Analysis

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Eoghan Harris: Archives hold both happy memories and hard truths

Eoghan Harris

Published 06/01/2013 | 05:00

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Last week, the Irish Daily Mail reported that RTE had 41 staff working on its archives. Normally I would have reacted with rage. But my first thought was to wonder if they had sufficient staff.

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Archives are the nuts and bolts of national memory. What a family album is to a family. Without an album we can still remember, but we lack the proof of a photograph.

But opening a national archive can be as fraught as opening a family album. Even after many years we can be surprised at the emotions they arouse. As the American novelist Ethan Cannin says: "Time is the thinnest bandage for our wounds."

This was true of three fine documentaries I saw in recent months: RTE's A Lost Son, TG4's Glaoch On Triu Reich (A Call from the Third Reich) and An Oiche Ar Gineadh m'Athair (The Night my Father was Conceived). As I have written about A Lost Son I will confine myself to the last two.

The background to Glaoch On Triu Reich was the Nazi broadcasts in Irish during World War Two. The hero – there is no other word – of the film was Arndt Wigger, a middle-aged German academic and a fluent Irish speaker from Hamburg in Germany. The film followed his moral mission: to make his mind easy about the true allegiances of his beloved late Professor Hans Hartmann, head of the Department of Celtic Studies in the Humboldt University in Berlin.

In the late Thirties Hartmann visited Ireland and spent time in Gaeltachts. During World War Two he made many broadcasts to Ireland in Irish. But Wigger was nearly sure that Hartmann was not a Nazi. Nevertheless he was still consumed by a nagging question: Back in 1937, when Hartmann's field was Iranian studies, why had he suddenly been given a Nazi scholarship to go to the west of Ireland to study Irish language and folklore?

Dr Sabine Asmus, of the Department of Celtic Studies at Humboldt, told Wigger she was sceptical about Hartmann's sudden interest in Irish linguistics and folklore. Linguistics was most likely "for military espionage" and the folkore and mythology was linked to the race theories.

Wigger was crestfallen. He asked Dr Asmus to dig a little deeper. Then he went to Ireland to talk to people who had met Hartmann during his second trip in 1964. Tomas O Mainnin and Treasa Ni Chonaire of Rosmuc gave him some hard facts about local attitudes to Hartmann's possible Nazi past.

Treasa said: "I don't think it would have bothered them. Germany was so far away, it was like another world."

Tomas added: "You could argue that at the time we were sort of on Germany's side.''

Professor Gearoid MacEoin, who had also met Hartmann, told a relieved Wigger that he did not believe that Hartmann was a Nazi. And he confirmed Tomas O Mainnin's views about Irish attitudes to Nazi Germany.

"At that time I would say about two-thirds of the people supported the English. That wasn't the position in our house of course. We supported the Germans. You see my father was a volunteer during the Easter Rising in 1916 and he would talk about how the Germans had sent us 20,000 rifles and one million bullets at that time."

But Captain Stephen MacEoin of the Military Archives at Cathal Brugha Barracks had mixed news for Wigger. Irish Military Intelligence had indeed been interested in Hartmann who had consorted with Dublin Nazis. But there was no hard proof that he was an active Nazi agent.

Wigger clutched hard at this straw. "I always felt he wasn't a Nazi." But he spoke too soon. Back in Berlin, Dr Asmus had been busy in the archives. She had devastating news for Wigger. Hartmann had joined the Nazi Party before 1933. "Hartmann joined the Nazi Party long before it would have been profitable for his career. So we can say he identified with the party's ideology, approved of it and he tried to get a foot in the party from early on."

Wigger struggled with this. Could his beloved professor have been confused with another Hartmann? Dr Asmus shakes her head: "No, these entries all refer to the same Hans Hartmann. We can check this against the state archive."

This was the archive as hurt locker. Wigger had finally found the truth. But not what he had hoped to find. "It scares me to know that someone can hide their true self like that."

* * *

An Oiche Ar Gineadh m'Athair was a happier journey through the archives. Paddy Breathnach's film followed his 82-year-old father Diarmuid Breathnach in a search for his father Patrick Walsh, who died at the early age of 49, in June 1939, when Diarmuid was only eight.

Patrick packed a lot into his short life. He was born in 1890 in Camus, Co Tipperary. Like Michael Collins, he got a post in the GPO. Like Collins too, when transferred to London, he was drawn into the rich culture of the Irish Renaissance in that city.

Back in Dublin, Patrick became a moving spirit of the Keating Branch of the Gaelic League. His colleagues included Richard Mulcahy, Thomas Ash and Michael Collins. This elite branch was one of the engines of the resistance. In 1922 the British handed over their principal barracks. The five Free State officers who received them had all been members of the Keating Branch.

But on August 20, 1914, Patrick Walsh did something surprising. Two weeks earlier, John Redmond had called for a joint force, north and south, to defend Ireland. On August 20, the Irish National Volunteers supported his call. Later that day, Patrick Walsh joined the British Army.

He did so from the highest motives. He believed he would soon be fighting alongside Irishmen of all persuasions. But the day after he signed up, he was betrayed by Kitchener who turned down Redmond's offer.

Somehow, Patrick survived the horrors of Gallipoli, was hospitalised home, deserted the army, fought with the IRA in Tipperary and took the Republican side in the Civil War. Like most Republicans he then lived in penury, eking out a bare existence as a travelling teacher of Irish and writing articles for the Nenagh Guardian.

In 1927 he paused in his travels to marry Maggie Purcell. But this bruised survivor was soon wandering again. Luckily a chance meeting with his wife led to a reunion and the conception of Diarmuid. Old comrades finally found him a civil service post. He settled down with his family for a few brief happy years before he died.

During this time he took "little Diarmuid" on a trip to Camus. As the train crossed into Tipperary he asked his son to agree that the grass had turned greener. As I watched Diarmuid, now 82 years old, recall that trip, the words of Philip Larkin came to mind: "What will survive of us is love." And maybe a bit more, thanks to our archives.

Sunday Independent

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