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13 September 2011

‘Unbounded Charity and Unfortunate Females: Lady Arbella Denny and the early years of the Leeson Street Magdalen Asylum’ by Rosemary Raughter

On Tuesday 13th Sept. 2011, Rosemary Raughter delivered an excellent lecture with the intriguing title ‘Unbounded Charity and Unfortunate Females: Lady Arbella Denny and the early years of the Leeson Street Magdalen Asylum’ In her research, academic publications and lectures, Rosemary Raughter, has opened up the fascinating and largely untold stories of women and, sometimes religious women, in Irish history. This particular historical narrative is often forgotten or shamefully treated as mere footnotes in our published histories. The women at the heart of this lecture, Lady Arbella Denny, was significantly important in her day to have been elected as a honorary member of the Royal Dublin Society for her charitable works. It is worth remembering that the RDS at the time was a staunchly male preserve. Rosemary Raughter has also brought to the fore Denny’s association with the Dublin Foundling Hospital writing “In the decades fo1lowing the establishment of the Dublin Foundling Hospital, a succession of parliamentary committees reported unacceptably high mortality rates, abuse and neglect of the children in the institution, and corruption in its management. An exception to the almost universal disregard of such reports was Denny's intervention in the Hospital's affairs, an initiative which she justified by the argument that “the wants of young children the negligence of nurses, and the general management of such an institution” fell decisively within the conventional female “sphere of observation”. For twenty years, beginning in 1758, Denny supervised the day-to-day running of the institution and introduced a range of reforms which according to a contemporary “put a stop to barbarity and murder and saved the life of thousands”. But it was Denny’s role in another institution that Rosemary Raughter outlined in her lecture. The Leeson Street Magdalen Asylum, founded in 1767 by Lady Arbella Denny, was the first institution of its kind in Ireland. Its surviving records are an invaluable source of information on rescue work and women’s philanthropic action at this period. Her work at Leeson Street was, it seems, highly valued in society as it was very conspicuously supported by the prestigious Philharmonic Catch Club in the 1760s when they performed ‘in aid of the asylum for penitent prostitutes’. Rosemary Raughter’s paper, delivered at this meeting, utilized those records to recreate the history of the charity during its first years. Her research focused particularly on the registers of the Asylum, which offer a unique insight into the experience of the inmates themselves, and into the lives of poor women generally in eighteenth-century Dublin. Rosemary Raughter also assessed Denny's various achievements, the factors which may have motivated and her claim to be considered a pioneer, both in the field of child care and in the creation of a public role for women. A fascinating lecture which was greatly appreciated by all in attendance.

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11 October 2011

‘Court and Prison Records’ by Brian O’Donovan

On Tuesday 11th October 2011, Brian Donovan, Director of, delivered a lecture on one of the greatest untapped sources ‘Court and Prison Records’. The original Prison Registers, held at the National Archives, cover all types of custodial institutions, from bridewells, to county prisons, to sanatoriums for alcoholics. They contain over 3.5 million entries, spread over 130,000 pages, with most records giving comprehensive details of the prisoner, including: name, address, place of birth, occupation, religion, education, age, physical description, name and address of next of kin, crime committed, sentence, dates of committal and release/decease. The registers offer a real insight into 18th-19th century Ireland. They present evidence of a society of rebellion and social confrontation, where rioting and assault of police officers were everyday occurrences, and of widespread poverty and destitution, with the theft of everything from handkerchiefs to turnips. The reasons for incarceration cover all types of crime but unsurprisingly the most common offence was drunkenness, which accounted for over 30% of all crimes reported and over 25% of incarcerations. The top five offences recorded in the registers are: 1. Drunkenness - 25%. 2. Theft - 16%. 3. Assault - 12%. 4. Vagrancy - 8% and 5. Rioting - 4%. The nature of these crimes was significantly different from those in England. Figures show that the rate of conviction for drunkenness and tax evasion was three times greater, and the rate of both destruction of property and prostitution were twice that of England. The Irish population averaged 4.08 million in the period 1790-1924 and with over 3.5 million names listed in the prison records, it is clear to see how almost every family in Ireland was affected somehow. Officially launched at the RDS, Brian Donovan said “these records provide an invaluable resource for anyone tracing their Irish ancestors, as during the period covered almost every household in Ireland had a convict in their family. These records provide such a wealth of information that they are sure to shock and surprise almost anyone looking for the missing links in their Irish family tree.” (Source: )

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8 November 2011

‘Barack Obama’s Benn and Donovan Ancestors’ by Fiona Fitzsimons

On Tuesday 8th November 2011, members were treated to a fascinating lecture by Fiona Fitzsimons, Director, General Manager and Research Director with the very successful genealogical research company, Eneclann. Fiona’s lecture was based on her extensive research into President Barack Obama’s Irish ancestry. Although, many may be aware of President Obama’s Kearney ancestors from the Co. Offaly village of Monegall, few are aware of his Benn and Donovan ancestors and thus, Fiona centred her lecture on this lesser-known lineage. Researching Obama’s ancestry with Eneclann colleague, Helen Moss, they built on the earlier research of the American genealogist, Megan Smolenyak. Ms. Smolenyak proved that the then Senator Barack Obama of Illinois had Irish ancestry which could be traced back to a Fulmoth Kearney, born circa 1829 to parents Joseph Kearney, shoemaker, and his wife Phoebe (née Donovan), of Monegall in King’s County, now Co. Offaly. On completion of the Kearney side, the Eneclann team turned its attention to the Benn and Donovan ancestry. The very unusual forename Fulmoth, Fiona discovered, was to appear in both the Benn and the Donovan lines which indicated a close connection between the families in the 18th century. Fulmoth Kearney’s mother, Phoebe Donovan, born circa 1800, was the daughter of Mary Benn (1768-1860) and Fulmoth Donovan who died in 1844. Fiona pointed out that Mary’s own father (Fulmoth Kearney’s grandfather) was Fulmoth Benn who died in 1777. The etymology of this unusual forename is still uncertain and although a number of theories have been published, any agreement on its meaning and origin appears elusive at this stage. Fiona outlined the outcomes of her interviews with the living relatives of Barack Obama who are still farmers with deep ancestral roots along the Offaly / Tipperary border and in the villages of Monegall and Shinrone. These are the President’s closest Irish cousins through their link with Phoebe Kearney (née Donovan). For further information on this research see the Eneclann website or Fiona’s wonderful article in ‘Irish Roots Magazine’ - Second Quarter 2011.

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13 December 2011

‘The National Library: Recent Developments and Future Plans’ by Katherine McSharry

On Tuesday 13th December 2011 Katherine McSharry, Head of Services at the National Library, spoke to the Society on ‘The National Library: Recent Developments and Future Plans’. She outlined developments in the NLI’s on-line services, focusing firstly on enhancements to viewing photographs. The NLI has digitised and made over 35,000 of its historic photographs freely available, but until now only at a low resolution. This has meant that the photographs have not been as useful as they might, with key details – signs on walls and in shops, clothing and faces for example – still difficult or impossible to make out. From early in 2012, however, a new zoom feature developed by the NLI will allow researchers everywhere to view the tiniest details in all of these images. An example of how valuable this will be was demonstrated by zooming in to see how clearly the details of gravestone inscriptions could be read. Ms McSharry also demonstrated a feature in the NLI’s catalogue, which provides a link from catalogue records to the full text version available from online sources, such as Google Books and the Internet Archive. She then went on to show some NLI images now available on the online image site Flickr, pointing out that the Library is increasingly active with social media. In addition to these online developments, the NLI will be offering new services onsite in 2012, including the re-opening of the National Photographic Archive reading room, the availability of Wifi, and user training sessions on online resources such as newspapers. New kinds of activity are also underway, with pilot projects in collecting websites (for the General and Presidential elections) having been undertaken in 2011. Alongside this, of particular interest to genealogists is a survey being carried out on the NLI’s landed estate papers in association with NUI Maynooth, and digitisation work on the Roman Catholic parish registers. The parish register project will give the NLI digitised images of the registers, not transcriptions of the content, which is a far more labour intensive process. However, they do plan to make the digitised images available to researchers on the NLI premises later in 2012 as an interim step. Ms McSharry concluded by discussing the possibilities of collaboration between the National Library of Ireland and researchers, outlining the benefits which could be gained by “crowdsourcing” - drawing on expertise outside the library to provide valuable information and assistance in the NLI’s work.

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