Diarmaid Ferriter: Military archives open window on the revolutionary experience
The State got a lot of things right during the 1916 commemorations, including the decision to invest in the Military Archives
President Michael D Higgins opens the the new Military Archives building. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
When he died suddenly at the age of 49 in 1999, Comdt Peter Young was the subject of an obituary in The Irish Times. Referring to his role as Army officer in charge of the Irish Military Archives, it was observed that his death “cut short a life that was marked by extraordinary achievement as well as by great promise. Indeed, he left the work which he had overseen for so long poised for yet another major development”.
Infected with a passion for history from an early stage, he had raised a challenging question in 1977 when he worked in the Army press office: “It is alarming to think that even though our defence forces are barely over fifty years in existence, many documents relevant to the period simply may not exist or, if they do exist, nobody knows exactly where they are.”
Young took over responsibility for the archives in 1982 and, having qualified as a professional archivist in UCD, encouraged its expansion through locating documents, the acquisition of collections and encouraging accessibility at a time when the reading room of the archives could only house five researchers.
He worked with others in the Irish archival world, including his colleague Comdt Victor Laing and Catríona Crowe of the National Archives on a strategy for the future; a plan for more space and storage facilities, the release of material in the custody of the State and locked away for decades, and creating a sense of public awareness of the material an expanded archive could house.
As was noted in his obituary: “Although he achieved an extraordinary amount in his 30 years of public service, he died with even greater possibilities opening in front of him. His professional and military colleagues will be concerned to ensure that the future provides him with an adequate memorial.”
Magnificent memorialOn Tuesday, that memorial was formally unveiled by President Michael D Higgins in the form of the new Military Archives building at the Cathal Brugha barracks in Dublin, and, rather than adequate, it is magnificent. As was pointed out by Padraic Kennedy, the officer currently in charge of the archives, such is the richness of the collections the building will now consolidate in one location, with 22km of storage shelves and a state of the art reading room, that the development “has elevated the Military Archives to a new level alongside the national institutions of the State”.
Many of the new perspectives aired during recent commemorations and elaborated on in historical discussions and books have been honed on the back of the collections the new archives will house. These include the Bureau of Military History statements, released in 2003 and the military service pension applications that have, in recent years, been catalogued and digitised by a small team of civilian archivists under the direction of Pat Brennan, another soldier archivist who ensured that such material would not be lost. The files are filled with personal testimony and administrative records that shed much light on those who took part in the revolutionary decade, why and how.
As underlined powerfully by President Higgins on Tuesday, they also expose the difficulties many participants experienced after the revolution, including his father John, who was imprisoned during the Civil War and lost his job; he had to fight a 22-year battle for a military service pension, finally awarded in 1956.
Social contextGiven the consequences of the Civil War for John Higgins and others who were cast aside and who, in some cases, witnessed the fracturing of their families, there was an urgency to find a little money, in his own words “to keep me going”, but the stone wall of bureaucracy delayed and frustrated many more than were satisfied.
Such testimony is a reminder that military records can open a window on many strands of history, including class tensions and the social context. The Military Archives is also important because it will ensure greater clarity about the past. As pointed out by Catríona Crowe on Tuesday, for Peter Young the most important rationale for encouraging a proper military archives was historical accuracy. There was much justifiable pride in the professionalism of the Irish Army in its contributions to the 1916 centenary; what is also apparent is its professional approach to archives. This is also part of a bigger story about the greater visibility of archives and a recognition of the contribution they make to public understanding of Irish history, memory, identity, controversies and divisions.
The State got a lot of things right during the 1916 commemorations, including the decision to invest in the Military Archives, a project that can both deliver on the vision of Peter Young – who started his crusade at a time when it was difficult to make the case for archives – and provide a strong foundation for understanding the revolutionary experience after 1916.