About the Lisburn Catholics and the Great War Research Project
At the beginning of the Decades of Centenaries in 2012, there was a recognition amongst the research staff in the museum that while there was a good understanding of the contribution of Lisburn’s Protestant population to the Great War (1914-18), there was little known about the role the town’s Catholics played in the conflict. To correct this, and to better understand the part played by parishioners of St Patrick’s (the town’s Catholic Church on Chapel Hill), the museum launched a research project in 2015. The project aimed to explore the lives of Catholic men from St Patrick’s who enlisted, examining their backgrounds, the regiments they fought in, and the places they served and died in. The project outcomes would be used to underpin the museum’s exhibition programme, and foster further research into the Great War – across denominations – in Lisburn.
The project was supported by St Patrick’s Parish Church, Chapel Hill, and facilitated by then Councillor Pat Catney. The museum held an exploratory meeting in February 2015 at St Patrick’s Parish Centre, Chapel Hill, for those interested in getting involved. The museum was keen to work with parishioners or local researchers with interests in Lisburn Catholics or WWI.
Key contributors to the project included local WWI historian Pat Geary, Gavin Bamford (History Hub Ulster), Ted Rooney, senior St Patrick’s parishioner, and Pearse Lawlor, local author. By March 2015 work had begun on a data collection exercise, collating a range of data on the men: names, address, occupations, service records, death, post-war career and so on.
This exercise was ‘crowd researched’; using a range of digital tools – including Trello, Google Docs, as well as online databases – the project’s participants worked together, but remotely, to collate as much information together into a shared database. An edited version of the database can be viewed on http://the-great-war.lisburnmuseum.com/ and was completed by summer 2015.
In tandem with the data collection exercise, one-to-one interviews were carried out with family members of former servicemen from the Catholic community. Many of these family members had attended the exploratory meeting in February 2015, or had approached the museum in response to coverage of the project in the local press.
What worked well and what, if anything, didn’t?
On a number of accounts the project was a success. First, the depth and variety of the museum’s collections have been enhanced, with the acquisition of a number of medals, books, photographs and other objects relating the Lisburn Catholics and the Great War. Second, the museum’s exhibition programme, and the visitor experience, has benefited from the addition of new stories and perspectives. Evidence of this was immediately visible in visitor feedback. Third, significantly there has been a greater and sustained engagement from members of Lisburn’s Catholic community with the museum. Fourth, the relative success of the project has spurred other Great War-related projects, including the museum’s Great War database, an interactive database detailing the town’s dead from every denomination, see: http://www.lisburn-and-the-great- war.com
It was anticipated that the project’s outcomes would be used solely to underpin the museum’s Great War exhibition programme. Yet, given the favourable response to the project, and the range of material generated, the museum was able to raise its original ambitions. As well as supporting the exhibition programme, material from the project contributed to a dedicated exhibition on the Easter Rising in 1916. Titled ‘Rising Voices, Lisburn at Easter 1916’, the exhibition told the story of Easter 1916 from a number of perspectives, from the Advanced Nationalists (e.g. local man Ernest Blythe), through to Lisburn unionists, state forces, and local Catholics, including those serving in the war. It was one of a handful of Easter Rising exhibitions mounted by museums in Northern Ireland, and the only exhibition on the island of Ireland in 2016 to examine the Rising from a northern perspective. The same material, gathered from the ‘Lisburn Catholics and the Great War Research Project’, supported a talk delivered in Dublin on Easter Monday 2016 as part of RTE’s ‘Reflecting the Rising’ programme. Further, the project has promoted and supported further research into the post-war period, featuring in the museum’s 2017 exhibition ‘Lisburn 1918-23; community conflict and commemoration after the Great War’ and the museum’s acclaimed ‘The Swanzy Riots: August 1920’ online exhibition, launched in August 2020. The display explored one of the most difficult episodes in Lisburn’s recent past: the I.R.A. murder of DI Swanzy and the forcing out of many of the town’s Catholic population. See https://www.lisburnmuseum.com/virtual-museum/swanzy-riots/
The project is featured in the Community Relations Council ‘Decades of Centenaries Toolkit’ of best practice.
Ciaran Toal, email@example.com, www.lisburnmuseum.com