Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Name and Shame?

A ‘dummy, name unknown’ in Wicklow Gaol, 1870, no name given.

I have been thinking a lot lately about names; their significance, and the significance of their absence, in the historical record. Names are a backbone of identity, and a shining declaration of uniqueness. In historical research, a commonly-occurring name makes an archival trawl into a frustrating scrabble for a splinter in a forest; a unique and rare name can shine like a beacon among the chaff. There’s nothing like the thrill of poring over name after name after name until THAT name registers to your eyes and brain. It can be heart stopping.

And for historians, names are the primary anchor to the individuals that we track and trace through the archives, especially when it comes to the sketchily-drawn, highly uncommon ‘common people’ that we focus on when we do ‘history from below’.[1] Names ground and unify all the physical descriptions, records of confinement, and letters by and about these people. Without their names, we would struggle to locate their ghostly traces in the archive.

When it comes to presenting my work to Deaf audiences and telling these stories in Irish Sign Language, the question of names gains an added layer of complexity. In ISL, you have the option to talk about the people you research simply by finger spelling their names. A very straightforward technique, but a rather plain one - as anyone who knows the way ‘sign names’ work. A sign name in ISL, as with other signed languages, can contain not just orthography but biography; a physical quirk, a characteristic tic, a childhood identifier. Deaf culture (or cultures) exist within, too; in the tradition of name-initial, surname-initial combination often utilised in St. Joseph’s school in Cabra, for example, or the number-names given to Deaf pupils corresponding to their coat- and hat-pegs within the residential Ulster Institution school at Lisburn Road.[2]

I was tempted, in the past, to create my own sign names for the long-dead Deaf Irishmen and Irishwomen I have been following. Take John Sinnott; a fearsome Waterford street fighter, once kidnapped by the IRA. Sinnott, seemingly to mark the year of his arrival in the Cabra Deaf school, had a tattoo on his arm reading ’DUBLIN 1888’. Timothy Donovan, sentenced to seven years penal servitude from his native Cork City, was also tattooed, having ‘T. D’. etched on his arm. Such obvious physical marks lend themselves to imaginative renderings into ISL sign-names. ‘88’ on the arm, ‘TD’ on the forearm.

Mary Wilson, shunned by her husband, living on the streets of Belfast and resorting to a life of thievery - why not a sign-name like STEAL++ (the sign repeated twice)? James Brennan, another Deaf person frequently arrested for stealing, and an ex-Joseph’s pupil - why not the old Joseph’s formula, and a fingerspelled J tickling a base-hand B? Perhaps most amusing was Patrick Byrne – an uneducated Deaf Wexford man who spent decades of confinement in prisons and mental hospitals, with a penchant for fist-fighting, especially with RIC men. A quick rendition of FISTICUFFS might be an amusing label.

But I soon began to resist the temptation to use such name-signing strategies. I think the biggest influence on me was simply reflecting on my position as an ‘outsider’, a non-CODA researcher on Deaf history; an interpreter cheekily creating his own signs, in the language not his. I had  reflected to myself a while back that my own career in the Deaf community began with an act of cultural appropriation; the self-definition of my sign-name - a fingerspelled C against the flat palm of an L to indicate my initials. It was my own idea, crafted after having seen the St Joseph’s system.

It didn’t occur to me that the act of giving a sign-name is precisely that; giving, not taking – a gift received from the Deaf community, who have got to know you after a period of time, and only then decide what you can call yourself in their language. But I impatiently skipped ahead, and like a little Napoleon, grabbed the crown for myself. (The fact that another Deaf person may actually have had the same sign-name as mine didn’t occur to me at the time; turns out there’s at least one other C-L out there.) It’s a bit too late to come up with another sign-name now, widely known as it is, but it has been a process I needed to re-analyse – that process of taking and not allowing myself to be given it.

Another nameless ‘dummy’ – the victim of a crime but rendered nameless here

But deeper levels of analysis reveal themselves when I reflect on other factors. We will likely never know the actual sign-names of the kinds of people that I look at; we will never see or know what sign they were known by to Deaf acquaintances, friends and family. This represents an almost permanent loss of a pillar of their identity; a part of their being that was almost never committed to the historical record, outside the ‘oral’ history of folklore and stories passed down the Deaf generations. It seems rude and irresponsible for an outsider historian to breeze past such absences, and slap on an improvised label that follows a formula, or one that picks one of the least flattering qualities of the person and attempts to encapsulate their whole being in what amounts to a limited, reductive nickname.

The level of detail and richness of description in institutional archives can often trick the researcher into an illusion of completeness, but we must be careful to remember that such archives are ‘unstable’, as Catharine Coleborne reminds us. Truly, we can come across treasures that help us reclaim individuals from obscurity; such records can “contain histories of people who would otherwise have remained virtually invisible”, and she reflects that “it is something of a paradox that we know such a large amount about institutionalised people when they were hidden from public view in their own lifetimes”. But “for the researcher… finding archival remains can still evoke an excited sense of ‘completeness’, even while the material only reveals a little more about an individual’s history.”[3] And as detailed as my files become, their edges also become apparent. Despite the reams of material I have accumulated - newspaper accounts rich with detail, dozens - even hundreds - of court papers and petitions scanned - despite the fact that I know more about Patrick Byrne than any other Deaf figure I have looked at, I still do not know him, and am not in a position to name him.

This also raises points from Foucault’s writings on power at work in surveillance - the descriptions, categorisations, and classifications of prisoners and mental patients. How do we know of the existence of these Deaf individuals? How do *I* know of them? Through the records created by a host of institutions who aimed to rehabilitate, make penitent, discipline or punish. The 'medical gaze' frames and defines the asylum records I see; where I see photographs, I see only those photographs that the prison system took and that still survive. I read their letters, but only those found within asylum and court and prison files, writings framed and defined by these experiences of confinement and institutionalisation. I don’t get to see candid shots of them smiling, signing; very few of their surviving letters show hints of their fullest selves or happier times. Where they are illiterate, they do not even have the chance to speak against the system; they ‘speak’ not at all in the record, though if we ‘listen’ carefully, we may derive some understanding of their voices and agency. But do we know enough of them, from this limited and darkening lens, to bestow such a gift or curse or insult? Given that these people have lost so much during their lives – some their liberty, some their families and children, for many a chance of a decent education – it seems that papering over their authentic selves, as revealed through a harsh and unsympathetic archive, with a sign-name representation based on the views of the institution seems an insult indeed.

Given names, by contrast - those given at birth or baptism by parent or guardian - have an authenticity and clarity. In much of my readings of the history of institutions in Ireland and elsewhere, simply coming across the names of inmates can open up a formerly hidden reality, bring it to refreshing light. But this apparently simple act of naming can present its own concerns. Ethically, we are bound to treat such records of institutionalisation with care, compassion and dignity, which in many cases implies preserving anonymity - a deliberate act of non-naming done out of care and respect.
South Dublin Union workhouse, 1867 – a ‘deaf mute’ is admitted to the workhouse, no name given.

Helen Rogers has dealt with these ethical challenges, asking “how [do we] balance public desire for education and entertainment? How to make records accessible and where to preserve anonymity? How to convey painful historical experiences which touch directly on the personal experiences of those currently living with the effects of crime and punishment?”[4] While Rogers, in her blog Conviction: stories from a nineteenth century prison,[5] does not anonymise, she nevertheless feels that “for most of us, and certainly those studying the pre-1900s, our responsibility rests in the integrity with which we represent these histories.” She reminds us that “[c]aution and sensitivity should be taken when dealing with the recent past and within the life-time of those affected, or cases involving criminal insanity”.[6] For surviving family members, but also for the individuals themselves, we are urged to beware the sensationalising of naming these people – possibly shaming them – by recounting incidents of pain, loneliness, poverty, shame and stigma.

For certain categories of records, using names of individuals for records less than 100 years old is (legally or contractually) forbidden; for others, it is frowned upon, or archivists urge appropriate and respectful use. Certain domains of experience have their own imperatives, particularly those impinging on present concerns and traumas, such as historical research on child sexual abuse, where for “historians working with these public documents, retrospective anonymising of the names of victims and survivors – by not republishing this material – is obvious”. But when it comes to other identifying information, such as the names of institutions where abuse took place, “it can be argued that failure to republish historical information reinforces the mantle of secrecy that has for too long protected those in positions of power and influence.”[7]

Specifically for my own research, I have at times been frustrated when creating a picture of someone’s life at the bisecting effect of these considerations. Patrick Byrne, who I mentioned before, entered the Dundrum Criminal Lunatic Asylum in 1898 and stayed there until his death in 1916. That much is public record, revealed through prison records, a death certificate, and some papers held in the National Archives dealing with a petition of his while in Dundrum. The archives of Dundrum itself (now held in the Central Mental Hospital) are also fantastically useful and revealing, and Dr Harry Kennedy in particular was very helpful in my research there. In a disused wing of the hospital, I leafed through old casebooks and found – among other old friends – the file of Patrick Byrne.

But due to the confidentiality agreement that researchers must sign when accessing the archives, not a thing can I tell you about what I saw in those pages.[8] I could only tell you by anonymising Patrick, by using a false name and writing about his time within Dundrum by consciously delinking those details from anything else I would write about him from public records. He becomes two different people to everyone but myself. These archives help lay out a detailed and rich landscape in my head for these individuals, but I cannot tell this story to others without splitting the tale in two.

I do understand and appreciate these conditions, and respect them utterly. But when it comes to the more ‘borderline’ cases - where some researchers have been known to name, and others to anonymise - what do I do? Other types of institutionalisations and stories of pain and harm do not have the same formal necessity to anonymise, leaving only ethical and moral considerations. Entrants to workhouses, pre-1918 lunatic asylum admissions, Deaf women who have been sexually assaulted; their names were plastered all over the newspapers, thrown online and now accessible merely by paying a subscription. They have been named, and I too can name. So do I name, and in the process do I shame? And if I do not, do I continue to hide the stories of these individuals?

Two considerations. Firstly, one justification for anonymity is often to protect surviving family members from embarrassment or upset. But it is accurate to say that while Deaf Irish people did indeed marry – to both Deaf and hearing spouses – throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the rate of marriage was nevertheless extremely low. Deaf people did make families, and indeed multi-generational Deaf families did exist, but the number of Deaf people married with children was so small that it is fair to say almost none of the Deaf individuals I have looked at have had children, and therefore almost none would have direct descendants. This isn’t universally the case – I did make contact with the great-grandson of a Deaf prisoner I have been researching, who has been nothing but supportive and interested in what I’ve found. But for most Deaf people that I look at, there is almost no one alive today who is directly descended from them - which in itself, is a huge sadness. No one to remember them as direct ancestors, no one to celebrate them, and feel pride in them and pain for them. And maybe that means we should do more to tell about them – including using, where we can and with the utmost respect and dignity, their given names.

And another fact of Deaf history I have come across constantly, a disturbing and saddening phenomenon of the archive; the legions of the unnamed. Workhouse registers listing as entrants ‘deaf and dumb woman’, prison records telling of a ‘dumb boy’, countless court cases where we get nothing more detailed about the defendant than that they are ‘a dummy’, and on occasion even when Deaf people act as witnesses - the newspapers insist on naming their tormentors and not them. I have written before of the shocking use of these terms, but in this context, what shocks more is that they are used as substitutes for names, where names may not even be known - or merely considered unimportant. Some examples are shown here.

A female workhouse inmate known only as ‘The Dummy’ dies in Ballyshannon workhouse, 1862.
The reasons behind this namelessness are often obvious; any deaf person without an education would have grown up not knowing their own written name, and therefore could not convey it to a clerk or prison administrator. This is not to take away from the fact that deaf men and women used guile and cunning and intelligence to navigate an Ireland that had barely any opportunity for deaf people to be educated. Others had perhaps been educated but had wandered the country so long that they had lost ability to convey their name to others. Both sign-names and written names – if either existed – completely lost to us, that foundation stone of their personhood lost to the mist. Others, as we can see from the newspaper clippings, may have had given names, but these were not counted as important pieces of information. ‘Dummies’ they were, ‘deaf mute’ the only identity that mattered to the journalist or editor.

Deaf people in the archive struggle against namelessness, against anonymity, and against those clerks, administrators and reporters who did not know - or care - who they were, and in the process they were dehumanised. To me, it seems an act of resistance - and for the hearing Deaf historian, a kind of reparation - to challenge this by active naming. These Deaf people were people. While their authentic sign-names and situated Deaf cultural identities should not be replaced or plastered over, we should not avoid opportunities to name them, celebrate them and tell their story with humility, reverence, warmth and respect.


[1] See Roy Porter, ‘The Patient’s View: Doing Medical History from Below’, Theory and Society 14, no. 2 (1985): 175–98. The term was originally coined by E. P. Thompson and pioneered in The Making of the English Working Class; see David Hitchcock, ‘Why History from below Matters More than Ever’, The Many-Headed Monster: The History of ‘the Unruly Sort of Clowns’ and Other Early Modern Peculiarities, July 22, 2013; available from; accessed 18 April 2018.
[2] This custom is described in Stanislaus J Foran, The Irish Sign Language, 2nd ed. (Dublin, 1996), 94: “It is in the Irish tradition to use alphabetical letters to assign a name-sign to each person. The choice of letters is generally based in the initial letters of the person’s name. This neat and respectful custom appears to be exclusive to Ireland. So one would hope that the Irish practice will always be the preferred means of personal identification instead of the sometimes unflattering references to one’s physical features or such like.” These ‘unflattering references’ are very common in other countries’ name-sign traditions, and indeed have become extremely common in Ireland also. For sign-names in the Lisburn Road school in Belfast, I am indebted to Paula Clarke and Shane Gilchrist for this information.
[3] Catharine Coleborne, ‘Archive Stories: Institutionalised Women as Lost Lives?’, Australian Women’s History Network, April 16, 2018; available from; accessed 16 April 2018.
[4] Helen Rogers, ‘Blogging Our Criminal Past: Social Media, Public Engagement and Creative History’, Law, Crime and History, no. 1 (2015): 56.
[6] Rogers, ‘Blogging Our Criminal Past’, 74.
[7] Adrian Bingham et al., ‘Historical Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales: The Role of Historians’, History of Education 45, no. 4 (2016): 423–4.
[8] Brendan Kelly accesses the same records between 1868 and 1908 and in “order to maintain patient confidentiality, names have been changed so as to render specific individuals unidentifiable”. Brendan D. Kelly, ‘Clinical and Social Characteristics of Women Committed to Inpatient Forensic Psychiatric Care in Ireland, 1868–1908’, Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology 19, no. 2 (2008): 263.