A window into the soul of Ireland
The Military Service Pensions Collection is monumental in scope and will transform our understanding of the past
Prisoners, captured after the Rising, on the balcony of E block in Stafford Prison, England, in 1916.
In 2003, there was much interest in the opening up of the archive of the Bureau of Military History (BMH), which included over 1,700 statements taken from Irish War of Independence veterans in the 1940s and 1950s. Their accounts of the role they played in the war were locked up in Government Buildings in 1958, with no agreement as to when they might be opened, but with a consensus that it would not be for at least another generation.
That was hardly surprising; many of the events and legacies of the revolutionary era were still raw and divisive in the mid-20th century, and there was legitimate concern about allegations and accusations that might be contained in the statements with no right of redress.
As they were being put away, the distinguished librarian Richard Hayes, a member of the BMH advisory committee, suggested it was imperative the BMH material should not be made available to the general public, writing to a colleague: “If every Seán and Séamus from Ballythis and Ballythat, who took major or minor or no part at all in the national movement from 1916 to 1921, has free access to the material it may result in local civil warfare in every second town and village in the country.”
Six decades later, this assertion of Hayes might be seen as delightful exaggeration underpinned by a good deal of snobbery. It highlighted not just the sensitivities and divisions of the era, but also the issue of who the story of the revolution belonged to and who should be in a position to research and document it.
One of the most notable developments in recent years in relation to the history of this period and access to its documentation has been increased democratisation, including the opening up of archival material (much of it digitised) to much bigger audiences than was previously the case. It is no longer the preserve of an academic elite; a lot of it, including the BMH archive, is open to anyone with an internet connection.
The launch yesterday of the first batch of documents from the archive of the Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC) and an accompanying website, marks a further development of this process, but it is on a much larger scale than the BMH archive.
The MSPC is an archive that is monumental in its detail and scope, and it is likely to transform research into, and understanding of, Irish republican military endeavour from 1916 to 1923 as well as the political, social and cultural forces underpinning it.
It has involved an awesome effort on the part of a small number of archivists based in the Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin, who have had to tackle the processing, cataloguing and digitisation of a collection that amounts to nearly 300,000 files, which will be released in phases over the next few years.
The collection has its origins in a decision of the Oireachtas in June 1923 to recognise and compensate wounded participants and deceased participants’ dependents. The legislation necessary for this was followed in turn by Military Service Pensions Acts of 1924 (which excluded those who had fought on the anti-Treaty side in the civil war and female volunteers in Cumann na mBan) and 1934 (which rectified these exclusions).
Other acts followed in order to amend, clarify and define many issues to do with the pensions process, including the crucial question of what constituted “active service” between 1916 and 1923. The administrative infrastructure necessary to implement the acts involved boards of assessors, referees and various overseeing committees, and the pensions that were awarded depended on rank and length of service and were graded A (maximum) to E (minimum), payable at just under £5 per year of service and per grade.
What will this archive mean in relation to an understanding of the revolutionary period? It is the single most important archival collection relating to the republican revolution from 1916-23. It will open many doors to an understanding of the role of republican volunteers from 1916-23 in every part of the island. Pension applicants had to provide very detailed accounts of their activities and their testimony needed to be verified and clarified, sometimes through oral hearings. The process involved the creation of an enormous body of supporting documentation.
What was apparent during the whole pensions administrative process, from the 1920s onwards, was that the bar would be set very high in relation to qualifying for a pension or compensation, and defining what constituted “active service”.
In the words of William T Cosgrave, the first head of government in the Free State, in 1924, definition of active service made it clear the government “does not intend there should be any soft pensions”. This was, and remained, the case; the archive is, as a result, also a chronicle of great disappointment, as the vast majority of those who applied for pensions were not awarded them. A government memorandum in 1957 revealed that 82,000 people applied for pensions under the 1924 and 1934 acts; of these, 15,700 were successful and 66,300 were rejected. The value of the archive is that regardless of success in applying, all the applications, and any follow up correspondence or appeals, were kept on file and for this we owe a debt to the generation of public servants who ensured the material was preserved.
The archive contains an extraordinary level of testimony and detail about individual and collective republican military endeavour, but it also reveals much about frustrated expectations, concern about status and reputation, and difficulties of verification. While the list of those awarded military service pensions at the highest grade under the 1924 and 1934 acts reads like a roll call of some of the best known gunmen and later politicians of that era, the bulk of the archive is filled with the voices of those who were not household names, and documents many voices of desperation and urgent pleas for pensions due to the abject circumstances of a host of War of Independence and Civil War veterans.
The archive, with its wealth of information on military service, engagements, tactics and strategy, will provide historians of the War of Independence and Civil War with abundant material to deepen an understanding of the nature and logistics of the war, the extent of membership of republican organisations, exceptional detail on the activities carried out by military units, the degree to which the republican campaign was effectively co-ordinated and the extent of local initiative.
Fill in the gaps
When the material is fully released, those with personal connections to this period will have an opportunity to research the narratives relevant to their families; to fill in gaps, discover stories for the first time, be enlightened and surprised or perhaps angered and deflated. The multitude of narratives in the archive contain a variety of sentiments and tones; pride, arrogance, anger, self-belief, righteousness and, more often than not, dignity.
It is also an archive that opens a window on social and economic history and tells us much about the revolution’s afterlife. In July 1941, for example, Nora Connolly O’Brien, daughter of the Labour leader James Connolly, executed after his leading role in the 1916 Rising, and who herself had been an active member of Cumann na mBan, wrote to a confidante that she had not “heard a word yet from the Pensions Board . . . I am at my wits’ end. We are absolutely on the racks. This week will see the end of us unless I have something definite to count upon. There seems no prospect of anything here so we have written to England applying for jobs. I’m absolutely blue, despondent, down and out, hopeless and at the end of my tether.”
There was relatively good news for her in October 1941 when she was awarded an E grade pension amounting to £29.7.6 a year. For those seeking to survive or eke out a bare subsistence in the 1930s and 1940s, every penny generated by War of Independence service was precious.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of
Modern Irish History at UCD.