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Queen's First Women

Dr Shannon Devlin

October 2022 marks 140 years since Queen’s College, Belfast (now Queen’s University, Belfast) became the first university in Ireland to admit women to classes. The nineteenth century witnessed rapid change in the push for more opportunities for women in education. The setting up of the Royal University of Ireland (RUI) in 1880 allowed women to matriculate and gain degrees on the same basis as men, preparing either at home or at liberal collegiate schools such as the co-educational Methodist College or Ladies’ Collegiate, Belfast (later Victoria College).[1] Spurred on by the RUI legislation, educational campaigners involved in the Belfast Ladies’ Institute, such as Isabella Tod, lobbied Queen’s College, Belfast (QCB) to admit women, stating it was unfair that they did not have the same access to professors – who wrote the RUI examinations – as male students. In 1882, Rev. J. L. Porter, President of QCB, received a petition from ‘influential persons in and around Belfast’ and the Senate finally admitted women to arts classes in 1882, science classes in 1883, and medical classes in 1889. The first nine women (the ‘Nine Graces’) graduated from the RUI in 1884 but it would be a further year before women attached to QCB joined their pioneering ranks. A recently unearthed photograph depicts some of the first women at Queen’s. Keen eyes on social media noted that only nine of the ten women were named (and further research proved that one of these names was wrong).

Crowdsourcing historical mysteries has become a popular pastime for many people on social media. #Twitterstorians and #AncestryHour hashtags on Twitter teem with tips for solving historical riddles. The National Library of Ireland has a regular group of ‘Photo Detectives’ who have been quietly filling in the gaps in the NLI catalogue on their Flickr page. The sleuthing in the comment section became so comprehensive that the NLI turned the findings into an exhibition in 2017. Trawling online forums, scouring Google Maps, or wading through Census records in the pursuit of an elusive puzzle piece has become part and parcel of historical research for amateurs and professionals alike. Funded by subscriptions from the general public, websites like Ancestry and FindMyPast are revolutionising how record collections are digitised for global access by millions of people every year. Historians like Jerome de Groot and Tanya Evans have been grappling with how this reciprocal process can be helpful for both academic historians and wider public history audiences. Genealogy can promote archival collections and museum exhibitions to a vast audience. On the other hand, the popularity of genealogy has allowed social historians access to digitised, searchable databases that previously remained in static archives.

'First women at Queen's College, Belfast, 1884'.
This picture was discovered during the renovations to the Queen's Students' Union in 2019.
Evidence suggests this picture was taken in 1886, the same day of the famed photograph of QCB graduates outside the Lanyon Building.
Some of the women, in the same clothing, can be seen in both photographs.


The First Women at QCB

Tracing women through the historical record can be notoriously difficult. Naming conventions in news reports or other biographical documents usually referred to women as ‘Miss’ or once they had married, by their husband’s name. The Calendars for Queen’s College, Belfast list everyone who attended as registered students in each academic year, which is a helpful starting point. All ten women appear in these lists during the period 1882-87. Most of the women were born just before the legal requirement to register births but looking for younger siblings can help flesh out details of their family background and provide clues in determining the previous generation of the family tree.


Birth registration of L. E. Anderson, 7 Dec. 1866. 
The registration tells us her family address, her father’s profession and her mother’s maiden name.


Unusual surnames or the inclusion of middle names help identify individuals across the historical record. Using genealogical methods, we can deduce that the women are:

Back row: Alice Anderson (1863-98), BA 1886; Alice Everett (1865-1949), BA 1887; MA 1889; Louisa Jane ‘Louie’ Wood (1863-1956), BA 1887; Helena Coburn (1863-98), BA 1886.

Middle row: [Florence ‘Flora’ Augusta Hamilton (1862-1908), BA 1886]; Annie Woods Haslett (1863-1939), BA 1885, MA 1887; [Letitia Alice Walkington (1854-1918), BA 1885, MA 1886, LLB 1888, LLD 1889].

Front row: Letitia Elizabeth Anderson (1866-1965), Mary Wilson, BA 1887; Sara Coburn (1864-1918), BA 1885.

However, people with very common names cannot be traced. For example, 251 Irish ‘Mary Wilsons’ were born in the period 1864-70 – too many to trace – and this number does not include any Mary Wilson born before birth registration was introduced in 1864, those Marys who were incorrectly registered, or Wilsons born outside of Ireland. This means that this particular Mary Wilson is unfortunately lost within the historical record. (If you know more about her, please drop me an email!)

The middle row is the main mystery of the photograph. First of all, attempts to trace ‘B Waddington’ were futile. No student under that name is listed as matriculating in the RUI and there appears to be little trace of any Waddington families in Ireland at this time. Creating hypothetical connections is a key method in building a family tree in order to piece together enough evidence to be sure you have the correct individual. The only Waddington deaths registered in Ireland belong to a couple who died in the Belfast Workhouse – not where you would expect the parents of a well-educated, middle-class woman to appear – and their children were too young attend university in the 1880s.

At a dead end, I turned to look for our missing student. A number of other names continually pop up in exam lists or news reports of student successes at QCB. One of these names was Letitia Alice Walkington (1854-1918). A pioneer in the Irish law profession, Letitia has her own Wikipedia page and, crucially, was profiled by the London Illustrated Press, providing us with a sketch to compare.

London Illustrated News, 13 Nov. 1897.


Convinced Walkington was in fact ‘B Waddington’ in the middle row, I turned to some of the other names attached to Queen’s at this time. Two other women graduated from QCB with their B.A. in 1886. Martha Kerrison Lynn (1865-1948), originally from Sligo, attended Belfast Ladies’ Collegiate before joining QCB briefly and completing her B.A. in ’86 through ‘private study’. She returned in 1890 to study for her M.A. The second was Florence Augusta Hamilton (1862-1908), who excelled in mathematics throughout her education, winning a number of valuable prizes and scholarships at Methodist College before graduating with her B.A. in ‘86 at QCB. By a stroke of luck, there were a number of photographs of Florence to compare to the group shot and I suggest that she is sitting on the left in the middle row (although, happy to take opinions on this!)


Florence Augusta Hamilton (1862-1908). Wikimedia Commons.


So who were they?

All of the women pictured were from the Ulster middle classes. Only two were not born in Ulster: Alice Everett was born in Glasgow but came with her father to Belfast when he took up a position as professor at Queen’s and Louie Wood was born in Co. Longford but had moved to Magherafelt as a child with her father’s ministry. All were Protestant reflecting the wider religious demographic of the Ulster middle classes and of Queen’s at this time – the Andersons, Everett, Hamilton, and Walkington were Anglican; the Coburn sisters and Haslett were Presbyterian; and Louie Wood was Methodist. In fact, four of the women were children of clergymen: Florence Hamilton’s father was rector at St Mark’s, Dundela; the Anderson sisters’ father was vicar of Upper Falls (Dunmurry); and Louie Wood’s father, a Methodist minister in Magherafelt. Alice Everett’s father was a professor at Queen’s, Sara and Helena Coburn’s family were seed merchants at Banbridge, Letitia Walkington’s father a lard merchant of Strandtown, and Annie Woods Haslett’s father a draper in Rathfriland.


Sara Coburn, B.A. This portrait was found in her husband’s memoir, James Carson, Carsons of Monaghan and Ballybay (Lisburn, 1931). 
Despite being dated 1890, it was probably taken on the same day as the group photograph.


Young women in the middle classes had the ability to devote time and money to studying in further education. This first cohort benefitted directly from the introduction of the Intermediate Education Act in 1878, all featuring prominently in prize lists in the period before they joined Queen’s. Most of the women also had other siblings in education at the same time – six Anderson siblings would eventually pass through QCB, three Haslett siblings attended concurrently with two other sisters at nearby Victoria College, and at least four Wood siblings attended QCB. Feeling the financial pinch, the education of brothers might be prioritised by parents with sisters or younger siblings receiving a short stint of schooling or expected to learn from older siblings. This was precisely why scholarships, prizes, and exhibitions for academic excellence were important for young academic women.

Porter claimed that the first female students settled into life at Queen’s well attending the same classes and experiencing university life just like their male counterparts (except for having to endure some of the men showing off…). However a problem was immediately clear following the first exam session. Whilst women could participate in the College competitions,  they could not win the monetary prizes like their fellow male students. In 1884, Alice Everett won first place in the science First University Examination and Florence Hamilton placed fourth in the science Second University Examination. Neither were allowed the prize attached to their position due to their gender.

Not having anticipated women to achieve prize positions, President Porter was forced to take the advice of the Attorney-General of Ireland whose (rather flimsy) excuse was that the statute of the university did not stipulate a student could be female. This crucial wording had to be changed by Queen Victoria herself. Over the next decade, QCB women continued to win and be refused QCB prizes. In 1889, Thomas Hamilton, who had taken over as President, argued strongly that this rule was the reason QCB still had relatively low numbers of women in the college: ‘there seems to be no good reason why, if ladies have the ability to gain our honours, they should be forbidden to enjoy them’.[2] And he was right – many bright young women would go to other colleges where they could win prizes – Alice Everett won a £42-a-year for three years scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, where she finished her B.A. and completed the mathematics tripos MA; Annie Woods Haslett won an RUI scholarship of £20 and returned to Victoria College on a John Brown Shaw Scholarship to study her M.A.; Mary Wilson placed first in her English and modern literature exams for the second year running, winning the Henry Hutchinson Stewart Scholarship worth £30-a-year for three years in 1887. Finally, after 14 years, the statute was changed in October 1896. Hamilton remarked that this would again change the nature of competition within the College, failing to see that women had been competing – and winning – the entire time the prize was refused to them.

Alice Everett’s profile in The Sketch, 22 Nov. 1893


After Queen’s

These ten women represent a fraction of the 45 women who attended QCB in the period 1882-90. All women completed their degrees at different times and most did so with a combination of classes at QCB and other schools, especially nearby Methodist College and Victoria College. Sara Coburn, Annie Haslett, and Letitia Walkington were the first to graduate in 1885 with their B.A. degree. They were followed by Alice Anderson, Helena Coburn, and Florence Hamilton in 1886, and Mary Wilson, Alice Everett and Louisa Wood in 1887. Despite attending QCB as a non-matriculated student in 1884 and matriculating the following year, Letitia Elizabeth Anderson appears to be the only woman featured in the photograph to not complete her degree.

Two of the women in this photograph went on to have particularly pioneering careers. As mentioned, Letitia Walkington became the first woman in Ireland or Great Britain to attain a law doctorate (the second, Frances Gray, was also a QCB grad). However, she recognised that she would not be called to the bar due to her gender and devoted her life instead to the ‘welfare of women and children’. A member of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association, she co-founded the Belfast Women’s Suffrage Society in 1912 where she acted as Vice-President. In 1918, she formed the Women Voters’ Union in Belfast to unite women workers but she died unexpectedly the same year before this could come into fruition. Alice Everett similarly was a pioneer in her profession. After completing her MA at Cambridge and a brief term at art school, Everett was invited to become the first female observer at the Greenwich Observatory where she operated a telescope and mapped stars. In 1895, she became the first woman to work at a German observatory and later went on to be a founding member of the Royal Television Society, pioneering television technology in the 1920s and 30s.

Many of the other women also had successful independent careers. Viewed as one of few acceptable professions for middle-class women, teaching was the most obvious route for many women with academic qualifications. (In 1893, Alice Everett commented that this was a ‘universal drift’ she was adamant not to follow). After a stint teaching at Victoria College, Annie Woods Haslett taught languages in her brother’s academy in Dublin. Martha Kerrison Lynn went to England as a governess. Louie Wood and her sister, Eva (QCB BA 1888) ran a school from their house on the Antrim Road offering support for those who wished to complete the RUI examinations.


Advertisement for Louie and Eva Wood’s school at their home, Alberta on the Antrim Road. 
Northern Whig, 24 Oct. 1888.


After her sister’s death in 1890, Louie Wood gave up her school and married, moving to England. Despite stretching nineteenth-century middle-class social boundaries, some Victorian stereotypes still remained and it was deemed inappropriate for married women to work. The unmarried Anderson sisters acted as housekeepers for their brother who was a Professor of Logic in Sheffield. Florence Hamilton married and turned to encouraging the academic achievements of her children, which included the author C. S. Lewis. The Coburn sisters married a set of brothers from Monaghan and exhibited their leadership skills in philanthropic circles, participating in Zenana Mission fundraising and non-militant suffrage activity. Sara Coburn was noted to be a keen debater and both sisters’ B.A. degrees are inscribed on their headstone in Ballybay Graveyard, hinting at how much they valued the achievement of attaining their degrees. No matter their path after Queen’s, all of the first women to attend pushed for educational reform for those coming after them.

Historians who view family history sleuthing as ‘just’ a hobby have a lot of learn from keen genealogists. This approach can provide insight into the lived experiences of people in the past and is particularly helpful in filling in gaps where other records no longer survive. Biographical material, migration records, testamentary material, gravestone inscriptions, and personal memoirs allow historians to piece together both micro- and macro-histories revolutionising how we can explore and understand the past.

The information for this blog was derived from a number of sources including: the Census of Ireland, 1901 & 1911; the Census of England, 1891, 1901 & 1911 (digitised by Ancestry); Irish civil registrations of births, marriages, & deaths (digitised by the GROI); the Irish newspaper collection, the Sketch & Illustrated London News (digitised by the British Newspaper Archive); PRONI digitised will and probate collection; President Reports of Queen’s College Belfast, 1884-90 (digitised here); and the QCB Calendars, 1883-90 (held in the Queen’s University Archive, with thanks to Ursula Mitchel).


See also:

TW Moody and JC Beckett, Queen's Belfast, 1845-1949: the history of a university (Faber, 1959).

Aoife O’Leary McNeice, ‘Bored bluestockings and frivolous flirts: dynamics of gender and the experiences of the first female students of Queen’s College Cork, 1879-1910’ in Irish Studies Review, 28, no. 4 (2020), pp 446-50.

[1] Attendance at an approved university or college was not required until the University (Ireland) Act, 1908.

[2] QCB President’s Report, 1888-89.

Melissa Baird is a PhD researcher at QUB studying Irish America and the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement, and the curator of “1922 – 1972 – 2022: Years of Chaos and Hope” at the Linen Hall Library.

Years of Chaos and Hope was my first ever major exhibition, though I had organised some one-day poster exhibitions and academic conferences. To add further pressure, this exhibition was for the Linen Hall Library, one of the most treasured libraries and museums on the island of Ireland, whose renowned Northern Ireland Political Collection attracts scholars from across the world.

The Linen Hall Library’s reputation is one of being a shared, inclusive space – demonstrated most clearly through its permanent display of political posters from almost every point of view in the Northern Irish conflict. This was just one example of how the Linen Hall carves out a rare space for us not to shy away from our history in our attempts at reconciliation, but rather lay in all out to bare, so we can at least see multiple perspectives, even if we do not agree with them.

It was with this in mind that I tackled the exhibition. The brief was an exhibition to explore 1922 and 1972, the two bloodiest years in the 1920s troubles and our more recent conflict. Taking the lead from previous exhibitions, I decided to use the Linen Hall and its archives as my framework to showcase these years.

And so, I began step one of exhibition planning: trawling through the archive.

The Linen Hall’s diverse archive gave me a wide vantage point to delve into 1922 and 1972 from as an objective view as possible. The breadth of the archive meant that most of the main issues were well-documented, and I could rely almost entirely on the library’s collections to showcase both these years. Then I began to realise I was developing a problem that I had never came across in my own research: I had too much material.

In almost every archive I have visited for my PhD research, I have encountered the familiar nightmare of waiting at my reading desk for my big, bulky, treasure-trove of documents to be brought out, only for a thin sliver of a file to be placed flatly in front of me. I am used to scurrying around looking for other sources, not trying to limit them. But within the archives of the Northern Ireland Political Collection there are so many different artefacts in relation to 1972 in particular that I needed to focus in on themes shared between then and 1922.

Step two: selecting themes

From my own research, I was aware of the significant events of 1972: Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, the imposition of Direct Rule, and the escalating opposition to internment. I was vaguely aware of the key issues in 1922: sectarian violence in the north, the split in Irish Republicanism over the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the introduction of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act. Aside from that, I was very conscious that what united 1922 and 1972 was that they represented the peak years of violence in their respective eras of trouble. In the first six months of 1922 over 150 people died as a result of political violence in Belfast alone, while 1972 was the year of the highest number of casualties throughout the three decades of political conflict known now as the Troubles. From this I had a lot of information to cover so I began to structure the information around three key themes for both years: the Linen Hall snapshot, the troubles times, and the arrests and interventions.

Theme 1: The Linen Hall Snapshot

It was necessary to include some broad context to the years of 1922 and 1972, plus some insights into what was going on within the Linen Hall Library at the time, so for this I decided to call this section the Linen Hall Snapshot. For 1922, I wanted to give a glimpse of what was happening on the island of Ireland, as well as the ramifications of the hardening border across it. This gave me the opportunity to showcase the numerous items we hold from the Irish Civil War, including a photo of National Army Leader Michael Collins lying in state following his death on this very day 100 years ago (22nd August 1922). We also have various publications from groups from either side of the Treaty divide, as well as pamphlets from religious groups advocating for peace. We also have on display artefacts relating to northern republicans, such as Hugh Magee from Cushendun, County Antrim, and the County Tyrone-born, anti-Treaty IRA leader, Joseph McKelvey.

For 1972, the Linen Hall snapshot was my chance to sneak in some areas of hope in an otherwise dreadful year. Alongside the escalation of intercommunal tensions in Northern Ireland, sports stars like Mary Peters brought some much-needed relief when she won her gold medal at the Munich Olympics in September 1972, of which we held plenty of photos in our archive. Thus, by giving the Linen Hall’s perspectives first, I could give an overview of key issues, plus showcase some of our important holdings which did not fit neatly into our other themes.

Theme 2: Troubled Times

As mentioned before, 1922 and 1972 were marked by the highest levels of violence from their respective times. In 1922, tit-for-tat killings were common, with civilians like the McMahon family and catholic girls playing in Weaver Street being killed almost certainly in retaliation for IRA attacks. One such attack which prompted a fierce response from the Northern Irish government was the IRA assassination of Unionist M.P. William Twaddell on 22 May in Belfast city centre. Twaddell’s murder led to the implementation of widespread internment without trial that very night. The media’s reaction to Twaddell’s murder was well-documented in a large scrapbook of newspaper clippings I found in the Linen Hall archives, alongside a plethora of printed material from catholic clergy and sympathisers complaining about the treatment of Catholics and nationalists in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile in 1972, troubled times had returned to Northern Ireland following the backlash to the civil rights movement, which contributed to groups like the IRA rearming, and the development of loyalist paramilitaries like the Ulster Defence Association. 1972 encapsulated two of the bloodiest days in Northern Ireland’s history: Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday. Bloody Sunday was on 30 January when soldiers from the Parachute Regiment of the British Army opened fire on an anti-internment march in the Bogside area of Derry/Londonderry, killing 14 people. The reaction to Bloody Sunday was intense, and the subsequent inquiries which basically exonerated the British Army provoked further outrage from nationalists and republicans. There has been extensive material produced about Bloody Sunday, its legacy and commemoration, and the archives of Linen Hall alone contains stickers, posters, postcards, and photographs amongst many others about the massacre.  On Bloody Friday, which was 21 July, the IRA set off over 20 bombs in under 90 minutes, killing 9 people and injuring many more. Unlike Bloody Sunday, however, there was little produced about the day or even to commemorate it, apart from pamphlets of condemnation from the Northern Ireland Office.

Theme 3: Arrests and Intervention

The third theme was the clearest to me from the beginning. One of the first items I picked up in the archive was a folder labelled “correspondence from the prison ship Argenta.” HMS Argenta was the prison ship the Northern Irish government had to purchase in their scramble to house the booming prison population as a result of their implementation of internment without trial. On the night of 22 May 1922, authorities picked up over 200 men. At that time, Northern Ireland only had three jails at its disposal: Derry/Londonderry, Armagh and Belfast. Consequently, the government purchased the Argenta, a former American cargo ship and transformed it into a prison facility, and likewise with their acquisition of the Larne workhouse.

Internment without trial had been made legal under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act, which was passed on 7 April 1922. The act gave civil authorities sweeping powers such as to introduce curfews and impose restrictions on licenced premises. Although initially enacted as a temporary measure, the Special Powers Act remained in place for over 50 years. Unionist politicians argued that it was necessary to restore law and order to Northern Ireland, particularly the threat from the IRA. For nationalists, however, the Special Powers Act reaffirmed unionist dominance in Northern Ireland. Its continuance and almost exclusive use on the Catholic minority population formed a major part of nationalist resentment towards the Government of Northern Ireland.

Thus, fast forward to the early 1970s, and the Special Powers Act continued to form the basis of nationalist agitation against the government, exacerbated by the decision to re-introduce internment in August 1971. By 1972, opposition to internment had overtaken all other civil rights demands, which was clear from the archives at the Linen Hall, as many of the posters and political publications from this time were in protest to the measure.

After internment had failed to curb the violence, and especially after Bloody Sunday, the UK government intervened. On 24 March, UK Prime Minister Ted Heath announced that Westminster would be “assuming full and direct responsibility for the administration of Northern Ireland until a political solution to the problems of the province can be worked out.” Heath then assigned Northern Ireland a Secretary of State, William Whitelaw. Whitelaw introduced the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act 1972, which suspended the Stormont Government from 30 March and transferred all powers to Westminster.

Like the Special Powers Act, Direct Rule was enacted as a temporary measure for 12 months.  However, except for a brief period in 1974, Northern Ireland remained under Direct Rule until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which paved the way for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Step Three: Panic about the Public

At this stage, I had the artefacts selected and I had all this information roughly drafted into sections, but the lingering concerns about the public’s reaction started to amplify. Trying to recreate shared historical narratives is difficult in any setting, but in an area with such a contentious and contested past, and particularly in years as pivotal as 1922 and 1972, there were extra concerns. These were dark times for the people of Northern Ireland, and I was aware that many visitors might have vivid memories, unique to them, which may not be totally reflected in the items on display in the exhibition.

I also stressed about how I wrote the text for the display panels. I tried to leave the interpretation as much in the reader’s hands as possible, which I suspect is the main problem for historians whose academic training teaches the opposite. I rationalised that the exhibition was not intended to be an extensive investigation into the whys of 1922 and 1972, nor was it supposed to represent a universal experience, for that simply does not exist. As a result, I emphasised that the exhibition gives an insight from multiple and sometimes conflicting viewpoints, as found in the Linen Hall’s archives, and more importantly, across the society in which we live.

Finally, I will end on the lessons I’ve learned from my first real exhibition:

  • Be cognizant of the people, and their sensitivities connected to the history about which you are exploring
  • Let the above influence how you present information but do not let it dictate it either
  • Realise that a shared history does not necessarily mean one that everyone agrees on, but rather a representation of issues that affected most if not all sections of society
  • Make sure everything fits in your cabinets before the exhibition launch day!




Hi! My name is Grace Gordon, I’m an MA in Public History graduate from Donegal currently working as a curatorial staff member with the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

I chose to do the MA in Public History in 2018, the very first year that it was run as a Master’s programme at Queen’s University Belfast. What initially drew me to the course was the emphasis on preparing students to work in the history and heritage sector and the 30-day internship - I knew that I wanted to work in a history role but I had no practical experience and wasn’t exactly sure where to start! In the MA in Public History, we learned the fascinating theory behind how history is presented in public spaces and particularly how it manifests in Northern Ireland. On top of this, the course was able to show me the wide range of jobs outside of an academic setting that I could work in with my history degree.

The MA course attracted a group of friendly and enthusiastic students from all over the world. Each of us had our own unique research interests and perspectives which led to some very lively discussions in our tutorial groups.

MA in Public History Class 2018/19


For me, the idea that folklore and folk history could be used as a public history resource really grabbed me early on in the course. The exaggerated folk stories that we grow up hearing can have as much to tell about the history of a community as the same history represented in a museum or academic paper. When the Private Records team at PRONI let us know that they were offering an internship cataloguing the papers of Armagh folklorist, Michael J Murphy, I jumped at the chance!

My internship was invaluable – Through working with PRONI, I gained hands-on, practical experience and learned the basics of archival standards and cataloguing. My internship also helped me to understand how PRONI operated as an institution and how the preservation of history is achieved on a governmental level.

During my internship, I managed to help the wonderful Private Records team to sort, box and begin cataloguing over 60 boxes of Michael J Murphy’s papers. I became so familiar with this collection that it sparked the basis of my dissertation - although I think in reality maybe I just didn’t want to let it go so soon!

Internship module- poster presentation 2019


After my dissertation was submitted, I started to look for vacancies in history and heritage roles in Belfast. My internship supervisor at PRONI got in contact with me and let me know that there was a temporary administrative position opening at the archive. I applied for the role through the employment agency that advertised the post and was delighted to be accepted. My first day working at PRONI was the day after my graduation ceremony in 2019 and I’ve been with them ever since! Although I started out in an administrative role, as I gained experience I was able to apply for a temporary curatorial role in the same department, giving me more responsibilities in my work with the Private Records team.

We look after material held by PRONI from a range of sources including private businesses, charities, clubs and societies, community groups, families, individuals and churches. Every day at PRONI is different from the last, although generally, I deal with written queries from the public. These can come in the form of:

  • Access requests from students and researchers to work with collections closed to the public.
  • Requests for permission to use PRONI material in articles, exhibitions and academic papers.
  • General queries relating to any of the thousands of collections at PRONI and requests for copies.
  • Contact from members of the public who have material that they would like to deposit with PRONI.

Samples of the PA MagLochlainn papers D4779

Like during my internship, I also get the chance to sort and catalogue some of the diverse collections held at PRONI and help to make them more accessible to the public. Every so often, the Private Records team also help with public engagement and promotion of our collections via public talks and social media. Last December, each of us on the team tried our hands at recreating different Christmas recipes we could find in the archives and posted our varied results on PRONI’s social media! The Michael J Murphy Winter School also invited me and my manager to speak about our ongoing work with the Michael J Murphy Papers at PRONI and our plans for the collection in the future. More recently, I have also been given the responsibility for looking after interns working with our department, including some from the MA in Public History course! I got so much out of my internship, so I loved the opportunity to pass on the experience to this years’ batch of students!



The MA in Public History helped me to discover an interest I never knew I had in archival work and to build up relevant practical experience in a role I enjoyed immensely. I have been able to see first-hand how PRONI has been putting into practice the public history theory I learned on my course. It is incredibly exciting to be working at PRONI at a point in time when there is a focus on adding context to collections, on improving accessibility to the public and on promoting diversity at the archive.


By Grace Gordon

Uploaded 11 July 2022

Although the pilgrimage to Lough Derg in County Donegal is today primarily undertaken by Irish nationals, during the Middle Ages the remote pilgrimage site was renowned throughout Europe, and drew individuals from across the continent. All these pilgrims were in search of one thing – Saint Patrick’s Purgatory.

According to legend, Jesus had revealed a cave to Patrick when he had returned to Ireland from Britain, in order to bring Christianity to the Irish. This cave, on Station Island in Lough Derg, was believed to be a gateway to Purgatory, where anyone brave enough to descend would be taken through Purgatory, experiencing visions of both Paradise and Hell. From as early as the 12th century, tales of this fantastical place began to spread throughout Europe, and by the 14th century pilgrims were coming to Ireland from as far away as France, Italy and Hungary.

We are lucky enough to bear witness to the journeys these pilgrims made, thanks to a number of narrative accounts which have survived. It seems that whilst the majority of foreign pilgrims during the medieval period followed a route from Dublin to Lough Derg via Armagh, it was not uncommon for them to make a detour to Downpatrick. It was here that the pilgrims could venerate the relics of Brigit, Colum Cille, and, of course, Patrick, which had been ‘discovered’ there by John de Courcy in the late 12th century. 

A day trip to Downpatrick is a must for any history fan, particularly those interested in Ireland’s patron saint. Just on the outskirts of the town you can visit the majestic remains of Inch Abbey, which are accessible from a small carpark nearby. Although the abbey was not explicitly linked with Saint Patrick, the monk Jocelin of Furness wrote his ‘Life of Patrick’ here, when it was founded in the 12th century. The impressive ruins are set within the quiet Irish countryside, and are well worth a walk around!

One 16th century Italian visitor to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory noted stopping at Downpatrick, and visiting a nearby waterfall, where he said ‘the pilgrims enter it and say a pater noster and an ave Maria as well as the prayer of St. Patrick. They remain there on their knees with the water falling all the time on the top of them; and this, they say, was done by St. Patrick’.[1]

It is thought that he is referring to the nearby Struell Wells; again, another site just outside Downpatrick. Today you can still explore the grounds of these holy wells, where pilgrims have been coming for centuries! Take a wander around the ruins of the church, two bathhouses, and two wells. Don’t forget to check out Saint Patrick’s Chair, situated to the south of the site; legend has it that the saint used to sleep there.

Within Downpatrick itself, the Saint Patrick Centre is a must; in fact, it is the only permanent exhibition on Saint Patrick in the world![2] Here you can discover everything you need to know about the patron saint, from his Roman background, through to his conversion of the Irish, and the subsequent hagiographical writings which recount his life.

Down Cathedral, which stands on the site of a Benedictine Monastery, is also worth visiting; it features the burial place of Saint Patrick within its grounds.

Whether it’s a trip to Downpatrick or one of the many parades around the globe, wherever you are and whatever way you are spending Saint Patrick’s Day this year, I hope you enjoy it! Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit!


Tara Shields


[1] (accessed 11/3/22).

[2] (accessed 11/3/22).