1916 letters give students different slant on history

Things have changed a lot at St Angela’s College, Cork, since one of its teachers was arrested for her ties to the Easter Rising.

The artwork of Rebekah Ryan, Alice McCarthy, Julie Mackey, and Kate Moloney. Pictures: Denis Scannell

Students at the all-girls’ city centre secondary school — where Mary MacSwiney, a Cumann na mBan leader in Cork and later an anti-Treaty TD taught — have been using letters from the period to gain different perspectives on Irish life in 1916.

The correspondence they focused on from the Letters of 1916 online archive project is between soldier Peter Mooney, who was based for a time in nearby Ballincollig, and his sister Katie on their Co Meath farm.

Under the guidance of history teacher Helene O’Keeffe, they built up an understanding of the organisations that planned the Easter Rising. But the letters told them how their actions were viewed by some people in Ireland immediately after.

Some of Peter Mooney’s letters to his sister Kate which were studied by the St Angela’s transition year history class.

In one letter, Peter guessed Katie’s replies were lost in the GPO during the rebellion.

“I hope all that trouble is over now, at least it will not take long to wipe out the Sinn Feiners. I hope they may get it hot & heavy,” he wrote in the days after the fighting ended.

It was an attitude that surprised many of the Transition Year students at St Angela’s.

“In Junior Cert history, you just learn about dates mainly, but not the details about the slums in Dublin or the fighting. I thought before that it was the whole country fighting against the British,” said Alice McCarthy.

For regular updates on news and features (as well as twitter action action as it may have happened 100 years ago) to mark the revolutionary period follow @theirishrev HERE

“You hear so much about people being against Sinn Feiners, it was fascinating to see at first hand what they were thinking,” her classmate Julie Mackey explained.

Others in the class examined aspects of rural life, which often concerned Peter more than military topics in his correspondence.

“We could tell from looking online at the Census they had a big farm. There were very few machines, labour was how work was done on the farm ,” said Ciara Dilworth.

The Letters of 1916 project digitised hundreds of letters written in Ireland in the year around the Rising.

Some students focused on how Irish men were recruited into the British Army, or on the day-to-day life and the details were often sad. They thought Peter’s letters to Katie Mooney were sentimental — up to a point.

“We also learned that brother-sister relations were the same as today, he was asking all the time for tobacco and other things,” said Amy Carroll.

The ability to use primary source material like this is invaluable to teachers.

“The teaching of 1916 is very different from when I was in school 20 years ago, when it was very book-based. Today, it’s up to the students to make up their own minds, and the revolutionary period in Ireland is now far more visible to them,” Ms O’Keeffe said.

Examining Irish women’s lives a century ago, students compared Katie Mooney and Mary MacSwiney. One probably worked on a farm instead of going to secondary school, the other taught at St Angela’s — until losing her job after her 1916 arrest — and set up her own school, Scoil Íte.

“It’s cool to look up all these people and find out more,” said Emily Crowley.

To read Peter Mooney’s letters or hundreds of others written from November 1915 to October 1916, visit: letters1916.maynoothuniversity.ie

Enjoyed this? Then check out our dedicated micro-site, developed in collaboration with UCC, to mark the revolutionary period HERE

Related Articles

The Irish settlement: An often ignored legacy of World War I


Setting stories in stone at UCC

Hurling and poetry: Ó Bhéal’s word-clash of the ash

A question of taste: Trick Mist

Muireann O’Connell on the inspiring families she met at Share A Dream

More From The Irish Examiner