The Archive Service of Donegal County Council is trying to locate relations of the late Daniel Doherty, who left Malin Head for Boston in the early 1900s and made a name for himself in the Irish political scene there.
Niamh Brennan, Donegal County Archivist, hopes to develop a travelling exhibition next year based on the archive’s collection of Mr Doherty’s papers, which include letters from John F. and Robert F. Kennedy and Charles DeGaulle.
“He had quite an amazing life,” Niamh said. Daniel Doherty died in the 1970s.
The archives give voice to the rich history of Donegal and its people, through the records and writings of organisations and individuals. As archivist, Niamh not only catalogues, researches and maintains the collections, but finds creative ways to bring them to the public.
“Over the last 20-odd years we’ve acquired more and more, which means we’ve a really good collection for Donegal,” Niamh said.
Archives are documents, such as minutes of county meetings, letters, maps, drawings, blueprints, manuscripts, literature, and other records. They tell us what generations of Donegal people said and did – even, at times, what they thought.
Archives in Donegal had been maintained by Donegal Library Services before Niamh became the County Archivist in 1999. Today the Lifford-based archives, part of the council’s Culture Division, are home to more than 10,000 catalogued pieces that span centuries, with the oldest dating back to 1682.
These collections detail the history of Donegal through records of the Grand Jury, Poor Law Commissioners and Local Government Board, Donegal Board of Health, rural and urban district councils, Donegal County Council, Ballyshannon town and harbour commissioners, the County Committee of Agriculture, school records, literary collections, estate papers, photographs, oral histories, and more.
The more personal pieces often draw the most attention. Niamh was interviewed by RTÉ News last year when the archive discovered a 19th-century Valentine’s Day letter in the collection of the Steele Nicholson family of Falmore House, Gleneely, Inishowen. This summer they were in the news after receiving documents related to the opening of the Coláiste Uladh building in Gorthork 50 years ago, including a letter from President Eamon de Valera to Breandán Mac Cnáimhsí, coláiste president.
“Often the human interest stories really do touch people,” Niamh said. “So you might have 500 valuation registers and people might come and look at those for their own family history, but they’re not going to generate national interest.”
Niamh works with researchers and others who visit the archives by appointment, and works closely with Donegal County Museum and the County Donegal Heritage Office on exhibitions and information packs to bring the archive’s treasures to a broader audience. Niamh also works with teachers and the Donegal Education Centre – education is a component of the Culture Division’s strategy.
The archive also produces booklets and other publications, and Niamh curated the exhibition, A Trek Through Time, which is travelling the county and uses photographs, letters, official documents, newspaper articles, and other archive items to illustrate themes and events from the past 250 years. She is working with the museum on an exhibition on emigration for the autumn.
There are some archive items online at the council website, but the job of digitizing the collections is time-consuming and costly. Now archivists also face the question of how to save records that never were in paper form. How will they be preserved, and how will they be made accessible?
The growing collection means that space is a challenge – even with two additional rented storage spaces, it’s getting tight. Still, Niamh encourages people to contact the archive before they throw away something that could be of significance to the history or culture of the county.
“We try to get out the message that before you destroy anything to come to the archives first to see if it’s worth preserving,” she said. If a document is worth preserving, Niamh will find room.