Secret archives on Rising released online today
GRAPHIC EYEWITNESS accounts of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence that were “locked away” for more than half a century are available to the public online, for the first time, from today.
After years of planning by the Defence Forces, the State’s Military Archives has digitised the entire contents of the once-secret “Bureau of Military History 1913-1921” and is allowing unlimited public access on its website.
The personal recollections of hundreds of men and women who participated in the momentous events leading to the creation of the Irish State can be accessed free worldwide.
The Bureau of Military History was established by Oscar Traynor, minister for defence in 1947. The purpose was to gather first-hand accounts from virtually all the surviving figures – and many minor players – in the “history of the movement for Independence”, beginning with the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 until “The Truce” with the British in July 1921. The establishment of the bureau gave the individuals involved a chance to record their own stories. Over 25 years had passed since the ending of British rule; many of those involved were growing old, and the State was anxious to record their memories before it was too late.
Witness statements were taken from, among others, members of organisations including the Irish Volunteers (subsequently the IRA), Cumann na mBan, the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood), Sinn Féin and the Irish Citizen Army. The project took 10 years and ended in 1957.
But the bitter legacy of the Civil War, which had immediately followed Independence, meant that the contents of the bureau were regarded as highly sensitive and controversial in the late 1950s.
Capt Stephen Mac Eoin of Military Archives explained that the material was then “locked away in the Department of An Taoiseach for some 45 years”, until 2001, when it was transferred to the Defence Forces to prepare it for release into the public domain.
The scale of the project was vast. A team of military archivists has transferred the huge collection of 1,773 witness statements containing 36,000 pages of name- and word-searchable documents; rare photographs; and voice recordings onto the website. For more see militaryarchives.ie
EYEWITNESSES: WHAT THEY SAID
Selected quotes from witness statements to the Bureau of Military History, collected between 1947-1957, which goes online today:
“As we got out the door into Henry Street, we lined up ‘two deep’ with the O’Rahilly standing in front and Patrick Pearse by his side . . . Our gallant attempt to break through failed and the survivors ended in an old burnt-out ruin in Moore Street. I saw O’Rahilly fall wounded and my nearest comrade, Pat O’Connor, was killed just in front of me, and falling on me pinned me under him.”
– Easter 1916: Éamonn Dore (Irish Volunteers, Limerick who was in the GPO, Dublin)
“After that I got so sick of the slaughter that I asked to be changed. Three refused to have their eyes bandaged … they all died like lions. The rifles of the firing party were waving like a field of corn. All the men were cut to ribbons at a range of about 10 yards.”
– Easter 1916: Capt E Gerrard, who, when giving his evidence, was aide-de-camp to Gen Sir Hugh Jeudwine, OC 5 Division (British army) recalls the words spoken to him by a medical officer of the scene of the executions of the 1916 leaders, at which the medical officer was present
“When the Black and Tans behaved in such an excited and unsoldierly way by endangering my daughter’s life when she was playing in St Stephen’s Green, I resolved to give all the help in my power to the resistance movement headed by Michael Collins. … I also gave him [Batt O’Connor] a latch key of my house, 15 Ely Place, and prepared that apparently impassable cul de sac so that Collins, if hard pressed, could use my garden and appear in St Stephen’s Green.”
– The War of Independence, 1919-1921: Oliver St John Gogarty, Dublin
“In April 1920, we decided to call an unofficial strike at the docks as a protest against the treatment meted out to the Irish political prisoners who were hunger-striking at Wormwood Scrubs. The dock labourers and the crews of the cross channel boats – BI, Cork, Limerick, Dundalk and Newry – came out to a man . . . The number employed was 5,024 and out of that number 5,016 came out on strike, completely crippling the movement of all ships in the port of Liverpool.”
– Reaction to Irish prisoners on hunger strike in Wormwood Scrubs prison, England, 1920: Michael O’Loughlin, dockworker and member of the IRB in Liverpool
This article was amended on August 8th to correct a factual error