New collaborative project on archival diaries

by Dr Kirsten Mulrennan, Archivist

This 130-page handwritten diary was acquired by UL Special Collections and Archives in 2005. Written by Major Henry William Massy JP (1816–1895), between the ages of 23 and 26, the diary details the daily life and personal reflections of a nineteenth-century gentleman, military man and magistrate. Helpfully, each entry in the diary is dated, spanning between 17 February 1839 and 1 January 1842, and is written in a legible hand (as well as a sense of humour!).

Massy’s diary is a welcome addition to the collections held in the department. Its lively content and clear handwriting allow for its use in a variety of teaching and learning contexts, including social history, archival transcription, and archival research methods. It has been digitised in full, and is currently available online through the UL Digital Library here. The diary is the basis of a funded collaborative project currently being undertaken by the Special Collections and Archives department at the Glucksman Library and UL’s History Department.


Who was Henry William Massy?

Massy’s signature on the inside of his diary, 17 February 1839

While a standalone item, Massy’s diary contains a number of clues that allow us to trace more details about his background, family and wider social circle.

According to Burke’s Peerage, 1 Massy was born in January 1816, to Reverend William Massy and Elizabeth Evans. He was appointed a Major in the Tipperary Artillery Militia, and served as a Justice of the Peace (JP), or magistrate, for the counties of Limerick and Tipperary (January 1841–). He also served as President of the [?Limerick] Mechanic’s Institute in 1841.

Grantstown Hall, Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary. Image via National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.

Massy married Maria Cahill in 1838, and had eight children. According to the English census in 1861 and 1871, Massy and his family spent some time living in Kensington, Middlesex, and Lee, Kent, respectively. 2 References to one of Massy’s sons, Lieutenant-General William Godfrey Dunham Massy (1838–1906), are much more abundant, owing in no small part to his established military career, serving with the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, 3

At the time of Griffith’s Valuation, Massy was associated with Grantstown Hall in the barony of Clanwilliam, Co Tippeary. 4


Massy’s diary: the adventures of an ‘ordinary’ life

A man of leisure, Massy’s diary contains many philosophical (and often grandiose) reflections on his life in 1840s Ireland.

I believe the life of every man is happy and miserable by turns & that few sink into the grave after passing their days calmly & contentedly, except those persons of dulled sensibility & blunted feelings who seldom suffer violently & can never enjoy exquisitely… in the cup of life, the bitters preponderate over the sweets – for what are all those blessings held dear with us, but the forerunners & causes of woe?… For instance, riches, love or ambition can we enjoy (or rather attain) any of those without causing pain & sorrow to others…

The first page of Massy’s diary outlines what he believes constitutes a good diary: it should be more than merely ‘an account of departures from home & returns’; it should contain ‘detail[s] of my thoughts and actions or even the occurrences (I might often call them adventures) of my ordinary life’; and ultimately, it should be unhurried, and unaffected by ‘that greatest of bores, a bad pen‘.

As a source of social history, Massy’s diary contains many incidental references to events attended by him and his contemporaries – including a meeting at the Corn Exchange, Dublin, to ‘advocate the introduction of railroads in Ireland’, which was attended by ‘great men’, such as the Archbishop of Dublin, the Duke of Leinster, Earl of Charlemont and William Henry Grattan. His entries provide an alternative commentary on various meetings he attended in his official capacity as a magistrate. Following an exhibition and concert at the Rotunda, Dublin, in April 1841, where he saw the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, he noted only that one female guest, Miss McGrath Gogerty from Co Tipperary was ‘small but exceedingly pretty’. Likewise, after his attendance at a meeting of Poor Law Guardians in October 1841, he remarked that among the attendees were ‘a few men of intelligence and a number of the most ignorant old brutes I ever met’.


Using diaries in archival teaching

P1/23, diary entries made between 7—15 December 1867, with wonderful marginalia by William Massey Blennerhassett, son-in-law to John Fraunceis Fitzgerald (1791—1854), 24th Knight of Glin (1803—1854).

The archival collections in the Special Collections and Archives department contain a wealth of personal diaries, with a variety of different content, from short daily entries and doodles from the nineteenth-century in the Glin Collection, to the detailed reflections of Jess Armstrong, Co Tipperary, while her brother fought in the First World War. 5

The immediacy, relatability and succintness of diaries make them perfect teaching resources for archival literacy and research methodology sessions. During the Autumn Semester 2019/20, Massy’s diary was used as a focal point for an introductory session to the transcription and analysis of nineteenth-century diaries as sources for social history, as part of the MA in History of the Family, taught by Dr Rachel Murphy, UL History Department.


MA History of Family students Helene Haak and Padraig Hogan.

The session began with a broad introduction to the department, and explored the archival skills and historical analysis the researcher must employ to better understand Massy’s diary. As part of this research journey, the second half of the session was delivered in a workshop format, which outlined the basic steps for undertaking transcription of handwritten documents, with hints and tips to uncover additional clues about the content and context of the material.

I thought the workshop was an amazing way of getting insight into the more practical side of history, highlighting how examining an original source like a diary can reveal so much more information than a transcript or digital copy (handwriting, quality of paper used, pages not used etc.) – 2019/20 MA student Helene Haak

Students engaged well with the material during the session. They worked with a digital copy of Massy’s diary to enable collaboration and enhance readability, with the option to handle the original to get a feel for the diary as an archival object. Feedback following the session was favourable, and one student, Nathan Durand, has undertaken a further study of Massy’s diary to examine family and kinship among the minor gentry in Tipperary, as the basis of his MA dissertation.

The workshop was a fascinating and enjoyable exercise, providing insight into both day-to-day life of the period in question, and into the various techniques that can be employed when working with original documents (e.g. deciphering poor writing, understanding contemporary abbreviations, identifying referenced locations & individuals, and use of transcription conventions) – 2019/20 MA student Padraig Hogan


Collaborative online project on archival diaries

Following the success of this session, Dr Murphy and I proposed a collaborative pilot online resource relating to archival diaries in response to a call for the 2019 Strategic Alignment Teaching and Learning Enhancement (SATLE) Fund by the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, and were awarded Local Project Enchancement funding by UL’s Centre for Teaching and Learning.

Work is currently underway on this project, which is due for release in 2021. It is our aim that the resource can be used for self-guided teaching, and within a classroom context. It will focus on diaries as historical evidence and will showcase a number of diaries in the collections, using them as teaching examples. It aims to provide easy access to teaching plans for faculty, and enhance student engagement with the primary research resources held at the Glucksman Library. We’re excited to bring this project to students, faculty and researchers, and hope it will form the basis for the development of further collaborative online resources by the two departments in the future.

Watch this space!


I would like to thank Dr Rachel Murphy, UL History Department, and MA History of Family students 2019/20 Helene Haak, Padraig Hogan and Nathan Durand, for their input on this post.



  1. Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, Burke’s Irish Family Records (London: 1976), p 792, quoted on[]
  2. With thanks to Dr Rachel Murphy for tracing Massy to the UK. For guidance relating to the English census, see the UK National Archives.[]
  3. Ibid. See accounts also in the Cambridge Dictionary of Irish Biography, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.[]
  4. See Landed Estates Database, ‘Massy (Grantstown)‘. Also within the barony of Clanwilliam, Massy has been associated with properties in the townlands of Rosanna and Clonmaine.[]
  5. You can follow Jess’ diary in detail between 1914 and 1918 on the library’s ‘Long Way To Tipperary’ online exhibition here.[]