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Two ambitious research questions underpin this pioneering project which focuses on Ireland as a case study:

First: what roles did women play in a society undergoing profound economic, political, and cultural transformation?

Second: what were their experiences of recurring social upheaval, bloody civil war and extreme trauma, especially sexual violence, and how have these been politicised?

VOICES: Life and Death, War and Peace, c.1550-c.1700: Voices of Women in Early Modern Ireland is a five-year European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant project led by Professor Jane Ohlmeyer in the School of Histories and Humanities, TCD. It commenced in September 2023 and is hosted by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Institute, in partnership with the Department of History in the School of Histories and Humanities, and the Science Foundation Ireland ADAPT Research Centre hosted in the School of Computer Science and Statistics in Trinity.

VOICES aims to recover the voices and interrogate lived experiences of ‘ordinary’, non-elite women in early modern Ireland. Ireland formed part of the British, European, and Atlantic world and women there responded to similar sets of transformative processes as other early modern women – proto-globalisation, state formation, confessionalisation, warfare, commercialisation, environmental change, and so on – which facilitates interrogation that is comparative, connected, and entangled.

Our overarching hypothesis contends that non-elite early modern women used periods of intense warfare, when all cultural norms were suspended, to negotiate their role and in some instances to improve their position. In other words, warfare exposed the inner workings of a society and made visible women who were previously hidden. This hypothesis will be interrogated through four case studies that focus on female agency, women’s roles in the household, their labour, their landholding, their networks, and their lived experiences of war.

Women have been largely ignored or underrepresented in Irish historiography, which has tended to focus on a political narrative that privileges the perspectives of elite men. This approach has been attributed to the nature of the historical record, which has been characterised as unsuitable for the study of the social history of ‘ordinary’ people.

VOICES seeks to demonstrate that this is no longer the case, thanks to the emergence of a ‘digital windfall’ of historical data from a diverse range of sources. These include qualitative sources like the 1641 Depositions, legal records, wills, and inquisitions, cartographic ones like the Down Survey Maps, together with more quantitative materials – surveys, censuses, networks of lending and borrowing preserved in Statute Staple records, and the Books of Survey and Distribution.

Many of these sources (the 1641 Depositions and Statute Staple records) have been digitised as part of initiatives led or co-led by Professor Ohlmeyer. Others are available as part of the ongoing Virtual Treasury project, a landmark initiative which aims to reconstitute Ireland’s national archives destroyed in 1922.

An interdisciplinary team will combine pioneering digital approaches with historical scholarship to place these data into productive dialogue. Although the digital windfall is exceptional, the resulting data is unstructured. Innovative technologies, including a Knowledge Graph will transform this unstructured data into knowledge that can be interrogated and visualised.

The power of the Knowledge Graph comes from its Semantic Web structure. The Graph can be imagined as an information network, in which historical data is organized into categories, classes and relationships. Unlike a conventional database, all data in the Knowledge Graph has a ‘meaning’ that a machine can interpret. In other words, raw information becomes knowledge—and this knowledge can power research and discovery.

VOICES will harness the knowledge produced using the Knowledge Graph to revolutionise our understanding of the history of women in early modern Ireland. Ordinary women are not absent from the story of early modern Ireland. Instead, they have been hiding in plain sight. VOICES will recover their lived experiences and offer a new narrative which places women’s perspectives at the centre of Irish history.