Ireland has a depressing record of archival self-destruction. Having spent the best part of a century making the case for a dedicated archival repository (the Public Record Office, opened in 1867 at the Four Courts in Dublin), filling it with administrative, legal, ecclesiastical and demographic records, dating from the 12th to the 19th centuries, for almost 50 years, and creating a scholarly environment where researchers could examine archival evidence on which to base their assertions, the people involved in this endeavour had to witness it all being blown to smithereens on June 30th 1922, when a Free State shell hit an anti-Treaty mine brilliantly located in the basement of the building.

Apart from all the other extraordinary records charting the history of Ireland over seven centuries, we lost the census records for 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851, the record of those who lived here before the Great Famine. Anyone who has walked in the beautiful deserted village on Achill Island, a pre- Famine settlement now being excavated, will weep for the loss of the names and details of those who lived there before 1845. You could say that Ireland’s archival heritage was a material casualty of the decade of centenaries in which we are now involved.

On our small island on the edge of a powerful continent, and next door to a large imperial power, we embarked in 1912 on a decade of diverse thought processes, activities and interactions, often diametrically opposed to one another, which resulted in outcomes as varied as the establishment of a modern highly defensive Unionism in the northern part of the country, the birth of a modern trade union movement, mass participation in the most murderous war yet seen in the world, and the achievement of the franchise for some women. We saw the creation of a founding myth for our state, involving heroism, hopelessness, high ideals and self-sacrifice, the elimination of the political party which had enjoyed overwhelming nationalist support for three decades, the creation of a new nationalist party whose roots spread in many different directions, a vicious civil war, and most importantly, the deaths of almost 36,000 people, and injuries, many seriously disabling, to many more.

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How do we know what we know about this turbulent and transformative period? Good trustworthy history depends on the availability of a variety of good primary sources from which to build a narrative. As it happens, a plethora of relevant high quality sources have recently been released, many of them free-to-access online.

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In 2003, the records of the Bureau of Military History were released to the public after a long struggle to make them accessible. The Bureau was established in the late 1940s with the purpose of collecting statements and documents from participants in the events of Ireland’s revolutionary period, 1913-1921. Participants included people like Ernest Blythe, Kathleen Lynn, Louise Gavan Duffy, Sean McEntee, Dan Breen, Robert Brennan, and the widows, sons and daughters of many of the key players who died during the period. Because the statements are in their own words, they are vibrant and immediate in a way that official documents cannot be. There are 1770 statements in all, running to 35,000 typed pages. There are also 300 collections of contemporary documents, 600 photographs, and 12 sound recordings, including one of Maud Gonne sounding impossibly aristocratic. Incidentally, the prime mover of this valuable project, Eamonn De Valera, never made a statement himself to the Bureau, an omission which has led to all kinds of speculation as to the reasons for his restraint.

The collection has transformed the study of the period. Charles Townshend, author of the best-selling recent history of the 1916 Rising, Easter 1916; The Irish Rebellion, writes about the statements in his preface to the book: ‘The biggest change in recent years has been the final release of the participants’ accounts assembled by the Bureau of Military History… suddenly, instead of a few dozen accounts, we have many hundreds.’

Because the statements dealt with peoples’ recollections of their actions quite a while after they happened, they are relaxed and give a flavour of the writers’ personalities, so we get, for example, Louise Gavan Duffy’s account of confronting Patrick Pearse in the GPO in 1916:

I said to him that I wanted to be in the field but that I felt that the Rebellion was a frightful mistake, that it could not possibly succeed and it was, therefore, wrong. I forget whether he said anything to that or whether he simply let it go. He certainly did not start to justify himself. I told him that I would rather not do any active work; I suppose what I meant was that I would not like to be sent with dispatches or anything like that, because I felt that I would not be justified. He asked me would I like to go to the kitchen. I could not object to that, and I went up to the kitchen at the top of the back of the building.

Or Vinnie Byrne, one of the key members of Collins’s Squad, describing in chilling detail his many activities, using phrases like ‘we plugged him’ or ‘we let him have it’, 75 pages of violence or thwarted violence, underlaid with the classic soldier’s unquestioning belief in the rectitude of his orders. Byrne didn’t waste time with moral questions, and forty years later he is as cheerful and unrepentant about the deaths he caused as he says he was when doing what he was ordered to do.

The Bureau statements, photographs, sound recordings and sample contemporary documents were recently made available online free to access, at www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie, and the statements can be searched by person, place, subject, or browsed.

As far as I know, no other country possesses an oral history of its revolutionary period of this scope and magnitude. Its free online accessibility allows anyone who is interested to look at first-class primary sources, and to make up his or her own mind as to what happened. This is just one example of how digitisation of archival records, and their appearance on the internet, is transforming and democratising the study of history.

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A more reliable and much larger archive for the period is currently being prepared for release to the public. The single biggest archival project related to the nationalist side of the decade of centenaries is the Military Service Pensions Project. The collection comprises ca. 285,000 files dealing with applications for pensions from survivors and dependants of those killed during the period 1916-1923, under various Army Pensions and Military Service Pensions Acts, 1924-1949. They provide hitherto unavailable and verifiable information about the conduct of the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the civil war. These applications are much closer in time to the events they describe than the Bureau records, and required a very high level of verification, in the form of references from three superior officers. Many people who should have got pensions didn’t, because of this high standard of proof.

The Boards of Assessors who adjudicated as to who should be granted pensions gathered together supporting information as to activities during the period, resulting in Brigade Activity Reports on military actions and rolls of IRA membership at different times during the War of Independence. As well as the pensions files, there are files relating to the 80,000 people who got medals. Some of these medals are now to be found fetching high prices at Adam’s Auction Rooms.

The collection will be released online, free-to-acess, in phases up to 2023. The first release consists of ca. 2500 files, accompanied by contextual administrative material, brigade activities reports and membership rolls, and a detailed archival catalogue. All this was launched in January 2014, and a second launch took place in October of that year. While other material may come to light relating to the nationalist participants during the decade, none is likely to be of the scope and importance of the Military Service Pensions files, and it is imperative that the project to process them continues to its conclusion. The pensions files give us unparalleled access to social and economic information about claimants, as they disclose often dire financial circumstances, and that bureaucratic inertia could often cause problems for those seeking pensions. Witness the following correspondence between William O’Brien, general secretary of the ITGWU, and the Minister for Defence, Richard Mulcahy in 1924, about the delay in dealing with Lily Connolly’s application for a pension and Mulcahy’s irate instruction to his department to get on with it:

Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union
35 Parnell Square
Dublin
6 February 1924

Dear General Mulcahy, Some months ago Mrs. James Connolly applied for a pension under the Army Pensions Act but so far has not had any word about her claim, and has no idea when it is likely to be dealt with. She has found it rather difficult to make ends meet during recent years, and at the moment is rather embarrassed for the want of some ready money. She has one daughter who is a medical student in her last year, and it is hoped that she will be qualified in the next six to eight months. Perhaps you would be able to inform me… whether it would be possible for her to get a payment on account… Mise le meas. Wm. O’Brien

 

Aireacht Chosanta
Bearraic Phortobello
Baile Atha Cliath
8 February 1924

To Army Finance Officer:
Attached is one of the type of cases I was speaking to you about, and one which it is utterly inexcusable has not been dealt with by us long ago:
1. It should not take one day to get evidence that JAMES CONNOLLY was executed in 1916!
2. It should not take one other day to verify that the Applicant is his widow! And those dealing with the matter of such pensions might have some appreciation that if a woman loses her husband and has a family she has been through very difficult circumstances and is actually in very difficult circumstances at the present time—whatever bit of luck even may come her way.
Is there any chance of having a first payment of pension in this particular case made inside seven days, namely, before 15th February 1924?
Beir Beannacht,
R. Ua Maolcatha
Aire Chosanta

 

Lily finally got her money on 3 April 1924.

And here is Margaret Skinnider’s account of being wounded as a member of the Citizen Army in 1916. Skinnider was a Scottish-born member of Cumann na mBan who was active in the College of Surgeons garrison in 1916 under Michael Mallin. She was shot while trying to set some houses in Harcourt Street on fire to cut off the Army’s advance. Her autobiography, written in 1917, a bit early, is fetchingly titled Doing My Bit For Ireland. She died in 1971.

On Wednesday night going on to Thursday morning, I was wounded. Before that, Joe Connolly, now the Fire Chief, and I wanted to go to bomb the Shelbourne Hotel. The British had got into it that time, and when we asked Mallin for permission he said he wanted something else done first, and asked me to go on a job to Harcourt St. I was in charge of five men, and Tom O’Donoghue, now a priest, was also in charge of five men there. We went… to the foot of Harcourt St. on the left-hand side, now a fruit shop and then a photographic supplies shop… [William] Partridge was in the little detachment I was in. He used his rifle, and with the butt-end of it broke in the door; his rifle went off and a flash went out. There was firing then from across the street; it may have been from the Sinn Féin Bank, with the result that Freddie Ryan was killed and I was wounded. I got three wounds.

Again, the free online accessibility of these records has provided a huge quantity of high quality information to any interested person, in Ireland or elsewhere.

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It is also imperative that resources are devoted to excavating Irish records from The National Archives (TNA) in London, where many were taken in 1922, and kept closed for long periods of time. Many were also reclassified into existing British record series, thus making their retrieval difficult. Records of particular interest include court-martial records for 1916, search and raid records for the War of Independence, and Cabinet records for the entire period. Discussions, after some initial difficulties, have now opened with TNA on the subject of their co-operation in making these and many other records of Irish interest more accessible. The great era of digitisation in which we now exist should make it possible to repatriate these records electronically rather than physically, thus avoiding contentious discussions along the lines of those about the Elgin Marbles. The National Archives, in partnership with Universities Ireland, will shortly be placing online and free-to-access the court-martial records of the 1916 leaders. We see this as the beginning of a programme of improved access to records relating to the Irish decade of centenaries held in London. Here is Patrick Pearse’s statement to his court-martial:

My sole object in surrendering unconditionally was to save the slaughter of the civil population and to save the lives of my followers, who had been led into this thing by us. It is my hope that the British Government, which has shown its strength, will now be magnanimous and spare their lives and offer an amnesty to my followers, as I am one of the persons chiefly responsible, having served as C in C and President of the provisional government. I am prepared to take the consequence of my act, but I would like my followers to get an amnesty. I went down on my knees as a child and told God I would work all my life to gain the freedom of Ireland. I have deemed it my duty as an Irishman to fight for the freedom of my country. I admit having opened negotiations with Germany. We have kept our word with her and as far as I can see she did her best to help us. She sent a ship with arms. Germany has not sent us gold.

Universities Ireland, an umbrella body for all of the universities on the island of Ireland, has created a steering committee to oversee academic activities, including archival initiatives, in relation to commemoration. Its first public event was a conference on Historians and Public History, held in the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham in June 2012. The attendance hugely exceeded our expectations—450 people, with more turned away. There is obviously great public hunger for intelligent, serious debate about this tumultuous period. Speakers included Diarmaid Ferriter, Keith Jeffery, Jay Winter, Paul Bew, Margaret O’Callaghan, Ann Dolan, and a panel of speakers from North, South and Britain on archives. Audience participation was vibrant, well-informed and curious. It was a good beginning to the many discourses which will evolve over the next ten years.

Further conferences have dealt with the 1913 Lockout (The Cause of Labour), World War One (The Road to War), and ordinary lives (Life and Death in 1915). There will be others on female suffrage, the War of Independence, the Treaty and the Civil War, also hopefully on less obvious subjects, including funerals, both state and personal, competing political philosophies, and comparative studies with other revolutionary societies.

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The National Archives of Ireland (NAI) has many valuable records relating to this decade, in particular those of the first Dáil, 1919-21, including the full record of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations. NAI will shortly be launching online ca. 6500 compensation files for damage to property in 1916. All levels of Irish society are represented—from claims for householders’ curtains destroyed by gunfire in North Strand, gallons of milk taken by Crown forces in Foley Street, Repertory Company theatrical costumes destroyed by fire in Sackville Street, to claims for the loss of valuable jewellery left for repair and subsequently destroyed in various jewellers around the city and luxury goods such as furs and silk lost by hotel visitors. The collection includes detailed inventories of goods and furnishings destroyed in some households and in commercial premises of all types and sizes, from single traders working out of back rooms, to Clery and Company for the rebuilding of their world famous department store on Sackville Street.

NAI is also cataloguing the much bigger set of compensation claim files which cover the War of Independence and the civil war. Half of the catalogue can be found on www.nationalarchives.ie. And the rest will go up early next year.

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One of the big archival lacunae in Irish history relates to land records. The big three collections are:

  1. The Irish Land Commission, ca. 1590-date;
  2. The Land Registry, 1891-date;
  3. The Registry of Deeds, 1702-date.

Between them, these three collections cover most of the land transactions in Ireland for the decade of centenaries, and for centuries before and after. One of them, the Registry of Deeds, is open to researchers in its original home in the King’s Inns, but the records are quite difficult to use, are in need of conservation, and could do with a digitisation programme. This last they are contemplating, but with a commercial operator, which may lead to unsatisfactory access for scholars other than genealogists. I will return to this question later. The records in the Registry of Deeds record the history of major land transactions from 1702 on, and therefore fill one of the yawning gaps left by the destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922.

The Irish Land Commission, established in 1881, was the body responsible for redistributing land from landlord to tenant under the various land acts. By 1923, 75% of the land of Ireland had changed hands under its auspices. You could say that the real revolution had quietly taken place without fuss, or much fuss, while the other one was happening with a great deal of fuss. The records of this momentous undertaking, which number millions, were preserved until 1992 in a purpose-built repository behind what is now the Merrion Hotel in Dublin. The sale of what had been the Land Commission offices by the government necessitated the destruction of this repository, it having no obvious value to a luxury hotel, and the National Archives was called in to save the records in an unseemly hurry.

They ended up in our warehouse in Bishop Street, accessible only to the increasingly superannuated staff of the records branch of the Land Commission, despite many requests from people like Martin Mansergh, who should have had some clout, and Professor Terry Dooley, who has a distinguished record on investigation of Irish big houses. The records contain not only the Fair Rent books for the whole country for the 1880s, but original deeds to properties to be transferred dating back to the 16th century, and a whole subset of Church Temporalities Commission property records dating to the late 18th century. In other words, a treasure trove. The records were moved from our warehouse to another warehouse in Portlaoise some years ago, where they are, if anything, even more inaccessible than they were before.

The Land Registry was established in 1891 to register the sale of all properties in Ireland on a compulsory basis, thus largely superseding the Registry of Deeds. As a young archivist in the late 1970s, I found myself assigned to evaluating these records. The Land Registry files the deeds submitted to them, and relevant particulars are entered on folios, which, with their accompanying maps, are available to the public on payment of a fee.

What are not available to the public are the deeds, or instruments of transfer, which underlie the information in the folios. In the late 1970s, I got to see these documents, hundreds of thousands of them, stored in a warehouse near Smithfield. What they contained astonished and disturbed me: the overwhelming majority dealt with the transfer of land from parents to children, and very many of them contained clauses guaranteeing the parents a seat by the fire, a bed to sleep in, and provision for food, such as the milk of a cow or a proportion of the potato crop. Did this mean that if such instructions were not legally recorded, the older people of Ireland would be put out of their homes by their own children? These could, of course, be legal rubrics employed out of habit, but all kinds of sources, particularly literary ones from writers like Tom Murphy and John B Keane, tell us that the social reality underlying Irish rural life differed greatly from the fantasy version promulgated by Church and State.

These three great collections, dealing with one of the most serious issues in Irish history, land and its ownership, have a great deal to contribute to our understanding of the kind of society which emerged in 1922. The continued inaccessibility of two of them, and the limited accessibility of the third, make it impossible to properly evaluate these events and their political, social and economic consequences.

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Earlier, I mentioned a possible tension between genealogy and scholarship, and I want to elaborate a little on that. Genealogy is now a huge industry, with websites like Ancestry.com making fortunes out of people’s desire to locate their ancestors. In Ireland, where the 1901 and 1911 censuses have been placed online free of charge, the response has been overwhelming: 1 billion hits since 2007, and 20 million unique visitors. The reason for these numbers is that the site is free; you can research your own ancestors, but also gratify your vulgar curiosity about their neighbours, or research the physical fabric and building usage of a rural townland or city street. You can find people staying with relatives and try to work out why—holiday, fosterage, education, employment, kidnapping? You can search by any of the fields used in the census: name, age, sex, townland or street, district electoral division, county, religion, occupation, relationship to head of family, literacy status, county or country of origin, Irish language proficiency, specified illnesses, and child survival information. This means you can search for particular occupations, nationalities and religions in particular places—how many Methodist butchers were there in Cork? how many French governesses in Dublin? how many Plymouth Brethern in Rathmines? The answer to the last question, by the way, is 18. Hours of harmless and instructive fun.

But also incredibly useful for literary scholarship. Joyce studies, for example, have been transformed by the census. I’ve now lost count of the articles on Joyce which reference the census online or which have originated directly from it. As we know, Joyce did not balk at mentioning real people and places in his fiction, and being able to find them in an almost contemporaneous archive is expanding contextual possibilities for literary scholars. For example. Alf Bergan, who shows up throughout Ulysses, and was a close friend of John Joyce, James’s father, can be found in the 1901 census, aged 22, living in Clonliffe Road in Drumcondra with his widowed mother and five unmarried sisters. His occupation is solicitor’s clerk, just as it is in the novel. Alf’s moment of glory comes when he recounts seeing the dead Paddy Dignam in Capel Street in the afternoon, when he had been buried that morning.

In terms of literary uses for these records, Gene Kerrigan’s recent novel, The Scrap, has fruitfully used the statements in the Bureau of Military History to construct a vivid and accurate narrative of the 1916 Rising. Many Irish fiction writers have used archives as bases or jumping off points for their work; they include Sebastian Barry, Colm Tóibín, Lia Mills, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright and Eoin McNamee. And Brian Friel’s Translations is firmly rooted in the history and archives of the Ordnance Survey in early 19th century Ireland.

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As can be seen, a lot of progress has been and is being made in opening up serious archival resources to scholars and citizens. The results are apparent in the many excellent publications which continue to appear throughout the decade, including Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces and Lucy McDiarmid’s At Home in the Revolution, both of which made superlative use of diary and memoir material from the time, particularly women’s writings, and both of which are in themselves wonderful sources for creative writers who are interested in what history has to offer them.

One of the most useful for those interested in the subject of the historiography of the revolutionary decade is Diarmaid Ferriter’s A Nation and Not a Rabble. The first third of the book is devoted to listing and analysing the sources available at different times since 1916, and the uses made of them by historians. He also looks at memoir and diary material, like Dan Breen’s My Fight for Irish Freedom, published in 1924 and influential as one of the heroic narratives of the period. Ferriter knows Irish state archives better than most other historians, and part of his achievement has been to excavate considerable social history from official files. This he uses to excellent effect in his narrative of the decade, the second part of the book, and his exploration of previous commemoration events, the third part of the book.

Creative writers have a lot to gain from exploring these sources; archives can be overlooked as potential material for fiction, drama and poetry. None of us knows where the initial spark for a novel, a play or a poem may come from. Perhaps the rich tapestry of historical records, with all of their flaws, ironies, truths and deceptions, may be one other place to start.