Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tuesday's Tips: 'Granny was in the IRA': Turning a story into a history.

With the recent relaunch of the Bureau of Military History website, I thought it was time to once again post this Tuesday's Tips, with some new edits.

If you have family members who fought in the Irish War of Independence and/or the Irish Civil War, then you will want to visit the Bureau's new website. Online access through the Bureau now includes the opportunity to read and download the over seventeen hundred witness statements made by some of those Irish citizens who fought in the Irish War of Independence and/or the Irish Civil War. The site also includes a search feature so that you may just plug in the name of the individual for whom you are searching and the witness statements in which his/her name is mentioned will be displayed.

As we march toward 2016, and the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, more documents of this nature will be scheduled for release. It will mean unprecedented access to documentary evidence of the history of family members and friends who participated in these landmark events in the history of Ireland. For many it will finally mean having evidence to support a long held family story.

The Irish Oral Tradition is one with a long and important history. As is the case with people from many backgrounds, it is the oral tradition which kept stories alive under the oppressive rule of a brutal colonizer who could destroy records, but could not control the stories alive on the tongues, and in the hearts and minds, of those they dominated. For many of us who have Irish ancestors, it is the oral tradition which has kept our family stories alive, and has inspired us to journey down the road of family history.

Now, as we seek to preserve those stories, we may discover that when the Irish Oral Tradition meets Irish History parts of those stories may not be strictly accurate. Some family historians prefer to accept all the details as fact, and don't view the stories with a skeptical eye, even when things don’t quite add up. To them I must pose the question, “Are we interested in learning the history of our ancestors’ lives, or in simply sharing myths created about them long after they turned to dust?”

Often, I receive emails from people whose ancestors shared the same Irish military history as mine, as well as from people whose stories sound a little sketchy. The sketchy stories usually feature ancestral heroics during the Easter Rising or the Irish War of Independence, with some details which sound implausible, and others which are downright impossible.

The thing is, if your ancestor served in any of the forces which worked to free Ireland from British rule, there may be records available to support the facts of their service. You just have to know where to find them. Even if you discover that your ancestor was not the hero of the hour, that doesn’t mean the history of the day didn’t impact your family in a significant way.

What a 'well read' Cumann na mBan gun-runner girl might have carried.
Finding your ancestor in early 20th century Irish military history

Do you have a direct ancestor who served in the Irish Volunteers during the Easter Rising or the Irish War of Independence, or was a member of the Free State Army during the Irish Civil War, and he/she applied for a pension?

If so, then in addition to accessing the materials on the Bureau of Military History website, you may wish to request a copy of the record of service for your family member. Extant records, which are currently free of charge, are available through the Veteran's Allowance Section of the Irish Department of Defence. This office also accesses information from The Medals Files, and will provide to you the details of any medals awarded to your kin for service from 1916 to 1922.

A few things about this:

1} The Irish War of Independence is also referred to as the 'Anglo-Irish War', 'The Black & Tan War', and even 'The Tan War'. One war, several names. If you’ve heard that Granny was a gun-runner in the Anglo-Irish War, then it means she served during the Irish War of Independence, 1919-1921.

2} If your ancestor was killed in action while serving, a pension record may still exist, as long as his/her next of kin applied for a survivor's pension.

3} You must be able to prove to the Veteran’s Allowance Section that you are next of kin to the person about whom you are requesting information.  You must provide a copy of your birth certificate, and the birth certificates of other persons (father, grandfather, etc.) in the particular family line in order to prove your lineage. (**see note below)

4} Assuming a record exists, it may take up to a year for you to receive it. (Speaking from personal experience.)

5} In your letter of application provide as much information as possible about your ancestor, including such details as their full name, address during the time in question. If you know the details of their battalion, company and rank, be sure to include those as well.

6} Currently, you cannot submit an online request, but must write an actual letter to the office, being sure to include proof of kin documents. Provide all possible means of contact for you, including email, snail mail, and telephone number.

Their full mailing address is:

Veterans Allowance Section
Department of Defence (DOD)
Renmore, Galway

You will also want to visit the website of the National Archives UK. Although many records were destroyed when the British turned over Dublin Castle to the Irish Free State, NA UK holds materials from 1916. It is interesting to note that while the Easter Rising appears in the subject listing, the Irish War of Independence does not appear; however, materials about the the war can be found with a little looking around. Some Dublin Castle records, for example, are in the records of the Colonial Office and the records of the War Office (in the catalogue such records begin with CO and WO, respectively). There is also information about conflict in Ireland in the Cabinet Papers. While many documents can only be viewed in person at the archives, some of these materials can be accessed online, and copies of some materials may also be purchased.

Pension records for many of those who participated in the 1916 Easter Rising are now freely available through the Bureau of Military History Archives website: Military Service Pensions Collections 

Those pension records which are currently available only to next of kin are scheduled for release. The plan is for all pension records to be to public access by 2016, although not everyone who has a say in the matter is onboard with this plan, so whether or not it comes to pass remains to be see. 

Click on images to view larger version.

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