Saturday 18 November 2017

Find out what your people did during 1916

Free online access to RIC and British military records is set to transform the search for answers

Remembering: Twin sisters Ruth and Sarah Connolly from Bray, Co. Wicklow, are the great granddaughters of James Connolly. They were at the wreath-laying ceremony in The Garden of Remebrance yesterday. Photo: Tony Gavin
Remembering: Twin sisters Ruth and Sarah Connolly from Bray, Co. Wicklow, are the great granddaughters of James Connolly. They were at the wreath-laying ceremony in The Garden of Remebrance yesterday. Photo: Tony Gavin

Brian Donovan

What did my people do in 1916? Were they involved? What was life like for them?

We've all wondered about this - worried that a treasured family tale might turn out to be untrue, sometimes fearful about what we might find. It was a war after all, and there is nothing pretty about that. Death, broken lives, terror and trauma are the stuff of war.

While relatively few actually fought in 1916 or the War of Independence, and not many more were involved as supporters, members or ancillaries of the military organisations involved, the whole country felt the impact of the events. So how do we find out what our ancestors did in those days?

To start, it's worth looking at some easily available sources, plus the eye-witness commentary from the time. One of the most widely used is the Sinn Fein Rebellion Handbook, This was published by the staunchly unionist Irish Times in 1917 and documented the events of the previous year.

It was not at all sympathetic, but it is packed with names - of rebels, soldiers, police, civilians, casualties - and much more. Other key descriptions of events written at the time include the report of the American Commission and British Labour Party Commission sent to Ireland in 1921 to assess what was going on. All these items plus many other accounts are available free at

Those who fought in 1916 and during the War of Independence kept a surprisingly large body of paper records. Most of this material is held by the Military Archives in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines, and is known as the Collins Papers.

It details operational matters of the War, from mundane things such as supplies through to executions and military engagements. These files aren't indexed so make for challenging research, but they detail the extraordinary survival of a clandestine force.

More immediately fruitful are the records of the Bureau of Military History, established in 1947 to gather witness statements about 1916 and the War of Independence. There are 1,773 witness statements covering more than 30,000 pages. Most, but not all, are from the rebel side and they document their experiences in vivid detail. All are available free from

The witnesses provide extensive details about what they saw and did, their motivations, and the names of others involved. A word of warning: there's more than a little myth-making going on with some of these statements, powerful and evocative as they are.

A much more valuable record of what the rebel side did is contained in the Military Service Pension Archive, also free online at the Military Archives website. This collection is important because it is so detailed. Every applicant for a pension had to show evidence of military actions and/or imprisonment, or the death of a spouse or other family member in active service.

But the recently founded Irish Free State had limited resources - and didn't like spending them. The application forms were onerous, and required supporting letters from commanding officers, plus other documentation. However, this penny-pinching means that each file is packed full of detail.

So far around 5,000 files have been published online. But there are over 300,000 pension and medal applications, with over 80,000 claims of military service. That's a lot of information to dig through.

The Military Archives houses a great deal of other source material too, some on their website, but mostly only in person at the Archives reading room in Cathal Brugha Barracks.

There were two police forces in Ireland during this period - the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), and the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) who policed the rest of the country. Both were ill-equipped to deal with the sudden emergence of militant organisations in Ireland from 1913 onwards - and hopelessly incapable of combating the Rising and the subsequent War of Independence.

This is not to say they didn't try. The 'G' Division of the DMP and RIC Special Branch collected evidence and attempted to arrest rebels and other dissidents, and there are extensive files of their activities held in the UK National Archives in Kew.

A portion of the material - the 'Personalities files' - were published on DVD by Eneclann 10 years ago under the title Sinn Fein & Republican Suspects 1899-1921. These are files for 440 people who under surveillance. In the past week have published these images on their website too.

But the complete RIC collection with over 140,000 pages will only become easily accessible later this year when it will be published online at It consists of police reports, details about gun-running, judicial proceedings, destruction of property, seizures of seditious publications and so on.

In 1916 and for 1919-21 Ireland was under martial law. This meant that the army took charge of all civilian matters and were given extraordinary powers to search, arrest, detain and pass judgement, up to and including execution. Fortunately (for us), this also required the usual British obsession with record keeping - all of which are now in the UK National Archives.

The army files for 1916 are very informative about the suppression of the Rising. But martial law didn't come to an end until the Truce on July 11, 1921, and the vast majority of the army files relate to the post-1916 period.

They document in detail those caught up in events without any active involvement. In fact, the heavy-handed response of the military, the extensive use of martial law and the actions of the Black and Tans played a huge part in driving an otherwise neutral population into rebel arms.

The army files include raid and search reports. Under martial law, the army had the power to search and detain without a warrant. As a consequence, they carried out over 20,000 raids of premises all over Ireland, often in dead of night. Every raid required a report to be filed by the military squad involved. These are very informative including details of the occupants of the premises, the squad of soldiers, what was said and what was found.

Once arrested, a person could be detained indefinitely under the Defence of the Realm Act. The army used the regular prisons for much of this, and those prison records for the 26-county area are online at

While internment was commonplace, many of those arrested were brought to trial before an army officer in the local barracks and these courts martial trial registers survive too. Almost all these were recorded and many had accompanying files.

A selection of case files have recently been published on But this is only a very small part of the overall collection, and all of the martial law records will be released on from on April 24.

Alongside the police records and the records at the Military Archives, this will transform the search for the answers to the questions we have about our ancestors' activities during 1916 and subsequent years.

The truth is, while those who fought were small in number, the war impacted on the lives of ordinary people in many ways. Random arrests, raids by armed soldiers in the middle of the night, intimidation under cover of rebellion, death by a stray bullet - it was a traumatic time, but we are fortunate to have these records to help us make some sense of it.

Brian Donovan is CEO of Eneclann, Ireland's premier genealogy company. The 1916 issue of their 'Irish Lives Remembered' magazine is available for free download at

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