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Fintan O’Toole: We are a nation of historical vandals

Ireland fails to preserve the records that constitute public memory

One of the great myths of Ireland is that we are a nation obsessed with the past. There is indeed great public interest in at least some aspects of Irish history. But at the level of government and institutions, we are a nation of historical vandals.

The pain and grief that has been caused by the confusion over the records of evidence, given by survivors to the mother and baby homes commission, betrays the utter lack of a clear State policy on how to create and curate the public memory of Ireland’s recent past.

It was government that established the commission and government that had the responsibility to think through how it should preserve the personal and historical value of the testimonies it would gather.

The abject failure to do that has caused a great deal of entirely unnecessary suffering. There was nothing malicious in this. But it results from a profound and almost pathological refusal by the State to respect even its own records.


An important new report by Siobhán Fitzpatrick and Mary O'Dowd for the Royal Irish Academy highlights the consequences of this neglect.

The National Archives Act that governs this whole area was passed in 1986, largely because the then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald had a strong personal interest in research. What the State has done since then is essentially nothing.

This inertia has two obvious consequences. One is that State bodies created since 1986 are not covered by the law that says the State must preserve its records.

So, the cross-Border bodies created under the Belfast Agreement are not covered. Neither are agencies like Irish Water or (ironically) the Data Protection Commissioner.

But the most scandalous absences are Tusla and the HSE. As things stand, anyone in the future trying to understand how the State, after all the scandals of industrial schools and abuse by teachers, sports coaches and clergy, dealt with child protection, would draw a blank.

Likewise, anyone trying to fathom the State’s response to the pandemic of 2020-2021. It’s not just that the HSE’s records are not covered by law, neither are those of public or voluntary hospitals and nursing homes.

Information technology

The other, obvious problem with the failure to update the 1986 legislation is that a few small things have developed in relation to information technology over the past 35 years.

As Fitzpatrick and O’Dowd put it, simply and starkly, “The National Archives of Ireland currently lacks the capacity to ingest, preserve and make available electronic or ‘born-digital’ materials.” It’s as if the internet, email and websites had never happened.

The National Library of Ireland does have a collection of more than 1,600 websites that focuses on “every election and referendum in the last eight years, together with other topics that tell the story of contemporary Ireland – including the 2016 commemorations, key social issues, festivals, popular culture and sporting events”.

This is great work: many of the sites captured in this way have since disappeared from the web and the National Library now preserves the only record of their existence. But all of this is done on an ad hoc basis: Ireland is one of the few EU countries that does not have legislation allowing its national library to archive websites automatically.

All of this is bad enough. But even in relation to the operation of the 1986 Act as it is, things are pretty dire.

Staffing problem

There’s a basic problem of staffing. The National Library has a staff of 96. The national libraries of Scotland, Finland, Norway and the Czech Republic have, respectively, 300, 220, 470 and 500. The National Archives has 55 staff. The much smaller Public Record Office in Belfast has 76 staff, while National Records of Scotland has 267 and the Danish National Archives has 226.

There’s also a problem of space. While the law says that government departments and agencies must transfer their records to the National Archives under the 30-year and now 20-year rules, there is, in fact, a huge backlog because there is nowhere to put the files, as well as no staff to assess and catalogue them.

An official survey in 2013 found that 114,000 boxes of records were stored in a warehouse beside the National Archives building in Dublin that had no environmental controls.

Above all, there’s a lack of political direction. Given the huge success of the online publication of the censuses of 1901 and 1911, the government in 2012 approved the digitisation of the 1926 census. Almost a decade on, nothing has happened.

These sins of omission mean that Ireland is undoubtedly one of the worst countries in the developed world for the preservation even of its own official memory. There has been a great deal of entirely justified criticism of religious orders for their handling of the records of the women and children who were incarcerated in their institutions. But the State, on the whole, is no more respectful of the moral duty to retain the materials of recollection and remembrance.

There is an arrogance in this – a notion that there is nothing going on now that we will, in the future, have to account for. A State that is not willing to face the judgment of history is one that is, deep down, not proud of itself.