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Military archives

'Volunteers were sent for the coffins': New docs reveal IRA activities during War of Independence

The Brigade Activity Files are the latest release by the Military Service Pensions Collection. / YouTube

ONE OF THE most anticipated releases from the Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC) has been published.

These archives already provide a wealth of information on Ireland’s revolutionary period and are still being added to and expanded.

The new Brigade Activity Reports (BARs) highlight in detail the activities of the IRA during the revolutionary period – from attack plans to names and addresses of those involved – and archivists are eager to make them as accessible as possible to the general public, primarily through a revamped website.

Staff from the MSPC, based in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines, Dublin, have been sifting through pension applications from former members of groups such as the IRA, Cumann na mBan, Fianna Éireann, the National Army, and the Irish Citizen Army, submitted during the 1930s.

Kil22 A list of those involved in the Kilmurry Barrack attack, January 1920 MSPC MSPC

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This has already revealed information ranging from a famous chipper’s connection to the 3rd Battalion C Company of the old IRA to 10-year-old dispatch carriers.

The nominal rolls of IRA membership across the country have also been previously published.

The files released today were assembled in the 1930s for the committee overseeing the administration of the Military Service Pensions Act, 1934. Due to the sheer volume of applications they received – some 50,000 by the end of 1935 – they requested finer details on who was involved in the revolutionary activities, where, and when.

A36 West Connemara Brigade pg2 An example of the stunning level of detail of individual attacks in the collections. MSPC MSPC

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In order to do this, former members of the IRA were asked to form committees consisting of previous brigade and battalion staff and tasked detailing operations and activities undertaken by the Irish Volunteers and the IRA.

The resulting files vary in quality of information, and archivists are eager to stress that they come with a health warning: Some provide sketchy details, some are rich in their description of individual gunfights and maneuvers, while others are simply inaccurate, with typos and misleading dates and place names.

The variation in detail is mostly down to the committees ‘learning on the job’ as to how much information they needed. 

“Not one archival source ever will give you all the answers,” Cécile Gordon, project manager and senior archivist at the MSPC, explained, “You have to use it with other sources, in parallel with the nominal roles and individual [pension] claims.”

She said that while the value of the archive to historians is clear, the value to the general public might be less obvious.

To ensure the new files are as accessible as possible and can be utilised by as many people as possible, the MSPC section of has been revamped, with new timelines, maps, and highlighted events that pull together all relevant files in one place.

A62_1_7 Brigade , 1 Eastern Division A map showing Newbridge, Co Kildare, in relation to an armed attack by the IRA on British Military Stores in town, July 1921. MSPC MSPC

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Gordon hopes that this will aid groups who want to commemorate and mark events from this period at a local level: ‘We wanted to open the doors to the people who are asking, for example, ‘What’s happening in Meath in 1920?’.’

Gordon said archivists have been working intensely on the files over the past year, while also still releasing new, individual claims which form the backbone of the collection.

For decades the files were not treated with care, and where heavily damaged due to poor storage conditions and rough handling. They required extensive repair work before archivists could start sorting through them.

Four files relating to 1916 were released previously. The vast majority of the remaining files pertain to the War of Independence, but there is mention of the Civil War (such as the call to ‘dump arms’ in May 1923), the anti-conscription campaign, and even the formation of the Irish Volunteers.

Here’s a sample of what’s being released.

Kilmichael Ambush


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In the case of the Kilmichael Ambush – a significant encounter in Cork between the IRA and the Auxiliary Division which left a total of 20 people dead – the brigade committee went to great lengths to describe what was involved in the aftermath of the attack.

After Fanlobbus Column billeted in Coy area, James Crowley and Jer Cahalane scouted for Col. to Newcestown. A Coy parade was held on Sunday 28th Novr (Kilmichael) Coy got word from T.J.Murphy TD that two military officers were fishing in the locality when volunteers went to capture them, they were gone. After returning Coy got word to proceed to the scene of Kilmichael by Tim Connell and Nelius Cotter to see after dead and wounded. The dead and wounded were removed to the house of Nelius Buttimer, Gortroe, where Lieut P. Deasy died about 10 o’c that night. He was attended by Father Gould and Dr. Nyhan of Johnstown. They were buried in a bog that night. Temporary coffins were made by Denis Murphy & Bill Good.
29th Novr. Brigade Commdt Charles Hurley sent word to Capt to provide coffins. Capt sent carpenter in Inchigeela to make them immediately.
30th. Vols were sent to Inchigeela for the coffins and they were brought and placed in a disused house close by.
1st Decr. The bodies were taken up and coffined & taken to Curradrinagh & left there until Friday Decr 3rd when they were removed and buried in Castletown, Kenneigh. The whole Coy took part practically all the time. The area was raided continuously at this period and on one occasion placed machine guns on a vantage point and kept firing for the greater part of the day. Jerry & Pat & Michale Murphy, Ardcahan, had a narrow escape.
Doc.15th 1920: Vol. Tadg Crowley was shot by B&Ts near Dunmanway.

Bloody Sunday

This was one of the most significant events of the period. The Squad, IRA members under the command of the direct command of chief of intelligence Michael Collins, assassinated Cairo Gang, a group of British intelligence officers, on 20 November 1920.

In retaliation, RIC officers and the Auxiliary Division opened fire on match-goers at Croke Park, killing 14 and injuring as many as 70. Three republican prisoners were also killed.

The BAR relating to the 1 Dublin Brigade 2 Eastern Division details some of the shootings. One is Lieutenant Donald Lewis MacLean at Morehampton Road.

The file lists all those involved in the attack, which left one other occupant of the house dead and another wounded but gives scant other detail on what actually happened that day.

A85 Dublin Brigade_31 MSPC MSPC

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Those involved in the attack at the Gresham Hotel are also listed, in which two men were shot.

“The men carried out the task which was entrusted to them,” it reads.

A85 Dublin Brigade pg 21 MSPC MSPC

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Soloheadbeg Ambush

Other files describe the nitty-gritty of organising the IRA’s guerrilla warfare.

Donohill Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd Tipperary Brigade was the group responsible for the first shots of the War of Independence, when the IRA ambushed Royal Irish Constabulary officers escorting a shipment of explosives on 21 January 1919.

Previous pension files released by the MSPC have revealed more detail of what happened that day, including the often-overlooked involvement of women in the aftermath, who gave shelter to the soldiers after the attack.

We see the explosives - gelignite – were later moved by seven men from B Company, handed over to two who transported it to 2nd Battalion, and the lists the scout who acted as a lookout when this group transported it on to their own area.

PastedImage-2438 MSPC MSPC

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Long after the fighting was over, the files reveal the infighting that continued among the former IRA leaders.

Michael Keane, an MSPC archivist, highlights this as one of the problems which faced the committees in trying to do their job.

Other issues range from the emigration or death of people crucial to the events, people critical of how the pensions and brigade system functioned, to the simple difficulty of remembering minute details of something that happened 15 years ago.

Keane said that ‘personality clashes, competing claims, factionalism’ are all evident in the files.

He highlighted a letter found in the East Limerick Brigade Committee file, from Seamus Ó Maoileoin (Seamus Malone) to those overseeing the pensions scheme, in which he not only criticises former IRA members but other members of the committee:

PastedImage-30014 MSPC MSPC

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‘Sneeringly hostile’ Dundalk

Some files contain colourful language. This letter from the North Louth Brigade speaks for itself.

The area is largely within the District known in former times as the Pale. Nevertheless there was a handful of men in this area imbued with the spirit of their glorious forefathers and their comrades throughout Ireland. The population for the most part was sneeringly hostile.
Their task would have been more pleasant if it had to be carried out in the heart of England itself, because treachery and the very bitter hatred that was part and parcel of the Irish “Loyalist” would not be encountered.

You can read that letter in full here. / YouTube

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