Dawn of a digital Irish revolution as archives go online

The digitalisation of National Library of Ireland papers will shine a light on the pre-independence era, writes Niall Murray.

THE letters, official documents, secret military orders, and other papers from figures in Ireland’s political and military revolution are to be made available online.

A project to digitise some of the most important manuscript collections held in the National Library of Ireland (NLI) will mean the documents are easily accessible to researchers and others interested in the history of the period that led to Irish independence.

The NLI’S ‘Towards A Republic’ project will see large tranches of documents made available in a number of phased releases.

These may be linked to the commemoration of significant events during the remainder of the Decade of Commemorations through to 2023. It will include, for example, the digitisation of personal papers of signatories to the December 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty that secured Irish independence, but which also led to partition and the Irish Civil War the following year.

Other key moments likely to be marked are the December 1918 general election in which Sinn Féin secured most Irish seats, the genesis of Dáil Éireann’s formation in January 1919. The NLI’s collections include the personal papers and archives associated with many leading figures in the revolutionary government.

Among those likely to have their material digitised are Sinn Féin founder and early Dáil minister Arthur Griffith, and Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond, whose Home Rule campaign was overtaken by Sinn Féin after the Easter Rising.

Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith.
Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith.

But the papers of people lesser-known to the general public will also help tell the story of what happened behind the scenes.

The items held by the NLI from Seán M O’Duffy, for example, mainly relate to the operation in Wexford and Wicklow of the courts operated by Dáil Éireann as part of the republican government’s efforts to undermine the British justice system in Ireland.

The centenary of women’s suffrage will be celebrated in 2018, as the general election of 1918 was the first in which women — although not all — had a vote. It was also the vote in which Irish revolutionary Constance Markievicz became the first woman elected to Westminster, though she took part instead in the first Dáil.

The papers of both prominent and lesser-known women active in the period may also be digitised by the NLI. It has a collection, for example, of papers relating to Annie O’Farrelly, who was involved with the IRA and Cumann na mBan, including her letters home while a prisoner of the Irish Free State in the Civil War.

Papers of JJ O’Connell and Ernie O’Malley give an insight into the operations of the IRA during the War of Independence, and into both sides in the subsequent Civil War during 1922 and 1923.

The importance of publicity and propaganda to the campaign for independence, and how those tactics were deployed, should be evident in papers of figures such as Erskine Childers and Piaras Béaslaí. While both worked in that area, they took opposing views during the Civil War, and Childers was executed by the National Army in November 1922.

The NLI said the personal papers of many figures provide complex insights into the events and personalities that shaped the period.

“They go beyond the experience and perspectives of the individuals themselves through their correspondence and interaction with diverse and opposing figures and organisations,” a spokesperson said.

The NLI expects the digitised resources in its ‘Towards A Republic’ project to be of great interest to historians, researchers, school, third-level, and lifelong learning programmes.

They will also appeal to family researchers, media, those engaged in podcasting and video focusing on archival materials, public talks and discussions, and digital humanities projects.

The project is being undertaken as part of a €2m investment in cultural digitisation approved in November by then-culture minister Heather Humphreys to support initiatives at the NLI and other national institutions and cultural heritage organisations.

Among the themes that ‘Towards A Republic’ will allow researchers to explore, without having to visit the NLI reading rooms in Dublin, is the international dimension to the independence campaign.

An archive of thousands of items associated with Art Ó Briain tells the story of the Dáil’s work in London as it sought international recognition and funding for an Irish republic.

The same collection features hundreds of letters and replies in relation to Irish prisoners in England during the War of Independence, and in support and sympathy around the 1920 hunger strike and death of Cork’s Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney in Brixton Prison.

For affairs on the other side of the Atlantic, insights can be gleaned from papers likely to be put online in relation to the work of Irish-American leaders and those who toured the US from Ireland.

Irish republican leaders with John Devoy, seated, in America, probably in 1919 or 1920. Standing, left to right: Harry Boland, Liam Mellows, Éamon de Valera, Patrick McCartan, and Diarmuid Lynch. Picture: National Library of Ireland
Irish republican leaders with John Devoy, seated, in America, probably in 1919 or 1920. Standing, left to right: Harry Boland, Liam Mellows, Éamon de Valera, Patrick McCartan, and Diarmuid Lynch. Picture: National Library of Ireland

John Devoy’s papers include notes and correspondence in relation to his work seeking support for Irish independence among the Irish-American community, and from officials in the US administration.

The veteran republican had helped organise funding and attempts to arm the 1916 Rising. But he clashed with Éamon de Valera when Dev toured the United States during the War of Independence on a mission for political and financial support.

Dev was accompanied on the tour by the Dáil’s representative in the US, Patrick McCartan, whose papers in the NLI detail his part in that clash which split the Clan na Gael movement.

Other figures whose papers are being considered for online publication include Florence O’Donoghue, one of the key figures in the Cork IRA’s major role in the War of Independence.

With hundreds of folders of documents from the period, as well as later testimonies given to him when he became a historian of the revolution, Kerry-born O’Donoghue’s collection helps paint a particularly vivid picture of the IRA’s use of intelligence in the conflict with British Crown Forces.

A collection of letters used by O’Donoghue and historian Meda Ryan for their biographies of anti-Treaty IRA chief Liam Lynch is also held separately by the NLI.

It contains many insights into the progress of the War of Independence, and the situation leading to the Civil War, which came to an end shortly after Lynch was shot dead on a mountain near the Cork-Tipperary border in April 1923.

But one letter, written in the final weeks before the July 1921 Truce led to the end of the War of Independence, reveals the ordinary strifes that beset even the leading revolutionaries.

He closed a letter to his mother with the usual guidance on which safe-house address to send her reply, but not without also issuing an important instruction.

“I am after breaking my rimless glasses, so for heaven’s sake send me on by post my other goldrimmed ones,” wrote Lynch.

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