In February 2022, James Phelps, an MA student in Public History at UCD, joined the Poetry as Commemoration team to assist in identifying archival materials relating to the War of Independence and Civil War that could be used to inspire participants in creative writing workshops as well as commissioned poets.

James Phelps, MA Public History 2021/2022

When doing a project that requires the use of archives, the volume of collections housed in an archive can be very overwhelming. This was my feeling when I was informed that my internship for my Public History MA would be to assist the Poetry as Commemoration commission with finding documents in the UCD Archives. I had an extra challenge being an American student who had not learned the history of Ireland and now needed to decide what documents from 1916-1925 would be inspiring for creative writing groups.

Having a virtual meeting with Evelyn Flanagan from the UCD Special Collections, and one of my internship supervisors, about the process of searching the UCD Archive finding aids did a lot to ease my worries. Even with the sheer volume of items (the UCD Archives contains 225 deposited collections) I was given a framework of people and types of documents to focus on that made the process easier. It didn’t necessarily make it less time consuming but having a plan was very helpful.

Not every collection we wanted to look at had a digital copy of the finding aid. My internship for Poetry as Commemoration was only a month and, as I didn’t have a working relationship with other archives, I thought it best to use my time focusing on getting through the ones that had digital finding aids. That way we could get document copies quickly and build a database for the commissioned poets and the upcoming workshops.

The finding aids for some collections were a breeze to go through as the collection fit in one or two boxes while some of the other collections were ten, twenty, and up to two hundred boxes. This meant that, while I only needed to have about fifteen items to look at in the Archives per collection, I would have to find those fifteen out of hundreds of possible documents. I would end up finding dozens of documents that could work and then had to do some brutal trimming down. If time permitted, I would have looked at every possible document but it was just not possible. I tried to avoid documents that would be too repetitive while also trying to include a range of years and types of documents.

Once I had lists of items to review, I made appointments to go to the UCD Archives to look at them and see if they were as useful as their short descriptions made them seem. This was my first time in an archive and the staff of the UCD Archives were very kind and helpful. The first time going somewhere always makes me anxious as part of my Autism but I got very comfortable going down and using the microfilm and interacting with the staff.

This internship with the Poetry as Commemoration commission was a great opportunity. It reinforced to me that I enjoy research dives and that I am capable even when I’m working in a time period or a location that I am not as familiar with. My supervisors were wonderful and gave me enough framework without making me feel shoehorned in or over managed. I am proud to have had a role to play in Poetry as Commemoration and I hope the programme is a success.

James Phelps, MA Public History 2021/22