Diaries as historical sources

Welcome to this lesson on using diaries as sources for historical research.

The lesson outlines what diaries are, what types of information they contain and how to critically analyse archival diaries as historical resources.

Kirsten Mulrennan and Rachel Murphy, 'Opening a window to the past: Researching archival diaries', University of Limerick Special Collections and Archives Department website (https://specialcollections.ul.ie/research-diaries/) (Date accessed).

1. Diaries: their history and value to the historian


What is a diary?

We converse with the absent by Letters, and with ourselves by Diaries

This quotation, taken from Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature, published in 1817 provides a clear distinction between letters and diaries, some of the more intimate manuscripts that are held in archives.  Diaries contain personal observations: some come under the category of ‘ego-document’ as they relate to the self, while others focus on the external environment: in his Diary of the Weather and Winds Isaac Butler recorded daily weather observations of the City of Dublin between 1716 and 1734.1 The boundaries can blur, however: Betsy Sheridan wrote to her sister on a weekly basis, outlining the events that took place under a specific date and referred to them as her ‘journal’.2


The term ‘ego-document’ was first coined by Jacques Presser who at that time described it as a historical source in which an “I” or sometimes a “he” is ‘continuously present in the text as the writing and describing subject.’3


A brief history of diary-writing

The sixteenth century is seen as the starting point of diary-writing as we know it today, but the practice really became popular in the seventeenth century. Richard Boyle, the first earl of Cork, wrote his diaries from 1611–1642 which were subsequently transcribed and published in book format. While diaries were popular among elite members of societies, as literacy levels improved, diarists emerged from a greater range of backgrounds.

Some diaries focused on political and military events. In an Irish context, the journal of John Stevens, a Jacobite, provides an account of his experience of the Williamite War (1689–1691). Williamite Gedéon Bonnivert’s diary also provides useful information from 1690, despite being only twelve pages long. Col. Richard’s diary of the Siege of Limerick is another source for the period.  Élie Bouhéreau, a French Protestant (or Huguenot) doctor from La Rochelle wrote his diary between 1689 and 1719, having fled religious persecution in his native France, travelling first to England and later settling in Dublin. His diary provides us with the refugee’s perspective.

Other diaries provide insights into social aspects such as work and leisure activities. The diary of Nicholas Peacock 1740–51 is an account written by a Limerick farmer and agent in the eighteenth century. Though it provides little information about the author himself, the diary is useful in its descriptions of farming at this time.  Betsy Sheridan’s journal (which was written as a series of letters to her sister Alicia in Dublin) provides an insight into the life of a twenty-six-year-old in London during the 1780s.

From the eighteenth century onwards, there is an increasing number of diaries relating to migrants such as Captain Alexander Chesney’s Journal (1795 to 1815) and the diary of James Black, proprietor of the Randalstown cotton mills, Co Antrim and merchant of Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.A. who wrote his diary between November 1837 and October 1844.

The nineteenth century saw a proliferation of diaries being written.  A key theme of the early nineteenth century is Catholic emancipation, and the diary of Denys Scully documents the experience of a delegation sent to London in 1805 to meet with Pitt.4 Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin’s diary which he wrote in Irish from 1827 to 1835 is a wonderful source for Irish history.  Born in Kerry, Ó Súilleabháin was a schoolteacher in Callan, Co Kilkenny at the time he wrote the diary, which provides insights into his life, and the events going on around him. The manuscript is held in the Royal Irish Academy. This has been translated into English as ‘Diary of an Irish Countryman’ by Tomás de Bhaldraithe.5 In contrast, Ireland was a new country for Scottish-born Elizabeth Smith. Her family moved to India, where she met her husband, who inherited an estate in in Baltiboys, Co Wicklow. Her journal is an account of her life in Ireland from 1840–1850.6

The early twentieth century was a period of upheaval in Ireland. The events of the Revolutionary Period from lockdown through to War of Independence play a key role in Irish history, and diaries of those involved help historians to understand what life was like on the ground, from a range of perspectives.   Dr Kathleen Lynn was the Irish Citizens’ Army’s Chief Medical Officer. Her diary covers the first three weeks of her imprisonment following the Easter Rising and provides many insights into her experiences.  This can be contrasted with the 1916 diary of Dorothy Stopford Price, a medical student at Trinity College Dublin.

At the same time, the First World War meant that large numbers of Irishmen were also fighting overseas.  Albert Woodman’s diary provides historians with insights into his experience as a signaller in the Royal Engineers, while diaries written by Mary Martin and Elsie Henry provide insights into the lives of mothers and sisters of the men who had gone to fight in the First World War, Elsie Henry herself working for the Red Cross in Dublin.7

Post-independence diaries provide historians with perspectives on the newly-formed state. The Danish writer Signe Toksvig’s Irish Diaries 1926–1937 detail her life in Ireland,8 including details of those who moved in the same literary circles as she and her husband, Francis Hackett.

More recently, diaries can provide perspectives on the Troubles.  Eimear O’Callaghan’s diary published as Belfast Days, A 1972 Teenage Diary chronicles her teenage years in West Belfast in 1972.9 It provides a different perspective on the Troubles.


P1/22 Page from William Massey Blennerhassett’s diary (Glin Collection). Blennerhassett often recorded details of his hobbies and interests as a landowner, including his horses.


What kinds of topics do historians research using diaries?

The range of topics that historians study using diaries is vast, but some common themes are discussed briefly here.

History of class: There is a tendency for written materials of the wealthy, educated, elite to be better preserved, so surviving diaries are inevitably skewed towards those members of society.  Middle- and working-class people also wrote diaries and where these survive, they provide us with valuable insights into the lives and attitudes of ‘ordinary people’.

History of Family: Diaries can be an excellent source for those who are interested in the relationships and roles of family members over time. Some historians are interested in the parent-child relationship – for example, were elite parents detached as is often suggested? The mother of Victor Cavendish, ninth Duke of Devonshire, whose main seat was Chatsworth House, England but whose Irish seat was in Lismore, Co Waterford wrote a journal documenting his memories from the age of two, complete with an inscription from his dog!

Environmental history: Weather diaries which record regular weather observations such as temperature and precipitation are useful sources for those studying environmental history and climate history.  Isaac Butler’s Diary of the Weather and Winds covers data for the City of Dublin between 1716 and 1734.

Medical history: Physicians’ diaries can be a good source for the history of medicine, medical journals and case-books being commonly used by them to make clinical observations. Seán Ó Ríordáin’s diaries (1940–1977) held at UCD Special Collections are important to scholars of the Irish language and literature, and also to historians of medicine. Ó Ríordáin suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and his respiratory problems are described in great detail in his diaries.

History of Travel: Travel literature is a genre in its own right, with travel diaries forming a subset. Ludolf von Münchausen described a journey to Ireland in a diary written in 1590, while Loveday visited Ireland as described in his Diary of a tour in 1732 through parts of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. In 1788 Revd. Daniel A. Beaufort visited Kerry and his manuscript had been published online.

Diaries as material culture: Historians are also interested in diaries as material culture (physical objects) – the paper from which they are made, and the way in which they are bound can tell us a lot about their production.

2. Critically analysing diaries

As with all historical sources, diaries need to be critically analysed – below are some of the key questions historians consider when working with diaries as sources.

As the work of historians and archivists are so closely connected, it is also important to critically analyse historical sources from an archival perspective. For more on this, watch the video introduction to Special Collections and Archives, read more about the archival process, and follow the links on critical thinking included throughout the resource, summarised here.


Who wrote the diary?

The first question to consider is ‘Who is the author of the diary?’  Sometimes this is clear as the diary is written by a well-known historical figure.  The labour leader, William O’Brien (1881–1968), who also played an active role in the trade union movement, kept diaries for many years and these are now held in the National Library of Ireland. Through research in primary and secondary sources it is possible to build up an understanding of his background, education and political stance which might prove useful when reading the diary.

Other diarists are not so well-known, such as Winona Rosalie Armstrong, whose diaries are held in the University of Limerick Archives. In this case, catalogues and finding aids may provide useful information. The Armstrong Papers finding aid tells us that Winona was known as ‘Jess’ by her family and that she was born in 1893 and died in 1982. There is also information about her husband and the property she inherited, Moyaliffe Castle, which helps to provide some context.

Reference works can be helpful when trying to identify prominent individuals. The Dictionary of Irish Biography provides information on those from or connected to Ireland, while elite individuals might appear in Burke’s Peerage. Another good source of information is newspaper obituaries.

Middle- and working-class people may have left behind fewer records.  Census, parish and civil records are good sources of information.


When did they write the diary?

It not usually very hard to determine when a diary was written – diaries are normally structured around time and often include the dates of entries. In early diaries the dates are written manually. Once printed diaries were introduced, pre-populated dates were a convenient way of keeping track of entries, though some diarists found this constraining and still preferred to use a plain notebook and enter the dates themselves.  Printed diaries usually include the year on the cover, inside cover, and even on individual pages. Often diarists include a special entry for the first day of a new year – perhaps a reflection on the year past or plans for the year to come.

Knowing when a diary was created means that historians can situate the contents of the diary in their historical context.  Understanding the social and political context in which a diary was written helps the historian to interpret events that are discussed. For instance, Dublin-based Mary Martin wrote her diary in 1916.  The Easter Rising took place in April 1916 and at the same time some Irish men and women, including her own children, were on active service in the First World War.  Likewise Winona ‘Jess’ Armstrong’s diaries include the period covering the First World War and, along with other family papers, these have been included in a digital exhibition: It’s A Long Way to Tipperary. Reading secondary sources about these events can help the historian to contextualise the diary. Primary sources such as newspapers can be used to understand how such events were reported and to corroborate details that are mentioned in the diary.

When a diary was written can affect our ability to interpret it. Firstly, different styles of handwriting were used in the past so historians need to develop skills in interpreting old handwriting, or palaeography. In the case of Irish-language diaries, these might be written in Gaelic script.


Palaeography is the science or art of deciphering and interpreting historical manuscripts and writing systems, and comes from the terms ‘palaeo’ meaning ‘ancient or old’ and graphy meaning ‘writing’.

Historians often encounter words that are no longer in current usage. The Oxford English Dictionary is a good starting point for identifying archaic terms as it includes definitions and terms from a wide range of periods.  Another issue is that the meaning of words can change over time, so you might encounter a familiar word that does not make sense given the context. Again, check in a dictionary or reference guide to find the correct definition.

Why did they write the diary?

As ego-documents, diaries are usually written for the self, but the underlying motivations can vary and as historians we need to be aware of these. Some diaries were written as a record of daily activities, others as a means of self-reflection, and others still for posterity.

Henry William Massey, who started writing his diary on 17 February 1839, gives some indication of what one might expect in a diary, by explaining precisely what he had not managed to achieve in his previous attempts:

My last journal-book was very imperfectly kept and, on looking over it, appears merely to give an account of my departures from home & returns, without at all going into a detail of my thoughts and actions or even of the occasions (I might often call them adventures) of my ordinary life…

Lejeune identifies four functions of diaries: to express oneself, to reflect, to take pleasure in writing and to freeze time.10 Some diarists considered their diaries as a ‘safe space’ and mentioned events that they could not write about elsewhere – for example, homosexual relationships at a time when they were forbidden by law. Others wrote diaries as a means of spiritual reflection.

Whatever the purpose of writing a diary, it is important to understand that although diaries appear to be an individual’s unedited views, they are still mediated – that is, the author chooses what to record and how to record it.  Some diarists go back over their diaries and edit them – Anne Frank, for example, updated previous entries. Others, because they know that their diary will be read in the future, write in a particular way. When Elizabeth Smith of Baltiboys started writing her journal in 1840 she noted that she intended it to be read by her children.

How reliable is the information in the diary?

Although diaries are written in the first person and convey information about that person’s experiences, thoughts and perspectives, the historian would be mistaken to take everything that is written in them at face value.  In writing a diary the author can be selective about what information to include or omit so we may not be getting the full story. Likewise, we are obtaining their perspective on events which could be distorted. As with every historical source, we need to examine the evidence with a critical mindset. For more on critically analysing diaries and archives, see related lesson Archival diary as object: interpretation and critical analysis, and section 5, FAQ: Beginner’s guide to Archives.

3. Diaries in archives and libraries

Historians work with both manuscript diaries and published diaries. As well as asking critical questions about the author and the content (as outlined in the previous section), it is important to think critically about how the diary you are analysing was produced and what the benefits and shortcomings of this might be.


3a. Manuscript diaries


Why was the diary preserved?

A key consideration when examining diaries is why they survive. Only a subset of diaries that were ever written will be preserved in archives for historians to view. In some cases they may have been destroyed following the death of the author because no use could be seen for them; in the past history focused on the lives of the powerful and famous, so diaries relating to ‘ordinary’ people were not always considered of value.

Sometimes diaries were destroyed because they included sensitive information. Despite being a prolific diary-writer throughout her life, only some of Jess Armstrong’s diaries survive because she chose to destroy the others prior to her death.  In other cases, diaries have survived but sensitive information has been removed – pages torn out, or sentences redacted in black ink.

In many cases, diaries have simply not survived the passage of time, getting lost or damaged over the years. This might be the case for middle and lower-class individuals; wealthy upper-class families were more likely to have family archives and papers that would be carefully stored for future generations. As a result, surviving diaries (particularly for earlier periods) tend to relate to elite or well-known individuals.

Now families are more likely to recognise the historic value of diaries written by ‘ordinary people’ and to deposit them in archives – for example, diaries from the Irish Revolutionary Period and the First World War have been preserved and together these help us to understand what life would have been like for soldiers, nurses and civilians at this time, as well as the more well-known figures.

As recent studies have shown, social historians are interested in diaries written by all kinds of people – from every class, gender and ethnicity, and across all periods and locations.  If you have inherited family diaries, it is worth discussing with your local county or university archives whether they might be interested in preserving them for you.


What is the provenance of the diary?

It is useful to understand how the diary came to be in the archive in which it was stored.  Sometimes diaries form part of a collection of family papers, other times a diary might be a standalone item donated by a family.  In some cases, the diary may have been held by a book-collector and subsequently put up for auction – local archives often purchase materials that are of particular relevance to their collections.

A librarian or archivist will usually be able to help you to understand the provenance, or ownership history of a source, where it is known.


Selection of manuscript diaries studied in this resource.


3b. Published diaries

Historians often transcribe and subsequently publish manuscript sources such as diaries. These can be published in journals, such as Analecta Hibernica, in book format, or sometimes online. These print or digital editions can be useful for researchers who cannot easily access the manuscript diaries, and often provide additional helpful contextual information.

However, when working with such editions it is important to understand the approach that has been taken to create them. The following questions are worth considering:


Is this the complete diary or an edited version?

Particularly in the case of prolific writers, published diaries often consist of just a selection of material that was included in the original(s), based on what the editor thought was most interesting. In the introduction to his edited volume, The Diary of Elizabeth Dillon, Brendan Ó Cathaoir explains that ‘the ideal has been to exclude everything that is redundant and nothing that is important. Much of her early diaries, suffused with pious reflections, have been omitted’.11 Clearly if one wanted to analyse passages of Dillon’s pious writing one would need to go back to the original diaries, held within the Dillon papers at Trinity College Dublin. William LeFanu notes in the introduction to Betsy Sheridan’s journal that ‘comments on Alicia’s Dublin news have mostly been omitted, and discussion of ailments and moods has been drastically curtailed’.12 Certainly a historian of medicine or the emotions would need to review the original. It is important to know what has been included and what has been omitted.


What editorial process has been followed?

Editors of diaries will make decisions – for instance, they might decide to correct misspellings, ignore words that have been crossed out, or reduce the amount of capitalisation. Incorporating such changes into published editions can make these works more accessible for the modern reader. Usually, the editor will explain in the introduction the editorial process that was followed.

In some cases, editors will try to include all aspects of the text.  In his edition of the controversial Roger Casement’s diaries 1910: The Black & the White, Roger Sawyer explains that:

Because of allegations that the Black Diaries are wholly or partly forged, care has been taken that the text is reproduced as faithfully as possible. Ampersands, inconsistent spelling and use of accents, and poor punctuation have therefore been preserved.  Spanish and Portuguese words and phrases have been translated in square brackets, wherever possible, though many of these appear in a corrupt or misspelt form…13


What translation process has been followed?

Published editions can be very useful when a researcher wants to read a diary that was originally written in another language, particularly if it is not possible to travel to overseas archives, or maybe the researcher does not have the requisite language skills.  It is important to understand the process that was taken by the editor in translating the document.  Some translators choose to translate a text as closely as possible to the original, while others focus on conveying the sense of the original. As historians we need to understand which the approach the translator has taken. In the introduction, the editor or translator should explain the process that they followed.

Co Kilkenny school-teacher Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin wrote his diary covering the period 1827–35. His name is anglicised to Humphrey O’Sullivan and Tomás de Bhaldraithe has translated and edited the original diary into a translated edition, Diary of an Irish Countryman. He explains that ‘while trying to remain faithful to the original’ he wanted to avoid ‘a slavish word for word translation’ because ‘the style of good writing in one language cannot be adequately reproduced in another’.14 While reading this edition might be a good route into the diary, the historian must be aware that the translation is a mediation of the text; additional nuances might be gleaned from reading Ó Súilleabháin’s work in the original Irish, though this would of course require a good level of understanding of the Irish language and an ability to read old Irish script.  The same cautions about translations of Irish diaries hold true for any translations from any language (Chinese, German, Latin, Spanish etc.) or from any period e.g. Old Irish, Old English. It is important for the scholar to understand what it is that they are reading.

4. Quiz

What term did Presser coin for a historical source in which an ‘I’ is always present?

What kinds of topics do historians research using diaries?..

What word is used to describe the science or art of describing historical manuscripts and writing systems?

Fill in the blank:

Historians and archivists use the word to describe the ownership history of a source, which helps us to verify its authenticity.

5. Further reading and resources

In this section you will find a selection of readings relating to diaries. Section one includes readings on diaries as sources for historical research. Section two includes examples of academic articles and book chapters that are based on diaries. Section three provides information on published diaries or extracts of diaries.


Diaries as sources for the historian

Academic articles and chapters based on diaries

  • Breathnach, Ciara, ‘Professional patienthood and mortality: Seán Ó Ríordáin’s diaries 1974–1977’ in Medical Humanities, 42:2 (2016) pp 1–5 (doi:10.1136/medhum-2015-010828).
  • Breathnach, Ciara, ‘Heavier the interval than the consummation:’ bronchial disease in Seán Ó Ríordáin’s diaries’ in Medical Humanities 40:1 (2014), pp 11–16 (doi:10.1136/medhum-2013-010386).
  • Carter, Kathryn, ‘The Cultural Work of Diaries in Mid-Century Victorian Britain’, Victorian Review 23, 2 (1997), pp. 251–267.
  • Eckerle, Julie A. and Naomi MAreavey, Women’s Life Writing and Early Modern Ireland (Nebraska, 2019). Available at UL library, 820.9004 ECK.
  • Murphy, Rachel, ‘Lady Charlotte Stopford: A lady of leisure?’ in Leeann Lane and William Murphy, Leisure and the Irish in the Nineteenth Century (Liverpool, 2016), pp 226–244.
  • Pelger, Erin Kennedy, ‘Lives through the looking glass: The diaries of three nineteenth-century American women’ (1999). Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers, University of Montana.
  • Sanderson, M. G., ‘Daily weather in Dublin 1716–1734: the diary of Isaac Butler in Weather 2018–06, Vol.73 (6), pp 179–182.


Published diaries / extracts from diaries

Online diaries

  1. The diary is now part of the Gilbert Collection and is held in the Special Collections of Dublin City Public Libraries.[]
  2. William Lefanu, Betsy Sheridan’s Journal – Letters from Sheridan’s Sister (Oxford, 1986).[]
  3. Rudolf Dekker (ed.), Egodocuments and history: autobiographical writing in its social context since the Middle Ages (Hilversum, 2002), p. 7.[]
  4. Brian MacDermott (ed.), The Irish Catholic petition of 1805: the diary of Denys Scully (Dublin, 1992).[]
  5. Tomás Bhaldraithe, The Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827-1835 (Cork, 1979).[]
  6. Thomson, David with Moyra McGusty (eds)., The Irish Journals of Elizabeth Smith, 1840-1850 (Oxford, 1980).[]
  7. Cullen, Clara, The World Upturning –  Elsie Henry’s Irish Wartime Diaries, 1913–1919 (Dublin, 2012).[]
  8. Lis Phil (ed.), Signe Toksvig’s Irish Diaries 1926–1937 (Dublin, 1994).[]
  9. O’Callaghan, Eimear, Belfast days: a 1972 teenage diary (Kildare, 2014).[]
  10. Philippe Lejeune, On Diary (Honolulu, 2009), pp. 194–5.[]
  11. Brendan Ó Cathaoir (ed.), The Diary of Elizabeth Dillon: A Gateway to the Otherness of the Past (Dublin, 2019), p. 53.[]
  12. William LeFanu (ed)., Betsy Sheridan’s Journal: Letters from Sheridan’s sister 1784-1786 and 1788-1790 (Oxford, 1986), p. xii.[]
  13. Roger Sawyer, Roger Casement’s diaries 1910: The Black & the White (London, 1997), p. 42.[]
  14. Tomás de Bhaldraithe, Diary of an Irish Countryman (Cork, 1979), p. 7.[]