Tuesday 20 August 2019

'If you think you've ties to 1916, now is the time to find them'

Family history expert Brian Donovan tells Ronan Abayawickrema that the release of historical records presents the best opportunity yet to find out what your ancestors were doing in 1916 - though it might not be what you thought

Records: Family history expert Brian Donovan. Pic:Mark Condren
Records: Family history expert Brian Donovan. Pic:Mark Condren

Ronan Abayawickrema

In Easter week 1916, as the Rising raged throughout Dublin, James O'Shea was commanding rebels defending a trench in Dawson Street. The Drumcondra man, a member of the Irish Citizen Army, was in the thick of the fighting, coming under machine gun fire as the men in the trench repelled a British attack.

O'Shea, who also defended Liberty Hall and the Royal College of Surgeons during the uprising, surrendered on April 31, and was sent to Frongoch internment camp in Wales.

We know about O'Shea's service during the Rising in great detail because he applied for a military pension in 1935. Not yet 10-years-old, the Free State was "basically bankrupt", so the application process for a pension for service in the independence struggle period (1913-1921) was stringent, says Brian Donovan, CEO of family history research firm Eneclann.

Initially, pensions were only available to men who had been on the "winning side" of the Civil War, but by 1935 the criteria had been widened to include women and those on the anti-treaty side.

To qualify for a pension, O'Shea had to prove he saw action in the period in question, providing as much detail as possible, and furnish the names of three referees as well as a testimonial from one of his officers commanding to back his claims.

The military pension records represent a treasure trove for anyone wishing to research their family's history during the 1916 or War of Independence periods. And if you already have a starting point - for example, a mention of a relative in long-available records such as the Bureau of Military History testimonies from veterans compiled in the 1940s and 50s - you can then seek to cross-check this against the pension records.

"Pensions were highly contentious, and so they generated a lot of paper," says Brian, who is also the Irish records expert for findmypast.ie. "So these (records) are very useful in terms of really trying to work out what was going on."

Two tranches of pension records were released on the military archives website, militaryarchives.ie, last year, covering some 4-5,000 applications, but there is much more to come.

"There was a total of some 300,000 applications for pensions and medals, most of which were unsuccessful, but which still include an enormous amount of interesting information."

However, Brian notes that since less than 2,000 people were directly involved on the rebel side in the 1916 Rising, you're more likely to find mention of your ancestors in the British state's records of the security crackdown in the years following the rebellion.

The police and army records, which will be released online by findmypast.ie next year, show how the state's response to the uprising played just as much a part as the executions of the rebel leaders in turning public opinion against the status quo.

"The vast majority of people (whose houses) were raided were not involved (in rebel activities)," says Brian, "but they had their door bust in, they had troops in their house, they had their kids screaming in the middle of the night with men with guns in the house."

And the state's definition of what was a subversive organisation was a very broad one. In a list of groups under surveillance compiled by the RIC in Clare in 1918, you'll find the names you'd expect to see, such as the Irish Volunteers and Sinn Féin, and some you might not, including the Trades Council, National Union of Railway Men, Ancient Order of Hibernians and National Irish Foresters.

Such heavy-handed policing pushed already marginalised communities into the arms of the rebels, says Brian.

The security reports do not make for easy reading, as they detail the increasingly regular violence throughout the country from the end of the Rising until the birth of the Free State. One police report from Limerick city, for February 2, 1920, notes: "military and police patrols were fired on... 1 (sergeant) was wounded. Police returned fired - 1 civilian killed, 1 wounded."

"Wars aren't pleasant," says Brian, "and the records reflect that." Brian says he hopes the centenary of the 1916 Rising will prompt people to "engage with the evidence of what happened, rather than the stories and propaganda ... there was a lot of myth making - on both sides."

And he cautions that anyone researching their family's history in this period should keep an open mind, as the reality of what happened can sometimes be at odds with family stories.

He cites the example of an elderly American woman who asked Eneclann to research her Irish roots in the 1990s.

An IRA sympathiser and contributor to NORAID, she wanted to find out more about her grandfather, who she thought had fled Donegal during the War of Independence.

But Eneclann's research revealed that he had, in fact, been an RIC sergeant, who moved to the USA after the force had been disbanded and "reinvented himself" there.

Yet she was not as upset as you might think, says Brian. "She was very emotional, not because he was on a different side, but because we had (found) his handwriting (in his RIC notebook), it was something of him."

And the huge number of records that will be published next year will give many more people a chance to find a tangible connection to an ancestor who lived through the Easter Rising or War of Independence.

"A lot of the questions you've asked yourself will be answered - but maybe not in the way you think."

To do your own research, log onto ee findmypast.ie and eneclann.ie for more information

3 steps to researching your links to 1916

1. Begin by looking at the records on the military archives website, militaryarchives.ie, to see if there is any mention of your ancestors in the Bureau of Military History, military pension or medal files.

2. Read a good book about the period to get a clear idea of what happened. Brian recommends Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion by Charles Townshend, but says there are a number of other good titles on this period.

3. Research widely - there is a vast amount of information on both public and paid-for websites. Look at a variety of records as well as contemporary newspapers (available on irishnewsarchive.com and findmypast.ie). Brian says "expect the unexpected."

Irish Independent

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