The Bureau of Military History and the Boston College project compared and contrasted

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2015), News, Volume 23

Jean McConville with three of her ten children c. 1970. Her ‘disappearance’ in December 1972 was one of several that the PSNI investigated using subpoenaed interviews from the Boston College ‘Belfast’ oral history project, whose main failing was in misleading interviewees about the legal protection it could offer them.

Jean McConville with three of her ten children c. 1970. Her ‘disappearance’ in December 1972 was one of several that the PSNI investigated using subpoenaed interviews from the Boston College ‘Belfast’ oral history project, whose main failing was in misleading interviewees about the legal protection it could offer them.

The PSNI’s decision to investigate crimes committed during the Northern troubles using subpoenaed interviews from the now-infamous Boston College ‘Belfast’ oral history project continues to have an impact on republican and loyalist paramilitary interviewees and veterans. So far, they have questioned Gerry Adams, brought charges against Ivor Bell (a former IRA commander) and pursued access to loyalist Winston ‘Winkie’ Rea’s interview. In light of this fiasco, it has become common for historians and media pundits to contrast the Boston College project’s faulty methodology with the good practice of the Bureau of Military History, an official history project initiated by a Fianna Fáil government in 1947 to collect witness statements and documents from veterans of the Irish independence struggle. The collection remained inaccessible until 2003, after all the Bureau contributors and every recipient of a 1916–23 military service or disability pension had passed away. With hindsight this course of action seems prescient, but over-simplistic comparisons should be avoided.

For a start, until very recently the closing of the Bureau collection was almost universally derided by historians. In 1967 F.X. Martin protested that it was being withheld behind an ‘official iron curtain’. Such sentiments were echoed by many other historians. Robert Dudley Edwards, the UCD historian and member of the Bureau’s advisory committee, made repeated public attacks on the project, describing the decision to leave the material for future historians as a ‘specious plea’. Members of the advisory committee were divided on the details but pressed for immediate limited availability. In 1958 the chairman, Richard Hayes, film censor and folklorist (not to be confused with another committee member, Richard ‘Jim’ Hayes, NLI librarian), noted government fears that ‘local civil warfare’ could result from making witness statements freely available to ‘every Seán and Séamus from Ballythis and Ballythat’. Hayes
suggested that the committee propose restricting access to ‘genuine’ students of history as a way of alleviating such concerns.

The more explicit and brutal interviews conducted around the same time by Ernie O’Malley, anti-treaty veteran and author, are often characterised by historians as a more authentic rival to Bureau testimonies. It is hard to credit accusations that Boston College interviews are somehow different or problematic owing to the anti-peace process ‘bias’ of the interviewers or participants when so many of O’Malley’s interviewees were uncompromising republicans like Tom Maguire and Moss Twomey, both of whom advocated the armed overthrow of the Irish state. Equally, the O’Malley and Bureau collections are—like the Boston College interviews—replete with conflicting accounts of the same events, bitter accusations against former comrades and horrible killings, including those of suspected female informers like Kitty Carroll in Monaghan.

The Department of Defence administered both the Bureau and the pensions, and was well aware that the material was potentially controversial. Confidential revelations in witness statements occasionally informed decisions to reinvestigate successful pension claims, but the criminality of past actions was of less concern in independent Ireland. Veterans resident in Northern Ireland—where pension applications detailing the military activities of both applicants and referees could be intercepted and copied as proof of IRA membership—were still under threat of criminal prosecution, however. Reluctant Northern veterans often did not want Bureau correspondence sent to their home address, and interviews were sometimes conducted in the houses of local priests. After an IRA raid on Omagh Barracks in October 1954, the Bureau suspended interviews with Northern Ireland residents indefinitely.

Apart from the decision to close the material for a number of years, the Bureau was surprisingly free from state interference. Every witness was given a personal copy of their testimony to use however they liked. Many were in the public domain years before the official 2003 release. Guidelines excluding testimony about the still-divisive Civil War were never really enforced, and both pro- and anti-treaty veterans were interviewed. The Bureau made no attempt to censor the statements, although the Military Archives later redacted passages from a number of them. Periodic attempts by Tom Barry (former OC of the West Cork Brigade’s flying column, who vehemently opposed the Bureau’s confidentiality policy) and others to control the interview process or vet testimonies were also resisted. Bureau investigators on the ground were often advised by local Old IRA committees and former IRA officers. Inevitably, Bureau witnesses occasionally conferred with each other about what to say in their statements. Nonetheless, their testimonies reflect how the revolutionary period was spoken about and remembered by individual witnesses far more accurately than if the Bureau had allowed veterans’ committees or influential individual officers to ‘correct’ incoming material.

It is important, therefore, to criticise the Boston College project for the right reasons. Its main failing was in misleading interviewees about the legal protection it could offer them, thereby violating a fundamental principle of modern oral history practice—informed consent. The short-sighted and disastrous decision to publish Voices from the grave further eroded the safety of the interviewees, the interviewers and even, as the arrest of Adams demonstrated, the people mentioned in the interviews. All are now potentially under threat of prosecution, and those who gave or conducted the interviews in good faith are being smeared as ‘touts’ on gable walls in Belfast.

Eve Morrison is an IRC post-doctoral fellow in the School of History and Archives, University College Dublin.

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