Irish history, the depositions have been exploited by propagandists, politicians and historians, and the disagreements surrounding them have never been satisfactorily resolved. As a result, they have been central to one of the most protracted and bitter of historical debates.

The 1641 Depositions Project made publicly available, online, a unique and unparalleled source of information for the causes and events surrounding the 1641 Rebellion and for the social, economic, cultural, religious, and political history of seventeenth century Ireland, England and Scotland. This project has transformed our understanding of how controversial events are recorded and remembered. In doing so, it has made a contribution to the on-going peace process in Ireland and become a flagship digital humanities project for others to learn from.

This project showcases Trinity’s expertise in curating and cataloguing historical collections. Our research teams enhance technologies, ensuring the conservation and preservation of artefacts. We generate new research opportunities and encourage public scholarship to address societal challenges. The 1641 Depositions Project has brought politicians and members of the public together, improved artificial intelligence technologies and shaped curricula. This transdisciplinary project, involving historians, geographers, computer scientists, linguists and literary scholars, has resulted in a number of spin-out research projects which continue to advance digital humanities.

Research Description

Amounting to 19,010 pages in 31 volumes, the original depositions are difficult to read, not only because of their sheer volume, but because of the handwriting. Inconsistent spelling, erratic use of grammar and a lack of punctuation also made it difficult for non-specialists to read them.

Following two previous attempts in the 1930s and 1960s, the 1641 Depositions Project was successful in publishing all depositions. Utilising a fully searchable Text Encoding Initiative compliant format, the project conserved, digitised, transcribed and made the depositions available online for anyone, anywhere to access.

Digitisation involved the capture of preservation images of the manuscripts, carried out with the utmost standards for the safety of the source materials. The transcribing process involved researchers who described the content of each deposition in a structured fashion, allowing for detailed searches to be performed across the depositions as a collection, a first.

This was a transdisciplinary project involving historians, geographers, computer scientists, linguists and literary scholars and a collaborative one involving Trinity College Dublin, the University of Aberdeen and the University of Cambridge working in partnership with IBM LanguageWare and Irish SME Eneclann. The principal investigators on the project were Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Professor Micheál Ó Siochrú, Professor John Morrill and Professor Thomas Bartlett. Professor Aidan Clarke edited the transcriptions. The researchers were Dr Edda Frankot, Dr Annaleigh Margey and Dr Elaine Murphy. The College Librarian at the time, Robin Adams, the then Keeper of Manuscripts, Dr Bernard Meehan, and his colleagues, especially Jane Maxwell, were an integral part of this project, as were Susie Bioletti, Keeper (Conservation) and conservator Laura Caradonna.

The project received funding from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the UK and the Library of Trinity College, Dublin.  The funding covered the costs associated with conservation and digitisation and the employment of the three postdoctoral fellows, who spent nearly three years transcribing and marking up the depositions.

Details of the Impact

The 1641 Depositions Project had a range of impacts among its main stakeholders: the public, policymakers, enterprise, schools and academia.

General public and policymakers: Engaging 20,000+ people and advancing the all-Ireland peace process through evidence-informed dialogue and debate

Before the 1641 Depositions Project, the records could only be accessed in the manuscript reading room in the Library of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. Approximately 20 scholars per year consulted them. Now, open and accessible, the virtual images and transcriptions allow anyone who is interested to independently browse, research and read the testimonies.

The Project contributed directly to the public’s understanding and interaction with its own past, memory and heritage. Freely accessible, the virtual images and transcriptions of the testimonies enable each and every interested person to independently browse, research and read the testimonies. Myths and propaganda surrounding the 1641 Rebellion can now be challenged, re-interrogated, and contextualised.

 The 1641 website and an accompanying exhibition on ‘Ireland in Turmoil: the 1641 Depositions (2010- 2011)’ were launched on the anniversary of the Rebellion, 22

October 2010, by President Mary McAleese and the late Ian Paisley, Lord Bannside. The exhibition raised awareness about one of the most traumatic moments in Irish history with a goal of promoting greater understanding between the different traditions on this island. This allowed political leaders to embrace a peaceful approach to a subject that once polarised. Since 2010, more than 23,000 people have accessed the depositions and the six-month exhibition in the Long Room at Trinity College Dublin was viewed by more than 300,000 visitors.

Enterprise: Developing new technologies with industry partners

The process of digitisation and semantic tagging contributed to and benefitted from IBM’s LanguageWare processing technology. Since the depositions contain reams of historical data that are unpredictable with no consistency of spelling, grammar or syntax, they offered a fertile testing ground for dealing with ‘dirty’ or ‘noisy' data, enabling experimentation. The exchange of knowledge with IBM continued in subsequent projects, providing insights into the technology used by IBM Watson, a suite of services and tools that combine artificial intelligence with sophisticated analytical software. Examples of the partnership with IBM include CULTURA and Human+, a five year international and interdisciplinary fellowship programme supported by the prestigious European Commission Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Co-Fund Action awarded to Trinity College Dublin in 2020.

Schools: Activating Public Humanities in secondary schools

Students and teachers have benefited from access to the main website with all depositions, but also to a set of freely available online teaching modules aimed at 14 to 16-year-olds, developed by an additional grant by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs’ Reconciliation Fund led by Professors Jane Ohlmeyer and Brendan Tangney, with Dr Eamon Darcy and Dr Danielle O’Donovan as the key postdoctoral researchers. These interactive digital resources encourage students to investigate the depositions for themselves, empowering students to “be” historians and “do” history.

Launched in 2015, the modules reached close to 5,000 students across Ireland by 2016. The lessons align with Bridge21’s 21st Century Learning and Activity Model,  and are designed to include team-led activities, project-based, technology-mediated learning, where the teacher acts as facilitator, empowering students to do historical research and also to develop and hone key skills of enormous benefit outside of the classroom. The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) and secondary school teachers throughout the province advanced the use of the modules in Northern Ireland’s schools. The NICIE also conducted anti-bias training for history teachers to help develop teacher’s skills to teach contentious issues.

Academia: Attracting talent to advance humanities research

The 1641 depositions now feature in undergraduate dissertations, ‘special subjects’ and other courses in universities. These include for example a 2012 research seminar at Erasmus University Rotterdam ‘Civil War, Religion and Society’ by Professors Edda Frankot and Professor Robert von Friedeburg, which led to undergraduate theses on the depositions. At Trinity College Dublin, Professor Jane Ohlmeyer taught an M.Phil. Module, ‘War and Society in the seventeenth-century Ireland’, which was based on the depositions. Deemed a “highly versatile resource”, it has also been used for teaching early modern palaeography to History postgrads in NUI Galway in 2019 by Dr Felicity Maxwell.

A new generation of postgraduate students work on a myriad of subjects relating to the depositions. Examples include MPhil theses by Ciska Neyts (TCD), Morgan Robinson (TCD), and Grace Hoffman (TCD), and PhD theses by Eamon Darcy (TCD), Grace Hoffman (TCD), Joan Redmond (TCD and Cambridge), Inga Volmer (Cambridge) and Heidi Coburn (Cambridge). These studies suggest original ways of conceptualising how we might study both the depositions and the events they record, but also use the depositions to study other moments of cultural trauma, ethnic cleansing and mass killing in the early modern world and today.

Advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Target 4.7: Promote a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity. The project has had a significant impact on the Northern Ireland peace process in terms of understanding cultural trauma. History Ireland's Hedge Schools on the 1641 Rebellion were held in Letterkenny, Ireland, as well as in Omagh and Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Additionally, the way the Project reconciles memory and trauma has the potential to help other nations and their leaders in dealing with conflicts.

Target 11.4: Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage. The 1641 Depositions Project conserved and made cultural heritage accessible. The project also became the foundation for other associated research projects in the Digital

Humanities that sought to develop new ways of interacting with cultural artefacts. Notable examples are Language and Linguistic Evidence in The 1641 Depositions, CULTivating Understanding Through Research and Adaptivity (CULTURA), the Downs Survey and the Books of Survey and Distribution. The 1641 Project also inspired the AHRC-funded UK Civil War Petitions Project and was used to contribute to advancing big data analytics and data visualisation in the Digital Humanities by the PROVIDEDH project, funded by the highly competitive CHIST-ERA scheme.

Target 17.16: Advance multi-stakeholder partnerships that mobilize and share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources, to support the achievement of the sustainable development goals. The project is an example of how historians and computer scientists, academia and enterprise, policymakers and members of the public, can mobilise to share knowledge, expertise and innovations for sustaining peacebuilding and the protection of the world’s cultural heritage.




Selected Research References



  1. The 1641 Depositions. The Irish Manuscripts Commission published the 1641 Depositions in 12 volumes. Professor Aidan Clarke is the principal editor.
  2. Annaleigh Margey, ‘Anti-Popery and the 1641 Rebellion’ in A. Morton (ed.) Anti-Popery in early modern Britain, 1520-1750 (forthcoming, 2021/2).
  3. Annaleigh Margey, ‘The 1641 Depositions and County Louth’ in Conor Brady, Annaleigh Margey and Noel Ross (eds) Louth History and Society (forthcoming, 2021/2).
  4. Annaleigh Margey, ‘The curious case of Knocknamase Castle, County Offaly, November 1641’, (forthcoming).
  5. Annaleigh Margey, ‘War and Society in Meath: evidence from the 1641 depositions’ in Arlene Crampsie, Frank Ludlow and William Nolan (eds) Meath History and Society (Dublin, 2015), pp 215-244.
  6. Thomas Bartlett, ‘The Shadow of a Year: The 1641 Rebellion in Irish History and Memory by John Gibney, and: The Irish Rebellion of 1641 and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms by Eamon Darcy.’ The Catholic Historical Review 100.1 (2014), pp 157-159.
  7. Jane Ohlmeyer and Micheál Ó Siochrú (eds.),Ireland 1641: Contexts and Reactions, Manchester University Press, 2013; paperback, vii + 304 pages, 2014.
  8. Annaleigh Margey and Elaine Murphy, ‘Backsliders from the Protestant Religion: conversion in the 1641 depositions’, Archivium Hibernicum, lxv (2012), pp 82-188.
  9. Annaleigh Margey, ‘Making the documents of conquest speak: Plantation society in Armagh and the 1641 Depositions’, in Patrick J. Duffy and William Nolan (eds) At the anvil: essays in honour of William J. Smyth (Dublin, 2012), pp 187-213.
  10. Annaleigh Margey, ‘1641 and the Ulster Plantation Towns’ in Eamon Darcy, Annaleigh Margey and Elaine Murphy (eds), The 1641 Depositions and the Irish Rebellion (London, 2012), pp 79-96.
  11. Micheal O Siochru and Mark Sweetnam, ‘The 1641 Depositions and Portadown Bridge’, Seanchas Ard Mhacha, 24, (1), 2012, pp 72-103.
  12. Jane Ohlmeyer, ‘Anatomy of plantation: the 1641 Depositions’, History Ireland, 17, (6), 2009.
  13. Micheal O Siochru and Charlene McCoy, ‘County Fermanagh and the 1641 Depositions’, Archivium Hibernicum, 61, 2008, pp 62-136.

Exhibitions, Conferences and Talks

  1. Rosemary Byrne, Stephanie McCurry and Jane Ohlmeyer, ‘Political Investigations, Legal Archives and Women’s Testimonies of Sexual Violence’, NYU, Abu Dhabi, February 2019
  2. Jane Ohlmeyer, ‘Widows and the 1641 Depositions’, Annual Lecture (2019) to the Irish Association of Professional Historians, National Library of Ireland and to workshops in Cambridge, England, and Tokoyo and Kyoto in Japan
  3. Jane Ohlmeyer, ‘‘Late the wife of …’: Widows and the 1641 Depositions’, Women’s Stories series, Dublin, October, 2019. Broadcast by Near FM Radio.
  4. Annaleigh Margey, ‘[And he] say that The papists of the wholl kindgome were resolved to [have] ther catholic & Romische religione establichid in this kingdome’: memory, rumour and anti-popery in the 1641 depositions’, Invited Speaker, Representations of Anti-Popery Workshop, Newcastle University, April, 2019.
  5. Annaleigh Margey, ‘Genealogy and Local History’, Drogheda Civic Trust, Drogheda, Co. Louth, July, 2017.
  6. Annaleigh Margey, ‘Digitising seventeenth century Ireland: the 1641 depositions, the Down Survey and contemporary maps as a source for family and social history’, Invited Speaker, Expert Workshop, Royal Irish Academy, June, 2016.
  7. Jane Ohlmeyer, ‘1641: History and Memory’, Irish Studies Seminar, Leuven, Leuven, August, 2014.
  8. Jane Ohlmeyer, ‘The 1641 depositions: records of massacre, atrocity & ethnic cleansing in seventeenth-century Ireland’, Research Symposium, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lank, Sri Lanka, July, 2014.
  9. Annaleigh Margey, ‘The 1641 Depositions’, Invited Speaker, Exploring your archives in depth: practical workshops in family and local history, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast, January, 2014
  10. ‘Ireland in Turmoil: the 1641 Depositions’, conference, Trinity College Dublin, October, 2010.
  11. Jane Ohlmeyer, ‘The 1641 depositions: War and atrocity’, ‘Ireland in Turmoil: the 1641 Depositions’, Trinity College Dublin, October, 2010.
  12. Annaleigh Margey, ‘Turning to the mass: apostasy in the 1641 depositions’, Invited Speaker, Catholic History Society of Ireland, St. Patrick’s College, Dublin, September, 2010
  13. Annaleigh Margey, ‘“Drinking somewhat liberally”: the role of alcohol and intoxication in the 1641 depositions’(with Dr Edda Frankot and Dr Elaine Murphy), Intoxicants and Intoxication in Cultural and Historical Perspective Conference, Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, July, 2010.
  14. ‘Plantation and Reaction: The 1641 Rebellion’, conference, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin Castle, October, 2009.
  15. Jane Ohlmeyer, ‘The 1641 Project’, a roundtable discussion at the Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, Aberdeen, October, 2009.
  16. Jane Ohlmeyer, ‘Digitizing the 1641 Depositions’, Irish Society for Archives at the Dublin City Library and Archive , Dublin, February, 2009.