25 April 2024: A ground-breaking research project will harness powerful new digital technologies to uncover women’s experiences of extreme trauma and civil war in early modern Ireland.

The €2.5 million VOICES project, which was recently launched at an event in Trinity College Dublin (TCD), will revolutionise our understanding of 16th and 17th century Ireland and will offer a new narrative placing women’s perspectives at the centre of this transformative period of Irish history. It will be led by Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, Funded Investigator at the ADAPT SFI Research Centre for AI-Driven Digital Content Technology and Professor at the School of Histories and Humanities, TCD, and is funded by the European Research Council.

The project will also create and enable a new paradigm of historical research which will allow a new generation of scholars to answer longstanding research questions that were, until now, unachievable and even unimaginable.

“Women are largely absent from historical narratives, with the historical record privileging the perspectives of elites and elite men in particular. But ordinary women are not absent from the story of early modern Ireland; they are hiding in plain sight in fragments and passing mentions across a multitude of historic records – wills, maps, surveys, records of debt, and legal depositions,” explains Prof Jane Ohlmeyer.

The VOICES team of historians, literary scholars, data analysts, and computer scientists will combine pioneering digital approaches with historical scholarship to recover in a holistic and integrated way the marginalised voices, lifecycles, and identities of these women hidden in the ever-growing ‘digital windfall’ of historical documents being made available online by institutions nationally and internationally.

AI-driven text recognition tools, such as Transkribus, will be employed to assist with accessing, searching and analysing of historical documents, and new Generative AI tools will be explored.

Prof Declan O’Sullivan, ADAPT SFI Research Centre and School of Computer Science and Statistics, TCD, who leads the computer science aspect of the project, added: “I am delighted to be a co-Investigator in the VOICES project. Accessing and processing a diversity of historical data sources, ranging from unstructured testaments and depositions right through to more structured records, and turning this data into meaningful knowledge that is easily accessible to the public and researchers alike, presents a real technical challenge. It is a technical challenge however that we in ADAPT are confident that Knowledge Graph and AI-driven technologies will help us overcome.”

The resulting curated data will be represented in a Knowledge Graph, which will transform how this wealth of unstructured information can be organised, represented and searched. This online research tool will transform raw information into knowledge—and this knowledge will power new research and discovery. It will be available to researchers and the public to use online for free.

The five-year project will:

  • Access, interrogate and document previously inaccessible information on ordinary women.
  • Build a powerful open-access tool for research, the Knowledge Graph, which will drive new research and discovery.
  • Undertake research to uncover the roles women played in Ireland at a time of profound economic, political, and cultural transformation.
  • Document women’s experiences of social upheaval, bloody civil war and extreme trauma, especially sexual violence.
  • Investigate if ordinary women used periods of intense social upheaval to improve their lives through an analysis of female agency across this period.
  • Serve as a case study for other research projects seeking to recover hidden and marginalised voices from historical records.