British army records relating to the 1916 rising and the War of Independence have been opened to the world in one of the most ambitious online projects for family researchers and historians.
By Niall Murray, Irish Examiner
The 75,000 records uploaded to family history website – findmypast.ie – can be searched and browsed for free from yesterday until next Tuesday, April 26.
Coinciding with the looming centenary dates of the Rising – which began 100 years ago next Sunday – the records have been digitised from War Office files at the British National Archives in Kew.
For no charge over the next eight days, it is possible to view some of the most sensitive documents showing how army figures recorded and reported events in Ireland. They include records of how court martials proceeded, among the daily situation reports being sent back and forth between Dublin and London.
Eye-witness accounts, interviews with civilians and reports of the Rising leaders’ trials and sentences of execution can also be seen.
“This represents a major contribution and potentially a vast step forward for public understanding of these events from all points of view,” said Neil Cobbett, Irish records expert at the National Archives.
“Whether you are a researcher seeking answers to some of the bigger questions, or a family historian or biographer, this collection will help you in your historical research, or in finding out about your forbear’s or other participant’s involvement,” he said.
Beyond the Rising, the records now available on the website continue up to the War of Independence and subsequent Truce period to the end of 1921. There are 25,000 records of searches and raids of homes and properties, showing the efforts of military and police to discover arms, ammunition and seditious material, as well as suspected associates of the Irish Volunteers, IRA, Irish Citizen Army and Sinn Fein.
“It’s interesting how the security forces in Ireland, through their actions in this period, turned a once-neutral population into the hands of the rebels. These records show just how those actions were documented by the army at the time,” said Brian Donovan, head of Irish records at findmypast.
While most of these once-classified documents have been available by visiting the National Archives, they have been scanned, digitized and catalogued over a long period to make them accessible from homes and offices across Ireland and the globe. After the 10-day free access period ends, they will be available to Findmypast subscribers to its Irish collections through a range of pricing structures.
Among the documents now readily viewable are records detailing the outcome of the 1917 court martial of Thomas Ashe, who was a key leader in the Battle of Ashbourne in Co Meath, one of the few action spots outside Dublin during the Rising. His death following hunger strike while in custody – alleged to have been the result of force feeding – and the subsequent funeral, proved a major turning point for the post-1916 re-organisation of the Irish Volunteers.
The entry in the court martial register, has a note at the bottom of the page in red pen: “Ashe participated in Hunger Strike which commenced in Mountjoy Prison on 15-9-’17 and was admitted to the Mater Hospital on evening of 25th Sept 1917, in a weak condition consequent on refusal to partake of food. He died on evening of admission.”
Other files show correspondence relating to the proposed suppression of the Cork Free Press newspaper in 1916 for the tone of its articles. After the lieutenant colonel fulfilling role of Press Censor brought a September 1916 issue of politician William O’Brien’s publication to his attention, General John Maxwell wrote to the Chief Secretary.
“I confess I see no improvement in tone. The leading article is distinctly seditious, and so is the whole tone of the paper. The object seems to be to support the Sinn Fein movement against the nationalists,” the General Officer Commanding British forces in Ireland wrote.
But after consideration of the issue, warrants to seize the print machinery of the paper were withdrawn.
Reports of a dispute between local young men and soldiers in Ballincollig, Co Cork in January 1917 also drew the attention of military authorities. Writing to army headquarters, the Press Censor explained how he perceived matters.
“It appears that the affair was most trivial and that it arose from the fact that some girls are in the habit of accompanying soldiers in the streets who had been previously consorting with Sinn Feiners who were interned. Now that the latter have been released they resent the transfer of the ladies’ favours.”