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Saturday 16 December 2017

Online treasure trove brings volunteers' first-hand experience of 1916 Rising to life

Cormac Murphy

A TREASURE trove of information on thousands of veterans of the 1916 Easter Rising is now publicly available.

The documents contain a wealth of first-hand accounts, shedding fresh light on Ireland's struggle for independence.

A new online database allows people to view over 10,000 files relating to 3,200 individuals who were granted a military service pension by the State. Some 2,400 were 1916 veterans.

The previously confidential papers, part of the Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection, are the first of three tranches being released over the coming months.

Many of the files include detailed accounts of involvement in 1916, participation in the War of Independence and in the Civil War that followed.

In the cases of the executed leaders of the Rising and the many others who died in the fighting, the applications were made by dependents.

Getting ready for the launch of the online Military service pensions collection (MSPC).
Photo: Mark Condren
Getting ready for the launch of the online Military service pensions collection (MSPC). Photo: Mark Condren
Comdt Padraic Kennedy, officer in charge of Military archives getting ready for the launch of the online Military service pensions collection (MSPC). Photo: Mark Condren

One such dependent was Nora Connolly O'Brien -- daughter of 1916 leader James Connolly -- who had been an active member of the women's republican organisation Cumann na mBan.

The files show the difficulty she experienced in securing payments from the Military Services Pensions Board, which adjudicated on the applications.

In a letter to the board on Nora's behalf, Kathleen Clarke, widow of Proclamation signatory Tom Clarke, said Nora's husband Seamus was "idle through no fault of his own and they have nothing. It is an awful position for James Connolly's daughter."

The case of Margaret Skinnider, a member of the Irish Citizen Army in 1916, is also in the documents. She was seriously wounded on the night of April 26, 1916, on Harcourt Street.

Her initial application for a 'wound' pension was refused on the grounds that the Army Pensions Act was deemed applicable only "to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense". However, she was later granted the payments.

The files on Denis 'Sonny' O'Neill, the reputed assassin of Michael Collins at Beal na mBlath in 1922, have been described as "really, really good" but will not be available for a number of months. "As well as bringing the era to life for a new generation, this online archive will provide a great resource for those already interested in the period," said Taoiseach Enda Kenny at last night's launch at the GPO.

Defence Minister Alan Shatter added: "The release of these records will transform the scholarship of the period and provide Irish people at home and abroad with fascinating and copious information about their ancestors who played a part in the establishment of independent Ireland."

Academics believe the files will prove hugely important.

"They are enormously significant for what they tell us about the people who were involved in the independence struggle," said Eunan O'Halpin, professor of contemporary Irish History at Trinity College.

He advised the project, along with Professor Charles Townshend and Professor Diarmaid Ferriter.

Not all of the accounts are heroic, but many give a "moving" insight into the sense of regret felt by some volunteers, said Prof O'Halpin.

He cited papers detailing the killing of John Harrison, a Protestant farmer in Co Leitrim, who was shot dead by IRA members in 1921.

"It's clear that almost everybody (involved) regretted this killing," Prof O'Halpin told the Irish Independent.

Available at, the entire collection numbers almost 300,000 application files for pensions, allowances and medals, as well as various supporting documentation.

Irish Independent

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