The Decade of Centenaries has increased awareness of the rich documentary heritage available in the Military Archives concerning the formative years of the Irish State. One of the State’s flagship projects of the decade – the Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection, which were first released and put online in 2014, transformed our understanding of the revolutionary period.
Prior to that there was the release of the Bureau of Military History records in 2003, which details the experiences of more than 1,700 people who gave oral testimony during those transformative years. They were put online in 2012. Together they have made the Irish revolution one of the best chronicled revolutions in world history. Thousands of people around the world who have Irish ancestry have now accessed the Military Archives online.
The story of the Military Archives itself, however, is far less known but is one that offers a unique insight into a nationally significant archival institution and a very specialist section of Óglaigh na hÉireann (the Defence Forces), told against the backdrop of the development of the modern Irish State.
Its journey begins back to 1922 when Commandant General Piaras Béaslaí and Captain James Joseph Burke acquired and managed National Army records during the Civil War. This evolved from Béaslaí's appointment as Michael Collins’ biographer following his death. In 1923, Béaslaí requested permission from the chief-of-staff to consolidate this work through a temporary ‘War Records Office’ to collect primary source material charting the foundation of the Volunteers to the Civil War.
The request was denied considering the large-scale post-Civil War demobilisation that was then in progress. But there remained a need for such a facility within the Army, especially when the Army Pensions Act 1923 and Military Service Pensions Act 1924 made it necessary to verify pre-Truce service.
In December 1924 another revolutionary veteran, Colonel MJ Costello, the Army’s Director of Intelligence, pioneered the formation of the Military Archives as a sub-section of that branch. Overseen by Captain Alphonsus Blake and Thomas Galvin, the records in their custody at that time included the Kilmainham Papers (correspondence and papers of the British commanders in Ireland) and several thousand Civil War intelligence and operational files.
Despite the potential to comprehensively document the struggle for Irish independence and the history of Óglaigh na hÉireann, requests by the Chief-of-Staff to the Cumann na nGaedheal Minister for Defence to have the archives granted an official status were repeatedly ignored or declined. The Government’s indecision was bookended by the notorious “destruction order” of March 7th, 1932, issued by Desmond FitzGerald, which saw Civil War intelligence reports, secret service vouchers, proceedings of Military Courts, reports on and details of executions, burned prior to handing over power to Fianna Fáil.
1935 saw the archive’s fortunes rise again. Colonel JJ ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, once a general in both IRA and National Army GHQ, became the first officially appointed Officer-in-Charge (director) of the Military Archives. He attended zealously to his duties, assisted by the industrious Commandant Niall Charles Harrington, and held this appointment until his death in 1944. Following this, the Archives were generally neglected in favour of other exigencies and formally disbanded in 1959.
It was 1982 before the Military Archives was re-established, thanks to the exceptional foresight and campaigning of Commandant Peter Young. Along with his deputy, Commandant Victor Laing, who took over as director following Young’s death in 1999 until his retirement in 2012, and a few other dedicated people such as Sergeant Joe White, the Military Archives survived and thrived. One of the most significant developments was its designation in 1990 as the statutory place of deposit for records of not only the Defence Forces but the Department of Defence and Army Pensions Board.
This first decade of its reinstatement was not plain sailing, with recent history recording instances of neglect and under-valuing of the Military Archives similar to that from the 1920s to 50s. In 1984, a retiring Chief-of-Staff directed that Young be transferred to an infantry battalion “for the good of his career”.
Or in 1990, in anticipation of the Military Archives being designated a “place of deposit” under the National Archives Act, the Department of Defence proposed a separate departmental archive and the return of thousands of early departmental files acquired by Young and his team years previously. Thankfully for the archives and those who benefit from them, neither proposal came to pass.
It was when the government announced in 2006 that the Military Service Pension records would be made available for public inspection, to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, that the Military Archives really gained momentum. Bolstered by the support of the Department of Defence and General Staff, a new, purpose-built Military Archives at Cathal Brugha Barracks opened in 2016.
So successful and necessary has this facility proven to be in consolidating military and departmental archival records, as well at attracting privately donated material, that the repository’s 21km of shelving will be at 90–95 per cent capacity within just five years. Our records include comprehensive accounts of Irish involvement in the United Nations, an oral history project where hundreds of former veterans have given an account of their service and priceless donations including the Brother Allen collection from the revolutionary period, and Uinseann O’Rathallie Mac Eoin’s oral collection of interviews with republican veterans.
As well as telling a fascinating Irish story, the ebb and flow of the Military Archives’ fortunes during the past century provides a case study of wider archival trends and concerns. The role of an archive in a modern state is as an agent of accountability and advocacy, tasked with ensuring public access to the documentary evidence of historical decisions made on their behalf by elected and unelected officials.
As far back as the 1970s the American historian and philosopher Howard Zinn stressed the need for archivists to abandon the screen of professionalism and neutrality in order to humanise their ordinary work and not limit their concern with political issues to their spare time. He described archiving as an inherently political craft that we humanise by recognising this fact.
For archivists, this professional tension “between professing one’s craft and professing one’s humanity” is more pronounced for those working in the public service. This tension should not, however, conflate our obligation to abstain from matters of an executive political nature with our statutory obligations to safeguard access to state records on behalf of the body politic.
Those most influential in the establishment of the Military Archives knew this and would be no doubt pleased to see the Committee of Professional State Archivists currently operating under the auspices of the National Archives of Ireland.
For Óglaigh na hÉireann, as an apolitical force that puts great store by the continuous education of its members, access to the primary sources held at the Military Archives, combined with engagement in academic and peer-reviewed research, is essential to self-advocacy.
Distilled to its most elemental, the story of the Military Archives is one of an Irish institution that has been built, over the past century, on the work of its military and civilian staff for whom it has been a labour of love. It now stands in the best position it ever has, to pursue its purpose as it was described by Commandant Peter Young: “To protect the past, to understand the present, and to plan for the future.” It is a story well-due telling.
Daniel Ayiotis is the Director of the Military Archives and a commandant in the Irish Army, based at Cathal Brugha Barracks, Rathmines, Dublin. His book ‘The Military Archives: A History’ is available in all good bookshops and on wordwellbooks.com