Revolutionary Ireland: defiance, youth and pessimism
The remarkable level of human detail in pension applications enhances our understanding of republican volunteers both during and after the revolutionary years
‘On the Run’ by Seán Keating. Copyright The Estate of Seán Keating, IVARO Dublin, Image courtesy of the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork
Historians quite rightly focus on the remarkable level of human detail and texture in the individual applications contained in the Military Service Pension archive. They open many doors to an understanding of the role of republican volunteers, men and women, during the revolutionary decade 1913-1923 and their post-conflict circumstances.
What is also striking, however, is the bureaucratic effort that went into ensuring the archive’s huge volume. One thing that became apparent at an early stage of the pensions process was that nothing would be easily granted, or in the words of William T Cosgrave, the first president of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, the government “does not intend there should be any soft pensions”.
As a result of the Military Service Pensions Acts of 1924 and 1934, veterans of the revolution had to provide detailed accounts of their activities to make a case as to why they were deserving of a pension. Their accounts needed to be verified by referees and the administrative process involved the creation of an enormous body of supporting documentation. Much of it centred on establishing the extent of “active service” by pension applicants. There was no easy or satisfactory definition of what constituted active service and it remained a contentious issue.
The Board of Assessors provided for under the 1924 Act was replaced under the 1934 Act by a referee with significant powers, including that of “enforcing the attendance of witnesses and examining them on oath . . . and for compelling the production of documents”, and an Advisory Committee of two former high-ranking members of the forces involved in the War of Independence and two civil servants. To deal with difficulties of verification, the lapse of time since the military events and the expected increase in the volume of applications, IRA veterans were requested to form brigade committees to assemble records of membership and activities and appoint verifying officers to assist the referee. The resultant Brigade Activity Reports (BARs), compiled from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, form an essential part of the Military Service Pensions Archive.
The brigade committee members thus joined a big cast involved in fuelling and administering the pension process. Collectively, over decades, these people were both keepers of a precious national record and arbiters in disputes about what precisely had occurred during the revolutionary years and who was involved to a significant degree. There was a keenness to identify “key men” or “persons who formerly held high rank” and who were regarded as operating in a whole-time capacity during the revolution– such an approach yielded much information but also created antagonism and accusations of elitism.
The BARs contain much detail on particular military operations, the numbers involved on both sides, including casualties, along with maps and sketches and names and addresses of participants. Direct combat was just one aspect of military activity; there was also attention devoted to listing those involved in the crucial but often mundane work of road blocking, dispatch carrying, scouting and manufacturing and hiding of arms and explosives.
The value of the BARs lies in the level of local detail provided about how the IRA organised itself and the difficulties and opportunities it encountered. Florrie O’Donoghue, intelligence officer of the Cork No 1 brigade of the IRA, lamented “the absence of a military policy comprehensible to the average volunteer” in 1919, at the beginning of the War of Independence. The BARs underline that the conflict was no vindication of a centralised master plan; local initiatives, dynamics and personalities dictated much, as did the crucial issue of access to weapons. For all the defiance and focus during the war, there was much pessimism about military capabilities.
Part of what sustained the revolution was youthful exuberance, as historian Charles Townshend has observed: “The revolutionary generation was made up of mostly obscure people, whose most obvious common characteristic was their youth.” Before 1919, the average age of a rank-and file-volunteer was 23 and for officers 25; after that, the average age rose by about one year. But that exuberance could be complicated and compromised by local feuds and practical limitations and some of those difficulties and resentments endured.
The process of compiling the BARs revealed much about frustrated expectations, concern about reputation, and difficulties of corroboration and the circumstances of the creation of the BARs invite a degree of caution. The narratives being pieced together were retrospective, often partial and vulnerable to faulty memory, and they should not be viewed in isolation or as at all definitive.
Former senior IRA officers throughout the country may have had their own axes to grind and they had survived to create narratives when others had not. The correspondence in the archive is riddled with references to emigration – of 35 IRA volunteers who had been involved in an attack in Skibbereen during the Civil War in 1922, for example, eight were in the USA. Whether for economic or political reasons or both, many lived their post-revolutionary lives abroad.
There was also much anger directed against the administrators of the pensions process, as it was often unclear as to precisely what information the brigade committees were required to provide. The office of the referee frequently expressed dissatisfaction with the level and quality of information provided and those seeking to piece together the BARs often felt their efforts and difficulties were not appreciated.
In 1937, Seamus Ó Maoileoin, ex O/C of the East Limerick Brigade, articulated concern that the Pensions Board “is still being influenced by a small group who are out to impede the Brigade Committee” and needed to consult “far more efficient and reliable witnesses”. Séamus MacCos, gathering information on the activities of Cork IRA men, smarted from the exhaustive demands on an already busy man, informing the referee that he worked from 9am to 7.30pm: “We at this end have got to earn a living . . . would the Referee expect me to start another day’s work when I get home?”
Those in Northern Ireland faced added difficulties and had to be more careful due to surveillance and suspicions – in 1937, a veteran of the IRA’s Derry city battalion expressed his frustration: “It is almost impossible to keep records here in the North.”
For all the caveats the historian must enter about this archival material, it is nonetheless enormously valuable and yet another vindication of the assertion of the late historian Peter Hart that Ireland is a great laboratory for the study of revolution because “Ireland’s is quite possibly the best documented revolution in modern history”. But documents, to be accessible, have to be preserved, catalogued and contextualised and a debt of gratitude is owed to the Department of Defence for making this material available and to the archivists who have painstakingly sorted and digitised the documents.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD and an Irish Times columnist