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This week’s uploading online of a huge cache of personal material and records relating to military pensions of the 1916 to 1923 period, thus covering the 1916 Rising (pictured above) to subsequent War of Independence, is a wonderful tribute to our archival skills, and will make up for Ireland’s once lamentable archival record.

Indeed, in two famous events which, ironically, took place during the Independence struggle, a whole treasure trove went, quite literally, up in smoke. One was the 1921 Republican burning of the Customs House, in which thousands of valuable records and files were destroyed.  The rebels wanted to make the country ungovernable for the British Crown and its civil servants. But it made the work of future historians much harder. A further raid on the Four Courts, during the Civil War, destroyed yet more records. And remember this was before back-ups, photocopies or carbon copies. Unlike now, where such material, online, comes alive in a new way on the screen or i-phone – for everybody. In the comfort of your home or bedroom you can trawl through the letters of Old IRA rebels as they communicate about their rebel deeds and pension entitlements.

It also brings alive our history and puts flesh and identity, and sheer humanity, on the well known facts of our national story, which to many people remains opaque and remote possibly because it is so familiar. The stories of 1916 and the Black and Tans and Michael Collins have been so often told that they almost recede into unreal legend, and you begin to wonder if they ever actually happened – the way they were told. This is especially so for a new generation who apparently account for a surge in sales of history books. The older generation have often had enough of it. My mother said that growing up in the 1950s, she and her generation were nearly bored rigid hearing about the ‘raids and rallies’ of Dan Breen and his comrades. Today’s young have not had such exposure, and for them and for all generations, the online archive will bring to life these men and women who risked their lives for their country and saw such amazing events. Thus, we have handwritten notes describing injuries received while in combat and hand typed letters describing certain brave but ruthless assaults – on behalf of the Republic.

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But one must be careful here, as well. All history is of necessity a part-mythology, and nationalist history more than most. No one tells the story of what happened to them in exactly the way that it happened. Our recollection is subjective, selective and changes with the telling. And in war time, and about a war time, this is especially so, especially about a guerilla war, which this period was, and where one side is by necessity being secretive, clandestine and deliberately distorting things. Afterwards, it means that many more people will claim to have been ‘involved’ than were, just like with the French Resistance in World War Two. As with that war, the subsequent authorities need to exaggerate the size of their struggle to boost their nationhood and bolster their authority. Brendan Behan once quipped, watching the huge number of 1916 veterans marching along O’Connell Street, that if this many people were actually ‘out in Easter week’, we would have won the Rising!’ It was the same with War of Independence, when great numbers of people emerged afterwards exaggerating their role and involvement. And no disrespect, many of their letters may well be in this archive.

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I should know. For in 1987, as a student dare, I wrote to Charlie Haughey, under a pseudonym, pretending to be a 90 year old Republican who had returned to Ireland and was now looking for an Old IRA pension – and service medals (pictured above). An extraordinary lengthy correspondence ensued with the Department of Defence, in which my alter ego was unable to produce any actual wartime documentation, claiming that Collins had ordered him to destroy all such items! But he was able to describe, in crabbed handwriting, all the great deeds he’d been in against ‘the British enemy in the Dublin area’.

Eventually, the Department lost patience with the endless letters, and no doubt with the genuine intercession of Haughey, my character was eventually awarded a 1916-1921 service medal, along with a 50th anniversary follow up medal (both pictured above) !. It was all a bit of lark, but it was also a serious revelation about how you can write your way into the historical records, especially about a period as fluid and malleable in the memory as our national Independence struggle. However, being honest about such story-telling and about the inevitable distortions of national history is of necessity the only modern and mature way to look at a violent and heroic past.

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