In this month’s guest blog post, Dr Evan Bourke explores the Dictionary of Irish Biography’s contribution to the MACMORRIS project, a newly launched, open access digital humanities project that allows readers to explore the multilingual literary culture of early modern Ireland.
Early modern Ireland was an island of extraordinary polyvocality and literary vibrancy. Bardic schools flourished, producing professional poets such as Fearghal Óg Mac an Bhaird and Eochaidh Ó hEódhusa, whose poetry celebrated the lords of Gaelic and Gaelicised Ireland. Philip O’Sullivan Beare and Dermot O’Meara produced Neo-Latin histories and epics such as Historiae Catholicae Iberniae compendium and Ormonius. The English of Ireland were producing their own texts, including Richard Stanihurt’s contribution to Holinshed’s Chronicles and his translation of Virgil. By the 1570s, this vibrant and complex literary sphere was further enriched by the agents of the Elizabethan conquest, many of whom were writers, including Barnaby Rich, Thomas Churchyard, Barnabe Googe and, most famously, Edmund Spenser.
This multilingual literary environment is the focus of MACMORRIS, an Irish Research Council Laureate-funded project led by Prof. Pat Palmer at Maynooth University. Launched in August 2023, MACMORRIS provides a bilingual research engine for engagement with the literary culture of early modern Ireland by offering materials for a unified cultural history of early modern Ireland. In doing so it captures the range, richness, and polyvocality of cultures intersecting and undergoing profound transformation. One of the key elements of the project was its collaboration with the Dictionary of Irish Biography to produce network data and interactive network graphs, which showcase the way in which people in early modern Ireland were connected.
To achieve our aims, the project employed network visualisation and network analysis. A network can be described as a set of relationships between different objects. When visualising a network, the objects are referred to as nodes, and the relationships are known as edges. In historical networks people tend to be the nodes, while their relationships to each other are the edges. To use this approach with the DIB, we transformed biographical text which focuses on a single person but contains rich information about social relations, into a global network graph, by extracting information about people and the relationships between them.
In our first phase we used .xml files of all biographies relating to the period 1540–1600, of which there are 1,068, and extracted all the hyperlinks (marked as ‘qv’ in each entry) from the biographies and represented them as network connections (connecting two people if their biographies hyperlinked to each other). This produced a network of 1,068 people/nodes and 5,838 connections/edges, which was analysed using network analysis algorithms for presence and influence. As was expected, the results of this phase brought central historical figures to the fore — Henry Sidney, Hugh O’Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond. However, this was an important step: presence in these networks highlights works that have been accepted into or privileged by the wider historiography, while absence demonstrates where more scholarship needs to be done (women and other marginalized groups), or where scholarship on these groups needs to be further integrated into broader discussions of early modern Ireland.
In the second phase we looked beyond the hyperlinks. We read through the 1,068 biographies marking who was mentioned in each biography (excluding connections that occurred before 1540 and ones that occurred after 1660), and assigning an ID for every new person mentioned who met selection criteria: could be accurately disambiguated, could be assigned a floruit at a minimum, could be assigned a role/occupation, and could be said to have lived in or be tied to Ireland or Irish culture/politics. During this process a connection type – kinship, ally, enmity – and a time length for the connection was also marked up, drawing on the contextual information within the biographies. Potential connections from co-citations (two people being mentioned in the same biography) were extracted, links already captured were excluded, and then contextual information in the biographies was checked to see if a connection was warranted between the co-cited. The overall result of this process is a network with 1,889 nodes – 821 more than the hyperlink network, and 7,072 edges – 1,234 more. All of these connections were added to the MACMORRIS database and can be explored on the project’s network interface, or on an individual’s profile page.
Take, for example, the network of Rose O’Toole, daughter of Fiach O’Toole. Rose was a politically important member of the O’Toole family. In 1573 she married Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne, who by 1579 was the most powerful Gaelic lord in the Leinster region. Throughout their marriage Rose was an important ally and emissary for O’Byrne and this can be seen when you explore Rose’s network. She is connected to Adam Loftus, archbishop of Dublin, as he is thought to have entertained her in his house. She is connected to William Russell, lord deputy of Ireland, as she was present at a battle between him and Fiach O’Byrne at Glenmalure. These connections and more are available to interact with on the MACMORRIS network, and all link to the DIB to encourage users to read the biographies for themselves.
The DIB is not the only dataset that MACMORRIS has worked with. Among others is the Bardic Poetry Database, from which the project extracted a network of bardic poets and their patrons. This adds another layer to Rose O’Toole’s network. While the DIB connections give the important political context of Rose’s life, her cultural connections can be seen in her role as a patron for the poet Eochaidh Ó hEódhusa, who wrote the poem ‘An choiscéim-se i gceann Laighneach’ for her. By using MACMORRIS to interact with both of these datasets, it is possible to see both the important cultural and political role Rose O’Toole played in late 16th century Leinster, and highlights the importance of continued research into the multifaceted lives of people in Ireland during this time of conquest and change.
If you would like to learn more about MACMORRIS’s networks, or the networks of Rose O’Toole and/or Eochaidh Ó hEódhusa, you can do so by engaging with the project’s networking learning resource. To learn more about how the DIB’s entries were incorporated into MACMORRIS, you can read Evan’s article, ‘Networking early modern Irish women’.