‘in such deadly earnest’

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmuid Ferriter

There was an army band and an air of seriousness and expectation as the state cars began to arrive at the Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin on the evening of 11 March. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Defence were in attendance, as was the former Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, now in his eighties, whose father was one of the founders of the Irish state. Gathered there also, their presence unusual in a military setting, was a group of Irish historians, some of whom had been waiting for this occasion for many years. An archive was about to be opened, after a half century under lock and key, that would shed light on a period still much disputed in Irish history, the period leading to independence.

The story began in 1933, at the end of Fianna Fáil’s second year in office. The Minister for Education, Thomas Derrig, suggested in a letter to the Department of Defence that it would be desirable to take steps to collect and preserve the political records of the War of Independence period. He mentioned that the issue had come up ‘on more than one occasion’ in cabinet discussions and proposed that Fianna Fáil cumainn around the country could carry out the collection of this material. Derrig professed concern at the ‘lack of knowledge of the 1916 leaders and of the events subsequent to 1916 displayed by boys with the leaving certificate’. What was needed was ‘a record of facts’ from ‘the Irish point of view’ to match the prevailing British view of the period. In a similar letter the following year Derrig referred to the need for ‘narrative statements by living witnesses … down to the end of 1921 or whatever period may be decided’, statements that would be taken ‘in a trustworthy way’. In March 1934 the Irish Independent carried an appeal from the government for such material, promising it would be placed in the National Library. But the idea did not take hold, and there is no further reference to it in the state papers until January 1943, when a memorandum from the Irish Committee of Historical Sciences stressed the need for ‘a scientific collection of the oral evidence of the Irish people regarding the history of the last one hundred years’:

Official records and newspaper reports are notoriously misleading. This will be readily appreciated if it be remembered how insufficient and inaccurate would be any account of the Irish revolution (1916–23) if based exclusively on existing documentary material.


Such a survey should be carried out by a ‘body of trained historians’, with the Committee acting as the ‘organisational nucleus’.

The memorandum was drawn up after Robert Dudley Edwards, Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD, had approached the Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, in December 1942 regarding such a project and was asked to send a proposal to the government. One month later the President of Ireland, Sean T. O’Kelly, wrote to Maurice Moynihan, Secretary to the Department of the Taoiseach, suggesting records could be collected by a private commission which would work without publicity, and whose membership would have to be chosen carefully ‘so that its work might not be hampered or perhaps rendered useless by the refusal of vital witnesses to collaborate with it’. There was urgency to the tone of O’Kelly’s letter, which he justified on the grounds that many of the participants in the struggle for independence were near the end of their lives. (Meanwhile, at the end of 1943, the Minister for Defence wrote to the Minister for Finance revealing he had been thinking of using for historical purposes information received by the advisory committee established under the Military Service Pensions Act of 1934, to which applicants had to supply, in confidence, details of their military service up to the time of the Truce in July 1921.)

A group consisting of Florrie O’Donoghue, Colonel Dan Bryan, Dudley Edwards and Richard Hayes met in the National Library in September 1945 and decided to submit a plan to the government, authored by O’Donoghue. The plan was approved by de Valera. The same month, a conference between representatives from the departments of Defence and Finance was convened to discuss collecting suitable material. It was agreed that a beginning might be made in South Munster but that an overall scheme was needed for the whole country. The material would be deposited in the National Library, with the administration of the scheme entrusted to their staff.

In April 1946 Florrie O’Donoghue outlined the proposed scheme at a meeting of the Irish Historical Society, and stressed that the function of the historian was not only to interpret the past but also to preserve the records of the present. Edwards added that ‘we are far too near the period of 1921 to do more than collecting’, a comment entirely consistent with the new approach to history championed by Edwards as one of the founders of the journal Irish Historical Studies, which did not publish articles on twentieth-century history. Other historians had more political reasons for supporting the gathering of material. P.S. O’Hegarty suggested such documentation would counteract the insidious views of ‘social ideologists’ who were attempting, in his view, to perpetuate a ‘post-insurrection ideology’ that downplayed the significance of the independence struggle.

Despite the wish of historians to exert a large measure of influence over the project, in May 1946 the Department of Defence staked its claim to administrative control. A staff of nine was proposed, some full-time and some part-time, ‘all of whom had seen active service in the field’. The initiative was formally agreed in October 1946 and established as the Bureau of Military History in January 1947, its stated aim being to ‘assemble and co-ordinate material to form the basis for the compilation of the history of the movement for independence from the formation of the Irish Volunteers on 25 November 1913 to the [signing of the Truce] 11 July 1921’. The terms of reference thus expressly ruled out statements concerning the Civil War: an understandable and pragmatic decision. If it had been otherwise, pro-Treaty elements might have taken the opportunity to present themselves as champions of law and order and defenders of democracy, and their republican opponents to denounce them as traitors. The July 1921 cut-off also reduced the likelihood that the Bureau’s work would be compromised, or would be seen to be compromised, by political bias, and perhaps ensured an input to the Bureau’s work from both sides of the political divide.

The list of names proposed for the post of director of this new project included Frank Gallagher, Leon O’Broin, Aodh de Blacam, Sean O’Faolain, Liam Deasy and Frank O’Connor, but the job was offered to Michael McDunphy, a qualified lawyer and secretary to the President. The full-time members of the Bureau were Florrie O’Donoghue, John McCoy and Seamus Robinson, who had worked on the military pension applications. Colonel Dan Bryan was among the part-time members. The advisory committee was chaired by Richard Hayes, a medical practitioner, historian and veteran of the War of Independence who at the time of his appointment was the Irish film censor. The committee included leading Irish historians such as Dudley Edwards, G.A. Hayes McCoy, T.W. Moody, Denis Gwynn, James Hogan, and R.J. Hayes, director of the National Library. McDunphy assumed his new position in January 1947 and the work of the Bureau commenced.

The background to its establishment is interesting from a number of perspectives. Professional historians had done much to persuade the government to move and had easy access to the corridors of power. The Department of Defence was anxious to assume control over the project. Although there is hardly any documentation of discussion of the subject, it is probable that de Valera and others were nervous about any investigation of the Civil War. Fianna Fáil was determined to play a role in how the revolutionary period was remembered, but it was also understood that the project would have no credibility if it was mistrusted or boycotted by Fine Gael.


The instructions given to interviewers were clear. They were urged to steer witnesses away from obvious fantasy or exaggeration, but under no circumstances to induce testimony. If the testimony was being given orally, ‘copious notes’ were to be taken and the notes converted into a coherent statement to be submitted to the witness for approval; where there was evidence of unreliability through ‘failing memory’ or ‘self-glorification’, a report to that effect was to be appended. Other statements were completed on the basis of responses to questionnaires. Statements could be as long or as short as the witnesses desired and no disclosure would be made to anyone outside the Bureau except with the permission of the donor.

Florrie O’Donoghue expressed concern at various points in the late 1940s and early 1950s about elements of the Bureau’s work, such as the absence of ‘co-ordination between the documentary evidence available in the Bureau and the work of the investigators in the field’. Unless a more selective approach was taken to the statement-gathering project, he warned, ‘no member of the advisory committee will live to see its completion’. Michael McDunphy, Director of the Bureau, disagreed with O’Donoghue’s suggestion that only certain people should be earmarked for interview, seeing this as ‘a form of snobbery’ and contending that ‘an ordinary volunteer who served in the ranks and then returned to private life may often have a clearer and perhaps much more important story to tell than one who served with a titular rank, or whose subsequent career brought him into prominence or close contact with later developments’.

Even so, McDunphy was concerned that despite ‘continuous pressure’ there had been no response from prominent figures such as Liam Deasy, Joe McGrath, Diarmaid O’Hegarty and Piaras Beaslaí, a concern that became more urgent from the beginning of 1955, when the government was anxious to wind up the work of the commission. In that year the Minister for Defence gave a radio broadcast in which he stressed that no member of any government ‘has, at any time, tried to influence in any way the selection of witnesses or the nature or form of evidence to be collected … or has seen or sought to see any of the material collected’, and, crucially, that nothing would be released ‘to historians or to the public during the lifetime of any person who took part in the events’.

McDunphy was acutely conscious of the persistence in some quarters of the belief that the Bureau was not entirely neutral in its pursuit of records. In August 1955 he noted that ‘from time to time I have had to answer charges, usually in the form of veiled innuendo, that the Bureau had been set up for a political purpose and for the purposes of producing a history biased in favour of one particular party and such a suggestion had in fact been made in my hearing by a member of the advisory committee [most likely Florrie O’Donoghue] associated with the Bureau, a suggestion which I had immediately countered and repudiated’. In December 1948 the distinguished Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield had announced himself suspicious of the government’s involvement in sponsoring the writing of ‘state’ history by civil servants, but Dudley Edwards assured him that the Bureau was only collecting source material, not writing history. He subsequently took Butterfield to visit the Bureau and Butterfield was suitably impressed.

Some potential witnesses declined to co-operate with the Bureau on the basis that it was difficult to trust their recollections so many years after the fact. The senior politicians who refused to co-operate in many cases left behind substantial private collections under the control of their own estates, and did not want the Bureau to have access to them. Richard Mulcahy, Chief of Staff of the IRA from 1919 to 1922, was one such figure; he refused to contribute ‘notwithstanding pressure on him by other influential persons’. Alice Lyons, secretary to Michael Collins during the War of Independence, declined to get involved on the grounds that she had worked in confidence with Collins; to give a statement would be a ‘betrayal of his trust in her’. The poet and writer Brian O’Higgins ‘would not have anything to do with anything set up by the government’, while the nurse Elizabeth Farrell, who carried Patrick Pearse’s surrender message to Brigadier General Lowe in Easter 1916, would not participate because ‘all governments since 1921 had betrayed the republic’. Con Kearney, a member of the East Limerick Flying Column of the IRA, refused because ‘I remember those times with a feeling of aversion and self-disgust which increases as the years go by’. Alfred Cope, assistant under-secretary at Dublin Castle in 1921, refused to get involved because he regarded the period as ‘the most discreditable in your country’s history – it is preferable to forget it – to let sleeping dogs lie’. James McMahon, who had served as under-secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland, refused on the grounds that he was not confident that promises regarding the confidentiality of the material would be honoured by succeeding governments.

Frustratingly, the most polarizing character of the period, Eamon de Valera, played cat and mouse with McDunphy for over a decade, always citing pressure of government as his reason for not submitting a contribution. In a July 1949 telephone conversation with McDunphy he took a particular interest in what the Bureau was receiving concerning 1916, suggesting that he and others involved in the fighting knew little of the events of Holy Week. McDunphy maintained that ‘there were things within [de Valera’s] knowledge which were not known to any other living person and he felt it was his duty to put these on record’. This makes it all the more disappointing that de Valera did not follow up on his promise.


The Bureau was beset for many years by uncertainty, partly of its own making, regarding the confidentiality of the statements it gathered. McDunphy stressed to the historians on the advisory committee, who repeatedly pushed for access to the Bureau’s material on behalf of themselves and their students, that witnesses had been informed that their statements would be kept confidential. The Bureau would lose credibility if this promise were broken. He also pointed out that donors had copies of their own statements, to which researchers could request access. McDunphy eventually allowed historians on the advisory committe to take copies of statements home with them, for the stated purpose of assessing the quality of the Bureau’s work, on the condition that they be brought back to be ‘destroyed by me in the presence of the keeper of records’. As early as 1948 he worried that O’Donoghue seemed to be ‘under the impression that he is free to use for his own purposes the material collected by him for the Bureau’, and demanded the return of any outstanding documents in O’Donoghue’s possession.

The papers of Dudley Edwards, deposited in the UCD archives, give a good overview of the attitude of some members of the advisory committee. Some were unsure of the value of the work being performed; Edwards scribbled a note after a meeting with one of them, Sheila Kennedy, a lecturer in history in Galway, to the effect that ‘she is fed up with the Bureau, feels it is a dreadful waste of money which could be put to much better historical uses’ and that the work ‘could well have been done in a university’. This clearly reflected resentment that the work was being carried out by people who were not professional historians. Dudley Edwards himself sought to use the Bureau for his own ends and attempted to break the rules, looking for the draft of a statement that was relevant to his own research in March 1954, a request McDunphy refused. The historians were generally unwilling to accept the significance of the original promise of confidentiality, but they could not agree on what to do about it.

By the late 1950s, with the Department of Finance concerned about the ongoing cost of the project, McDunphy was required repeatedly to seek extensions to the life of the Bureau as an information-collecting organization. The prospect of this activity being wound up forced the question of what would become of the archive once it was complete. McDunphy wanted the material to be placed in the custody of the government ‘for a period of at least 20 years’ before being transferred to the National Library. It was eventually agreed in January 1957 that the Bureau would have to wind up at the end of that year and that the material would be given to the National Library, with an embargo of at least twenty-five years.

Fianna Fáil returned to office in 1957. In a contribution to a Dáil debate on 25 March 1958, former Defence Minister General Sean MacEoin, now a member of the opposition, proposed that unless a contributor had directed otherwise, ‘there would not be any breach of confidence in regard to the publication of these documents and that they would be safe for such time as the contributor saw fit, for 50 years at least’. Two days later, the Defence Minister, Kevin Boland, said the material was in a strong room in Government Buildings and should be kept there ‘for a period of 25 years’, and that if there were any change to this ‘it is more likely to be to extend the period rather than to shorten it’. MacEoin – curiously, in light of his contention a few days earlier – responded that ‘25 years will do rightly’.

McDunphy’s own views on this question had not been consistent. In December 1947 he had suggested that statements be embargoed for twenty-five years, but later that month he wrote: ‘I have since decided against this. It will suffice for the present to regard the lifetime of the Bureau as the minimum term. That may possibly be at least 10 years.’ By 1951 he was writing of the need to withhold all material ‘during the lifetime of persons who took part’, noting that the Minister agreed with this. In June 1953 he proposed that ‘a definite time limit should be fixed, for example, the 1st of January 1980’, and that confidential documents should remain in the possession of the government for twenty years before going to the National Library. McDunphy’s logic was that the government would find it easier than the National Library to resist pressure from historians.

After the Bureau’s work was terminated on 31 December 1957, Dudley Edwards wrote to the Minister for Defence asking what was going to happen to the material. He was informed it would be placed in the custody of the Department of the Taoiseach. R.J. Hayes, a member of the advisory committee, wrote to Edwards in February 1958: ‘I think we can do nothing and I have no time to bang my head against a blank wall. Incidentally, the material collected seems to me to be of so little value that I do not mourn the loss.’ Florrie O’Donoghue was adamant that there was no justification for impounding original documents ‘which would be available if they had not been given to the Bureau. I put in a number of original documents, some my own, some I had got from friends. I would never have done so if I knew they were going to be inaccessible for a very long period.’ Richard Hayes and Edwards agreed that O’Donoghue had ‘a moral and a legal claim’ to the documents. Hayes, however, believed they should not be available to the general public: ‘If every Sean and Seamus from Ballythis and Ballythat who took major or minor or no part at all in the national movement from 1916 to 1921 has free access to the material it may result in local civil warfare in every second town and village in the country.’

In March 1959, 83 steel boxes were locked into the strong room in Government Buildings. They contained 1,770 statements, 66 annexes to witness statements, 54 collections of documents relating to people who did not contribute statements, 322 collections of original documents, 178 collections of press cuttings, 12 voice recordings, and 246 photographs. There is no record of a formal cabinet decision about when the material should be released, and the uncertainty over this would irritate academics for decades to come. In 1967 the historian F.X. Martin bemoaned the ‘official iron curtain … cutting off the findings of the Bureau from all outsiders’. He cited his own experience as an example of the ‘ludicrous’ determination of the guardians of the material to prevent access. In preparing an edition of the constitution that governed the IRB from 1873 to 1916, he had access to an authenticated typescript copy of the constitution made by Bulmer Hobson from a rare printed copy in the possession of P.S. O’Hegarty, who had donated it to the Bureau. ‘It is a short document. As a matter of security I wished to check the Hobson typescript with the printed version and applied for permission to do so. I was politely refused, as was my request to have some official in the government archives check the document for me. The papers of the Bureau have now become a miser’s hoard.’

By the 1980s the question of release was being reviewed every three years. It was eventually agreed that when the last recipients of the Military Service Pension had died, the material would be released. At present there are three military service pension recipients still alive, two aged 102 and one a mere 100, but as they did not submit statements it was not necessary to delay the release any longer after the death of the last pensioner who had testified to the Bureau. The material is now available to researchers in the Military Archives at Cathal Brugha Barracks, and duplicates of the witness statements have been deposited in the National Archives.


And what of the voluminous collection of statements? Have they been worth the wait? Is there anything new in them? Will anybody bother to consult them? Were the concerns of the historians justified?

Some of the longer statements (and they run to over 200 pages in some cases) contain implausibly detailed recollections of incidents and conversations. Overall, however, the tone of the statements is measured, and while a number of witnesses were determined to settle old scores and indulge in hyperbole, many others seem to have been highly scrupulous in their testimony. Those directing the Bureau’s affairs had an understandable preoccupation with getting information from well-known figures, but it may be that the true value of the witness statements lies in the testimony of the ordinary volunteers: what motivated them, what they did (and did not do), the extent to which they believed they were part of a national revolution and the degree to which they triumphed and suffered. Given the volume of the material – 36,000 pages of evidence and 150,000 pieces in the confidential documents – it will be some time before the significance of this archive can be absorbed fully, but an initial examination suggests it has the potential to enhance or change our understanding of the period in a number of respects.

Historians have not before had access to such a wide range of accounts of life in flying columns and the day-to-day activities and operations of the IRA and its insurrectionary predecessors during the period 1913–21. Those seeking to reconstruct events in a particular part of the country now have an opportunity to consult a concentrated body of statements from that region and weigh them alongside information already in the public domain. The mass of statements will also allow historians to reconsider an issue that has not been settled to date: the degree to which IRA activities were subject to centralized control. The role of women in the conflict, and the impact of the First World War, can now be reassessed, as can the influence of cultural organizations in the opening years of the century: many of the contributors place their statements in the wider context of the social, economic and cultural upheaval of these years. The numerous statements from those who served with the Royal Irish Constabularly provide an opportunity to analyze the relationship betwen the police and nationalism.

The definitive history of the 1916 Rising has yet to be written; these statements will be indispensable for those who seek to write it. The Rising was planned by a small, secret, revolutionary organization, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and in particular by a military council within that body. A number of very basic questions concerning its activities and leadership have never been satisfactorily answered. These documents provide new information on some of these questions, and raise new questions.

They also provide insight into how the participants perceived each other and may force a reassessment of the contribution, or lack of contribution, made by certain key figures. The history books present Patrick Pearse as President of the Provisional Irish Republic and Commandant-General of the army of the Irish Republic, but some witnesses clearly felt he was neither. The attitude of the Catholic Church to the crisis also deserves reassessment on the basis of these statements, in which some senior Church figures, often reluctant to comment publicly on the events of this period, were candid in their statements about divisions within their own ranks.

Many of the statements are defensive in tone – inevitably, given the extent of the divisions that followed the negotiation of the Treaty – and it is often frustrating at the end of a particularly absorbing statement to find no information on the role the contributor played in the Civil War. The statements also contain evidence of widespread naïveté concerning the position of Northern unionists; interesting material on Irish emigrants who assisted the IRA; and insights into the social divisions and snobberies of the period. Some of the statements would whet the appetite of a screenwriter, such was the excitement and drama of the period. Events such as the response to the conscription crisis are well documented, and the frequency with which this issue appears is testament to a depth of feeling that historians have perhaps neglected. History books tend to attribute the rise of Sinn Féin to the fallout from the 1916 Rising; but had there been no conscription threat, Sinn Féin might not have performed so well in the December 1918 election.

The statements suggest that the resourcefulness and commitment of this generation were exceptional. Theirs was overwhelmingly a revolution of the young; they were physically fit (they thought nothing of cycling from county to county) and, in the main, politically disciplined. Those looking for evidence of sophisticated ideological debate may be disappointed, but the Bureau files contain a huge amount of material of interest to the social historian.

In small rural parishes, a dominant family could often exercise great influence over national sentiment, and young recruits were easily influenced. There seems to have been a certain casualness about joining up. John Flanagan, later active in the IRA in west Clare, was persuaded to join the IRB in 1908 by the O’Donnell family: ‘I agreed to join that evening during which he swore me in as we were standing beside Owen Doyle’s pump in Henry Street, Kilrush.’ The GAA and in particular the Gaelic League were also important in drawing young people into the national movement. A member of the Supreme Council of the IRB, Patrick Sarsfield, referred to his experience of the League at the Munster Féis in 1902: ‘Something in the songs … something in the music … something in the atmosphere gripped me and I seemed to be put in touch with something far back in the race … for the first time I saw the whole of Ireland.’ Patrick Higgins, Gaelic League member and Irish Volunteer, suggested that ‘the whole Volunteer movement in Cork and the position it created grew out of the activities of a relatively small group of men and women who had been working in different ways to promote one or other various aspects of the Irish-Ireland movement’. There was another overriding reason for many people’s involvement: simple recreation. For Elizabeth Bloxham, flirting and laughter were part and parcel of membership in Cumann na mBán during the summer holidays: ‘I have sometimes wondered if an invisible onlooker could have realised underneath our gaiety we were all in such deadly earnest.’

The Bureau’s archive contains a total of 149 statements by women. Collectively, they indicate the wide-ranging nature of women’s involvement, in the political and military spheres as well as in education, promotion of the Irish language, drama groups and opposition to conscription in 1918. Brighid O’Mullane, organizing branches of Cumann na mBán, recalled that ‘the life was strenuous, as I generally worked in three meetings a day to cover the various activities of each branch. My meals were, of course, very irregular, and the result of this sort of life, which I led for three years … was that my weight was reduced to 6 stone. I got many severe wettings and consequent colds, which I was unable to attend to. The reaction to this came during the truce, when I broke down and had to get medical attention.’ At the other end of the social spectrum, Maud Gonne recalled her genteel protest against the visit of King Edward VII to Dublin in 1900, when she hung a black flag outside her residence. Grandly referring to herself throughout in the third person, she was keen to record other people’s compliments to her and took a swipe at W.B. Yeats, ‘who had become a member of a rather snobbish unionist club’. After her arrest in 1918, ‘my little Sean ran after the black Maria in which I was taken and when it reached its destination, with wonderful sense he ran back home, got my big fur coat and brought it to me’. In Holloway Prison she was ‘housed in the syphilis wing’.

The humanity of the statement of Kathleen Lynn – medical doctor, first-aid lecturer to the Irish Citizen Army and a member of Cumann na mBán in 1916 – is palpable, as is her concern for her lover Miss French-Mullen, with whom she lived for thirty years. Lynn’s statement reveals a mix of pride, innocence and sisterhood. In Mountjoy Prison after the Rising,

we were handled rather with joy by the wardresses because we were interesting prisoners, we were not like ordinary criminals. I got quite fond of the wardress who looked after me. She was quite kindly. We discovered that when the suffragettes were there they had made little holes in the plaster under the pipes so that, if one lay down on the floor, one could talk to the person in the next cell. Countess Plunkett was in the next cell to mine. Of course, she was in a terrible state about her son having been executed and she used get awfully lonely and upset at night. We would lie down on the floor and talk and that would make her better. After a while, we were allowed visitors and parcels and then we were inundated with all sorts of presents of luxuries. The only thing we longed for was clean bread and butter … We had all sorts of cakes and fruits etc., but we wanted something plain.

There were of course many women who were opposed to the activities of the republicans, particularly those whose husbands were enlisted with the British army. William O’Brien, when being brought to Richmond Barracks after the Rising, remembered that ‘a considerable crowd assembled, made up mainly of separation allowance women who booed and hissed us vigorously’. John Flanagan, active in canvassing for Sinn Féin at the East Clare by-election in 1917, recounted strong anti-Sinn Féin sentiment in Ennis: ‘The women were kept well plied with drink by a number of the publicans who were supporters of the Irish party and in their drunken condition they were a frenzied and ferocious crowd to deal with. On a couple of occasions the volunteers were obliged to use the ash plant in order to protect Sinn Féin supporters from being mauled by these infuriated females.’ Ernest Blythe recalled that after a Volunteer parade in Limerick, ‘the rabble of the city, particularly the “separation women”, got into the mood to make trouble and a large crowd of them gathered near the station to attack the volunteers as they moved to the train. There was a certain amount of stone throwing and blows were struck at Volunteers as they passed by.’

In Brixton prison after 1916 Blythe was tormented by female fiction. ‘The librarian warder, always changing my book when I was out at exercise, gave me books by Mrs Henry Woods and Mrs Humphrey Ward, which after a time I found it nearly impossible to read. I left a note on my slate one day saying “No more books by women please”, after which I got boys’ adventure stories and detective tales, which were much better.’


The archives of the Bureau contain numerous first-hand accounts of the 1916 Rising. Given that it was mostly confined to Dublin, it is interesting to get regional perspectives on the Rising: countless statements record the frustration felt at the absence of reliable information from Dublin and the exaggerated accounts of what was going on. Across the country, volunteers were called out, told to prepare, and then sent home again. The account of James Cullen, an Irish Volunteer captain in Enniscorthy, is typical:

On Tuesday and Wednesday rumours of all kind were circulating. Some said the Volunteers were sweeping the country, others that it was only the Citizen Army that had risen and that the Rising had been suppressed … in the absence of any definite or authentic information it was very difficult to decide what to do … commandant Gilligan, who had gone to Dublin on Good Friday, arrived back in Enniscorthy late on Wednesday night. He had cycled all the way from Dublin.

Gilligan persuaded them to stage their own rising, which was short-lived and resulted in him and others ‘being put on a cattle boat in the North Wall and taken to Holyhead’.

Captain E. Gerard, a member of the British army in Ireland in 1916, was somewhat in awe of the Irish rebels and struck by their ‘magnificent physique’, remembering them as ‘huge men’, in contrast to the British troops stationed in Beggars Bush who were ‘untrained, undersized products of the British slums’. He was later informed by the medical officer who attended the execution of the insurgents ‘they all died like Lions. The rifles of the firing party were waving like a field of corn. All the men were cut to ribbons at a range of about ten yards.’

The trade unionist William O’Brien maintained that afterwards, when the insurgents were rounded up in Richmond Barracks, de Valera ‘said he was glad that he had no responsibility for deciding anything and that he simply obeyed orders given to him’. O’Brien also commented on the hostility that existed between the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army before Connolly took charge of the latter in October 1914. O’Brien estimated the Citizen Army had only 339 members on its register by Easter Week, and ‘some of these only joined a short time before’. He referred to Constance Markievicz as being ‘very irritable’ and recalled that Tom Clarke expressed concern that ‘she is too talkative. She cannot keep a secret.’ Maud Gonne was more sympathetic: ‘I always think she does not get the credit she should.’ According to Christopher Brady, a printer on the staff of the Workers’ Republic who printed the ‘2,500 copies’ of the 1916 Proclamation, Markievicz arrived into the machine room with Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding telegram announcing ‘I will shoot Eoin MacNeill’, to which he recalled James Connolly replying: ‘You are not going to hurt a hair on McNeill’s head. If anything happens to MacNeill I will hold you responsible.’ Regarding the authorship of the 1916 Proclamation, Brady insisted: ‘It certainly was not Connolly’s as I was familiar with his scrawl.’

William O’Brien disputed the idea that Connolly was kidnapped by the IRB before the Rising in order to prevent the Citizen Army from instigating its own rebellion, believing Connolly’s forceful personality would have made this unlikely. ‘I think Connolly was Commander-in Chief … I think Pearse was only nominally Commander-in-Chief. I am positive about Connolly’s position. Pearse had no capacity for that kind of work. He never decided anything in the post-office. Connolly was in charge of everything.’ He also noted that ‘Mrs Clarke is positive that Tom Clarke was president’, adding that regarding these leadership positions ‘something happened in the last few hours [before the Rising] that no one seems to know’.

Many of those involved or suspected of being involved in the rebellion ended up in prison, and their statements convey both the suffering this gave rise to and a certain elation at the impact their actions had made. Their resourcefulness in prison was notable. Arthur Griffith started a weekly manuscript journal in Brixton Prison and behaved, according to Blythe, ‘like a man having a carefree holiday aboard a ship’. In the same prison Sean T. O’Kelly started a choir. All grew beards, Blythe maintained, except Terence McSwiney, who shaved because his girlfriend visited regularly. Inmates in other prisons and internment camps were enduring much more difficult conditions, and the use of the hunger strike in pursuit of political status is vividly recorded in some cases. Sean Moylan, a member of an active service unit of the Cork IRA, described his experiences in prison:

I shall always hate jails and sympathise with prisoners. The food was uneatable; the bullying tones of the warders unbearable; the harsh routine of prison life a constant insult. I went on hunger strike. Then began the struggle for freedom. Day after day I found my mind preoccupied with the devising of menus. Elaborate and often incongruous combinations of food – flesh, fruit, vegetables – passed on the assembly belt of imagination before my eyes, leaving the craving that encompassed me more insistent as the days went by … Wearisome, interminable, the days of the hunger strike dragged out at slow length. Threatened, abused, ridiculed at first, later I was wooed and tempted with specially prepared delicacies. I refused to break.

Some of the statements contributed to the Bureau by former members of the Royal Irish Constabulary are understandably defensive in tone, but the assumption that the force was overwhelmingly loyal to the Crown is not supported by those members who testified. Eugene Bratton, a constable in Meath, maintained that ‘in some cases the police actually assisted in the training of the volunteers for a short period, but not for long’. He also contended – and this is noted elsewhere – that the police resented the conscription threat of 1918. In a scenario that also seems to have been common, ‘I wanted to resign from the force, but general Boylan of the IRA would not allow me … I was more useful where I was’. Many RIC members collaborated with the IRA through a mixture of fear and genuine conviction; and to a man, it seems, they strongly resented the coming of the Black and Tans, whom they regarded as morally and professionally reprehensible.

John Duffy, an RIC member who carried out intelligence work for the IRA, advised Michael Collins how to persuade young men to leave the force. ‘Collins sent down a courier by return with instructions in his own handwriting that under no circumstances was I to leave the force and if I did so I would be looked upon as a coward. The word “coward” decided my determination to remain on.’ A fascinating but exaggerated and at times self-serving statement by Jeremiah Mee, instigator of a mutiny within the Listowel RIC against the taking over of their barracks by the British military, explains the sentiments behind the mutiny: ‘when we joined the police force, we joined with characters second to none and we refused to co-operate or work in any capacity with the British military, men of low moral character who frequented bad houses, kept the company of prostitutes and generally were unsuitable and undesirable characters’. The police also objected strongly to the instruction of Colonel Smyth, in charge of police and military in Munster, to commit open murder of republicans. Mee, who ended up working at republican headquarters in Dublin, also recalled a belief ‘that it was the British government’s intention to round up the prominent republican leaders, put them on board a ship on the pretence of sending them to a concentration camp and then arrange for an accident at sea’.

Statements from ex-RIC members emphasize not only the moral probity and discipline of the force, but also the men’s sense that by joining they were attaining a social respectability unachievable in many other jobs. Most insist that the relationship between the population and the police force was relatively good prior to the War of Independence. Understandably, many joined because it provided a secure income and pension, and even republicans could see the merit in this. J.J. McConnell, who joined in Dublin in 1907 and later became a sergeant and district inspector, stated defensively that even his Fenian father approved of him joining up and that by joining he ‘realised my childhood ambition. Indeed, it was the dream of all my boyhood pals to join the force that was greatly admired and respected throughout the country.’ John Flannery, one of the participants in the Mutiny of the Connaught Rangers in India in 1920, insisted that the action was prompted by the treatment of their mothers and sisters by the Black and Tans; the mutineers’ spokesman ‘put it to the general if it was a fitting reward for the sacrifices that thousands of Irishmen had made on many fronts throughout the Great War and to these men on parade who came through this great ordeal, to return home and learn that our own fellow countrymen and women were being shot down by the orders of the British government’.

Harassment by the Black and Tans took a number of forms. John Duffy recalled that ‘it was a common practice for them, when they went out the country in their lorries, to shoot down fowl and other poultry, the property of poor people, and bring them back to the mess where some of them were cooked for their own use and those that were not required were dispatched to their families in England’. James Collins, a member of the Abbeyfeale IRA and future TD, recalled that one of the Black and Tans’ favourite pastimes was ‘to shoot sparrows on the wing’, while a local priest who condemned the killing of Black and Tans by the Limerick IRA ‘promptly received a despatch from Brigade headquarters, warning him of the consequences of his talk from the altar’.

Perhaps inevitably, given the allegiances of the witnesses, there is little information on the IRA’s own brutality and crushing of internal dissent, though the occasional native dissident appears. A chemist named Kennedy in Borris, Co. Carlow, an atheist educated at Trinity College, refused to close his shop in support of an IRA-called strike or for the funeral of Terence MacSwiney. A member of the Carlow IRA claimed he also collaborated with the Black and Tans in firing at the IRA. Kennedy’s lack of religious conviction seemed to contemporaries to go hand in hand with his pro-British sympathies:

He was continually passing insulting remarks abut the Catholic religion. On one occasion when there was a mission in the parish church in Borris, Kennedy cleared everything out of his shop window and covered it with brown paper. He left two rectangular apertures over one of which he printed the word ‘men’ and over the other ‘women’. This was intended as a mockery of the confessional. The missionaries were brought to talk to him, but they never made any headway with him. He used to say – ‘show me your God, and then I will believe’.

Kennedy’s shop was boycotted, and the IRA, the witness maintained, eventually managed to shoot him.

In spite of the apparent link between Catholic piety and republicanism at play in the Kennedy affair, the insurrection presented the Catholic Church with its own problems, including fears of loss of allegiance and discipline. Mrs Tom Barry stated that at the time of the Rising in 1916 Fr Michael O’Flanagan, later vice-president of Sinn Féin, had remarked to her of the fighters in the General Post Office: ‘let these people burn to death, they are murderers’; he later relented and agreed to travel across town to assist with the injured. Mrs Barry was disgusted that when she and O’Flanagan were on their way to the GPO and they passed a drunken tramp who had been shot, ‘the priest did not stop for him’, but did give absolution to another wounded man. ‘You see the difference,’ she wrote, ‘here he knew a man who was respectable … I said to Fr O’Flanagan “isn’t it extraordinary you did not kneel beside the other man?”’

Class and respectability were not the only factors in determining the Church’s attitude to the insurrection. The statement of Fr Thomas Duggan, secretary to Bishop Daniel Cohalan of Cork, is illuminating in this regard. Many in the Church, and indeed in the republican movement, saw no contradiction in supporting Irish republicans and simultaneously administering to wounded Irish soldiers in the British army:

My generation in Maynooth embraced the ideals of Easter Week 1916 with a hundred percent fervour. That did not prevent us from becoming Chaplains in the British Army. In the First World War there were well over 100,000 Irish Catholics in the fighting ranks … everyone admitted that these boys were spiritually intractable to anyone save to an Irish priest. Hence, when in 1917 Cardinal Logue issued a special appeal for Irish Chaplains I volunteered. And I went off to France with the blessing and encouragement of every friend I had in advanced Sinn Féin circles in Dublin.

Duggan, who did not want his statement to be released for at least thirty-five years, also sought to explain the ‘vacillations’ in the public statements of his bishop concerning the IRA. Bishop Cohalan spoke out against the IRA even though he was of the same ‘blood and stock’ as the men who carried out the Kilmichael ambush, and Duggan insisted that ‘he could have been an IRA man as ardently patriotic as any and more ruthless than most’ but that the ‘theologian in him’ could not find a mandate for armed resistance. This led to his famous excommunication order of December 1920.

The ageing Bishop Fogarty of Killaloe was interviewed by the Bureau, and Richard Hayes, chairman of the advisory committee, wrote the account. Hayes did not want the statement released until the Bishop was dead. The impression he got from the interview was that ‘the Irish Bishops did not at any time discuss in council the question of the moral justification of the Easter Rising, or the Anglo-Irish conflict that followed’. Generally the attitude of individual bishops was a matter of age, with the older bishops more opposed to republicans. Dr Fogarty ‘gave expression to the view that in any other country except Ireland the clash of Episcopal opinion might have meant a schism in the church there. Dr Fogarty maintained that in private conversation with Dr O’Dwyer, Bishop of Limerick, the latter mentioned that the rising in 1916 was morally justifiable … Dr Fogarty declared that in the Anglo-Irish War the national interest would override such unpleasant happenings as the shooting of policemen.’

Roger Casement’s late allegiance to the Catholic faith is the subject of one of the more intriguing Bureau statements. Fr J.M. Cronin recalled Casement’s last days in Pentonville prison, though he qualified his statement by saying that much of it was based on ‘hearsay’ and the facts needed ‘to be well sifted’. The Westminster Curia had apparently demanded a written apology ‘for any scandal Casement had given’ before he could be received into the Church; but having written one under protest Casement then tore it up, maintaining ‘he could not leave such a document behind him’. Priests reconciled him eventually, and Cronin heard of the ‘voluntary penance that Casement imposed upon himself of taking off his shoes and socks and walking across his cell and kneeling and kissing the priest’s [confessor’s] feet’. A.M. Sullivan, Casement’s defence lawyer, sent the Bureau a statement in which he maintained that Casement brought up the subject of his ‘Black Diaries’, which were being used at the time to discredit him: ‘he was very nervous about it, and in spite of my efforts to avoid the subject, he intruded the observation that the matters recorded in the diary were inseparable from the manifestation of distinguished genius’.


The witness statements invite reflection on the extent to which the independence struggle was under effective central control. Patrick Cannon, a volunteer in west Mayo, testified that ‘we had no information about the enemy and just anticipated that some such would pass that way some time during the day … we had no arms at the time’. In east Mayo, Patrick Cassidy recounted, he and his colleagues were ill-equipped: ‘we got no rifles of any sort. We had one old Martini rifle and a large sporting type rifle for which we had no ammunition … we did not appreciate then the importance of intelligence and did not give this subject the value it deserved.’ These are among the many statements that, far from being triumphalist or boastful, were frank about the shortcomings of the IRA’s campaign. But it is clear that other volunteers were relatively well armed and had access to more information; indeed, there is a multitude of statements from those involved in intelligence work of various kinds. The lengthy statement by Ned Broy, Michael Collins’s spy in Dublin Castle, is irksome and exaggerated. It recounts long conversations and incidents in great detail with a tone of hero-worship that borders on the homoerotic, leaving this reader wishing Broy would just kiss Collins and be done with it.

A particularly interesting statement was contributed by James O’Donovan, a university student of chemistry and Director of Chemicals on the IRA’s GHQ staff, who detailed the tests and research he carried out in UCD using gelignite, nitro-cresylic acids and poison gas. He refers to the importance of an awareness of ‘bacteriological warfare’, not a phrase one normally associates with the War of Independence, and suggests that the IRA at one stage considered the possibilities of infecting British military horses with ‘glanders or some similar infectious disease’ and of spreading botulism. O’Donovan wrote with great passion and pride about his work, relishing the memory of ‘getting a beautiful grenade turned out in a week – a vast improvement on anything that had been done in the way of moulding the wall with its sectional grooves. I always maintained that our final grenade was really superior to the Mills.’

The whole problem with me, if I was going to produce explosives more or less on an army scale, was that they had to be made so simple that men with practically no knowledge could make them in a farmhouse kitchen and places like that. Yet, they had to be fairly foolproof, because we could not have people all over the country having their heads blown off. We had some accidents, but not many.

A number of statements describe in detail, sometimes with suspicious exactitude, the specifics of ambushes and confrontations, and the carrying out of the sometimes chilling orders volunteers were given. Daniel Cashman, a member of the East Cork Flying Column, recorded that ‘In the middle of May 1921, an order was received from Brigade headquarters that all British military personnel in uniform should be shot at sight whether they were armed or unarmed’. It is not difficult to imagine the effect this must have had on young terrified British soldiers who, in going out on patrol against a guerrilla army who could strike and disappear quickly, were such vulnerable targets. Sometimes they were killed by IRA soldiers who had been trained by their own former British army colleagues. Daniel Cashman remembered ‘an ex British army man who had been recently demobbed and had joined … he was reported to be a crackshot with a rifle and, for that reason, he was stationed at a point about 50 yards on the east of the tree giving him a clear view of the approaching enemy lorries. His job was to shoot the drivers of the lorries.’

In the first of his two statements, William Cosgrave talked about the significance of the ‘loss of civil control’ by the British government in Ireland. As Minister for Local Government in the underground Dáil Éireann, he managed to achieve much with a staff of just sixty-five, one quarter of the number of officials in the British local-government board for Ireland. He recounted how on one occasion ‘the chairman of an important County Council walked freely through the city of Dublin with £50,000 on his person’. But he also pointed out that many local public representatives paid with their lives – ‘two lord mayors of Cork were done to death, one outside his own home; one mayor of Limerick, two members of the Limerick Corporation and the chairman of the Limerick County Council’. Another symptom of the loss of civil control was the operation of the Sinn Féin courts, which worked effectively in some areas, though the judges were sometimes unconventional. Conor Maguire, later Chief Justice of the Irish Free State, submitted a statement concerning his work in connection with the republican courts in 1920–1 in Mayo, where land agitation led to the courts considering claims between owners and landless men, thereby assuming a jurisdiction for which there was no counterpart in the British system. He described one incident that

took place at the close of one sitting of Kevin O’Shiel’s court in an out-of-the-way deserted mansion on the edge of a bog. Michael Maguire, who was chief of the IRA police, presided at a courtmartial on a prisoner who had been held for some days. He was a young man who looked to be frightened out of his wits. The charge against him was that he had pretended to be an IRA policemen and in that capacity had ordered all the public houses in Multyfarnham to close one evening about 3 hours before closing time. He pleaded guilty and received a sharp lecture from Michael Maguire who fined him £1 and let him go. I well remember the look of relief on the prisoner’s face as he left. We then had an unexpected treat in the form of a recital of Gilbert and Sullivan songs by Michael Maguire who had a very fine tenor voice.


The Bureau’s collection of original documents dating from the period 1913–21, which have not been consulted in any detail for the purposes of this essay, replicate some material already in existence; and, as was recognized by the Bureau in 1947, ‘because of the circumstances of the time, and of the conditions under which the military organisations operated, the amount of original documentary material was of necessity, very restricted’. Nonetheless there is undoubtedly a significant amount of new material here also. Particularly bulky collections were deposited by, or concern, Sean T. O’Kelly, Helena Moloney, Monsignor M. Curran, Simon Donnelly, Robert Barton, Charles Gavan Duffy and Kathleen Clarke, and will be essential reading not just in the compilation of general histories of this period, but also to biographers of any of these individuals and their associates. The papers of Charles Gavan Duffy, for example, contain material concerning Eoin MacNeill and Roger Casement, legal papers relating to Irish prisoners, British military orders, personal narratives of 1916, the office of the Irish envoy in Paris from 1919–20 and the Treaty negotiations. The papers of Robert Barton, a member of the delegation that negotiated the Treaty, contain information on crucial meetings of Dáil Éireann during the War of Independence.

Denis Gwynn, in contributing to the flurry of correspondence in March 1958 about what should happen to the Bureau material, wrote that his impression was ‘that the Bureau has accumulated a vast mass of documents and letters which nobody will ever have the time or even the desire, to read in detail. In fifty years’ time most of it will have lost all serious interest.’ But there is much of value in the collection, whether one is interested in particular individuals, regional histories or the social history of the period. F.X. Martin in 1967, while criticizing the government’s withholding of the Bureau’s material, also maintained that ‘the work of the Bureau deserves warm praise. The material gathered twenty years ago has proved to be a gilt-edged investment, increasing in value with the passage of the years … as memories grow dim and the veterans of the national struggle pass away.’ The ‘miser’s hoard’ may yet produce considerable riches in the writing of the history of the Irish revolution.


The witness statements collected by the Bureau of Military History are held in the Military Archives at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines, Dublin, with duplicates in the National Archives, Bishop Street, Dublin. There is a central index. The original documents are also indexed in detail, but these can only be consulted in the Military Archives. Correspondence files concerning the administration of the Bureau are also held there. In preparing this essay I also consulted central government files in the National Archives (Department of the Taoiseach S13081). Robert Dudley Edwards’s papers are held in the Archives Department of University College Dublin (LA 22 (333–9)). Special thanks to Commandant Victor Laing, Director of the Military Archives, Commandant Peter Young, late Director of the Military Archives, Commandant Pat Brennan, Staff Officer of the Military Archives, Catriona Crowe of the National Archives, and the Archives Department, UCD, for their help in preparing this essay.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 12 Autumn 2003