A State hell-bent on wiping its collective memory


CULTURE SHOCK:THE PARTIES THAT founded the State have much to be proud of, but one source of abiding shame is their feckless destruction of the old Public Record Office. The irreplaceable legal and historical archive, including the complete record of the Irish parliament, the original wills of every Irish testator from the 16th century onwards, and the registers of hundreds of parishes, were housed in the Four Courts in Dublin.

When the building was occupied by the anti-Treaty IRA in 1922 and then shelled by the pro-Treaty forces, neither side gave a toss about the records. Almost the entire archive was destroyed by fire. In one of the most bizarre founding acts of a nation state, the nationalists wiped out the written memory of the nation.

This vandalism had a paradoxical effect. Instead of creating a sense of guilt and a serious effort to rebuild the national archive, it led to a further neglect of public records. Because we had, in effect, no national archive, there was the idea that we didn't really need one. Astonishingly, it was not until 1986 that we got, at least in theory, a proper State archive. Its importance has been seen, in positive terms, in the huge increase in properly documented historical studies that have been an important element in the emergence of a more pluralistic society. (While the old Public Record Office had 1,700 users of its reading room in 1971, the National Archives on Bishop Street had 16,500 in 2006.) The enthusiastic public response to the National Archives' work in creating free online access to the 1911 census has shown that this interest is not confined to historians, but is a key part of Irish identity. The importance of the archives has also been seen in negative terms: the Barron inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings stressed the fact that missing Garda documents precluded firm conclusions about aspects even of such recent events.

That importance, though, has never been reflected in the resources of the archives. The institution, as anyone who has used it can testify, has excellent staff and is a fine advertisement for the best values of the public service. But it is hopelessly overcrowded and under-resourced. The National Archives Act created a statutory obligation on government departments and the courts to give their records (other than in exceptional circumstances) to the archive. Typically, however, nothing was done to create a depository where these records could be properly stored, catalogued and accessed. The inadequacy of the space on Bishop Street is obvious. Valuable documents are continually being taken back and forth to the Four Courts, where the National Archives still have a storage facility. In order to take in the new records that must, by statute, be released in December, large series of Department of Foreign Affairs files will have to be moved to outside storage.

Over the last few years, there has been widespread agreement that a new building is urgently necessary. There were plans to put the archives into the old Coláiste Mhuire site on Parnell Square. They collapsed when it became clear this would be a far more expensive option than a new building on the current site. Essentially, nothing has happened since then.

Until the Budget, that is. In the Budget, there was a one-line announcement that the National Library, the National Archives and the Irish Manuscripts Commission are to be amalgamated. All we got by way of detail or explanation was the bland statement that the Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, Martin Cullen, "is confident that the fusion of these organisations will lead to economies of scale and costs and an enhancement of what they have on offer for the tourist, user and student . . . Legislation will be brought forward to effect these amalgamations and the governance, management, employment and administrative arrangements to realise them would be put in place as soon as it is feasible." This has all the hallmarks of a back-of-an-envelope exercise to which, in the most generous calculation, perhaps 10 minutes' thought has been given. There has been no consultation with the organisations involved. In the case of the archives, admittedly, this would have been difficult since, in a sign of the prevailing fecklessness, the statutory National Archives Advisory Council has not been reappointed since the term of the last one expired a year ago. The proposition seems to be that the amalgamation of three very different institutions, each of them historically neglected and under-resourced, will create substantial savings for the Exchequer. This would make sense only if the institutions concerned were either performing overlapping functions or had some fat to be cut - neither of which is the case. In reality, the only logic to the move is that it provides cover for the scaling down or even abolition of at least one of the institutions.

There is, of course, a case for bringing together the National Library and the National Archives in a brand new state-of-the-art building with some shared facilities and expertise. But this would involve a substantial upgrading of both institutions - clearly not what the Government has in mind.

What we're seeing instead is a wanton exercise in adding insult to injury. The great historic wrong that was done to this nation's collective memory in 1922 and that was compounded by decades of neglect is now apparently to be repeated in an act of thoughtless meddling. The only hope is that the measure is so poorly thought-through, and therefore so absurd, that it will be impossible to implement it. Perhaps the records will show that this was just a foolish afterthought and perhaps those records will eventually end up in an archive worthy of a self-respecting State.