The Defence Forces’ Bureau of Military History yesterday published online a collection of personal histories recalling events leading up to the establishment of the Irish Free State.
The material, which includes the recollections of members of the IRB, Cumann na mBan, Sinn Féin, and the Irish Citizen Army, was previously classified as highly sensitive. As a result, knowledge of their existence was relatively little known as they were secretly stored within the Department of the Taoiseach over the intervening decades..
The documents include 1,773 witness statements, 334 sets of contemporary documents, 42 sets of photographs, and 13 voice recordings which were collected by the State between 1947 and 1957.
The majority of contributors were ordinary men and women who had been on active service during events such as the Howth gun-running in 1914, the Easter Rising in 1916, the formation of the first Dáil, and the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1919.
They include the recollection of Eithne Ní Shuibhne, sister of Terence McSweeney, at the confusion caused by a countermanding order issued by Eoin MacNeill on Easter Sunday about the Rising.
The recordings include the memories of Áine Ceannt, the widow of 1916 leader Eamonn Ceannt; labour leader William O’Brien; and William T Cosgrave.
The bureau, set up in 1947 by the then defence minister Oscar Traynor, was tasked with assembling material to document the history of the movement for independence from the formation of the Irish Volunteers up to Jul 1921.
A decision was taken in 2001 with the approval of the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern to transfer the files to the Military Archives in preparation for their public release.
Although they have been publicly available since 2003, people from all over the world can now access the material via the internet for the first time.
The bureau has admitted that it failed to secure the co-operation of many survivors of the 1913-21 period who subsequently rejected the Anglo-Irish Treaty of Dec 1921 because they regarded it as a “Free State” project.
As a consequence, the bureau does not contain detailed statements from prominent anti-treaty survivors such as Tom Barry, the IRA leader whose unit fought in West Cork during the War of Independence.
Éamon de Valera refused to provide an interview on the basis that his voice had “already been sufficiently recorded”.
The bureau also said there was a reluctance during the 1940s and 1950s to seek witness statements because the events of the Civil War were still very sensitive.
The bureau’s website was formally launched by Jimmy Deenihan, the arts and heritage minister, yesterday at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin.
The project involved the digitisation of over 35,000 pages. Mr Deenihan said anyone who saw the collections would agree that the bureau had accomplished its goal to document the history of the independence movement with distinction.
“The Bureau of Military History website will make a significant contribution to the goals of the decade of commemorations by encouraging scholarly and original research on the momentous events of this period in our history, both nationally and inter-nationally,” he said.