1916 Ambulance Log Internship with Dublin City Library
It was my great pleasure to receive the 1916 Ambulance Log project when our course coordinator was divvying out internships for this term. Easter 1916 always riveted me, perhaps because of the film Michael Collins whose opening scene in the GPO boasted Saving Private Ryan/D-Day Landing-levels of action and excitement. The reality of Easter 1916 was still as dramatic but far more sombre and confused than that movie made out. In fact confusion and miscommunication were the overriding themes in the course of the Easter Rising (Charles Townshend, Easter 1916). It’s in the contemporary artefact I’ve been tasked with visualising that this escalating drama and confusion becomes abundantly clear.
Actually, in an article about the acquisition by Dublin City Council of the 26-page log belonged to the Tara Street Fire Station during Easter 1916, Dublin City Mayor Christy Burke called it one of the most exciting accounts of the Rising: “You just got a sense of reading there that you were in it. It’s the best piece of work that I’ve seen in relation to 1916 thus far. It’s so emotional”.
The incidences are logged hour-by-hour, the addresses are written for locations of emergencies and fires, plus names and ages of casualties are given when possible. There are 32 casualties on the first day alone, the youngest being James Hoare, 13, who is cut with glass. It’s important to bear in mind this is just one station’s log book and many more would have been operating in conjunction with Tara Street. What is also interesting is that more everyday emergencies continue to happen, they’re not suddenly put on hold because of the day’s historic events; so Mary Heehan, 64, suffers “heart failure” in Sandy Cove. This shows just how vital and necessary a service the firemen provided, uncoloured by beliefs or political allegiances.
It’s significant that at no point in the log book are any comments made to indicate the armed conflict taking place throughout the city. Perhaps the log book is just not the right forum but I think it’s unusual. Maybe it gives an indication of the firemen’s complete unawareness of what’s happening, or their lack of support. Had they described the Rising in the log book this may have legitamised what was proving then to be a really unpopular undertaking on the Irish Volunteers’ part. Conversely however it’s believed that one of the firemen, Connolly, may have gone on leave to fight in the Rising then returned to the station once his furlough was up.
Just by reading the logs, which are very sparingly written on account of the importance of brevity – for example “X” is written instead of “ambulance” which took too long – you can see where the number of calls surge usually corresponds to a military action resulting in many military and citizen casualties. One interesting fact that emerges from the log is how well-connected Dublin was at the time, and what an abundance of telephones there appeared to be (phone numbers were only four digits long so probably not everyone had one). But what research revealed was that those numbers did not belong to private residence, but to emergency call boxes on the street throughout Dublin; if in 1916 you reported an emergency then you would make a call and have to stay at that particular phone until the fire brigade arrived.
The firemen/ambulance drivers of Tara Street Station (uniquely at that time and still to this day all firemen in Dublin are trained paramedics) braved the city streets with no real awareness of what was happening. They would have encountered barricades, ducked cross-fire, and ferried the injured to nearby hospitals. Interestingly also Dublin Fire Brigade had been set up by an Irishman who had spent time fighting fires in America, returning with the tradition of wearing red uniforms, which would have been utterly unfamiliar to the British soldiers arriving in Dublin, putting their lives further at risk. It’s hard to believe none were injured; maybe the British mistook them for UVF.
The story of the Dublin Firemen during Easter 1916 deserves an entire book to itself, and it was easy to get swept along by everything. But what it felt like constantly was that I had to remind myself this wasn’t my brief; there were perfectly good historians on the case and they didn’t need my help. Instead I was responsible for visually rendering the Ambulance Log in the shape of an animated map, no little task. But I guess this highlights one of the complications that arise with Digital Humanities, that you’re slave to two completely different masters: traditional scholarship, which you’ve been trained to do and brought up on; and DH, quite a new and frightening frontier.
Here is where a comprehensive work plan really comes into play. I’ve decided to include the work plan here (I note I’m already behind, which is to be expected). It’s essential for providing structure and clear aims where otherwise the project can become distended and unwieldy.
My project deliverables – quite a new concept for me – are more tangible developments or aims within the project. Here I’ve counted desk research, prototype map, and relational databases to connect the map with biographies of the firemen. The due dates provide me with clear deadlines to work towards, as well as to comfort my supervisors that things are actually getting done.
As project milestones among other things I’ve included less tangible things like meetings with experts such as Dr Mary Clarke, Finola Frawley and Paul Ferguson. I’ve also included “potential meeting” with Google about possible involvement, which was ambitious to say nothing else. I did get in touch with someone at the Google Maps department, who declined any involvement but were quite encouraging and referred me to both the terms & conditions and the Google Maps API and Map Development tools (more on that coming up). I really understand the benefit of work plans now. It’s a comfort and an assurance for everyone involved, with clear and attainable aims as outlined where otherwise the whole enterprise could seem unworkable.
I never got to actually handle the Log Book. I guess I came to the project quite late, and each page had already been expertly transcribed with the names of people and streets highlighted by researcher Finola Frawley. Once again this reminded me that while diving into the historical material was useful, it wasn’t what I’d been enlisted to do. I was lucky enough to be handed my dataset, or at least part of it, so extensive research into the field on my part wouldn’t have been necessary. Again the usefulness of the work plan.
In Excel sheets (if Google Sheets were needed later these files would be easily transferrable) I set about collecting the basic information about the firemen’s movements each day: what time the ambulance departed, where was it headed, when did it return. A meeting with Dr Mary Clark and Finola helped to clear up any confusion and consolidate my aims. They shared what they envisioned for the project: an animated map that tracked hour-to-hour the various movements of ambulances through Dublin during Easter week; other functionality could include colour-coding to differentiate between the different days.
I presented to them what modest research I had done with maps. There could be a static map which didn’t move or respond but would pinpoint where the injured and dead lay, including rebel barricades and later on in the week spreading fires. That would be much easier to accomplish but not exactly fit for purpose. Besides plainly ignoring the client’s wishes this would also ignore the unique spatio-temporal quality of the log book. Only a dynamic, animated map would do.
Anyway I made some mock-up versions of these two different maps and presented them to Mary and Finola which I’ve included here:
Crafting an animated map with a path that followed the route the firemen took in 1916 threw up a few complications. Firstly Dublin today differs substantially from the Dublin of 1916, particularly with the street names that the firemen operated across eg Pearse Street was obviously not named that during 1916, it would have been Great Brunswick Street; while Carlisle Bridge was renamed O’Connell Bridge in 1882 the adjoining street was still called Sackville Street until 1924.
Would it then be possible to overlay a contemporary historical map over the current Google map of Dublin, and incorporate their path technology? Following on from this, how do I ensure through their automatic directions Google doesn’t lead you across bridges that weren’t even built by that point?
This opened up a new vein of research, what would be the most suitable map to use? After consulting with George Carhart, a post-doctoral researcher in maps, and also Paul Ferguson of the Glucksman Map Library here in Trinity, I concluded that the Ordinance Survey Map from 1912 was the most suitable. This is because any further back and the fire house that they were operating in wouldn’t have existed, being built in 1907, and an ordinance survey tended to take place every decade or so. More recent maps, such as this one from 1913 displayed on the Swilson website, wouldn’t have been suitable not only for its lack of detail, but also from lines, creases and tears that the map sustained (I do however use the Swilson map in a presentation later).
The OSI maps remained quite detailed and clear, very far from being overcrowded. This is important to bear in mind in optimising the user experience, that with an overly-detailed and clustered map, tracking lines of travel with accompanying pop-up info windows will become difficult to read very quickly.
Also what’s unique with the Ordinance Survey maps, as Paul Ferguson pointed out, is that the Dublin series comes in two sizes, the zoomed-out six-inch-to-the-mile map, and the closer 25-inch. On reading into how Google Maps works, and researching the Down Survey Map Project, this became quite an important feature: with Google Maps there are lots and lots of different tiles or static images of places, and as you zoom in, instead of passing further into an overly-detailed map that takes ages to load, the user flits between different tiles. So with two differently-sized maps I could create historically-accurate tiles of Edwardian Dublin, and not compromise quality or loading time.
Another complication with the intended map visualization, which would at least have been avoided with a static map, was that while the Ambulance Log Book notes what time ambulances left at, where they proceeded to and when they arrived back to the station, there’s still quite a lot of information missing.
So for example there’s no exact route written down (initially I thought what about the direction and flow of traffic as well but then I remembered this was 1916 and also an emergency vehicle); there’s no indication as to the time spent at the scene, or to speed, mileage, any of this. Admittedly it would make no sense to include these in the logbook, they are immaterial for everyone except the person whose job it is to visualise this data. There is more than enough info to go on here, but perhaps I’ve been spoiled by these modern examples mentioned earlier where a car’s GPS has been conveniently tracked and recorded.
But we might reasonably infer what route they took, by studying where barricades were erected, cutting off traffic, where fighting was heaviest – though this wouldn’t always have discouraged the men – and also reviewing what approach and shortcuts modern Dublin firemen would take, trade secrets, as it were, which may have emulated former firemen or been passed down. Luckily as well there were serious 1916 scholars on board who could make an more than an educated guess.
Below is a map I’ve made. “S” stands for Tara Street Fire Station, “A” for the General Post Office on O’Connell Street:
“Bullets, blood and childbirth: Emergency services and the 1916 Rising”, The Journal, Aoife Barry (21 November 2014)
“Dublin ambulance log from 1916 gives vivid account of Rising”, The Irish Times, Michael Parsons (21 November 2014)