by jdurney on November 22, 2013

The history discovery of the decade … NUI Maynooth’s role in preserving historic find documented in new book

Liam Kenny

A colourful new book from a leading Irish publisher reveals the richness of the discovery of the decade as far as local history is concerned … the Morpeth Roll created in 1841, measuring 420 metres in length and, crucially, documenting the signatures of almost 160,000 people prominent in Irish politics and society.
The book titled “The Morpeth Roll – Ireland identified in 1841” by Christopher Ridgway and published by Four Courts Press highlights the contribution by historians and conservators at NUI Maynooth in interpreting and preserving this document rich in personality which provides a “whos’ who” of Irish life shortly before the years of the Famine which decimated the population. As such the Morpeth Roll which lay forgotten for generations in the basement of the great house of Castle Howard (the ultimate “Downton Abbey”) is a marvellous resource for those tracing family connections or for scholars of Irish life in the mid 18th century.
The book features contributions by eminent scholars associated with NUI Maynooth.
Prominent among them is Professor Emeritus Richard Comerford, a pioneer of local history scholarship in Ireland, who sets the Morpeth Roll within the context of life in Ireland in the early 1840s. He encapsulates both the visual impact and the academic appeal of the document when he writes that “the serried ranks of signatures on those large hand-ruled pages provide much food for thought.”
Another NUI Maynooth scholar, Patrick Cosgrove, who completed a doctoral study on the document, writes a chapter which explains the motivation for the creation of the gigantic Roll. He establishes that the roll of signatures was a testament from Irish society to George Howard, otherwise known as Viscount Morpeth, who was returning to his Yorkshire mansion having served five years as chief secretary in Ireland, effectively the head civil servant for the British government in Ireland. Unusually for a British official, Morpeth had won the respect of leaders of the emerging Irish middle classes for his tolerant approach to Catholic emancipation and his championing of reforms such as proper local government structures for Ireland.
Among his achievements which have left their mark to the present day was legislation reforming the rotten town corporations in the early 19th century and the establishment of the Poor Law administration. Both measures formed the legislative basis to the local government system which prevails – albeit with many modifications – in Ireland to the present day.
Paul Hoary, a Maynooth conservator who engaged with the very fabric of the document conveys the sense of wonder as the Roll, having been transported from Yorkshire, was unrolled for the first time in living memory. He describes how the role of the Russell Library at Maynooth was to “investigate the physical make-up of the object, to prepare it for digital imaging, and to carry out remedial repairs.” The sheer physical properties of the document are staggering, it extends to 420 metres which is seven times the height of Liberty Hall.
As regards its content of almost 160,000 signatures Paul Hoary remarks that given the patriarchal nature of Irish society in the 19th century it is not surprising that there were very few female signatories. However it gives this column some satisfaction to record that the name of a “Mary Kenny” is signed on the roll representing a mark for the female gender in an otherwise male-dominated exercise.
One of the inspirations behind the creation of the roll in 1841 was the hero of Catholic Emancipation, Daniel O’ Connell, Ireland’s most popular politician in the mid 19th century.  O’Connell had mobilised the signatures as a tribute to George Howard, Lord Morpeth, when Morpeth left his post as Chief Secretary – the British Government’s minister in charge of Ireland – in 1841.  Morpeth was the name of the Howard family’s estate town in Yorkshire and it was this title which attached its name to the roll.
O’Connell was joined by Kildare’s most prominent citizen, the Duke of Leinster who lived at Carton, in the nationwide exercise of creating what was in effect a gigantic “Sorry Your Leaving” tribute.  The process involved acquiring tens of thousands of signatures from all parts of Ireland.
For many years the testimonial roll remained forgotten in the basement of the great house and it was only in recent years that it was discovered. A crucial link was made with NUI Maynooth where Dr Terry Dooley of the University’s renowned centre for the study of historic houses and his colleagues recognised its value as a resource for illuminating a whole layer of Irish society from a time when few other records survive.
By looking at signatures on the rolls of such luminaries as O’Connell, Frederick Fitzgerald – 3rd Duke of Leinster, Charles Bianconi – public transport pioneer, and patriots Charles Gavan Duffy and Thomas Davis, one gets a spine-tingling moment of witnessing a personal mark made 170 years ago.
The Four Courts Press have published an appealing overview of the Morpeth Roll with their book which includes a generous array of colour illustrations and political cartoons from the time when the Roll was created. The book serves as an excellent introduction to the local history discovery of the decade. Book reviewed: “The Morpeth Roll – Ireland identified in 1841” by Christopher Ridgway. For more information contact Anthony Tierney at Four Courts Press, Dublin, on 01 453 468.
Series no: 333.

Liam Kenny’s popular column from the Leinster Leader of 28 May 2013 reviews a new book on the discovery of the Morpeth Roll

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