Friday, May 24, 2024

How the dung queen of Dublin was swept from history

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Four centuries ago Dublin had an official city “scavenger” who was tasked with running sanitation teams to clear streets of human and animal waste. In return, the scavenger earned tolls from shopkeepers and traders.

It could have worked well, except the contractor decided to cut costs and maximise profits by deploying just two carts rather than six. Dung piled up and the city stank.

This upset everyone save the scavenger, who pocketed enough cash to set herself up as a moneylender. Her name was Catherine Strong.

In 1635, the city fired her, ending an intriguing if inglorious career in public service. And then, like so many women of her era, Strong vanished into history, her entrepreneurship – creditable or otherwise – barely scraping a footnote in Irish chronicles written by men about men.

Among the documents to be analysed are wills, maps, surveys, records of debt and legal depositions. Photograph: National Archives of Ireland.

Trinity College Dublin aims to remedy that with an ambitious research project launched this week that will use artificial intelligence and other digital technologies to uncover women’s experiences in Ireland from 1500 to 1700.

Jane Ohlmeyer, a history professor who is leading the project, titled Voices, said: “Women are largely absent from historical narratives, with the historical record privileging the perspectives of elites and elite men in particular.

“But ordinary women are not absent from the story of early modern Ireland; they are hiding in plain sight in fragments and passing mentions across a multitude of historic records – wills, maps, surveys, records of debt and legal depositions.”

Historians, literary scholars, data analysts and computer scientists would collaborate in a groundbreaking effort to recover marginalised voices and – it is hoped – set an example for other overlooked narratives, such as the experience of women in colonial-era Latin America, said Ohlmeyer. “Our approach is transferable and applicable to other countries.”

The five-year project will document the roles of women during social and political upheavals. Photograph: Trinity College Dublin

The five-year project, funded by a €2.5m (£2.1m) European Research Council grant, will document the roles women played during social and political upheavals that included massacres, sexual violence and extreme trauma.

AI and other tools will harvest names from sources such as legal records, inquisitions, censuses and statute staple records of lending and borrowing, amassing material that will be organised in a “knowledge graph”, an online resource that will be available to researchers and the public for free.

“The documents will talk to each other so we can start to connect people. We’re able to develop these profiles of people that previously were just a name,” said Ohlmeyer.

GPT-4 from OpenAI and the AI-driven text recognition tool Transkribus will help search and summarise material, albeit with human oversight of the technology. “Everything still has to be checked; we don’t trust it,” said Ohlmeyer.

Declan O’Sullivan, a professor at Trinity’s school of computer science, expressed confidence his department could turn the data into knowledge that was easily accessible to the public and researchers.

The 1500-1700 period represented a transition from the medieval to the modern and coincided with the English empire expanding, said Ohlmeyer, the author of Making Empire: Ireland, Imperialism and the Early Modern World.

“From the late 16th century, colonialism really ramps up and gets tremendous momentum, especially in plantations. That’s when we see Ireland becoming English through language, law and socioeconomic infrastructure.”

Civil wars created opportunities for women who, in the absence of men, found themselves becoming breadwinners and running businesses as brewers, moneylenders, tanners and tavern keepers.

Catherine Strong, after being accused of presiding over “foulness of the streets”, appeared as a creditor on the Dublin statute staple.

However, conflicts also wreaked horrors. Depositions taken after a 1641 Catholic uprising showed widespread robbery, assault and rape that was often euphemised as “stripping”, said Ohlmeyer.

In one statement, Amy Manfin, a Protestant settler, said she was forced to stand in the blood of her murdered husband before being stripped and dragged by the hair through thorns. English government forces were just as brutal.

Other documents show women pursuing legal cases. In a battle with a debtor over a contested will, Joan Flynn in 1599 allegedly tricked Dublin’s probate court into granting her power over her late husband’s estate.

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