Leabharlann na Meán


Catriona Crowe: Recovering Imagined Futures

Thursday 27th May, 2021

My thanks to the President for inviting me to be part of Machnamh, a thoughtful, reflective set of explorations of vital issues during our Decade of Centenaries, valuable in so many ways, particularly when an unnatural pause for thought has been imposed by Covid 19 and the attendant closure of archives and libraries.

The theme for this session of Machnamh is “recovering imagined futures”. We are living out, at present, a fundamental disruption to our various imagined futures by a world-historical event, a global pandemic, which has wiped out the actual futures of millions of people around the world, and created futures dogged by ill-health, unemployment and poverty for millions more. It gives us some idea of how a war-weary Europe must have felt in 1918 when the flu pandemic arrived to destroy so many fragile imagined futures.

I have been an archivist for most of my working life. Archivists deal with the imagined futures of documents, many of them now electronic and in some peril. We have to imagine the potential futures of these documents in terms of their usefulness to scholars, genealogists and increasingly, to the general public. These emphases have changed over time to include new disciplines like social, gender, cultural and labour history, and archivists have to try to keep pace with these disciplines, and to remember that the material we deem worthy of preservation now may have many uses in the future that we cannot now imagine.

The raw materials of huge statistical record sets like census records have become much more important over the last forty years, as family history has become an absorbing study for many individuals and scholars; the records were created to provide a statistical base for understanding trends in population, occupation, household composition, living conditions and education. These findings were and are, theoretically at least, supposed to provide a solid basis for national and local planning strategies, for educational provision and for fair distribution of electoral rights, among other things. The statistics generated by analysis of the forms we all fill out every 10 years is sufficient to provide that information.

However, the huge interest in genealogy and family history which has grown over the last forty years has produced a new focus on the actual household returns made for each census, and a concerted effort by archivists to make them available, often through mass digitisation projects. The success of our own digitised 1901 and 1911 censuses bears testimony to the public embrace of records which shed light on their family pasts, and to the new tool of digitisation as a transformational aid to dissemination of archives to the broadest possible readership, what has been called “the democratisation of archives.”

Margaret O’Callaghan has given us a scintillating overview of 1921, that crucial year in defining the futures of both parts of this island. I want to respond to her thought-provoking paper by amplifying the story of the archives which allow us to understand the period. All historical scholarship depends on the availability and accessibility of archives, the raw materials which allow us to know what we know about the past. The President as asked me to talk about archives relevant to the period, and to the issues being discussed at this session of Machnamh. So I’ll be stepping away from 1921 and into the period before and after that turbulent year.

The two biggest archival collections which have recently shaped our understanding of the revolutionary period are the Bureau of Military History collection and the Military Service Pensions files. The Bureau is the oral history of the period from 1913 to 1921; the Pensions files are the record of those who applied for pensions for active service in the various conflicts from 1916 to 1923. The release of the Bureau papers in 2003, and the online release of the Witness Statements in 2012, meant that the voices of 1773 people who played a part in 1916 and the War of Independence were available for the first time, and they were used by historians like Fearghal McGarry, Lucy MacDiarmaid, Roy Foster, Diarmaid Ferriter and Charles Townshend to really good effect.

The Military Service Pensions files began to be released online in 2014, and their ongoing release continues, bringing us not just a comprehensive account of various engagements during the conflicts, but a kind of shadow history of poverty, ill-health and disappointment in the first decades of the new independent State, as people wrote heart-breaking letters seeking even small sums of money in recognition of their service.

As Margaret has said, Ireland has one of the best-documented revolutions in the world. It was very important, as we approached the Decade of Centenaries, that this documentation would be available to inform our understanding of the anniversaries we would be marking. And now that it is in the public domain, this material provides rich sources for the period which can be mined well into the future. The wonderful Military Archives website has the digitised versions of both collections available online, free to access.

One of the interesting features of this round of commemorations, which as Margaret says, always reflect society’s current preoccupations, is a new interest in victims of conflict. For example, Joe Duffy’s work on children killed during the 1916 Rising brought us a new lens through which to view that event – one that focused on the collateral damage inflicted on non-combatants. Many of us wanted to complicate the narrative of these years, and that has been done successfully, often due to the availability of the new archives I’ve mentioned. Because we now have the pensions files, we can discover the story of 16 year-old Bridget McKane, accidentally shot dead through her front door, off Moore St., by rebels fleeing the burning GPO in 1916. Her father, Thomas, put in a claim for compensation 20 years later, when such claims became possible. He got £100, about €5000 in today’s values.

This session of Machnamh focuses on the issues of gender, land and class. Gender and women’s history is thriving here in Ireland, particularly relating to women in the revolutionary period. The two major archives I’ve mentioned have plenty of material relating to individual women, like Grace Gifford, Louise Gavan Duffy, Constance Markievicz and Rosie Hackett. But they also shed light on women who were not well-known, like mothers and sisters applying for pensions on foot of the loss or disability of husbands, brothers and fathers, laying out pitiful stories of poverty, sickness and resentment at the resolute determination of the State not to give money to those whose loved ones had given their lives or their health to the struggle for independence.

When considering archives relating to women, we should remember the records of the religious orders who ran health, education and welfare services here well before 1922, and with added power and control thereafter. The recent report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has reminded us that congregational archives contain vital information about tens of thousands of women and children who passed through these homes, as well as Magdalen laundries and industrial schools. They also contain records of the nuns who ran these institutions, nearly all of whom came from Irish families and communities. The fact that these essential archives are largely closed to researchers is unacceptable, considering the close relationship between church and State for most of the twentieth century. They should be public records, in acknowledgment of the congregations’ almost total control over essential State services, and their close and oppressive relationship with large numbers of our citizens.

In this regard, the testimonies of survivors of Mother and Baby Homes, given to the recent Commission, form an extremely valuable sample of the experiences of tens of thousands of women and children who went through these homes, and whose lives are still being adversely impacted by those experiences. It is to be hoped that the backup tapes of their testimony, luckily discovered to be viable after the destruction of the originals, can form the nucleus of an archive, in consultation with the survivors themselves, which can be used for scholarship and for the education of our young citizens in former practices of our State and churches which may seem unimaginable today.

Margaret referred to the land question, as did the President, which from the 1880s on, changed the ownership and class composition of rural Ireland. We have to remember that between 1890 and 1922, 75% of the land of Ireland was transferred from landlord to tenant, a quiet revolution which followed a noisy and successful Land War. Land was always the big issue, from the huge dispossessions of the 17th century onwards. The fact that the problem was, partially, solved so quickly at the beginning of the twentieth century is both fascinating and problematic. The Land Acts created a rural society of conservative Catholic small-holders with a new-found interest in respectability and sexual probity, both of which bore down most heavily on women, and had a lot to do with the establishment and maintenance of Mother and Baby Homes.

The records of the Irish Land Commission, a vast collection spanning the 16th to the 20th century, are still, inexplicably, not available to the public. Their absence means that we cannot fully understand the creation of the modern State; these records, as well as the archives of the Registry of Deeds and the Land Registry, are the last piece of the archival jigsaw relating to the revolutionary period, and what went before and came after it. The collection also contains vast amounts of genealogical material, in the Fair Rent registers from the 1880s and 90s, which are a partial replacement for the 1881 and 1891 census records, destroyed during world war 1, because of a paper shortage. The original deeds to the transferred estates, some going back to the 16th century, and a wonderful collection of leases from the Church Temporalities Commission, dating to the 18th century, are two other constituent parts of this enormous collection, which merited its own custom-built archival repository at the back of the Land Commission offices on Merrion Sq., in what is now the Merrion Hotel. When the Land Commission offices were sold in the 1990s, a rescue operation for the records had to be mounted to prevent them from being destroyed. They were preserved, only to be made inaccessible.

The Land Commission records should, under the terms of the National Archives Act, be available to the public. Perhaps the Decade of Centenaries may provide a reason to insist on their release. There are decades of scholarship to be fruitfully carried out on these vital records. And while we’re at it, it would be wonderful to have a slightly early release of the 1926 census, the first held by the new Irish State, and currently closed until 2026.

Class is an underexplored issue in Irish historiography. Labour historians, like Emmet O’Connor, Francis Devine, Padraig Yeates and Therese Moriarty have valiantly tried to illuminate our ambiguous and elided past with regard to class. The Irish Labour History Museum and Archive is the repository for many collections of trade union records and the private papers of individuals active in the labour movement. This is a very important archive of material which reflects the aspirations and activities of large numbers of our citizens. The trade union movement was, and to a sadly dwindling extent still is, the biggest and most effective civic society organisation in history, where working people could choose their own leadership and advance their legitimate interests. Yet the Labour History Archive receives minuscule funding from the State.

The labour movement played a crucial part in the revolutionary period, from James Connolly’s writings and actions, to the Citizen Army’s involvement in the 1916 Rising, to the anti-conscription strike of 1918, to Tom Johnson’s draft of the Democratic Programme for the first Dáil, to the fascinating Limerick Soviet of early 1919. The tension between nationalism and socialism was one which continued after the establishment of the new State. Labour’s long wait to achieve some political power in government is a story we all know. But we don’t know enough about the ordinary men and women who drove the Trade Union movement on the ground.

The State gives a richly deserved annual subsidy to the Irish Architectural Archive, a splendid organisation with an appropriately beautiful building on Merrion Square. But the Archive which holds the records of thousands of people, engaged in democratic pursuit of economic equality and badly needed protection for the rights of working people, gets no such subsidy. Labour, it seems, must wait, even when it comes to its valuable history.

We are now in the middle of the period reflecting on the most turbulent aspects of the War of Independence, laid out so concisely and clearly for us by Margaret’s keynote paper. The establishment of the state of Northern Ireland, the burning of the Custom House, the Truce, the Treaty negotiations and debates: these will be our preoccupations in 2021. Questions of violent opposition to Britain, its destructive response, the cessation of both one hundred years ago, the copper-fastening of partition, the Treaty debates, perhaps the most consequential debates on the shape of the country that we’ve ever had, and the looming prospect of civil war, will keep us all busy for the next while.

There is value in anniversaries; without significant State support and funding for the decade of centenaries, and in particular for the release and accessibility of crucial archives, we would not have got to this point with an excellent record on events like the State commemoration of the Easter Rising, numerous valuable academic conferences, publications which have exceeded expectations, informative and accessible TV documentaries, and arts events like Paul Muldoon’s 100 Years A Nation or Anu Productions’ These Rooms, which used poetry, music, drama and dance to illuminate, respectively, the entire history of Ireland, and the North King Street massacre of 1916. The Expert Advisory Group to the government, composed of historians and archivists, has offered creative and constructive advice on the course to be taken during these years. Its members have also staunchly promoted the archival project.

Fintan O’Toole said in 1916 that the Irish people now only trusted the Army and the Arts, because of the exemplary behaviour of both in the 1916 commemoration events. I think he would concede that others also deserve trust – our historians, archivists, museum curators, teachers and local committees who have played a significant role in commemorations of specific events. For example, the commemoration of the Soloheadbeg ambush in early 1919 involved descendants of the two policemen killed in that ambush, and was impressive in its solemnity and dignity.

The Machnamh 100 initiative is a valuable part of our intricate, many-layered, illuminating response to the events of 100 years ago. The pause in our lives inflicted by Covid 19 has given us a chance to interrogate and reflect on those events, and Machnamh has provided a welcome space for the fruits of those reflections.