The military pensions archive not only adds to our understanding of the violence that gripped
Ireland a century ago, but gives voice to silent rank-and-file members, says Niall Murray
The deaths of anti-Treaty IRA members in the Civil War are under the spotlight in the latest release of files from one of the most valuable collections of historic records around the violence in Ireland a century ago.
They are among the files of over 1,500 people who took part in revolutionary actions, not just in the War of Independence and Civil War, across the country between 1916 and 1923.
Their publication on the website of the Military Archives last week will add even further to understanding of the small details of the Irish revolution. The files were generated during the administration of claims for pensions, allowances, gratuities and other payments by participants — or their surviving relatives — under a series of laws passed by the Oireachtas between 1924 and the 1950s.
As the project manager of the Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC), Cécile Gordon said these files give voice to the previously silent rank-and-file of organisations like the Irish Volunteers, Irish Republican Army, Cumann na mBan, Na Fianna Éireann and others who played a part in the events of that period.
This has been the fourth major release of personal files from the MSPC since they first began appearing online in January 2014. That first release focused on making available information about participants in the Easter Rising in 1916.
The last large release at the end of 2015 continued the expansion of information available about women’s role in the revolutionary period, but also featured many files relating to National Army soldiers killed in the Civil War of 1922 and 1923.
In this latest release, stories of nearly 350 IRA Civil War dead and wounded emerge from their own claims or those of their families. They include files for 66 of the 81 men executed between November 1922 and May 1923, adding to seven released on previous occasions. The verification processes employed by Department of Defence officials and committees ensured that historians and other researchers can find out much more detail than was previously known about all these matters.
This detail covers everything from the chronology of membership or leadership in small companies of Irish Volunteers or Cumann na mBan, to maps and other details of significant military encounters - and those which usually only feature in local history publications.
Of an estimated 85,000 applicants for one or more payments under the Military Pensions Acts, only around 18,000 — barely one-in-five — succeeded.
The back-and-forth between civil servants and claimants, and those supporting their applications, was largely based on the need to satisfy strict legal definitions of active service. Those definitions were amended in successive military pensions acts, as was the list of organisations in which membership could qualify a participant or dependent for payment.
These files have complemented the Military Archives’ online publication in 2013 of statements from nearly 1,800 people, provided in the 1940s and 1950s to the Department of Defence’s Bureau of Military History. These were only previously open to research at the archives facility in Dublin, and had been unaccessable until 2003.
The details provided in these and other recently-opened collections will also help us to better understand the activities of the IRA — not all of which tally with previously widely-held views that violence and intimidation were only focused on the British authorities in Ireland. An example are the compensation files of the Department of Finance, now opened for scrutiny in the National Archives, from homes and businesses who suffered loss at the hands of the IRA during 1921 to 1923.
All these jigsaw pieces will help to form a clearer picture of how the events covered by the ongoing Decade of Centenaries were a lot more complicated and far less black-or-white than many would like to imagine.
Some of these records will also inform official commemorations during the continuing Decade of Centenaries, for which the Government’s Expert Advisory Group on Commemorations issued a statement of principles this month to guide how that programme is framed. Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Minister Heather Humphreys has announced a public consultation on how events leading to the foundation of the State and the Civil War should be appropriately remembered.
As well as emphasising that commemoration must acknowledge all identities and traditions, the expert group stressed the need to avoid over-reliance on marking particular events, at the risk of neglecting important themes of the period concerned.
Gabriel Doherty, a history lecturer at University College Cork and member of the Expert Advisory Group, said he has no fears about the forthcoming centenaries in spite of the divisive nature of some issues, like the partition of Ireland, or Civil War. He said the many sensitivities around what happened in 1916 were considered carefully in how events last year were planned.
While projects like the MSPC — a joint initiative of the Department of Defence and Defence Forces — have shed a lot of light on the military side, Mr Doherty stressed that we should not ignore other elements. He suggests it would be very welcome to have the earliest records of Dáil Éireann — formed after Sinn Féin dominated the 1918 general election in Ireland — similarly digitised and placed online.
“For many of a separatist viewpoint, the political turn of events was the most important. Things like the Dáil itself, the operation of Dáil courts, and how most councils came under republican control in the 1920 local elections, all things which haven’t been the subject of the same focus as the military side,” he said.
Mr Doherty believes the international element of the Irish revolution also needs to be stressed.
A conference at UCC this Friday will place events in Ireland in the context of the Russian revolution of 1917, and will consider how the Irish case was considered in a fast-changing world either side of the end of World War I.
“Republicans sought international recognition of Ireland’s independence, and a huge effort went into promoting that, particularly in the United States,” he said.
“It was only when that case for independence from Britain was blocked [internationally] that it became more violent,” Mr Doherty said.
That violence became more serious in 1919 and the latest MSPC files incude that of Tipperary woman Marian Tobin, who gave refuge to the Irish Volunteers who killed Royal Irish Constabulary members James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell at Soloheadbeg on the same day that Dáil Éireann first met in January 1919.
Her part was acknowledged by participants like Dan Breen in a letter on her file, but also by another senior IRA figure Ernie O’Malley, who used her home as a training base and for “experimenting with incendiary mixtures and with explosives.”
The MSPC project began in 2008 and, since its work was given a further funding commitment by Government last year, the team of archivists has been expanded from three to five, with a team of scanners working round-the-clock to make the conserved files ready for online publication.
So far, over 850,000 pages have been scanned and, since the first release on the Military Archives website in 2014, more than 20,000 files relating to 6,564 people have become accessible for the first time.
They can be read online at militaryarchives.ie
Dozens of anti-Treaty forces in the Civil War may have had previous service in the British army, latest military service files suggest.
The discovery by archivists of over a dozen former British soldiers among anti-Treaty IRA members claiming payments for Civil War service raises questions about historical presumptions that ex-army men tended to have fought on the pro-Treaty side.
The trend is highlighted in the latest release of files in the Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC), readable on the Military Archives website since last week. One such file is that of Reginald Walter Stenning, who deserted the British army — possibly the East Lancashire Regiment — in Kerry coming up to the Truce in the War of Independence in the summer of 1921.
In a 1955 statement to the Bureau of Military History, Ballyduff IRA company captain James Houlihan recalled a deserter from the British army arriving in Ballyheigue and being contacted by members of the local company there.
Soldiers arrived into the area a day or two later looking for him, prompting the RIA to prepare an ambush if they came back again.
The deserter was known as Hathaway, the alias that Stenning used when he joined the IRA. He remained with the IRA as an anti-Treaty fighter during the Civil War that began in the summer of 1922, known by some as ‘Rudge’ Hathaway.
It was as Reginald Hathaway that he was tried, and executed on April 25, 1923, for taking part in an attack on National Army forces near Ballyduff a week earlier.
He and several IRA figures were hiding in Clashmealcon caves where the National Army who tried to get them out came under fire. At least one National Army solider died, and two other IRA men were executed along with Hathaway at Ballymullen army barracks in Tralee for their roles.
His file is one of at least 17 released last week, in which it is claimed or stated that a dead or wounded anti-Treaty IRA member was an ex-soldier in the British army. “The generally-accepted idea is that ex-British servicemen ended up on the pro-Treaty side. But we now see that wasn’t necessarily the case,” MSPC archivist Michael Keane said.
When Reginald Walter Stenning’s father and mother, Walter Stephen and Edith, applied for a gratuity in respect of their son’s death, the Military Service Registration Board was satisfied as to his IRA service, although only from September 1922 until his death seven months later. Mr Stenning had written that their son joined the army without their knowing, and was not heard from him for over a year. “The last time I saw him was early in 1920 and never knew anything of his whereabouts for some months,” he wrote. “At last I heard from him that he had joined the IRA, but not very frequent after that. Then we saw the terrible ending in the papers.”
In a 1932 letter to Defence Minister Frank Aiken, Mary O’Donnell from Annascaul, Co Kerry, wrote in support of the claim under the Military Service Pensions acts.
“He was an English youth who worked day and night to win her freedom for our country...I hope his comrades in arms won’t neglect his dear mother,” she wrote.
However, Walter Stephen and Edith Stenning did not receive any gratuity or other payment. The Army Pensions Board determined in June 1937 that it had not been given any evidence that his mother was dependant on Reginald when he died.
The MSPC archive also features files in relation to the two other executed IRA members after the Clashmealcon caves siege, James McEnery and Edward Greany.
The events of Bloody Sunday in 1920 are among the episodes which will become more vivid and beter understood as a result of files from the Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC).
Two people involved in different aspects of the violence in Dublin on November 21, 1920, have had their files released online at the MSPC pages online.
Emily Valentine rendered aid to victims of Crown Forces who opened fire on footballers and civilians at Croke Park in the afternoon. But hours earlier, she had carried a gun used by one of the members of Michael Collins’s ‘Squad’ that was involved in the killing of British intelligence figuress that led to the reprisals later that day at the GAA ground.
Tommy Ryan who played for Tipperary — and was also an IRA member in his home county — was among those to survive the attack that left 13 civilians dead.
But his namesake Thomas Ryan was among the victims at Croke Park, and the circumstances of his death are contained in a file of his widow Mary’s claim for a pension. It also shows that he too may have had a role in the events earlier that day.
In 1939, an Irish army captain, H Murphy, recounted what happened in reply to a query from the Military Service Registration Board.
“Thomas Ryan attended a football match at Croke Park Dublin on that date. On the arrival of the British forces he escaped over the wall at the Canal End of the field. As he was proceeding along the canal, he was fired on by the British and died from his wounds shortly afterwards,” he wrote.
This conflicts with previous historical accounts of Thomas Ryan kneeling to say an act of contrition in the ear of dying Tipperary goalkeeper when he himself was hit by British gunfire.
Murphy continued with a line suggesting Ryan may have been involved in the IRA operation earlier on Bloody Sunday.
“Ryan was first class man, and he and I were on a job with others on the morning of 21/11/1920,” Murphy wrote.
A further testimony by his former commanding officer Peadar McNulty, captain of A Company of the Dublin IRA’s 1st Battalion, adds more detail.
“He was on duty early on the morning of his death and took part with a party of men from his unit in raiding a house at Marlboro Road [North Circular Road], with a view to dealing with a British Intelligence Officer,” he wrote in April 1938.
However, Mary Ryan’s claim in respect of her husband’s death was rejected, as the evidence provided was that he was not on active IRA service when he was killed later that day.
The 27-year-old Dublin Gas Company worker, originally from Co Wexford, was a section commander of A Company. One piece of evidence given to the pensions board suggested his widow was left destitute.
She had, however, received £400 from a Personal Injuries Committee and some support in respect of the couple’s two children during the 1920s from the White Cross.
It was not until 1940 that a formal decision turning down her claim was issued.
Her daughter Breda wrote seeking to have the application re-opened in 1950, because her mother could merely sign any correspondence after an operation on her eyes was “not a complete success”.
But the Department of Defence replied that no further action was possible in her case because of the previous decision that Thomas Ryan did not die while engaged in military service.
In recognition of her husband’s IRA service, Mary Ryan was issued with a posthumous Service (1917-1921) Medal — commonly known as the Black and Tan medal — in the name of Thomas Ryan in 1943.
Emily Valentine was in her early 20s when she joined Cumann na mBan, in late 1916, in Dublin.
She was based in Belfast from late 1917, until around August, 1920, visiting Irish Volunteers prisoners, and on other duties for Cumann na mBan.
During the 12-month period beginning in April, 1920, she trained others how to treat wounded men, in preparation for any injuries to members of the IRA’s active service units in Dublin. She was also involved as a searcher for republican police operating in the city.
“On the morning of November 21, 1920 (Bloody Sunday), I brought two revolvers from Mary Hunter’s shop, in Ballybough, to Jim Brennan and, after the job, I brought them back to his house, at Archbold Place,” she wrote to the advisory board considering her case, in 1943.
“In the afternoon of the same day, I dressed two men who were wounded at Croke Park (I was on duty in the area),” she continued.
Her account is backed by James Brennan, who claimed, in his 1942 letter, to have been a member of Michael Collins’ infamous hit-team, ‘The Squad’.
“I will certify that Miss Valentine...at least on one occasion, carried two revolvers from Mary Hunter’s, Ballbyough, on Bloody Sunday, that took part in the execution of enemy officers and brought them back to my house,” he wrote.
Thomas O’Brien — a quartermaster of H Company, in the Dublin Brigade, — wrote that in December, 1920, she carried four revolvers and ammunition, which he bought from British soldiers serving in Portobello Barracks (now renamed Cathal Brugha Barracks, where Emily Valentine’s file resides).
“But this is only one of many services rendered by her that I can recall, as she was available night and day up to 1922, when I was arrested and lost touch with her,” O’Brien wrote.
“She always brought arms to our armourer, the late Owen Carton, of 5 Temple Street, and brought them back when repaired. A more active member of Cumann na mBan I never met. I cannot find words of praise for the work she done during the period I knew her.”
Carton had the job of repairing weapons and gun parts, which Emily Valentine collected from him at his job, at the Great Southern Railway, or at Maguire’s pub in Phibsborough Road. She often also brought the items for repair to Carton’s house, at Temple Street.
She remained active with Cumann na mBan, supporting the IRA during the Civil War, including a period on duty at 44 Parnell Square, during the siege of anti-Treaty IRA figures in Dublin’s Four Courts at the end of June, 1922. She was sent on a lorry to another part of the city with ammunition, where she stayed until the surrender at the Four Courts.
She carried out communications work for the IRA, until she was arrested in October and interned in the South Dublin Union workhouse. Although an initial application, in 1938, was rejected, her appeal resulted in an award in 1943. Emily received a pension of £15, 14 shillings and two-pence a year, in recognition of service from April, 1918 to September, 1923, up to her death in 1969, aged 74.
These are some of the other men executed during the Civil War as anti-Treaty IRA members who appear to have previously served in the British Army.
Patrick Mahony was executed by the National Army on April 23, 1923 at Home Barracks, Ennis, Co Clare.
According to material on a Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC) file, he had served with the IRA from January 1922 onwards during the Truce period and Civil War.
It is also stated that Mahony had served with the British Army during World War I from 1915 to 1917, had suffered from ‘shell shock’, and was in receipt of a British Army pension at the time of his death.
It is further claimed that during the War of Independence, he worked as a civilian employee at Cork Military Barracks (probably Victoria Barracks in the city) and had supplied intelligence information for the IRA during that time.
The material in the MSPC relates to Patrick Mahony’s mother Jane Mahony’s receipt of a partial dependents’ gratuity of £112 and 10 shillings in 1933. She received a dependents’ allowance between 1940 and her death in 1953 under the Army Pensions Acts.
Thomas Murray was executed at Dundalk Prison on January 13, 1923.
He had been tried and convicted by a military court of the National Army of possession of revolver and ammunition.
According to evidence on file, Murray had served with the IRA from sometime in late- 1921 onwards. He also previously served in the British Army with the Dublin Fusiliers and Connaught Rangers, but the dates of that service are not contained within his file. Murray had also at some point joined the National Army, but deserted in August 1922 and re-joined the IRA.
The material in the MSPC relates to Thomas Murray’s mother, Bessie Murray’s receipt of a dependents’ allowance under the Army Pensions Acts in respect of her son between 1934 and her death in 1955.
It also includes Bessie Murray’s unsuccessful claim in respect of Thomas Murray’s involvement in the mutiny by some Connaught Rangers soldiers in India in 1920. A 1936 act of the Oireachtas permitted pension to be paid to those who were court-martialled by the British Army for their role.
The Department of Defence stated that Bessie Murray’s case could not be admitted, as her son was not killed during the mutiny or given a sentence following a court-martial, which were requirements for eligibility.
John Murphy was executed on December 29, 1922 at Kilkenny Military Barracks.
He was sentenced to death by a military court for being in possession of rifle and revolver ammunition, which became a capital offence in the autumn of that year.
He was also convicted of taking part in a robbery of Sheastown House when property to the value of £189 was stolen. References in the MSPC file say the robbery was an officially-sanctioned IRA raid as the occupants refused to pay a levy to the IRA.
According to information on file John Murphy served with the IRA from late 1919 during the War of Independence, the truce period that began in July 1921, and through the Civil War. It is stated that he had also served with the British Army for two years prior to October 1919 and during part of World War I.
The material in the MSPC relates to John Murphy’s mother, Kate Murphy’s receipt of a partial dependents’ gratuity of £112 and 10 under the Army Pensions Acts in 1934.
It also relates to unsuccessful applications under the Army Pensions Acts from John Murphy’s sister Kathleen between 1953 and 1961.
Michael J Fitzgerald died by military execution at Waterford Infantry Barracks on January 25, 1923, having been charged with being in possession, without proper authority, of a rifle, revolver and ammunition.
Varying dates are given on file as to the start date of Michael Fitzgerald’s IRA service from December 1920 to March 1922.
Margaret Fitzgerald claimed her son was involved in intelligence gathering, and the acquiring of arms, as well as mobilising for an aborted IRA attack in April 1921, during the War of Independence.
She said he took part in IRA training camps during the Truce period. It is also stated that he served with the IRA in Civil War engagements against National Army forces at Bruree and Kilmallock in Co Limerick, and also served in counties Kerry and Cork before being arrested on December 14, 1922. It is also stated that Michael Fitzgerald served during the World War I with the British Navy.
The material in the MSPC relates to his mother Margaret Fitzgerald’s receipt of a partial dependents’ gratuity of £112 and 10 shillings in 1934 under the Army Pensions Act, 1932. Margaret Fitzgerald and her daughter Lena Fitzgerald made unsuccessful applications between 1953 to 1960, under the Army Pensions Act, 1953 for further awards in respect of Michael Fitzgerald.
Thomas Gibson was executed by the National Army on February 24, 1923 at Maryborough (Portlaoise) Barracks.
He had been sentenced to death by military court for deserting from the National Army with five rifles. Material on the file said Gibson had been serving with the IRA from November 1922.
According to John Gibson, Thomas Gibson was captured by National Army forces at the house of James Foyle, Cullenagh, Timahoe, Co Laois in January 1923. His niece Sarah Selby states Thomas Gibson had also served with the British Army during the World War I before joining the National Army and later the IRA.
The material in the file relates to the award of a partial dependents’ gratuity of £112 and 10 shillings in 1934 to Anne Gibson under the Army Pensions Acts in respect of her son Thomas. This claim was made on Anne Gibson’s behalf by another son, John.
The award was paid to solicitor James Robinson, appointed as committee of the estate of Anne Gibson by the Chief Justice of the Irish Free State.
The file also relates to an unsuccessful application from Sarah Selby, Thomas Gibson’s niece.
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