This week marks the 90th anniversary of the assassination of Michael Collins, during the Civil War that followed Ireland’s War of Independence and it occurred to me that we are entering into a decade or more of important anniversaries, both in Ireland and worldwide. Already we’ve had Belfast pulling out all the stops to remind people of that city’s place in the Titanic story, lost a hundred years ago this April, but less concerned with commemorating the signing of the Ulster Covenant, an event of far more significance. Doubtless we are about to be inundated by films, t.v. programs, learned articles, not-so learned articles, historical treatises, historical fiction, internet blathering and all sorts of things I haven’t thought of, in relation to the momentous events surrounding the outbreak of the First World War and the Pandora’s box it opened into the twentieth century. Although history is rarely neat, it’s not a stretch to see the murderous 20th century beginning with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June of 1914 and ending with some kind of horrific symmetry with the siege of that city and subsequent massacres there during the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990’s.
Of the top of my head and just focusing on my own homeland, we are rapidly approaching the centenary anniversaries of the foundation of both the Ulster and Irish Volunteers, the outbreak of the First World War, the Gallipoli landings, the battle of the Somme, the Easter Rising, the sinking of the Lusitania, the 1918 elections and the advent of woman’s suffrage, the outbreak of guerrilla warfare in Ireland, the Treaty and the foundation of two Irish states, North and South, and the subsequent Civil War that followed.
Obviously many of these are world events and will be commemorated, discussed, dissected and raked over from Galway to Geelong. In fact I imagine that let’s say, the Gallipoli peninsula, will see a huge influx of Aussies and New Zealanders sometime in April 2015, to remember where there forebears fought and died, cementing their national identities and their own immortality.
All of this brings me to an interesting archive, a treasure trove for historians of the period that has recently been made available on the internet. (Thanks Laura for the heads up and the link). The Bureau of Military history of the Irish Defense Forces has been made widely available for the first time. It is primarily made up of statements and recollections from participants in the events leading up to the Rising, the Rising itself and the Irish war of Independence (know to all and sundry as the Tan war). This is primary source material collected during the 1950’s but kept under lock and key, such being the sensitive and emotive nature of the events in question. In fact, the events of the Civil War, while they pop up in many accounts were pointedly not solicited by the State archivists due to and I quote “….a reluctance to seek witness statements and original records concerning the Irish Civil War in 1922/23, due to the prevailing political climate in Ireland during the 1940s/50s, some 20-30 years after the events recorded by the BMH took place.” In other words, the enduring legacy of bitterness engendered by the Civil War meant the researchers were careful to move cautiously. There is also a pointed reluctance of many, especially on the Republican (losing side) of the Civil War to participate in what they considered a “Free State” project. This attitude is neatly summed up in the short correspondence of the Bureau with Republican commandant Tom Barry, legendary commander of the Cork No.3 Brigade flying column. Nonetheless it remains a fascinating archive, one that will suck in both scholars and the general reader alike. (I spent hours the other night seeing where the archive would take me and had to force myself to shut it down and go to bed, dammit!).
All this leads me to one last question: what else has the army got locked away? We were always told that there was a cull of government records and documents prior to the (winners of the Civil War) Free Staters turning over the government to the democratically elected Republicans (losers of the Civil War) in 1932. Further we know the De Valera government initiated another cull of records in 1940, fearing they would be used by an invading Nazi or indeed British army, in the event Ireland was dragged into the Second World War.
Of particular interest and quite possibly still too incendiary to be seen, would be the court martial records of the trials and executions of republicans during the Civil War and any documents relating to the rather more sinister campaign by the Free Staters of targeted assassinations in the wake of Collins’ death and the decision to treat Republicans as unlawful rebels against the legitimate government. If anything was first on the pile to be burned in 1932, surely it would have been these records. I strongly suspect they are destroyed, but we just don’t know for sure. Of interest and terribly important, yes, but it also reminds me that in this decade of centenaries there may be still things best unseen and we may have to wait another hundred years before it is safe to unlock all the boxes.