The Barton Papers in Wicklow County Archives

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2021), Volume 29

(The first of a new regular column on county archives)

By Catherine Wright

County archives tell the story of the development of communities and the administrations who served them. They hold the records of county councils and their predecessors—the grand juries, Poor Law guardians, corporation boroughs and town commissioners. These archives chart the rise of local democracy and nationalism in Ireland by documenting the gradual reform of county and town administration in the nineteenth century, culminating in the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898, which established county councils. As Virginia Crossman rightly states, service on town commissions, Poor Law boards and eventually on county councils often provided apprenticeships for nationalist politicians who subsequently took leading roles in the struggle for Irish independence. Each county collection paints a vivid picture of life in our districts, including quite a lot about the lives of the poor who frequent the pages of the Poor Law union minute-books and workhouse registers. County archives also hold the private papers and often the business archives of the families administering, living and working in the county.

Above: Robert Barton with Arthur Griffith (right) and George Gavan Duffy (left) in transit from London following the signing of the Treaty on 6 December 1921. (NLI)

One such collection of private papers, held by the Wicklow County Archives, is the Barton Collection. Among the documents is a letter dated 8 June 1924 to Robert Childers Barton from the Sinn Féin West Wicklow Comhairle Ceantair, expressing regret at his announcement to leave public life. This letter refers quite vividly to the pressure and turmoil that Robert Barton experienced as a delegate and signatory of the Treaty in 1921, and his subsequent decision to take the anti-Treaty side during the ensuing Civil War:

‘Wicklow people will remember that it was only after pressure was brought to bear on you that you, with much reluctance accepted the responsibility entailed … how heavy those responsibilities proved to be, none of us could then foretell, but as time went on, and the conflict became more severe, we knew that we had chosen rightly when we appointed you as the standard-bearer of our liberties. As regards the Irish delegation of 1921 no republican has any delusions as to the part you then took in these deliberations and the subsequent signing of the treaty. We are not in a position to judge the motives which prompted the signatories … We honour and appreciate the steps you took to rectify the decision which was forced upon you then … if your example had been followed by the other delegates the country would have been spared the agony and bitterness of the past two years.’

(Barton Collection, Wicklow County Archives, WLAA/PP1/BE/12)

Above: Barton’s Church of Ireland Temperance Society member’s card, dated 14 September 1894. (Barton Collection, Wicklow County Archives)

How did the son of a wealthy Anglo-Irish family come to this position? The Bartons of Glendalough House, Annamoe, possessed extensive land and property holdings, including the famous French wineries of Barton and Guestier. Robert Childers Barton, first cousin of Erskine Childers, was born in 1881 to Charles and Agnes Barton (née Childers). Educated at Oxford and the Royal Agricultural College, Barton was a former British Army officer who resigned his commission and joined the republican movement after witnessing the ill treatment of the 1916 leaders in Dublin and in opposition to the threat of the introduction of conscription in Ireland. In a 1969 interview with RTÉ, Barton traced his nationalism to the sympathies he had with the employees on his Wicklow estate who were descended from those shot by the Hugos, the former owners of Glendalough House during the 1798 Rebellion.

Supported as a Sinn Féin candidate by Michael Collins, Barton was elected MP for West Wicklow in the general election of 1918. For the first time, owing to the Representation of the People Act, working-class men over 21 years and women over 30 years (under certain conditions) could vote in parliamentary elections. In Ireland this resulted in a landslide victory for Sinn Féin, who took 73 of the 105 Irish seats at Westminster and went on to form the First Dáil in Dublin on 21 January 1919. Barton was appointed as the first minister for agriculture. He set about establishing the National Land Bank, working with the Land Commission and the Dáil courts to redistribute land through co-operative farming societies.

Above: ‘A leader of men’—a letter from Capt. Erskine Booth recommending Barton for a commission in the British Army, dated 17 December 1915. Barton resigned his commission and joined the republican movement after witnessing the ill treatment of the 1916 leaders in Dublin. (Barton Collection, Wicklow County Archives)

At the beginning of the War of Independence, Barton was arrested by the British in February 1919 for making seditious speeches at Carnew. He made a famously daring escape from Mountjoy prison but was recaptured within a year, subsequently suffering very harsh treatment in Portland prison before finally being released in 1921. While in prison, Wicklow County Council honoured Barton by making him chairman of the council at a meeting in June 1920 and formally objecting to his imprisonment:

‘Resolved—Whereas R.C. Barton TD was savagely sentenced to a term of penal servitude in an English prison by a Court-martial of the English Army of Occupation in Ireland … We the members of Wicklow County Council … as a protest against this inhuman treatment, and as proof that the Irish patriot in an English prison is ever dear to his people, hereby confer on R.C. Barton the highest honour it is our gift to bestow, that of Chairman of this Council. Further we ask the justice-loving people of every land to note that R.C. Barton fought in France for the freedom of small nationalities, and that England, the “Champion of Small Nations”, rewards him with a convict cell for seeking to free the oldest of small nations—Ireland. Carried unanimously.’

(Minutes of Wicklow County Council, 18 June 1920, Wicklow County Archives, WLAA/WCC/M/10)

In 1921 Barton was selected as a member of the Irish delegation to travel to London for the Treaty negotiations, along with Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, George Gavan Duffy and Eamonn Duggan. Also present as secretary for the delegation was Barton’s cousin, Erskine Childers, who was later executed by the Free State in 1922. The immense pressure to sign the Treaty that the delegation came under is well documented, including accounts of Barton changing his mind several times before finally agreeing to sign under Lloyd George’s threat of further bloodshed in Ireland.

Barton was re-elected to the Dáil in 1922 but did not take his seat. While he supported the Treaty in the Dáil debates, he later joined the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War in support of de Valera; he was again imprisoned and eventually released in December 1923, and left public life in 1924. After the election of Fianna Fáil in 1932, Barton returned to public life, serving as chairman of the Agricultural Credit Corporation and later Bórd na Móna, among other public appointments and commissions.

A descriptive list of the Barton Collection can be viewed at https://www.wicklow.ie/Living/Services/Arts-Heritage-Archives/Archives/Collections/The-Barton-Family.

Catherine Wright is an archivist with Wicklow County Archives & Genealogy Service.

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