A digital parable (with a sledgehammer ending).

Here’s a true short story that you might find intriguing.

A few months ago, a friend convinced me to sign up for an online Irish History course. Having an interest, and with the centenaries of the (so called) Great war, the 1916 Irish rising and sundry other anniversaries looming, the topic of Irish History 1910 to 1923 seemed intriguing. So I signed on the dotted line and discovered that – improbably – the course was free. It was presented by an organisation called FutureLearn, in association with Trinity College Dublin.

The expectation on each student was about four hours of online work each week for six weeks, which seemed within my grasp. I had dim memories of previous online courses along the style of the Open University so I was unsure what i’d find on this occasion. To my great joy, what I discovered was an innovative use of multiple data banks, allied to an interactive thread of conversation, and the opportunity to learn from fellow students (many of whom evidently had a better grasp of the subject matter than I would ever have).

It helped that this period in Ireland was quite simply an amazing series of intersecting events over slightly more than a decade. The developing home rule movement was eclipsed by the ‘great lockout’, the formation of the citizens army, then the first world war broke out in 1914. Less that two years later, the Easter rising of 1916 swelled to have a major impact. Next the World War’s end saw the Irish war of independence begin shortly thereafter, with the subsequent civil war also looming. And finally the decade saw female emancipation, agrarian reform, and even communism rear its head in Ireland with the short lived Limerick soviet. So a pretty amazing period.

The course was engaging, and probably worth talking about in its own right. Each week focused on one aspect of the period – not a chronological trawl but material and questions about politics, economics, ‘ordinary lives’, social contexts and so on. The core material was a series of constructed videos, with typically a PDF attached of the chronology of events. Then there was a twitter-type ‘conversation’ where, in response to posed questions, all the participants were actively asked to offer opinions on what they had seen. This was very engaging, and people were asked to comment on each others contributions, which in turn triggered further debate, opinion, disclosure and learning. Augmenting this ‘chat’ was a set of links to other material – participants were urged to look at handbills from the time, silent Pathe newsreels, and also to check out databases from organisations like the Irish Defence forces pension records, the British war museum etc. So ‘reading around the course’ was integral, and typically a chronology of events was supplied to underpin the content being reviewed.

But then, the twist. The course offered links to databases, online resources like pension records, disability summaries, news-bills from the period, and to commonwealth graves records. All available from the kitchen table in a digitised, online world. My personal interest? My maternal grandfather died on the Somme on March 21 1918 in the last major German assault of WW1. He was 24 years old per the official records. His body was never found or perhaps just not identified, so he has no grave.

Growing up, he was the classic ‘photo in a frame’ on the sitting room war. My granny never remarried, never talked about it, never drew the pension to which she was entitled, and raised my mother, who was their only child, in relative poverty. So the mystery man remains an enigma. Albeit one who grew up during the period I’ve been reviewing. So when I idly clicked on the link to the ‘wills repository’ of Irishmen who enlisted 1914-1918 I really had no expectation. My surprise turned to astonishment when I found his last will and testament available online in PDF format. And opened it to see in the writing of Private Patrick Mulhall, serial #74027, my grandmother cited as his next of kin, in a perfectly legible document dated 28 October 1915.

It feels like finding a pearl. I’ll keep following the links to other digitised databases and try to put the picture together more fully. And already some of the other contributors to the online course have sent me further links to try. But if I ever needed proof of the power of this ‘Interweb thingy’, I have it now.

Postscript: An hour after my discovery, and by coincidence, I received a string of ‘keeping in touch’ whats-apps, from my son Karl, touring another former theatre of war in Vietnam on a moped. Yet another digital platform. Ironically, he’s 24 too. Makes you think.

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