By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Hundreds of highly sensitive eyewitness accounts of who did what in the 1916 Rising and the turbulent period of the War of Independence and the lead-up to the Civil War have been cleared for publication for the first time by the cabinet.
The documents have been locked away in iron deed boxes in a strongroom in the Department of the Taoiseach for decades. Historians have been banned from seeing the material and even access to relatives has been limited.
They are expected to solve mysteries or confirm suspicions about who shot whom, when and why.
Many secrets of internecine bloodletting during the turbulent period from the founding of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913 up to the date of the Truce in July 1921 are dealt with in the files, which will be a treasure trove for researchers.
The huge volume of material involves personal letters, secret Old IRA orders and captured British intelligence documents. Statements from the "official" side of incidents, like ambushes from British army officers and RIC policemen, are also included.
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Details of incidents in every county in the Republic are dealt with and some material also reveals more limited accounts of activities in Northern Ireland and Britain.
Some of the statements also deal with incidents during the Civil War in 1922-23.
It includes 1,773 "witness" statements, 334 collections of accompanying documents and a small number of voice recordings. It lay untouched since the 1950s, taking up a whole strongroom in the Department of the Taoiseach.
It involves virtually all the leading figures of the time, many of whom later came to national prominence.
The material was collected between 1947 and 1959 by the then Bureau of Military History, which had been specially set up to collate an "authentic" history of events.
Then Taoiseach Eamon de Valera and Defense Minister Oscar Traynor established the largely forgotten bureau, mainly staffed by ex-army officers, to ensure an "oral history" of the period would be preserved before the people involved all died.
Some of the statements are highly detailed and run to several hundred pages. In many cases they will reveal for the first time who was in charge of operations, possible disagreements about them and the motivation and thinking behind why they took place.
Historians expect to have to assess the documents critically. Written 30 or 40 years after the events, they may be prone to errors of memory or to self-serving or self-protection allegations from a very bitter period in Irish history.
When the bureau closed down at the end of March 1959, the confidential material was sealed for an initial 25 years. When this expired in 1981, some of the people who made statements were still alive, so the ban on the publication was extended for another five years.
Subsequent extensions of the ban all added to the expectation about what sort of dramatic revelations might be involved.
It was a fundamental rule of the bureau from the outset that no material entrusted to it would be disclosed to anyone outside the bureau except with the consent of the witness. One person only cooperated after receiving an assurance his account would be sealed for 70 years.
It was only 11 years ago that the rules were relaxed slightly when it was decided that, at the discretion of the minister, material could be released on application by immediate relatives of the witnesses.
But even then it is understood that in many cases statements containing "serious allegations" were censored before being given out.
The collection has now been moved to the Military Archive in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines where it is being collated, indexed and catalogued before the public are given access early in January.
Archivist Commdt. Victor Laing, who is part of team assessing the huge collection, said they hoped to make as much as possible of the material available.
"If there are things of a sensitive or embarrassing nature obviously we will have to examine that in line with the archives legislation. We will have to be both sensitive to the people who are implicated and fair to the documents as well.
"The scope of the collection is outstanding because of the range of people who contributed. You name any name of any person of importance and they are included and it goes right down to people operating at local level who have their own story to tell."