FOCUS ON: IRISH MILITARY RECORDS
In his WDYTYA? episode, Boy George traced his ancestors to the Irish Revolutionary War. Here the show’s Irish expert Nicola Morris explains how you can do the same
The Irish expert of WDYTYA? explains how you can trace your ancestors to the Irish Revolutionary War, as Boy George does in the latest series
With cobbled-together uniforms and wooden guns, they mobilised, marched and were trained
As Ireland continues to commemorate the centenary of the revolutionary period, a wealth of records documenting the men and women who fought for Irish independence have been made available by the Irish Military Archives for family historians investigating their revolutionary ancestors.
The Irish Volunteers were formed in November 1913 to counter the threat posed by the recently mobilised Ulster Volunteers, who were committed to resisting the introduction of Home Rule – by force, if necessary. Companies of Irish Volunteers were organised in parishes across Ireland. With cobbled-together uniforms and wooden guns, they mobilised, marched and were trained, often by Irishmen who had served in the British Army.
At the outbreak of the First World War the Irish Volunteer movement split, the majority responding to a call to join up and help England in her hour of need. The minority who remained were closely aligned with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society created in the 19th century who planned the 1916 Easter Rising. Although the Rising was not widely supported, public outrage at the subsequent execution of its leaders increased support for the Republican movement.
After the victory of Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election and the formation of the first Irish Parliament (the Dáil), the ranks of the Irish Volunteers were filled once again. With the first shots of the Irish War of Independence in 1919 the Volunteers mobilised and became the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who fought a guerrilla war against British forces in Ireland until the truce of July 1921.
Although the Irish Volunteers and IRA mimicked the British
Army in organisation, they did not create the records of a traditional armed force. Bearing in mind that for the duration the activities of the Volunteers and IRA were secret, few records were kept that might identify the membership. There were no enlistment papers or contemporary records of serving soldiers. Volunteers were issued with a membership card, but very few of these survive and they hold little useful information anyway. The majority of the records that document the men and women who were active during the period were created years later from people’s memories, and may not accurately reflect the facts.
Support for soldiers
From 1923 the newly formed Irish Free State provided compensation for the wounded and for the families of deceased members of the IRA, Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army. In 1924 legislation was introduced to provide a Military Service Pension to members of those organisations who saw active service between 1916 and 1923. The legislation was amended in 1934 to increase the scope of these awards, and it is from this era that we find the largest collection of material relating to men and women active in the revolutionary period.
In order to confirm that a pension applicant had actually seen active service, the authorities requested that former commanding officers generate a list of the men and women who served in their battalion, identifying them by each battalion company. These are known as the IRA Nominal Rolls and are available to download from the website of the Irish Military Archives ( militaryarchives.ie). The
lists are not complete, but those that do survive may be the only record of a rank-and-file Volunteer’s service.
The records are organised geographically and can be accessed through a divisional map of Ireland at bit.ly/iranominal-rolls-map. Since most Volunteers joined the company that was established in their home parish, the first step is to establish an address for the Volunteer in the second decade of the 20th century. The easiest way to do this is with the 1911 census, which is also freely available online ( census. nationalarchives.ie/search).
The address should lead you to the division, brigade, battalion and company that served the area in which your ancestor lived. For example, a Volunteer from Bantry in Co Cork should be found in the 1st Southern Division, Cork III Brigade, Bantry Battalion. Each battalion was divided into companies, and the Nominal Rolls include lists of the men and women who served in each company, as recalled by the commanding officer. Unfortunately, these lists have not been indexed, so a manual search of the documentation for the relevant battalion is required.
Identifying an ancestor on the Nominal Rolls will identify the company and battalion that they served in, as well as their commanding officers and fellow Volunteers. Rather than a regimental number, it is this information that will help to build a picture of your ancestor’s time as a Volunteer.
Note that pensions were not automatically granted – the Volunteer was required to make an application, and not every active Volunteer applied. A relative may have applied for a pension or a medal on their behalf, as was the case with the family of Thomas Bryan, who Boy George discovered was executed in 1921. The records of those who did apply for a pension, or a medal, have also been published online by the Irish Military Archives. It is possible to search this collection by name and download the entire application at bit.ly/irish-applications.
Some applications run to hundreds of pages and include letters of support, queries regarding the amount granted and receipts for expenses as well as personal testimony from the applicant and a completed application form detailing their entire service between 1916 and 1923, making these documents a gold mine of information. However, even if your ancestor did not apply, applications from other Volunteers in their company will provide insight into your relative’s activities.
Alongside the Nominal Rolls and Military Service Pension applications, the third record set published by the Irish Military Archives is the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements, which were gathered by the Bureau from the late 1940s. Participants in the revolutionary period were asked to write an
The 1,773 witness statements have been digitised and published online. They can be vivid and often hair-raising
account of their experiences from 1913 to 1923, on the understanding that their accounts would not be released until after their deaths, to encourage them to be as frank as possible.
These 1,773 witness statements have been digitised and published online and can be searched for any term, such as a surname or place name: bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/ index.html. The statements can be vivid, sometimes amusing and often hair-raising accounts by participants in the establishment of the Irish Volunteers, the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. Even if your ancestor did not write a statement themselves, he or she may be mentioned by one of their fellow Volunteers or commanding officers.
There are also plenty of published local histories, websites and forums where genealogists and historians have gathered information relating to the revolutionary period in a specific area. However, it is always a good idea to try to verify the source of the information published.
Later in the century, obituaries in local papers often refer to a former Volunteer’s Republican activities, and may identify the company in which they served. A large number of 20th-century Irish newspapers can be searched online at irish newsarchive. com; you will also find contemporary reports about the arrest and internment of Volunteers, as well as accounts of ambushes and skirmishes.
A journey into these records is not always easy – you may read testimony that makes you shudder. But the publication of these sources online has made us all historians of Ireland’s revolutionary past, with an opportunity to discover and tell the story of our ancestor’s role and experience in the fight for Irish independence.
General Richard Mulcahy, the minister for defence, inspects Free State soldiers at Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin, 2 February 1922
The General Post Office in Dublin was a revolutionary stronghold during the Easter Rising
Michael Collins speaks at a public meeting in College Green, Dublin, following the launch of the Free State