On a roll - a mammoth list of signatures from 1841 on display in Maynooth

The Morpeth Roll.
A PARISH Priest who commissioned the spire for Naas Parish Church is one of the identifiable names on a list of over 160,000 signatures from 1841 on display to the public in NUI Maynooth.

A PARISH Priest who commissioned the spire for Naas Parish Church is one of the identifiable names on a list of over 160,000 signatures from 1841 on display to the public in NUI Maynooth.

Fr Gerald Doyle is one of signatories on a mammoth document which is literally a roll of signatures which constitutes a “who’s who” of prominent figures in Irish life from a date virtually on the eve of the Famine of the 1840s.

The roll known as the “Morpeth Roll” is currently on display in the ultra-modern new library at NUI Maynooth which is in itself a great addition to the educational resources of Co Kildare.

The exhibition includes a series of display boards which brilliantly describe how the “Morpeth Roll” was created and tells the story of how this revelatory insight into 1840s Ireland was forgotten about until discovered in the basement of a stunning period mansion in Yorkshire.

Since then a team from NUI Maynooth involving historians and conservators have worked to preserve the document and maximise its usefulness for researchers and family-tree tracers.

A key part of this strategy has been – as well as highlighting the document and its record-making physical properties – to make the list of names available in a digital format which involved teaming up with the gargantuan genealogy website www.ancestry.com where the 160,000 or so names can be searched by those keen to add a little branch or two to their family tree foliage.

Many of the names comprise of the signature but with no other identifying particulars so some luck is needed to make a definitive connection with a name on the Morpeth Roll. However some of the signatures are appended with addresses or an occupation which makes it possible to pin down some names to particular areas.

Thence a search of the Ancestry website with the word “Naas” brings up the signature of Fr Gerald Doyle who, from other information, is known to have been Parish Priest of Naas in the 1840s/1850s.

A search for Athy reveals the name of one James Byrne; Newbridge, one Thomas Kavanagh; and for Maynooth brings up the names of a Samuel Cushion and James Edwards.

Clergy feature in the roll including the Parish Priests of Naas, Maynooth and Leixlip.

This is not entirely surprising as one of the inspirations behind the creation of the roll was the hero of Catholic Emancipation, Daniel O’ Connell, Ireland’s most popular politician in the mid 19th century.

O’Connell had mobilised the signatures as a tribute to George Howard, Lord Morpeth, when Morpeth left his post as Chief Secretary – the British Government’s minister in charge of Ireland – in 1841.

Morpeth was the name of the Howard family’s estate town in Yorkshire and it was this title which attached its name to the roll.

Unusually for a British minister in Ireland Morpeth was popular with a wide section of the Irish population – particularly the Catholic middle classes.

Among his achievements which have left their mark to the present day was legislation reforming the rotten town corporations in the early 19th century and the establishment of the Poor Law administration.

Both measures formed the legislative basis to the local government system which prevails – albeit with many modifications – in Ireland to the present day.

The roll was created in 1841 at the instigation of O’Connell who was joined by Kildare’s most prominent citizen, the Duke of Leinster who lived at Carton, the process of creating what was in effect a gigantic “Sorry You’re Leaving” tribute.

The process involved acquiring tens of thousands of signatures from all parts of Ireland.

The signatures were collected on over 650 sheets of parchment.

Had these been bound in a file it might not have made such an impact.

But it was decided to join the sheets to make one very long continuous document measuring over 400 metres long (about three times the length of Croke Park).

The document was then rolled painstakingly onto a mahogany spool and placed in a purpose made box of the same timber.

It was presented to Lord Morpeth in what is now City Hall in Dublin in September 1841 and brought with him on his departure to his family estate in Castle Howard, Yorkshire.

For many years the testimonial roll remained forgotten in the basement of the great house and it was only in recent years that it was discovered.

A crucial link was made with NUI Maynooth where Dr Terry Dooley of the University’s renowned centre for the study of historic houses and his colleagues recognised its value as a resource for illuminating a whole layer of Irish society from a time when few other records survive.

The outcome is the creation of the new database on the Ancestry website and the highly informative display exhibition which includes sections of the original roll and an example of the fascinating spool and mahogany box in which the 400 metre long document was stored untouched for over a century and a half.

Among the thought-provoking panels in the stimulating exhibition accompanying the document is a reflection on the role of the signature as the unique identifier of the human person.

The text points out how in the modern era our identification is operated through PIN Numbers and Passwords which are, in effect, intangible electronic impressions.

By looking at signatures on the rolls of such luminaries as O’Connell, Frederick Fitzgerald – 3rd Duke of Leinster, Charles Bianconi – public transport pioneer, and patriots Charles Gavan Duffy and Thomas Davis, one gets a spine-tingling moment of witnessing a personal mark made 170 years ago.

The exhibition is on view in the open area of the Library at NUI Maynooth which is on the university campus just off the Maynooth-Kilcock road.

The library has generous opening hours and the exhibition will remain until 13 April before it heads on tour to other parts of Ireland.

Series no: 325

- Liam Kenny