The Storm and the Silence: Cultures of Recordkeeping among Religious Communities in 20th century Ireland

Ireland’s recent past has been replete with narratives about the role religious communities played in ‘supporting’ the social services of the State in the period following independence in 1922.  These narratives have told the story of religious involvement in a range of repressive contexts such as industrial schools and ‘Magdalen laundries’. Recent intense public debate about the ways in which these institutions operated and their damaging effects on thousands of Irish citizens has been paralleled by an explosion of scholarly activity in fields such as memory studies, sociology, and history. Attention which has been paid to how the religious congregations involved in these regimes recorded their activities has been limited to issues about access and to discussion of the extent to which surviving records have evidential value.  When private congregational records have been accessed, the archives of religious communities have often been found to be inadequate. This research seeks to explore this perceived inadequacy. In particular, this paper aims to historicize the recordkeeping practices of Irish religious communities. Taking a case study approach, the research will focus on the recordkeeping culture of one religious community, the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy.  Drawing on primary archival sources and published secondary literature, this research will explore the culture(s) of recordkeeping which existed in the Mercy Congregation from its origins in Dublin in the early 19th century. In addition to casting light on the history of religious recordkeeping in Ireland, this investigation of the records of one congregation of religious women will also be used to explore the methods by which a culture of recordkeeping can be both discerned and embedded in the historical past and the validity of the idea of a recordkeeping tradition.

Elizabeth Mullins is a historian, archivist and lecturer.  She trained as an archivist, following doctoral and postdoctoral work in early medieval cultural history. She was employed in the Irish Jesuit Archives before joining the staff of the School of History and Archives, University College Dublin in 2005. She is currently the Director of its MA in Archives and Records Management programme and is Head of Subject, Archivistics.