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.