A unique Arts-STEM collaboration has revealed new insights into the Ryan Report on institutional child abuse and underlined how the emerging field of digital humanities can help address complex social, historical and artistic questions.
Dr Emilie Pine is Associate Professor of Modern Drama at UCD School of English, Drama and Film and very familiar with Ireland’s institutional past from teaching the plays written about it. For her, the 2009 Ryan Report into institutional child abuse is about much more than the State’s catastrophic failure to protect its most vulnerable citizens. It is, she says, “probably the most important publication in the history of the State, yet we’re not reading it. A lot of the material is witness testimony in the form of letters, diaries, memos and record-keeping books. To me, it’s the most important part of the report and I wanted to be able to read it and make it accessible to others. However, that’s not so easy with a report that runs to 2,600 pages.”
Pine passionately believes that all of us – even those of us too young to have been aware of what went on – have an ethical memory duty to be witnesses to our difficult past, and to make sure that the lessons learned are incorporated into Irish society, culture and academic research. However, relying on people to read the Ryan Report would not be enough to make sure this happened and Pine was determined to find a more compelling way of engaging public interest. This prompted her to step out of her comfort zone in the arts into the world of STEM, where data analytics tools and algorithms could be used to ‘parse’ material more efficiently and in a different way. Critical reading goes to the heart of Pine’s work as an academic and she wanted the same rigour applied to Ryan’s findings. Unusually, she went the route of an Arts-STEM collaboration to make it happen.
We were also interested in getting to the heart of who knew about the abuse because one of the big issues for survivors is this general misapprehension that people outside these institutions didn’t know it was going on.
In 2015 Pine, Professor Mark Keane of UCD’s SFI-funded Insight Centre for Data Analytics, and research fellow, Dr Susan Leavy, began work on the Industrial Memories project. Over a two-year period, they effectively turned the report into a database which in turn facilitated a forensic probing of the text that uncovered insights and connections not apparent from a surface reading.
“We started with some broad research questions such as looking at what witnesses had said and our very first step was to digitise the text of the report, and then to ‘read’ it differently using machine learning and artificial intelligence tools to produce new findings,” Pine says. “With clear visualisations we show, for the first time, the active networks behind the industrial schools. This gives us a picture of how abusers were transferred between schools. We can also see how people within the system communicated, including parents, the religious staff, and the Department of Education. These visualisations nail the lie that people – and the Government – did not know what was happening in these institutions.”
Pine says the project took the team into some “very dark areas” such as analysing the nature of the abuse suffered. There were few surprises when it came to the physical and sexual abuse, but co-ordinating the material uncovered another type of mistreatment which took the form of a dreaded anticipation of “waiting” to be beaten or assaulted. “The close textual analysis gave us new insight into the experience of abuse,” Pine says. “We were also interested in getting to the heart of who knew about the abuse because one of the big issues for survivors is this general misapprehension that people outside these institutions didn’t know it was going on.
To investigate this comprehensively we built a social network that logged every moment of communication between the key actors so residence managers, the Department of Education, parish priests, parents, local TDs and so on. It became very clear that people did know and the biggest node on the network was the Department of Education. I feel this was underrepresented when the Ryan Report was publicly launched, acknowledged and discussed. The focus has been overwhelmingly on the religious orders when the responsibility is actually more widespread than that.”
At a very practical level the project has created a dynamic search function that allows people to interrogate the report in specific detail for the first time. It has also created a “people directory” so that those involved can be identified by readers albeit through pseudonyms.
It is our hope that this Centre will function as a hub for current work in this area and incubate new projects such as Industrial Memories that respond to the urgent research needs of the 21st century university,
“The history of these institutions is not just about facts and figures, it’s about experiences and memories,” Pine says. “To give a real sense of what it was like to be incarcerated we have come together with historian Maeve Casserly, composer Tom Lane and programmer Mick O’Brien, to create an audio tour of Goldenbridge girls’ school, featuring actors reading verbatim witness testimony from the report. We also worked with artist John Buckley to create a virtual tour of one of the boys’ schools, Carriglea, better known today as the home of the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology.”
The Industrial Memories project was funded under the Irish Research Council’s New Horizons programme and Pine says the interdisciplinary and collaborative model that characterises digital humanities is at the heart of the new Centre for Cultural Analytics, hosted by the UCD School of English, Drama and Film.
“There is a lesson to be learned from this project about making the texts of Government reports digitally readable from the outset as it would be cheaper and easier than doing it after the event,” she adds. “I think we have also established the value of taking an interdisciplinary approach to Government reports and would emphasise that publishing a report is not the end of the story. At best, it’s midway with a lot more analysis to be done with the help of digital reading tools.”
Associate Professor Emilie Pine was in conversation with Olive Keogh MA, a contributor to The Irish Times.
Industrial Memories is a multidisciplinary response to the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (2009). It takes a closer look at the real legacy of Ireland’s institutional child abuse at residential institutions run by the Catholic Church between 1936 and 1999.
It can be accessed at https://industrialmemories.ucd.ie
The project was funded by the Irish Research Council New Horizons 2015-18.