A recent visit to the Military Archives in Cathal Brugha barracks after a long absence was a reassuringly pleasant experience. As a lapsed hippy, I still have issues with authority, especially authority carrying guns. I believe the technical term is “The Man”. Going through the gates of the barracks set my facial tics a-twitching.
But I needn’t have worried. The Archives are very welcoming and superbly organised. Working there on the Civil War internment collection was a salutary reminder that, for some records, it will always be essential to handle the actual paper and to see how things were organised by the original record-keepers. You can smell the damp of Mountjoy and The Curragh in the winter of 1922/3 coming off the documents. Immediacy like this is impossible online, but as with every good archives, a balance is being struck, with detailed finding aids and images online and excellent on-the-spot help for researchers. The one mouth-watering collection coming soon to the website (militaryarchives.ie) is that of the Bureau of Military History covering 1913 to 1921, with all the original interviews, photographs and documents. It will be available before the end of this month. They’re going to need more bandwidth.
One problem with having such a well-run institution is that it has become almost too popular: military historians tend to keep on digging long after civilians give up. I had to book a place in the reading-room a week in advance, and it was full for the entire time I was there, with everyone running at full steam.
I should add that the staff in the Archives were extraordinarily courteous, and helpful to a fault. I was very polite myself. It’s hard not to be, when dealing with an archivist in full combat fatigues. I didn’t mutter “Make love, not war, man” under my breath. Honestly, not even once.
['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/magazine/column]