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University looks for 'amateur sleuths' to help unlock pre-Famine stories

NUI Maynooth wants to learn more about an 1841 manuscript, the Morpeth Roll.

The Morpeth Roll
The Morpeth Roll
Image: Russell Library, NUI Maynooth

THE MORPETH ROLL is an unusual and little-known document, signed by more than 275,000 people in 1841, which could provide a snapshot of pre-Famine Ireland.

However, NUI Maynooth need more detail about the signatories in order to tell the real stories behind the names. A campaign has been launched, calling on local historians, genealogy groups and amateur sleuths to get involved in unlocking the secrets of the manuscript.

The university want to know: who signed it? Did they stay in Ireland throughout the famine years? Which ones emigrated to the US and the UK? What did they go on to achieve during their lifetimes?

The roll itself is essentially a pre-Famine census of the area and it is currently being digitised to facilitate online searches for ancestors or family names.

Some well-known figures whose signatures appear include Daniel O’Connell, Thomas Davis and Charles Gavan Duffy.

“The Morpeth Roll has significant research potential, whether examined as a pre-Famine census substitute, a genealogy resource, a family heirloom or a politically motivated document,” explains Dr Terry Dooley of NUI Maynooth’s history department.

“Our campaign will unlock the stories of the signatories and what happened to them through, and after, the Famine. The research has the potential to provide a unique insight into Irish life, society and politics in pre-Famine Ireland and we are calling on historians, local genealogists and libraries to get involved in researching those from their locality who have signed the Morpeth Roll.”

Visitors to Ireland as part of The Gathering can view the Roll next year at NUI Maynooth to trace the signature of their ancestors and we should be able to offer them an insight into the life stories of their relatives.

The 1841 document was actually created on the insistence of O’Connell and a number of others when George Howard, Lord Morpeth departed from his political office in Ireland. It consists of 652 individual sheets of paper that were joined together to make a continuous page of 412 metres in length (almost three Croke Parks). That sheet was then rolled onto a mahogany spool and presented to Lord Morpeth at the Royal Exchange in Dublin.

He had been defeated in the general election that year, a result which prompted him to leave his position as Chief Secretary of Ireland.

The university is being assisted by Castle Howard in Yorkshire, Ancestry and the Office of Public Works on the project. To launch the campaign, a conference is being held this weekend in Maynooth.

The Roll itself will be uncovered in March 2013 when it will tour the country, taking in stays at Farmleigh, Derrynane, Kilkenny, Clonmel and Belfast. It will then return to Maynooth where it will remain on public view.

Free genealogy advisory service offered at the National Archives of Ireland

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