Feature

State secrets revealed – and hidden
Peter Costello reports from the National Archives of Ireland on the release under the 30-year rule of confidential state files from 1986

This week the National Archives released for public inspection State files from 1986 and earlier. This year some files date back to the 1920s, with large numbers from the 1940s. 

Every January government files newly transferred from various departments of state are opened for the use of the public on the first working day of the year. This has become, for the national press, something of an annual event of some importance. 

The major matter of interest was the New Ireland Forum, but the papers relating to this cast no new light on what was already known. They contain nothing indiscreet. 

As other papers will be reporting on the polices of the day and the events in Northern Ireland.  these pages concentrate on a variety of topics, otherwise overlooked by the media. 

However, it must again be emphasised that as an exercise in open government and freedom of information these annual releases are something of an illusion. The magicians in the press may seem to draw rabbits from their hats, but they ignore the elephant behind the curtain. 

This year, for instance, there were files from the Taoiseach’s department, Foreign Affairs, and Justice. Nothing from such vital and high spending departments as Agriculture, Health, Social Protection, the department of  Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Some departments, it seems,  never release anything any year.

The release of the files is seen as a move towards a more open and transparent style of government. But there has never been a government of any kind (the Vatican City included) which has not preferred to keep its secrets as long as possible. 

The State Directory, however, lists some 16 government departments, and some 39 state offices. From this it will be clear at once that the annual release, though widely and rightly reported,  is only the tip of the very large and hidden iceberg that is the apparatus of the State. 

Several important departments rarely produce files; Agriculture, Defence, Health, Transport, and Education. All these impinge directly on our lives, our homes, and our safety. But we learn little about them. 

Limited

Once state records were more limited. The National Archives, established in 1988, combined the old State Paper Office, which had been in Dublin Castle, with the Public Record Office, once housed in a building behind the Four Courts. 

Our earliest public records were destroyed in 1922 by a bomb exploded by Peadar O’Donnell and other Republicans occupying the Four Courts: fragments of medieval documents floated away like confetti  on the wind along the Liffey. 

 Other records had been destroyed in 1920 when the IRA burned the Custom House in an attempt to paralyse local government in Ireland. Others were destroyed by the British before Dublin Castle was handed over to the Free State.  Others when Fianna Fail first came to power. 

Nowadays other dangers beset the records. Some are judged of little value, or are merely administrative, and these are destroyed under Section 7 of the National Archives Act 1986. Others are held back, either for reasons of security, sensitivity, or because they are ongoing. Files are only transferred when they are closed, which can be a very flexible matter for a civil servant.

So what is presented as an exercise in open government is a very limited. But as the National Archives are underfunded, under resourced and understaffed, those directing it are glad that mass transfers do not put too much pressure on the whole system. 

With the return of prosperity perhaps now the government can provide the increased funds for the National Archives, along the lines of similar institutions in the US, France, Great Britain and elsewhere. 

 

The National Archives is located in Bishop Street, Dublin D08 DF85, beside the Dublin Institute of Technology, Aungier Street. The opening hours are 9.15am-5pm Monday to Friday. The records from 1986 and earlier were available to the public from 9.15am on Monday, January 2. For further information telephone: + 353 (0)1 407 2300; or email: mail@nationalarchives.ie

 

 

Give us back the Annals of Inisfallen 

I

n 1971 a proposal was made by the manager of Muckross House in Killarney that an effort should be made to ensure the return to its place of creation of the manuscript of the Annals of Inisfallen.

The book had been created around 1092, with entries from 433 to down to that date by the initial scribe, and further ones by other hands down to 1450. This was on the island of Inisfallen in Lough Leane at Killarney. 

A deputation was planned to come to Dublin, to speak with the Minister, who consulted his expert advisers. 

The National Library director Patrick Henchy, however told the government that little was in fact known about the history of the manuscript, which was in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (as Rawlinson B53). There were, in fact, some 30 manuscript copies across Europe in various other libraries, three in the National Library alone. 

There has been a facsimile edition issued by the Royal Irish Academy in 1933, and a full translation by the Institute of Advanced Studies in 1951. (Though he did not allude to it, there had been an earlier translation made by one Theophilus Flanagan in 1822.)

‘Guffaw’

Henchy felt that any request by the Irish government to the directors of the Bodleian would not only be refused but would be met with the English equivalent of “the loud guffaw”. 

As the Bodleian had recently lent the volume for a show in Ireland it might also be thought ungracious. 

The minster made clear to the local TD, Patrick O’Leary, the sense of the National Library’s view. He was unable to meet with a local group.

A copy of the facsimile and some large photographs of high quality would, it was thought, meet the needs of the people in Killarney, rather than the “supposed original”. 

But the matter did not die. It came up again in 1983 and letters were exchanged with Dublin between June and September. Mr Cahill, then in charge of Muckross House had not given up. 

Again the National Library was called upon – the price would be exorbitant, if even it were on offer. And it would be ungracious after the government to pursue the return of the originals. 

 The matter was even raised in the Dáil, but again the department reiterated the earlier facts already supplied. 

The Bodleian would not sell it and the Muckross venture did not in any case have the facilities for conserving such a manuscript. Dr Lucas, the director of the National Museum and Dr Henchy repeated the earlier views yet again. 

The return of St Conall’s Bell was another matter of a similar kind. This relic of the 6th Century was held locally until the pilgrimage to the saint’s shrine on the island of Iniskeel was suppressed by the local Catholic clergy – part of the Romanisation of Catholicism in Ireland in the early 19th Century. 

Bell

The bell passed through private hands into the British Museum. In 2015 it returned to Donegal on loan and can now be seen in the County Museum. 

So all might not be lost for the Annals of Inisfallen either. 

All of this recalls the frequently expressed the desire of the people in Kells for the Book of Kells in Trinity College Library, Dublin, to be returned to its ancient home. This despite the fact that it was not created there, but only came to the place after the dissolution of Iona under the threat of Viking raiders. 

Though called the Book of Kells it was in fact created in Iona under the influence of Scottish and Northern book illumination. 

In 2001, Brian O’Leary, a Fianna Fáil councillor in Killarney, was still asking for the Annals to be returned to the town. 

A call by Jimmy Deenihan (in reply to a question by Fianna Fáil TD Seán Ó Fearghaíl) for their return, supported by an editorial in a national newspaper, drew a stern and scholarly reproof that the suggestion was “nothing but an ill-informed gimmick”.