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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Preserving Irish History

Walking the charming and crowded streets of Dublin today you must summon up all of your imagination to visualize that the streets and buildings around the General Post Office in the heart of the city were, less than 100 years ago, the scene of bloody street fighting between Irishmen and Englishmen.

Most Americans, myself included, have only the haziest knowledge of The Rising, the surprise Easter Monday attack launched by Irish republicans in 1916 against British rule in Ireland. The uprising ultimately failed, most of the leaders who had enlisted aide from Germany – England was at war with Germany in 1916 – were killed or executed, but the events of April 1916 set the stage for much that followed, including the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 and the sectarian “troubles” that have bedeviled the Irish Republic and British Northern Ireland ever since.

The two great Irish leaders of the 20th Century, Eamon DeValera and Michael Collins, came of age during the Easter Rising and their fascinating and occasionally chilling legacy still helps define Irish politics in the 21st Century.

Now, thanks to the Irish penchant for preserving history, the extensive, and until recently secret, archive of The Rising is open and available online through the magic of digital records.

The Irish Bureau of Military History, founded in 1947 to record the memories of virtually all the survivors of the events prior to 1921 (when the Irish Civil War began), has made the fascinating record available. The collection is just one recent example of the importance of preserving this type of material and making it available in the interest of understanding from whence we came.

As the Irish Times reported, “The scale of the project was vast. A team of military archivists has transferred the huge collection of 1,773 witness statements containing 36,000 pages of name- and word-searchable documents; rare photographs; and voice recordings onto the website.”

Ironically, given the tortured history of British rule in Ireland, one of the great online resources about The Easter Rising is housed on the BBC’s website. But, now due to a forward looking work of Irish Defence Minister Oscar Traynor – the longest-serving Irish Defence Minister – who established the collection, the Irish have access to the rich, first-hand history of one of the pivotal events in modern Irish history. The Irish archive is a model for how modern technology can make the records of history, and indeed history itself, as close as a computer screen.

The great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote “the heart of an Irishman is nothing but his imagination.” True perhaps, but the documents help, as well.

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