What the National Library archives tell us about the 'incredibly dramatic year' of 1918

We took a trip to the archives to find out about some of the fascinating people involved. / YouTube

IT WILL BE 100 years tomorrow since the legislation passed that gave Irish women over 30 the right to vote.

And one place where we can dig out information about life in Ireland at that time is the National Library of Ireland archives on Dublin’s Kildare St. To step inside the library is to step back in time, both literally and figuratively, to an Ireland of old – the stunning building is a showcase for the best of Irish craftsmanship at the time it was built.

To get a sense on what’s on offer there, we visited the archives and spoke to the NLI’s outreach officer, Katherine McSharry, in the reading room, where she showed us letters from Countess Markievicz, a diary written by suffragist Rosamund Jacob, and flyers for the 1918 election which followed the legislation which gave women the vote.

“1918 was an incredibly dramatic year in Irish life,” explained McSharry. “If you picture it, there’s a world war still waging, a world war that has drawn in many thousands of Irish soldiers. And there are plans to conscript Irish men and bring them into the British army to continue fighting that war.

No one knows at the beginning of the year that the war is going to end in November, so it’s dragged on for an enormous length of time. There’s rumours and anxiety about plots – about German plots to overthrow British rule in Ireland, and quite a number of senior leaders are in prison. So you have people like Countess Markievicz, Kathleen Clarke – who’s the widow of Tom Clarke who signed the proclamation – they’re in prison.

“And you have this push for a huge new way of doing politics – so shifting away from the Irish parliamentary party which has been the representative party of a lot of Ireland for a long time towards Sinn Féin,” said McSharry. “And you have the introduction of votes for women over 30 – so a huge addition to the electorate.

“Put all those things together, you have a really dramatic year.”

Among the items in the archives are letters from Countess Constance Markievicz, which were written while she was in Holloway Prison in the UK.

“One of the fascinating things is she’s writing these letters to her own sister and while she is in prison, we have one here in December 1918,” says McSharry (you can see the letter in the video above). “She becomes the first woman to be elected to the British parliament – she never takes her seat – and she does that while she’s in prison. She’s elected in Dublin while she’s in prison in the UK.”

The letters detail how she got paper for letter-writing in prison – a big deal – but also show how she marked her change in status. One from December 1918 is signed ‘Constance Markievicz IRA’, but in January 1919 she signs a letter ‘Constance Markievicz MP’.

The letters and items acquired by the NLI related to 1918 don’t just reflect the political changes of 1918, but also the social ones. ”I think that’s one of the really interesting things about detailed letters and diaries that people keep at this time,” says McSharry.

“You do get that contrast or that combination of their involvement in political affairs, and a lot of information about that, but you also find out the books that they’re reading and who they’re interested in, and there’s always little bits of gossip and ‘have you heard from this person’ or ‘can you give my regards to that person’.”

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Where does the information at the NLI archives come from? ”The National Library gets material in a variety of different ways – some of it is donated, some of it we acquire by purchase and one of the things the national Library does is we acquire these things over time,” explained McSharry.

“Something that might have seemed less significant at the time we get it comes to have more and more significance as you come close to an event. So anything that we have that’s to do with 1918 this year is becoming very fascinating.”

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The archives give us information on what happened 100 years ago, but also the fact that there were many differing viewpoints on national events.

“When I think about archives and libraries, I often think of Oscar Wilde’s line about saying ‘the truth is never pure and rarely simple’,” said McSharry.

“And I think that’s what you find in the archives, is that there are always multiple versions of any story, so you can find the facts… but you also find multiple facts, different perspectives, different voices and archives allow us to challenge our own simple view of what history is like, but they also allow us to hear different voices.”

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“One of the great things I think that libraries and archives do and the work that we do here in the National Library, is to keep those voices so that when people are ready to hear them they are in the archives and ready to emerge.” You can view the digitised National Library of Ireland archives here.

Tomorrow, we look at a timeline of how votes for women came to be a reality.

Read: Markievicz exhibit among celebration of 100 years since women’s right to vote>

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