In his brilliant 2005 memoir Booking Passage, Irish-American poet Thomas Lynch included the sub-plot of an epic battle he had to fight on behalf of elderly relatives in West Clare to establish ownership of their own farm.
Possession of the 28 acres had never been in doubt until 1968 when Nora Lynch and her brother Tommy, aged 65 and 67 respectively, tried to sell it. Then it became known that the Irish Land Commission, for reasons unspecified, had prohibited any transaction. And with this stroke of a bureaucrat's pen, the siblings never regained control of the land again in their lifetimes.
As Thomas Lynch wrote: “The entry was made by a nameless Dublin clerk at the instruction, no doubt, of somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody else who, for reasons we might never know, had an agenda at odds with Tommy and Nora[’s].”
One of the unusual things about Lynch’s memoir is that poetry aside, he was a professional undertaker in the US. The book contrasted Irish and American attitudes to life and death.
But in Ireland, sometimes, land is more important than both. And on visits to the old country from 1969 onwards, Lynch jnr found himself caught up in a Kafkaesque struggle against unseen forces trying to seize his ageing cousins' farm, for a fixed price paid in "land bonds", with a view to local redistribution.
The stress may have hastened Tommy Lynch’s death in 1971. Two years later, the battle reached the farm gate, when agents arrived to take possession. Nora refused them entry, whereupon both they and the case disappeared for some years.
When it resurfaced in 1979, Lynch jnr, by then working for his father's funeral business in Michigan, contacted Ballina solicitor Adrian Bourke (brother of future president Mary Robinson), who was taking a similar case all the way to the Supreme Court.
Bourke added the Clare saga to his file. After that, Nora Lynch never heard from the Commission again, although they remained self-appointed owners of the land. When she made her last will in 1992, leaving the farm to a young family man who had been renting it since the 1980s and had helped make her declining years comfortable, she wasn’t sure she could.
The denouement only came 10 years later, in 2003, when Thomas Lynch, by then an established poet (and occasional resident of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Monaghan) wrote a long letter to Síle de Valera, Clare TD and minister.
She in turn contacted the Minister for Agriculture, whose department had inherited what was left of the Land Commission. Thus did the Commission finally drop its claim. The farm went to the young man working it. The Lynches’ old cottage, meanwhile, went to the poet, who has since turned it into a miniature version of Tyrone Guthrie’s artists’ colony.
There must be countless stories like that of the Lynches, if not all with such happy endings, among the files of the Land Commission. Established in 1881, at the height of the Land War, it transformed Ireland in the decades afterwards and was clearly still engaged in – or at least attempting – some radical land redistribution as late as the 1970s.
But we don’t know what’s in the files, because the vast archive – eight million records – remains hidden from public view. This is in part because of the sensitivity of some material, understandable in light of the Lynch case.
And yet even the oldest files are off limits. The commission’s pre-independence holdings for what became Northern Ireland have long been available for viewing through the Public Records Office in Belfast. In the Republic, by contrast, not even 19th-century records are available to researchers, except in rare circumstances.
For Prof Terence Dooley, head of Maynooth University's Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates, this is the cause of great frustration.
Especially now that the IRA pension files – equally sensitive in ways – have been opened, he sees no reason why the Land Commission should not follow, if necessary with time limits to allow for the sensitivities of the living. In historic importance, the IRA files “pale into insignificance” alongside the goldmine of the Commission’s archive, he believes.
Until the latter is open, “we will never understand the Irish revolution in all its complexities”.
Inaccessibility aside, scholars have another concern: the physical state of older records. This is in turn sometimes used as an excuse not to make them available. But for Dooley, it only highlights the urgent need for conservation as well as transparency. If the files languish indefinitely, he warns, we risk losing “the most important social archive in existence”. It could be “our Four Courts, 100 years on”.