Film: Hidden stories of a generation from the Irish Military Pension Archive
When the Irish Military Pension Archive was made public last year, historian Diarmaid Ferriter was excited.
"As long as I've been a historian," he tells me, "which is over 20 years now, there's been talk of this big archive that we would one day get to see. But for a long time there was no agreement as to when it would be appropriate for the archive to be opened, so to see it opened is a massive thing. I mean we refer to it as the biggest piece of the jigsaw relating to that period in terms of archives, you know - it's just so massive."
In the 1920s, the Free State government introduced a pension system for combatants who could prove they'd fought in the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence or Civil War. Applying for one involved filling in forms, writing letters, providing witness testimonies and so forth: more than 85,000 people applied, but only 18,000 got any money.
All those testimonies reside in the Military Pension Archive, and provide a compelling insight into the hierarchy of the new state, and the hardship and trauma combatants endured once the guns fell silent.
Those stories form the basis of Keepers of the Flame, the fascinating documentary conceived by Ferriter and created by himself and film-maker Nuala O'Connor. In it, we look beyond the monolithic versions of the early 20th-century Irish history we learned in school to the real experiences of ordinary people who lived through those turbulent times.
"Over the last couple of decades we've spent a lot of time looking at the period through the lens of very well-known characters like de Valera or Collins," Ferriter explains, "so to get that sense of what it was like to be involved on the ground is priceless. You just get a much greater sense of the grass-roots participation, but also I suppose all the disappointment that existed, because one of the striking things is that most people who applied for those pensions didn't get them, but they still had to fill out all their forms and get their testimonies and their references.
"There's almost 300,000 files in the archive, so it's not just about what they did during the revolutionary period, it's also giving us a sense of what situation they found themselves in afterwards, and there's desperate suffering and poverty there.
"Myself and Nuala O'Connor had worked together before on a three-part history of the 20th century, and one of the strong themes that came through that history was that, okay, there were promises of the revolutionary generation and then there's the reality that comes afterwards. We always wanted to explore that in more detail, and one of the crucial points I wanted to make is this is a national archive, it belongs to all of us, it's not for academics, it's not the preserve of specialists, it's ours, and people need to know about it.
"Given that we're going to be confronted over the next few years with some of these difficult questions about how the state came into being, and with the legacy of the Civil War, we need to start airing these things, we need to confront the difficult stuff in particular, and just try and make sense of the revolution. There's a very simple question: what was it all for? And in Keepers of the Flame, we just tried to trace that theme through human stories."
Then there are the bigger themes of memory, a nation's history, and the various claims over it.
"What are the duties to memory, who remembers, what are they remembering, and what information do they have? Those are the questions. Like I often ask myself, how do we know what we know - is it the truth, or is there any such thing? Or do we just get selective, partial versions of stories? So it's throwing that all into the mix to make it accessible to people and to get them thinking."
Though one should accept that in the 1920s and 1930s, the fledgling state didn't have a lot of money to play with, the hoops former combatants were expected to jump through in pursuit of a modest pension seem excessive. It also emerges in the course of the documentary that the playing field was not exactly level.
"A lot of nationalists of that period tried to pretend that Ireland was classless, but there's clearly people who do well out of the revolution and there's people who lose an awful lot because of it, and I suppose one of the strands running through the documentary is both the privilege and the burden of the legacy of that period, and more people are carrying a burden than are carrying privilege out of it.
"And you get right down to that detail about the material circumstances of people, exactly how much money they're trying to live on. If they were lucky enough to be given a pension, most people were awarded one at the lowest grade, which was Grade E, and if you were to translate that into today's money, you might be talking about ¤5,000 or ¤6,000. That might keep some people above water, but they were not getting rich on the back of this, and even to get that some of them had to fight battles with the state for literally decades."
As someone who has studied this period extensively, what struck Ferriter the most while reading through these fascinating accounts?
"The destitution. I knew it existed, what shocked me was the unvarnished detail. There was one particular woman, she was from Ennis. Delia Begley was her name, and she had a breakdown. She was involved in Cumann na mBan and was very active in the Republican movement, she had this breakdown and she was taken in by the Sisters of Charity in Clare. Then the head of the Sisters in Clare writes to the government and says, 'look, we have this woman here, she's destitute, she bravely fought for her country', and the killer line for me is, 'no one wanted her, not even her relatives'.
"It's just heartbreaking, and it strips it all back to the bare cruelties. It strikes me that one of the major themes of the aftermath of the revolution is actually trauma: there's an awful lot of internalised trauma, and people do have breakdowns and some people hit the bottle, others emigrate and some people just stay quiet and don't talk about it."
In Keepers of the Flame we see fascinating footage of how very differently 1916 was commemorated before the outbreak of the Troubles. In the early 1970s, the Irish government curtailed official remembrance ceremonies for the Rising, allowing Sinn Féin and others to occupy the vacuum. But by 2016, it was possible to hold an impressively mature and inclusive centenary commemoration. Remembering the War of Independence and the Civil War will inevitably be more complex.
"Oh, it's very tricky, because the question for the Civil War is how do you find a framework for commemoration. It's very, very different from 1916 where there's a general consensus that, okay, the state is going to commemorate 1916 because we regard it as the foundational moment of our republic and you can kind of unite people around that idea. You can't do that with the Civil War, you can't commemorate it in the same spirit that we did 1916, because it's still very divisive.
"The question is, are we mature enough now, 100 years on, to be able to confront a lot of the brutal realities? Seán Lemass, who was always very understated about his own involvement, and spoke about the killing of his brother, Noel at the end of the Civil War, he did an interview near the end of his career, and he was asked about the Civil War, and he actually welled up, and he just said, 'both sides did terrible things, and both sides knew it, and I prefer not to talk about it', and that was it.
"It's actually a very very good summary of precisely what happened. But we don't have that option of not talking about it now."
'Keepers of the Flame' is being shown in selected Irish cinemas