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RCB Library Notes

Unique record of turbulent Ireland from 1912 to 1923 now available to explore online

Handwritten note on ‘rebellion', RCB Library Ms 253/4
Handwritten note on ‘rebellion', RCB Library Ms 253/4

A further digitization project at the RCB Library – the Church of Ireland’s central library and repository for archives – sees a significant run of the ‘Record’ of the RCB Library’s founding benefactor, Rosamond Stephen (1868–1952) digitised and searchable online for the first time. 

This was made possible through funding from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media under the Decade of Centenaries Programme, described in full at this link: www.gov.ie/en/publication/a5ead–decade–of–centenaries

The period covered for the digitization project is 1912–23 with some additional smaller excerpts for the period 1902–07 also included to put the source into further historical context. The period covered includes Stephen’s relocation from Belfast to Dublin, as well as her observations on events of national significance.

An in–depth assessment of the value of Rosamond Stephen’s ‘Record’ to the Irish Revolutionary Period (1912–23) by the noted academic, Dr Ian d’Alton accompanies the online release. Drawing on a quote from the source, the piece is entitled ‘We have all got to go on living together’ and can be viewed with accompanying illustrations as the latest Archive of the Month offering published online by the RCB Library here: https://bit.ly/460tRhn

Portrait of Rosamond Emily Stephen aged 23 by her sister, Dorothea Stephen, 1892. RCB Library Collection
Portrait of Rosamond Emily Stephen aged 23 by her sister, Dorothea Stephen, 1892. RCB Library Collection

Here Dr d’Alton’s assessment of Stephen’s contribution examines her place as an ‘insider–outsider’ viewing Ireland, north and south, paying particular attention to both her politics and role as recorder of ‘oral history’.

She is the chronicler of the ordinary, a person of faith who nevertheless recognises and accepts the genuineness of a different faith in others. She has a firm politics which barely wavers over these turbulent years. It is a tolerant politics with a recognition of reality. All this may stem from her essential ‘outsiderness’ to Ireland; but in many respects she offers a wider vision of Protestant Irishness – north and south – that often eluded those whose noses were pressed too close to the glass to see the vistas beyond.

Rosamond Stephen was a grand–daughter of a British colonial under–secretary and academic, daughter of a High Court judge and a cousin to Virginia Woolf.  Brought up as a theist, she eventually found an amenable and amiable home within the Church of Ireland, being confirmed in 1896. Holidaying in Louth in the late nineteenth century seems to have awakened a love for Ireland and she eventually moved to Belfast in the early twentieth century, describing herself simply as ‘a church worker’.

In 1901 she formed the Guild of Witness, the purpose of which was a prayerful encouragement of ‘patriotism and [to] discover fresh ways by which the Church could fulfil her mission to the nation’. This became the Irish Guild of Witness in 1918 with an emphasis on Irishness, including the language.  Rosamond lived in Belfast until 1919 when she came to Dublin. Eschewing proselytism, Rosamond publicly encouraged warm relations between Catholics and Protestants and batted away objections and opposition from various critics with politeness and good humour. She had a small but eclectic lending library. With 5,000 volumes, in 1931 it became the nucleus of the present–day RCB Library – in Archbishop Gregg’s words after Rosamond’s death ‘a most valuable possession’.

Cover for the last section of ‘The Record', for 1922, covering 8th October to 22nd December 1922, RCB Library Ms 253/4
Cover for the last section of ‘The Record', for 1922, covering 8th October to 22nd December 1922, RCB Library Ms 253/4

Another ‘most valuable possession’ is Stephen’s ‘Record’, largely copy–typewritten letters returned to her by the recipients (her mother until her death in 1912, and then mainly her sisters, Dorothea in India and Kate in Cambridge) and her own journal entries that cover the years from 1902 to 1940. These letters and observations (some of which remain also in her original long and distinctively neat spidery handwriting) chronicle Ireland north and south. Stephen turned out to be an acute and perceptive observer of the [Irish] revolutionary period in its big things and little things.

Both the typescripts and longhand copies are now available to a worldwide audience to search – either for a specific year or in their entirety – with useful instructions for users available through the online finding aid devised by our service provider Informa.

To view and search Rosamond Stephen’s ‘Record’ from 1912–23 (with some additional smaller excerpts for the period 1902–07) click on this link: https://esearch.informa.ie/rcbrstephen

Dr Ian d’Alton was interviewed about the ‘Record’ and the life of Rosamond Stephen on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme on Sunday, 10th September 2023. The interview is available to listen back here in BBC Sounds (from 01:07:17 to 01:17:55).

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