Mentioning the War: the Bureau of Military History

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Features, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 2003), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 11

IRA members drilling at Kilmainham Gaol. (Military Archives)

IRA members drilling at Kilmainham Gaol. (Military Archives)

CK:    What is the nature of this collection?

VL:    The Bureau of Military History was established by the government in 1947 with the remit of gathering material relating to the period 1913 to 1921. So they set about establishing who was alive and interviewing those people.

CK:    What kind of people were they looking for?

VL:    They gathered material from both leaders and ‘rank and file’. Since the leaders of the 1916 Rising had been executed they contacted the direct next of kin. They approached people through the original IRA brigade structures: from there word of mouth led them to members of the brigade, the battalion, and the company officers. The Bureau was anxious to get three or four opinions or experiences from each and every one of the brigade structures, so there are a lot of contributions, depositions or witness statements from rank and file members. They were not all from people who went on to become well known either politically or militarily or on a social level afterwards.

CK:    How successful was the project?

VL:    I would rate it as being highly successful. Sadly it stopped in 1957 owing to financial constraints. The Bureau employed a lot of people. There was an advisory committee of twelve eminent historians of the day who commented upon the credibility and quality of the witness statements as they came in. There were more than thirty people involved on a full-time basis: an over-viewing committee of four who reported to the director; secretarial staff under the supervision of Paddy Brennan, secretary to the Bureau; and the investigating officers who interviewed prospective contributors of statements, who all had prior service as veterans of the War of Independence themselves. There was only one woman involved, who had been a secretary in the First Dáil, so she too had first-hand experience from the early period.

CK:    Was there a danger that the investigators brought a bias to the material? Or did they make efforts to get different points of view?

VL:    One of the pieces of literature that the Bureau produced at the time emphasised that they wanted all evidence, be it flattering or otherwise, to be brought in and that it wasn’t up to the Bureau to decide what information was suitable for historians or students of the period in the future. It is true that patterns can be discerned according to the particular investigating officer who took the statements. Some were able to focus their contributors better than others, but there was a lot of work put into drafting and reviewing so that in some instances you can see between six and eight drafts before the final version was agreed. When they were finally signed off, by both the witness and the investigating officer, the statements were then logged in, given a registration number, and recorded in the paperwork.

Irish Volunteers and one member of the Irish Citizen Army inside the GPO, Dublin, Easter Week, 1916. (Military Archives)

Irish Volunteers and one member of the Irish Citizen Army inside the GPO, Dublin, Easter Week, 1916. (Military Archives)

CK:    How long are the statements?

VL:    The shorter ones are around two pages, the longest about 1200 pages. The majority would be in the range of 20 to 70 pages; very few would go beyond 300 pages. Each and every contributor was given a copy of his or her statement, which means copies exist with the families outside of the collection.

CK:    Can you give an idea of the quantity of material that was amassed by the Bureau?

VL:    In terms of quantity we are looking at 1773 statements, or some 36,000 pages of evidence, largely typescript double-spaced, or, if it took the form of average-sized books on shelves, something in the region of 70 volumes of c. 500 pages. And this is just the depositions and evidence given by the individuals. That’s only one element of the collection. The second element is what was described as ‘contemporaneous documents’. In total they gathered 334 sets of papers—in excess of 150,000 pieces or items. For example, the Childers family deposited twelve boxes of material (the biggest single collection) which covers not only 1913 to 1921, the express remit of the Bureau, but extends through the Civil War period because Erskine Childers had a particular war function as Director of Publicity for the Anti-Treaty forces, so you have a certain amount of propaganda material for the anti-treaty forces coming through. There are also big collections from George Gavin Duffy and Robert Barton. Other well-known contributors of materials are Seán T. O’Kelly, Cahir Davitt, Thomas Johnson and Kathleen Clarke. There is a huge quantity of paperwork handed in by members of the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Republican Army, Cumann na mBan, Fianna Éireann, the Irish Citizen Army, the Dublin Metropolitan Police, and the Royal Irish Constabulary; so there are a range of organisations covered and in some instances there are one or two submissions by members of the British army.

Great Western railway ticket from Frongoch to Kilrush, County Clare, 22 July 1916. (Military Archives)

Great Western railway ticket from Frongoch to Kilrush, County Clare, 22 July 1916. (Military Archives)

CK:    Would there be material in the contemporaneous documents unavailable to other archives?

VL:    There may not be a great deal of material that has not been seen or has not been accessible previously. But what is significant is that these papers were released to the Bureau at one particular time (1947–57), thus creating a collection under the supervision of one organisation. It is obviously a major benefit to a researcher to have all the relevant material available in one location. The other items that aren’t so vast are 42 collections of photographs given in by individuals. There are twelve voice recordings, collections of press cuttings, and finally there are ‘Action Sites of Easter Week’. These are photographs taken by the Air Corps in the early 1950s. Survivors of significance were taken out with investigating officers to Jacob’s Biscuit Factory or Boland’s Mill or wherever it was, and they were asked to identify where in fact they had taken up positions in 1916, and then in 1950 they took photographs for comparative purposes. These photographs are particular to the Bureau. The Bureau worked from the beginning of 1947 to the end of 1957 and one man, the secretary Paddy Brennan, continued to work until 1964 collating and processing the collection, which was then deposited with the Department of the Taoiseach, where it was effectively secured. It is a great advantage of this collection that it comes to us having been locked up for so long, in such excellent condition, having been stored for 50 years or more. Naturally preservation of the documents is a cause for concern, as usage will lead to deterioration.

Identity card for Sir Roger Casement’s Irish Brigade, Germany, 6 December 1915, bearing the name ‘Irlander Feldwebel Kehoe’. (Military Archives)

Identity card for Sir Roger Casement’s Irish Brigade, Germany, 6 December 1915, bearing the name ‘Irlander Feldwebel Kehoe’. (Military Archives)

CK:    How was the collection prepared for release to the Military Archives?

VL:    The material was released to us as a result of various approaches we had made to the government in the ’80s and ’90s. We had encouraged a three-yearly review for many years to see whether or not the cabinet—and this was a cabinet decision—would release the collection to us. As a result of a memorandum in 1999 a decision was made to release this collection. As knowledge of this collection spread, many students of this period had been crying out for access to it.

CK:    No wonder, it’s an extraordinary collection; I doubt any other country has chartered its crucial formative years in this way.

VL:    It’s interesting you should say that because three other countries took an interest in the collection as it was being gathered. A number of academics came over from England with a view to seeing how useful it would be in a British context, and then there were people from Israel and South Africa who came over to see if they could emulate the same project in their own countries and their own histories.

CK:    What have you found of greatest interest in the collection?

Piece of blotting paper used by Eamon Broy to pass on information that some Volunteers had escaped from Usk Prison, January 1919. (Military Archives)

Piece of blotting paper used by Eamon Broy to pass on information that some Volunteers had escaped from Usk Prison, January 1919. (Military Archives)

VL:    What I found most interesting, having read a fair cross-section of the material, were the mundane details of IRA activity, particularly 1920–21. You get accounts of what it was like to be physically on the run, right down to the equipment they were wearing. The odd volunteer gives information on the food they ate. One person gives a vivid description of how they washed their clothes while on the run. There are very few statements where people exaggerate, for example claiming their column was on the move for weeks, when we all know the columns moved for two or three days in the majority of cases. A week would be a long operation. But there are some very good descriptions of what it was like to move around the country, of what it was like to both look after and store their equipment, arms in particular, because obviously where weapons were housed was crucial to the success or otherwise of the operation. The level of activity and input from the local community is most interesting in that you can see how the Volunteers were using the full network of people sympathetic to the cause in their area. Mails were continuously being examined; they knew whom they could approach in the local post office. The amount of people reporting back to the IRA regarding movements by the opposing forces is most interesting. You see how the information was gathered, collated and taken back. This is probably the most exciting part of the collection. So much has been said and written over the past 70 or 80 years about this period, but now we have depositions, now we can sit down with the material and see how it builds up into the overall picture. The number of people involved with and sympathetic to the Volunteers was amazing.

CK:    Does the collection offer much insight into the activities of Michael Collins? Does he deserve his reputation as the great intelligence organiser?

VL:    Everyone has a fascination with the role of Michael Collins. There is evidence that his work output was very impressive. On a day-by-day basis you can see how he moves around the country. He could be in Dublin at 6am one morning, be down to Cork that same day, and back up to Dublin the next day. When you compare the standards of communication and transport between then and now, you can appreciate his level of political and military activity. You also get a feel for the role played by Michael Collins from the many witness statements that refer to him.

Selection of photographs compiled by IRA Intelligence, 1919–1921. (Military Archives)

Selection of photographs compiled by IRA Intelligence, 1919–1921. (Military Archives)

CK:    Is there much relating to James Connolly?

VL:    There is quite a range of comments about Connolly and in particular the period in which he was taken out of circulation by the Volunteers. This comes out in a number of statements.

CK:    Are you saying that Connolly’s disappearance in January 1916 was involuntary, that he was kidnapped?

VL:    I wouldn’t go so far as to say kidnapped, but the implication is there in some of the statements that he was enticed to go away and discuss his position with various key figures of the leadership of the Irish Volunteers.

CK:    It’s clear from his later actions that they come to some agreement and that he is present in the GPO in an entirely willing capacity. But those few days when his friends thought he had been arrested, there is a bit of light shed on them now?

VL:    There is, yes. Certainly quite a number of statements draw attention to that fact.

CK:    What does the collection contain with regard to the role of women in the War of Independence?

VL:    There is something in the region of 149 statements from the women who were members of Cumann na mBan or widows of the executed leaders, and other women who were willing to make a contribution. Not all the statements were from members of organisations; a few have come in from eyewitnesses to various incidents. Some interesting contributions were made by Dr Kathleen Lynn, Helena Malony, Maud Gonne Mac Bride, Sydney Czira (née Gifford), Áine Ceannt and Louie Bennett. One interesting statement describes an attack led by Margaret Skinnider of the Irish Citizen Army in which she was wounded.

Interviewer Conor Kostick with Commandant Victor Laing at the launch of the Bureau material in March 2003 at Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks. (Photographic Section, Air Corps)

Interviewer Conor Kostick with Commandant Victor Laing at the launch of the Bureau material in March 2003 at Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks. (Photographic Section, Air Corps)

CK:    The Easter Rising is often portrayed as a ‘blood sacrifice’, where the participants knew in advance that it could not succeed. This perception might be because prominent literary participants have shaped the image of the Rising. Now we have a chance to hear from those involved who would have been less articulate, less likely to ‘write up’ their experience. Did the ordinary participants think in advance that it was a gesture or did they hope they had a chance of achieving something?

VL:    Contributors rarely voice their own opinion as to whether they were going out to achieve anything. You find the odd statement recording what Connolly had said, that he realised his efforts were going to be in vain. Several statements make reference to the fact that he was under no illusions about what he was doing. But from the broad cross-section of people, you aren’t given an opinion. Perhaps they weren’t encouraged to. The statements are very clear-cut, they are a systematic examination of what a person was involved in, but they don’t give you a personal opinion as to whether they felt they were making a valid contribution. Whereas there are a number of important collections available for research into the War of Independence, that has not been the case until now for the 1916 Rising. This has to be exciting for anyone interested in 1916.

CK:    Is the Bureau heavily Southern-based? Or did they manage to get material from the North?

VL:    They got material from a good cross-section of the country, but of course by virtue of the level of activity there are far more contributions from Cork and Kerry than elsewhere. There were regional variations in discipline and attitude. In the north-west, for example, the Volunteers were more tolerant. If they happened to arrest members of the British army in a raid, say, they were far more likely to release them after a couple of days. While they held prisoners in custody they would look after them particularly well. This is not the case in the south-west and south of the country, where if the same captures occurred executions were more likely to follow. This also reflected the activity of the British army units in those areas.

CK:    Were they able to get fairly candid statements from members of the British forces?

VL:    A small number. There are some statements from a number of people in the RIC or else sons of members of the RIC. They show how difficult it was to get supplies from the local stores, because the influence of the Volunteers in the area was ensuring that the boycotts were effective. There is a statement, for example, which talks of how difficult it was to get condensed milk for the children. They were just about tolerated, but they were often asked: ‘When are you going to leave?’. The level of boycotting in north and west Cork was very strong. A considerable number of families of shopkeepers were obliged to toe the line or move out, and were eventually forced to sell up and leave.

CK:    How can people look at the collection?

VL:    We hold the entire collection: the witness statements; the contemporaneous documents; the photographs; the recordings; the press cuttings; the action sites—we are making the entire collection available here at the Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin. People would be advised to contact us up to two weeks in advance of when they want to view the material as we have a small reading room and we are trying to encourage people to identify how many hours they envisage using the material on a particular day so we can turn around twice as many people as we are doing at the moment. We have released a second set of witness statements, or depositions, to the National Archives in Bishop Street and they are available for the next three months, but that will be subject to review at that stage. So we have access here for between five and ten readers a day, and then the National Archives have around 65–70 seats a day if they had that number of readers requiring access to the Bureau. We place particular emphasis at the moment on giving the greatest possible access to the greatest number of people and we will evaluate it from there.

Conor Kostick is a PhD student in the Department of Medieval History, Trinity College, Dublin, and chairperson of the Irish Writers’ Union.

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