How military pensions archive throws light on silent state

Release of files from the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War a salve for bitterness of the period

For those who played an active role in the War of Independence from 1916 to 1921, the Civil War of 1922 to 1923 brought many of their aspirations and dreams to a bitter end. For many, the easiest way to deal with the legacy was to remain silent.

When he gave an interview to the Bureau of Military History in 1951, the State initiative to record the experience of veterans of the War of Independence, George Gavan Duffy, who had been a member of the delegation that signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, began starkly: “I hark back to the aftermath of the Treaty with reluctance and distaste, for the memory is painful and a country so bitterly divided, nearly half and half, on so vital an issue presents a sorry spectacle”.

Amnesia is not an option

Last year, during his State visit to Britain, President Michael D Higgins referred to his father’s involvement in the War of Independence and Civil War and the divisions it created. His father, John, was imprisoned during the Civil War, lost his job, and the financial strain fractured the family.

According to the president’s brother, their father “never spoke very much about it all actually. They just didn’t.” Last week in Wicklow, President Higgins referred to the “acts of vengeance” associated with that period of Irish history, insisting that “amnesia” about such acts “is not an option.”

Shedding light on events that were divisive, brutal and often not spoken about, is now greatly facilitated by the release of new archival material. It provides a powerful corrective to the silences.

Three-hundred-thousand files In January this year the first batch of documents from the Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC) and an accompanying website were launched, and there was much interest in the over 3,000 files relating to 1916. The launch of the second batch today marks the further progress of this project which, when fully realised, will amount to the release of over 300,000 files.

Role of ordinary volunteers

As was highlighted in January, the archive opens many doors to an understanding of the role of ordinary volunteers, male and female, from 1916 to 23, as pension applicants, under a succession of legislation from the 1920s to the 1950s, had to provide detailed accounts of their activities or losses to make a case as to why they were deserving of a pension or dependant’s allowance.

Their accounts needed to be verified by referees and sometimes they were interviewed about their claims, and the administrative process, overseen by a pensions board, involved the creation of an enormous body of supporting documentation.

Chronicle of great disappointment

The archive is also a chronicle of great disappointment, as the vast majority of those who applied for pensions were not awarded them. One estimate is that over 18,000 military service pensions were awarded up to 1960, which were costing the exchequer over £500,000 annually by that year, but over 80,000 applied for a pension, indicating the scale of rejection that was experienced.

Files about women

The almost 1,200 files released today are particularly interesting because of the amount of material concerning women; the files of 175 members of Cumann na mBan underline that no longer is their involvement in the events of these years just a case of, in the words of historian Louise Ryan, “fleeting glances of these shadowy female characters.” The newly released material also contains much detail on the Civil War, including 800 files relating to casualties in the National Army during that conflict.

Not just household names

Inevitably there will be much interest in the files relating to household names – who does not want to know who shot Michael Collins? – but most files do not document individuals who achieved fame, and crucially, this archive is also a fascinating source for social and family history and the revolution’s afterlife.

For all those who were celebrated, honoured and fêted, or who forged rewarding political careers in the aftermath of the revolution, many more were left wounded and impoverished, and bereavement, disability, obscurity and even humiliation feature strongly in the files.

Many women and children were left without any means of support other than the prospect of a dependant’s pension. For victims, there was an obvious hierarchy, with the relatives of executed 1916 leaders regarded as having a unique status; by 1951, for example, three widows of 1916 Proclamation signatories were being paid £500 per year, seven sisters of signatories were being paid £100 per year but two widows of men executed during the War of Independence were being paid £135 per year.

Disputes about survival and status

The pension board members and the assessors, referees, civil servants and government officials involved in administering the pension process were both keepers of a precious national record and arbiters in disputes about survival and status.

Laid bare in this archive is some of the detritus of the revolution; there is much detail on the legacy for some of those directly affected, their quest for recognition of their service, and disputes over how to define military service and measure the impact of injury and the value of sacrifice.

Brigid Treacy, for example, the mother of Seán Treacy, the Tipperary IRA leader killed in 1920, was a claimant under the Army Pensions Act 1923 and crossed swords with the pensions board. She was living on a small holding of 14 acres in Tipperary and was offered a gratuity of £100 which she refused:

“£100 for the life of Sean Treacy?” she wrote to the board in 1926, “a few lines to let you know of the humiliation I have experienced this morning at receiving the enclosed paper offering me the paltry sum of £100, for the loss of my noble son my only child and only help in this wicked world . . . had I to beg from door to door for the remainder of my life I could not nor would not accept the meagre sum of £100, for the life of my heroic son.”

Praise for painstaking work

These phased releases are part of the

Department of Defence

and the Defence Forces’ contribution to what is termed the National Commemorative Programme. It is an initiative to be lauded, and those working in the Military Archives, performing the painstaking work of cataloguing, digitising and making accessible this material, deserve the highest praise for their indispensable role in the project.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD and an Irish Times columnist