- Content and Style
- Significance as a Source
- Provenance (The Diary’s Journey)
- Summary of Contents
Mary Martin, the author of the diary, was a wealthy Roman Catholic widow and mother of twelve children. In 1916, when the diary was written, she was living in Monkstown, an affluent and largely Protestant suburb of Dublin. The First World War had broken out nearly a year and a half earlier and many young Irishmen were serving in the British Army.
Mary’s son, Charlie, was one such soldier and at the time Mary started writing the diary he was missing in action on the Salonika front (where a Franco-British force landed at Salonika in Greece to defend Serbia against the advance of a Bulgarian army). Mary wrote the diary to Charlie as if it were an extended letter – in the hope that he would return soon and, by reading its pages, feel as though he hadn’t missed anything while being away.
For Mary the diary must have been much more than an account of her daily life; it must have been a way of holding Charlie close in her thoughts, allowing her to think of him every day as if he were there participating in ordinary events rather than being somewhere else possibly sick and wounded, or dead.
Content and Style
While diaries are personal documents, some are written in the knowledge that they will be read by a wide audience at some point (for instance the British politician Alan Clarke). Mary Martin’s diary had only one intended reader: her son Charlie, and as such it is a deeply personal document. The style of writing is very measured and the personal comments and observations tend to be informative rather than critical or gossipy. This may reflect Mary’s character, the social norms of the time, or the fact she was consciously noting down the things that she felt would be of interest to Charlie rather than using the diary for internal reflection.
The diary covers a wide range of topics – from reports of how the war is progressing, to cultural events and the minutiae of everyday life such as ailments, weather and family news. The diary reflects Mary’s own world view – she is distanced from the Rising (as a upper middle class Catholic she would not associate herself with these events) and yet she shows empathy towards the soldiers who, like her own son, have been called up for duty.
Mary’s writing itself is relatively neat and easy to read. She doesn’t use paragraphs particularly frequently and her full stops often appear to be more like dashes. There are very few spelling mistakes or word omissions, suggesting that she was well-educated.
Significance as a Source
There are many accounts of 1916 and World War I but Mary Martin’s diary is significant because rather than being retrospective, it is an eye-witness account of the events as they unfolded. While Mary was not directly involved in the Easter Rising (which took place in April 1916), she provides her own unique perspective on it, discussing for instance how her daughters Ethel and Violet get caught up in the barricades on the way home from a day at the Fairyhouse races.
As well as providing a unique insight into political and military events, Mary Martin’s diary enriches our understanding of social history, providing some insights into the social networks and activities in which an upper middle class Roman Catholic woman of the period might be engaged. It may also be of interest to local and family historians.
Provenance (The Diary’s Journey)
How did this diary, nearly 100 years old, survive and make its way to the National Library of Ireland?
The fact that the diary still exists suggests that it had deep value to Mary herself. Even when she knew her for certain that her son Charlie was dead, she kept it. We will never know her precise reasons for keeping the diary, but can speculate that Mary could not bear to destroy something she had created for Charlie and that its very existence represented a time of hope for her.
In September 1997 the National Library of Ireland purchased Mary’s diary from Eamonn De Búrca of De Búrca Rare Books. We are not sure of its journey prior to this.
After being in the Library for fifteen years, the diary is now on the next stage of its journey. Having been exhibited online by a team of Digital Humanities students in Ireland, one mother’s poignant story is now available for the world to read.
It is written in a purpose-made volume – Browne’s Whole Page Diary for 1916, manufactured by Browne and Nolan Ltd., Nassau Street, Dublin. The spine length is approximately 22.5 centimetres while the width of the book is approximately 16.5 centimetres.
The diary includes printed pages: a 1916 ‘Almanack’; details of stamp and excise duties, taxes, fees, commissions etc.; war taxes, new postal rates; and a table for calculating interest. It also has printed cash account pages for each month – Mary wrote on these pages but adapted the format preferring to divide up her accounting calculations by type of expenditure.