Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Walls of Rathleague: John Augustus Parnell, Deaf and Disinherited

How does Charles Stuart Parnell link in to Deaf history?

In 1789, a Private Bill became an Act of Parliament, and John Augustus Parnell was formally declared unable to inherit his father's estate. John Augustus was a 'deaf mute'. 

This vlog explores the Parnell family and the background behind this Act.

[Contains English voiceover. English captions via YouTube to follow within 48 hours]

Friday, January 11, 2019

Name / Shame? Another dilemma regarding Deaf history

[Originally posted on my Facebook page]

A question / dilemma for you.
I have located a series of newspaper articles from the late 1920s about a boy who was (allegedly) beaten at St Joseph's School, Cabra. His family wanted action taken against the school. Extremely sad but interesting.
But should I make the articles public with the boy's *name* attached, or should i redact / delete name? Bear in mind, the name was already made public in the newspaper at the time.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Loss of Arm (Lion Tamer) :D

Found an absolute classic today in the Rathdown Workhouse in Oct 1876.

Patrick Kelly, a 66 year old widower (hearing) enters the workhouse, and under 'Disabilities', is written "Loss of Arm [Lion Tamer]".

No photo description available.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

“Shut up from the world, in such a desert place of sorrow grief and woe for ever”: Sidney Smart, a deaf pauper in Basford Workhouse

Edited 3 August 2018 to rectify some errors of mine in relation to the 1851 Census entries for Sidney. Thank you to Norma McGilp for bringing these to my attention.
'Isolation', by Deaf artist Nancy Rourke.

One obstacle in the way of solid and qualitatively rich historical research on the Irish Poor Law is the loss of major archival sources for the period. While local and national Irish archives possess correspondence registers for individual Poor Law unions, the central Poor Law Commission / Local Government Board files were lost in the 1922 destruction of the Public Records Office, housed at the time in the Four Courts on Dublin’s quayside.[1] It wasn’t until I attended the hugely enjoyable ‘Fragmentary Lives’ event in the National Archives in Kew, London in June, that I realised what a huge loss that really represents.

As Kim Price, Steven King and others mentioned on the day, the files within the collection MH 12 - correspondence of the Poor Law Commission, the Poor Law Board and the Local Government Board with Poor Law Unions and other Local Authorities – are an underused and fantastically valuable resource for historians looking at the poor law in England and Wales. This is not least because of the letters written by paupers to the Commission and Board over the years, representing as authentic a ‘voice’ of paupers as you could get. While I have come across letters written by Irish Deaf paupers before, particularly those written by Annie Eakins in Carrickmacross workhouse, these have generally been found reproduced in local newspapers, rather than the originals. On occasion these versions seem truncated, edited, or incomplete in some way. Furthermore, other letters written by Deaf paupers are sometimes referred to in newspaper reports on Board of Guardians meetings, but are reproduced partially or not at all. This means that access to the thoughts, feelings, frustrations and demands of Deaf paupers remains highly elusive – to say nothing of the added complexities of dealing with the writings of those for whom English was a second language.

Which is why I was so thrilled to come across, on my first encounter with the MH 12 series in Kew, a letter from a ‘partially deaf and dumb’ English pauper named Sidney Smart, from 1865, appealing to the Poor Law Board for assistance with his situation in Basford workhouse in Nottinghamshire. Sidney was born in 1841 to William Smart, a bleacher, and his wife Rosamund; his sisters were lace menders and his brother Erasmus a lacemaker.[2] Sidney had clearly learned some of the family trades, as he had “been working in private shops and lace factory for some time past” by the time he put pen to paper to the Poor Law Board in 1865. However, he had “only earned half a crown a per week and some times a little more above that sum being unable to support himself well”, and he had “never been put in a suit of new clothes except at the death of his mother”.[3] By 1861 Sidney was a resident of Basford workhouse, where he was enumerated as ‘deaf and dumb’.[4] His letter to the Poor Law Board of 18 August 1865 was apparently motivated by recent upsets in the house, and Sidney had a feeling that, as a result of these spats, he would be sent to the asylum. Sidney wrote a four-page letter “about such treatment he has got to suffer and wishes to know if the law can afford him any Protection from being removed to the asylum for which news is being spread about and treated with great indiginity at Basford Union workhouse”.[5]

The letter, while primarily detailing more recent conflicts that Sidney was experiencing, also shows a perception of a general pattern in his treatment by workhouse authorities. It is a peculiar missive in its turns of phrase, in comparison to other pauper letters; it opens with a description by Sidney himself as being “an imbecile of idiotic appearance partially deaf and dumb Blind with one eye and almost unable to speak for himself named sidney smart”.[6] The letter recounts a recent argument that developed between Sidney and a ‘manager’ in the workhouse, Robert Wheatley:[7]

it appears that on monday morning July 17th my first attention was called in to go and clean some windows and after partially accomplishing them   the men were in want of the ladder which I had to let them have it   and nothings else for me to do   I then went down the garden to help another youth to do some work there for the afternoon only.   whereupon the manager Robert wheatley soon begin to interfere with such threatening language swearing fearful oath to turn me out but I refused to let him do so and with stood object against him   according to what was stated  in his case some times ago to the manager either went or pretended to tell the Govenor Mr Rhodes   but the manager cam back without any assistant seized me violently by the neck by saying I had no right to be there I kick and struck him two or three time discolored his eye which made him leave me alone then I left the garden where the governor had his attention directed shortly afterward insisted upon me going to something doing   but he did not give me proper notice what to do   so I really could do nothing else.[8]

As a result of this incident Sidney was brought to the local Magistrates and charged with assault, but was not convicted. The story was reported in the Nottinghamshire Guardian, who reported that the defendant, “who was deaf and dumb, was understood to deny the charge”, indicating that an interpreter for Sidney was probably not present. Rather than convict, “[t]he magistrates thought it was a case in which the discipline of the Workhouse would be of more effect than imprisonment.”[9]

Sidney’s letter directly refers to the hearing. “The magistrait after hearing the evidence of the witness though it was a Proper case for the board of Guardians to deal with and accordingly admissed it which has not yet been laid before the Board of Guardians to make out right on both sides alternately according to the alleged rules as parts of any such punishments”. The Board had not yet acted at the time of Sidney’s letter, but even before they had, he had got into another altercation with an elderly male pauper: “now another row has taken place on the 15th inst which was not my fault but with another old man between 50 and 60 years of age we both got a little hurt as well as another”. [10]

While Sidney’s letter is difficult to make full sense of – for reasons to do with his literacy and command of the English language, which as a partially deaf man he may have struggled with – a distinct sense of injustice carries through it. He portrays himself as a man at the end of his tether, resorting to violence only because more peaceful avenues are closed to him due to his mistreatment: “I am at last obliged to use my fist or kick a purpose for the defence set up because the Govenor however will do nothing for me whenever I often lay reports before him”. Such reports included “Sunday profane language… and all other evil things [which are] winked at causeing a fight to ensue … it appears however to be a very disgraceful thing and a curse to thy saviour”. Sidney forlornly distances himself from such immoral conduct: “all I want is a place of peace and guidness sir to be a good boy”.

He specifically describes his feelings about communication as a deaf pauper in the workhouse; the master and others “carry on their business in the presence of my conduct while I am deaf can not hear nor speak plain to claim any such case in a fair way by talking”. Sidney claims that he “has never been prosecuted nor careful examined by either the doctor or any one of the board during my stay in the workhouse more then 5 year ago”, and “They alway interfere with one another about a deaf man because they can not hardly know how to make sign of interpretation to a deaf man[emphasis mine – CL]. He lamented his existence, “shut up from the world in such a desert place of sorrow grief and woe for ever”. [11]

The letter was read by the Poor Law Board, but seems to have raised some puzzlement; the Board wrote to the Basford Guardians a week later on 24 August, to verify Sidney’s complaint – and his state of mind. “From the contents of the letter the Board are disposed to consider that the writer is not altogether of sound mind, but they will be glad to know whether the Guardians are of opinion that there are grounds for his complaint.”[12] But it turns out that the point was moot, as far as the Board were concerned; the Basford Guardians replied on 5 September that “the writer of that letter is insane and has been removed to the Lunatic Asylum. He had been guilty of an assault upon another inmate before his removal to the Asylum to which he was summoned before the County Justices, he was not however punished for the offence.”[13] Obviously, even without any criminal conviction against him, Sidney had been judged by the workhouse authorities to be insane.

He entered the Nottingham Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Sneinton, on 19 August 1865 – the day after his letter to the Poor Law Board was written - and remained there until his death, almost twelve years later, on 22 February 1877.[14] The 1871 Census of England and Wales shows him as an inmate in Sneinton, but instead of being described as ‘deaf and dumb’, the final column of the Census enumeration lists him as an ‘imbecile’.[15] Sidney Smart’s case is, of course, revealed to us here in just a few documents and reports, and was far more complex than any of these individually may suggest. We cannot tell whether he genuinely had a mental illness, or whether those responsible for his committal actually believed he did, even given the very different criteria and definitions of mental illness in the mid-nineteenth century.

What is intriguing – and harrowing – for any historian of Deaf people in this period, is the reflection in his letter of a troubled mind, expressed in jumbled – but nonetheless coherent - English, if one is familiar with the ‘Deaf English’ of Deaf people, at the time - and often, still today. This is an artefact of the difficult process of teaching children to read and write English, when they cannot easily access the spoken language that is around them. Education for deaf children requires expertise, patience, but above all, the use of a language that is accessible – a signed language. The importance for deaf children of not just this expert schooling, but careful fostering of reading skills in later life, is here described by Brother Walsh of St Joseph’s School, Cabra in Dublin, in 1867:

…the manner in which the Deaf Mute is led from a knowledge of the merest elements of language, to an acquaintance with the most abstruse and complicated forms of construction... this is... the most difficult part of the teacher's business; it is a task demanding years of patient toil and great exertion from the master, and more than ordinary assiduity on the part of the pupil. So far all is well until the Deaf Mute leaves the Institution, and then much, very much, depends on the society into which he may happen to be thrown... But if... circumstances compel him to associate with the illiterate and uninstructed, instead of adding to what he knows, he will most probably forget what he has already learned.[16]

While the details of Sidney Smart’s school experiences remain unclear to me – and Deaf historians in Britain may wish to assist in this – it is evident that he received some education, but also clear that his abilities in written English were somewhat compromised by the time he wrote his letter. How much this was due to mental illness remains opaque, but one can surmise that with no other deaf paupers around him – from what we can tell – and at least four years of associating solely with “the illiterate and uninstructed” in the workhouse, Sidney’s literacy may have declined in a similar manner to that which Br Walsh describes. This seems an inadequate indication, however, of mental illness.

Sidney’s odd, impassioned, and forceful letter raised alarm bells for the Poor Law Board, unused to such strange language and grammatical choices. Sidney’s interactions with the workhouse staff and inmates - eventually characterised by disdain and ignorance, by his own account - may have, over time, also led to more direct prejudices against an individual who was literate and clearly intelligent, but quite different in his communication choices and language from other paupers - and one who was very frustrated by his situation. Considering this sad set of facts makes one wonder; what of the very many ‘deaf and dumb’ paupers who did not have the literacy of Sidney Smart? Those who never entered a school room, and left no documentary traces of their own as a result? The many deaf men and women who the 1861 England and Wales Index of Paupers indicate spent thirty, forty, even fifty years within the walls of workhouses in England and Wales?[17] Such stories are slippery and hard to discover, but for me, it seems so self-evidently important to strive to do so.

[2] England and Wales Birth Registration Index, 1837-2008,; 1851 Census of England and Wales, Basford, Nottinghamshire, I am indebted to Norma McGilp for identifying my errors in my first examination of the 1851 Census for Sidney’s family.
[3] Letter from Sidney Smart, Basford Poor Law Union, to Poor Law Board, 18 August 1865. National Archives (NA), Folio 306, MH 12/9250/241.
[4] 1861 Census of England and Wales, Basford, Nottinghamshire,
[5] Ibid. Original letter has been reproduced exactly, with spelling and grammatical mistakes.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Wheatley is described in the Nottinghamshire Guardian as being 79 years old, and it is likely that he was an inmate of the workhouse himself who had been given a position of work of some importance for Sidney to perceive him as the ‘manager’. Nottinghamshire Guardian, 4 August 1865, p. 7.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Nottinghamshire Guardian, 4 August 1865, p. 7.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Letter from Mr Enfield, Poor Law Board, to Basford Poor Law Union, 24 August 1865. National Archives (NA), Folio 309, MH 12/9250/241.
[13] Letter from R. B. Spencer, clerk, Basford Poor Law Union, to Mr Enfield, Poor Law Board, 5 September 1865. National Archives (NA), Folio 318, MH 12/9250/241.
[14] UK, Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, 1846-1912, Also at National Archives (NA), MH 94/19.
[15] 1871 Census of England and Wales, Nottingham Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Sneinton, Nottinghamshire,
[16] Catholic Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, Twenty-First Annual Report, 1867, p. 42.
[17] For a 10% representative sample of this Index, see - examples include Fanny Scrivens from Ross, Herefordshire, described as “Dumb - 20 yrs” in that workhouse. Martha Tonks, in Bermondsey workhouse, had been there – according to the full 1861 Index – for 55 years.

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.