The limits of history

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

Sir,—Readers of my Massacre in West Cork (reviewed in HI 22.3, May/June 2014) might be interested in a very important Freedom of Information Tribunal which will take place in London on 17 June 2015. In 2013, while I was researching Massacre in West Cork, I requested a file in the National Archives in London identifying paid informants in Irish secret societies from 1870 until 1910. When I examined the file it confirmed that James Carey, the informer who had revealed the details of the Invincibles’ assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke in the Phoenix Park in 1882, had been paid by the British government. While his identity was long known (see ‘The fate of an infamous informer’, HI 9.2, Summer 2001), the payments are rarely referred to in histories of the time and this was interesting confirmation of this. A number of other individuals had been low-level informers on Clan na Gael in New York and the file had some interesting details about the unreliability of this type of information.

The largest part of the file, however, contained yellow slips, which meant that the material had been retained by the Home Office. When I contacted the Home Office they refused to divulge these pages under Freedom of Information, on the grounds that to do so would undermine British national security and could lead to present-day informants being less willing to come forward in case their names were revealed in 100 years’ time. According to the Home Office, these individuals were entitled not to be embarrassed after their death.

Thus began a process of appeal and refusal, firstly at the Home Office and then at the Information Commissioners. At the tribunal on 17 June, Brian Leahy BL and I will argue our case for disclosure, while the Information Commissioners, the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police (who actually hold the file) will argue for the suppression of this information ‘in perpetuity’. A win for the Home Office would seriously hamper future research in the National Archives, as this case would be used as a precedent for refusal. The irony of their flat refusal to part with 105-year-old mat-erial in their own archives and their relentless pursuit of the Boston College statements will not be lost on Irish historians.

And this brings us to a critical problem with history. We are slaves to the keepers of documents. At best, historians can only present a small part of the past and use their skills to interpolate (guess) the missing pieces of the puzzle. This is why history is so frustrating and such fun. A carefully constructed theory can be exploded by a scrap of paper. In Massacre in West Cork I had to rewrite entire chapters after I found the Dunmanway Diary in the Military Archives and the release of Michael O’Donoghue’s Bureau of Military History statement. Equally, there is always the risk that what you find is not to your liking. Researchers of the Taoiseach’s War of Independence files in the Irish National Archives come across excerpts that slant the interpretation of what is contained in the ori-ginal file. Unless you are dogged enough to request the original file, you would not even notice. Why was this done and who directed the operation?

Can I appeal to History Ireland readers for support and assistance in winning this appeal? Letters of support for disclosure from UK-based historians would be most helpful, as would extra legal advice from barristers with experience of the British legal system. Specifically, if anyone has found information on named informers or informants released under Freedom of Information, I would be grateful if they could forward it to me at as soon as pos-sible.—Yours etc.,

Glendalough Park


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568