Irish Roots

Mon, Jan 13, 2014, 01:00

It now seems certain that the 1926 census will not be open for research in time for the 1916 centenary, or indeed any time before 2026, despite the commitment to the contrary in the Programme for Government. Perhaps to atone for this, next Friday, the 17th, will see the early launch of an online version of what are known as the “Old IRA” pension records.

They are, in fact, the records produced by the Military Service Pensions Act of 1924. The Act was an attempt by the fledgling Free State government to reward (or perhaps pacify) the men and women who had fought at any time from the 1916 Rising up to 1923. It conferred retrospective formal Army status on the guerrillas of the War of Independence and those on the Pro-Treaty side in the Civil War. A formidable bureaucratic machine was established to asses applications, with elaborate formulae valuing service over different periods at wildly varying rates. Service for 1916/17, for example, was worth ten times service in 1918/19. The records produced by the process provide absolutely invaluable first-hand accounts of the events that founded this state.

It should also be added that in the Ireland of the time a state pension of any description could mean the difference between penury and relative comfort, so there was plenty of motivation for people to chance their arm. That cynical old joke about the 10,000 men who claimed to have been in the GPO during Easter Week is about to be tested. When you add in the fact that the pensions were so politicised, and that more than 60,000 people applied, you have the makings of a very juicy set of records indeed.

I hope have beefed up their bandwidth, because half of the country will be poised over their keyboards. Snooping on your neighbours’ grandparents (and your neighbours’ grandparents’ pensions) is one of the underappreciated pleasures of genealogy.