Speech at the Official Opening of the New Building of the Military Archives Archives
Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin, 26th April 2016
A Chairde Gael,
It is my great pleasure to open this new home of the Military Archives, here in Cathal Brugha Barracks. Today’s ceremonies, being part of the centenary year of the Easter Rising of 1916 as they are, offer a very fitting recognition of the fundamental importance of the Military Archives to our understanding of the founding events of our State.
Is mian liom mo bhuíochas ó chroí a ghabháil leis an Cheannfort Padrack Kennedy, an tOifigeach i gCeannas ar an Chartlann Mhíleata, le Patrick Brennan, Bainisteoir Tionscadail ar thionscadal pinsin an Chartlann Mhíleata, agus lena gcomhghleacaithe ar fad atá ina fheighlithe ar an stór poiblí íontach seo - an chartlann seo a chabhraíonn linn tuiscint a fháil ar an am atá caite.
[I extend my sincere thanks to Commandant Padraic Kennedy, Officer in Command of the Military Archives, to Patrick Brennan, Project Manager of the Military Archives Pensions Project, and to all of their colleagues who are the diligent custodians of this great public repository– these archives that contribute to making audible to us the voice of the past.]
I am aware that a solemn ceremony took place in these Barracks earlier this morning, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the brutal murder of the great pacifist, socialist, suffrage activist and journalist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, and of his fellow journalists Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre. The three men were summarily executed here, at what was then called Portobello Barracks, by a firing squad of seven men under the command of Captain Bowen-Colthurst of the Royal Irish Rifles, without any trial or any charges having been brought against them.
Injustice also defined the treatment of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, who suffered the invasion of her house, attempts at blackening her name, and who was refused access to her murdered husband’s personal effects.
The man bearing responsibility for the horrendous execution, Captain Bowen-Colthurst, was released after a brief hospitalisation and awarded a military pension. The fact that one of his victims, Francis Sheehy Skeffington, had been endeavouring to prevent plunder and destruction from spreading as the fighting was unfolding in Dublin City on those early days of Easter Week only reinforces the cruelty of the event.
Cathal Brugha Barracks are thus a very important place of memory for us – as the site of extra-judicial executions that symbolise the worst kind of arbitrary rule; and, today, as the repository of crucial records of our past.
As many of you here will know, the function of the Military Archives is to acquire, preserve, and make available the records documenting Ireland’s military history, from the formation of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913 to the present day. Under the terms of the National Archives Act, the Military Archives comprise the archival records of the Irish Defence Forces, the Department of Defence and the Army Pensions Board. They also hold over 1,000 private collections of relevance to Ireland’s military history, donated by families and individuals.
I was pleased to learn that, just earlier this month, the Military Archives acquired yet another important private collection – namely Brother Allen’s Library Archival Collection – which includes, among other treasures, an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation, as well as the letter Patrick Pearse sent to his mother before his execution.
This complements other collections – most notably the records of the Bureau of Military History and the Military Service Pensions Collection – that lend the Military Archives such crucial significance for our understanding of Ireland’s revolutionary period. Over recent years, access to those archives has increased, allowing new generations of scholars to profoundly reassess and refine our grasp, not just of the Easter Rising, but also of the War of Independence and the tragic events of the Civil War.
The Bureau of Military History was established in 1947 by the Irish government, in collaboration with a committee of professional historians and former Irish Volunteers, with the aim of recording the history of the Irish revolutionary movement from November 1913 to July 1921. The Bureau’s investigators, most of them senior army officers, spent a decade compiling hundreds of detailed Witness Statements – a mine for historians indeed – collected from those who had been direct participants in those events.
By the time the Bureau was wound down, in 1957, it had accumulated over 1,700 first-person accounts, 36,000 pages of evidence, and over 150,000 documents detailing the revolutionary experiences of members of Sinn Féin, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Cumann na mBan, the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers. The Bureau thus forms the richest and, in relative terms, the most comprehensive oral history archives devoted to any modern revolution.
The second body of material, the Pensions’ Collection, covers the period from 1916 to 1923. It comprises some 300,000 files associated with the applications for service pensions sent by veterans of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War, as well as applications for allowances made by the dependants of those who were killed on active service or by those wounded or incapacitated while on duty during the period.
There is much to learn from the detail of these applications, in particular from the differentiated treatment accorded to female applicants or to those who found themselves on the “wrong” side of the divide during the Civil War.
The digitisation of the Witness Statements collected by the Bureau of Military History and the progressive release of the Military Service Pensions Collection constitute, I believe, two of the most significant Government initiatives to accompany the ongoing Decade of Commemorations. They are very important steps towards a democratisation of historical research, giving universal access to the first-hand accounts from previous generations, and enabling us to appreciate more fully the experiences, the motivations, the hopes, and sometimes the disillusions, of our forbearers.
To mark the opening of the Military Archives’ new building, the occasion that brings us together this afternoon, the Department of Defence have released a fourth tranche of material from the Military Service Pensions Collection, which contains the files of over 47,000 applicants who applied for the “1916 Medal” or the “Service Medal (1917-1921)”, awarded by the Irish State to qualifying veterans.
These Medal files do not only throw light on the special regard in which those who participated in the struggle for independence were held throughout the first decades of our fledgling State, but they also offer a detailed insight into Ireland’s social welfare history. They document an initiative taken by the Governments of the 1940s – that is, before the Social Welfare Act of 1952 – to introduce a new form of welfare payment specifically dedicated to medal holders, through the payment of special allowances to those veterans who could not improve their living standard because of old age, infirmity or ill health.
On a more personal note, may I say how meaningful the release of the Pension files has been to me and our family, through the information they convey about the experience of my father, my paternal uncles, my mother and my father’s sisters, all of whom were active in the War of Independence.
My father, John, enlisted with his brothers in the Ballycar Company of 1st Battalion, East Clare Brigade, during the War of Independence. He went on to serve for most of the period with the 3rd Battalion, Charleville, in the Cork no.4 Brigade. My mother was Vice-chair of Cumann na mBan in Liscaroll, and her brother was adjutant of the local Battalion. My father’s sister was in Cumann na mBan in Ballycar, Co. Clare.
The Civil War divided my father’s family. My uncle Peter was in the National Army; he took part in the handover and served in Renmore Barracks, Galway. My father spent part of the year 1923 as an internee in what was known to the prisoners as Tintown, in the Curragh camp. The Pension files record his long and exhausting battle for a small pension, which was eventually granted in 1956, almost 22 years after his first application, in 1935.
Indeed, the Pensions files tell many personal stories of hardship, as so many who fought for Irish Independence then struggled to support themselves and their families in the subsequent decades, and as some found themselves excluded from the pension scheme, because of their gender, class or political choices.
Today I also want to salute the Military Archives’ Image Identification Project, which invites members of the public to provide valuable information on old photographs of soldiers. Such initiatives, which foster our citizens’ engagement with the past, are very positive and important. Indeed an awareness and understanding of history is, I firmly believe, a necessary foundation for the crafting of a meaningful understanding of how our present circumstances were made possible, the effort and the sacrifices involved.
The response of citizens to such initiatives has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. During my visits to various parts of the country, I have witnessed, everywhere, profound interest and pride in the events we are commemorating this year, an eagerness to investigate the local variations of those events, to solve old enigmas, to salvage the stories and memories of so many quiet lives that, all across Ireland, were touched by those revolutionary years.
One of the benefits of the wealth of archival material preserved in this new building, in over 35,000 boxes, is that it conveys the experience of ‘ordinary’ activists, in addition to that of the leaders whose photographs featured on the borders of the Proclamation in the classrooms of our childhood. It allows for a more informed and inclusive memory of those who sacrificed their livelihoods and prospects so that we would be free and live in an independent Republic.
Delving into those archives, amateur and professional historians alike can thus reach out to the inspirational men and women who participated in the Irish revolution, not as abstract and mythical figures but as people who, for various reasons, and sometimes quite intuitively, dedicated their skills and their energy to the cause of Irish Freedom.
These archives are also reshaping the scholarly understanding of the period. Allowing historians to explore such themes as education, kinship and friendship connections, associational activity and intellectual influences. They have widened the lens to include the intellectual excitement of the “pre-revolution” period, the flourishing of movements – such as socialism, feminism, language revival and cultural nationalism – in which the actors of the time took a passionate interest, as well as the wider context of the First World War and the sometimes disappointing realities of independent Ireland.
Importantly, such material as the Witness Statements of the Bureau of Military History enable us to listen to the story of those who fought for a new Ireland as told in their own words. And while those statements may not fundamentally alter our general knowledge of what occurred, they do enhance our understanding of the motivations of the men and women who fought for Ireland’s independence, preserving something of the texture – the humanity, the discovered courage – and the complexity of the past, that is not always recorded in conventional sources.
From the point of view of historiography, of course, this archival material also raises problematic issues that must be addressed. We cannot ignore the fact, for example, that many veterans refused to provide Witness Statements. This arose for a number of reasons including their opposition to the State, their unwillingness to betray confidences, their desire to forget the past or their reluctance to formally detail their role in it. Some witnesses, who were subject to many pressures, discussed some aspects of the past more frankly than others. Then too, the questionnaires they were provided encouraged them to focus on particular aspects of the Revolution while avoiding others – most notably the Civil War.
Furthermore, many of those who did provide statements were somewhat selectively chosen: relatively few female participants were interviewed, while constitutional nationalists, British officials, and unionists were generally, although not entirely, excluded from the Bureau’s remit.
The Bureau’s statements thus represent a mediated form of oral history, recording those aspects of the past that interviewees were able or willing to recall, reflected through the lens of a state-sponsored project. Yet, while acknowledging this context, it remains that these sources offer very precious insights, if necessarily subjective, into mentalities and perceptions. They enable us to address such questions as: what led people from ordinary backgrounds to fight for Irish freedom? What did they think they could achieve? What kind of Republic were they willing to kill and die for?
These questions are important ones for us today as we continue the work, in our own times, of crafting an authentic and inclusive Republic in which all of our citizens are enabled to flourish.
Mar fhocal scoir, is mian liom a rá arís go bhfuil áthas orm, mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, a bheith in bhur dteannta inniu ag oscailt an fhoirgnimh nua seo don Chartlann Mhíleata. Is fóntas é seo atá i bhfad níos compordaí dóibh siúd a bhfuil suim acú sa chartlann, idir staraithe agus gnáth-saoránaigh gur mian leo a stair theaghlaigh a fhiosrú. Tugann sé, chomh maith, timpeallacht níos sábháilte leis na taifid luachmhar seo a stóráil ann, ní hamháin na taifid ón Éirí Amach ach taifid Óglaigh na hÉireann a ghlac páirt i misin na Náisiún Aontaithe thar lear atá ar bun ón bhliain naoidéag caoga a hocht go dtí an lá atá inniu ann.
[To conclude, may I reiterate how delighted I am, as President of Ireland, to be opening this new building for the Military Archives. The new facility offers a much more comfortable environment for all those who are interested in those archives – whether they are historians or citizens eager to research their family history.
It also provides a safe environment for the storing of those invaluable records, not just of Ireland’s revolutionary period, but also of our more recent history and of the service of Óglaigh na hEireann personnel overseas, as part of UN missions, such as it has developed from 1958 to the present day.]
This is a hugely important site of our national memory. A place in which are preserved the voices from our past, guarding them from oblivion and from any distortions of history – a sure foundation for our future.
Go raibh maith agaibh.