Game, Dataset, Match!

© Jane McGaughey

This past Thursday, I presented some of the key research of the GMM Project to my ‘Sexualities in the Irish Diaspora’ class, along with a special guest: Gabrielle, our Research Associate.  I outlined the amazing work that Giselle has done over the past 18+ months with creating our main dataset, combining all of our quantitative research from the three sites: Beauport, Rockwood, and the PLA.  Gabrielle then analysed a fascinating qualitative case study – one we’ve begun to refer to as “the Limerick Girls” – that she discovered in the amazing material we received from Library and Archives Canada at the height of the pandemic.

The undergrads we presented to have been a fantastic group this term – the first in-person class I’ve been able to engage with since February 2020 – and they responded very well to the questions that Gabrielle put to them about how to read a primary document, what to do with confusing or missing information, and what questions to ask that can push the research forward in unexpected ways.  I was also very taken with how they responded to the dataset itself: asking what certain colours meant in our coding and, especially, noticing which ‘exciting causes’ and patient ‘propensities’ had been recorded in the original admission registers from the PLA.

‘Exciting causes’ is a wonderfully layered term.  In a medical sense, it obviously refers to the factors that family members, the criminal justice system, colonial authorities, and doctors all felt had led to the admission of a given individual into the asylum system.  On a more meta level, it’s also the column from the admission registers that I find the most thrilling.  Details about a patient’s place of birth, age, height, marital status, and religion are all extremely important and add colour to the scant sketch of a given entry; but the ‘exciting causes’ column, which comes in the last third of an entry, makes that name suddenly feel very human. 

We are now beginning a new phase in how this dataset will feature in our research, presentations, and publications.  As of last Thursday, the main set includes 2,606 Irish-born admissions from the three asylums between 1841 and 1868 (the data we have collected from weekly hospital registers on Grosse Île since the 1830s will be added soon, raising our overall numbers yet again).  So, what are we going to do with all those entries?  How are we going to analyse them?

Math, to be put very delicately, is not my thing.  It is my kryptonite, my Achilles’ heel, my spinning-tea-cups-at-the-Magic-Kingdom.  Looking at a quadratic equation gives me the same reaction as Indy looking into the Well of the Souls:


I like numbers if they involve dates and maybe a percentage.  I have a ridiculous facility for remembering what years certain movies premiered.  I used to be great with remembering phone numbers, back when that was a thing.  I am not skilled with regression models, which is why I think it’s very important that our project begin to incorporate those kinds of quantitative likelihoods.   

All of those ‘exciting causes,’ ‘propensities,’ and registered diagnoses are about to take on an entirely new hue, and, despite my arithmophobia, I find that thrilling.

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