We have history

A few years ago, Cork historian Barry Keane came across a Home Office file in the UK National Archives, HO 317/78, “Activities of named paid informants against Irish secret societies”. (The wonderfully bland online catalogue entry is here.) It covered various years between 1886 and 1910, but almost all of it had been redacted. When Mr Keane appealed to the Home Office for the missing information, the entire file was withdrawn. He requested a review under the Freedom of Information Act, was turned down, appealed to the Freedom of Information Tribunal and finally lost that appeal after a two year wait.

Nobody will talk to them if we find out who spilled the beans in 1898

His appeal was rejected on two grounds. The first was precisely the reason our own Central Statistics Office gave for not releasing the 1926 census: if people know they might be identified three generations into the future, they won’t co-operate now. This was laughable when put forward by the CSO, and even more so when a Metropolitan Police officer – behind a screen at the appeal hearing, no less – claimed that making the century-old informers file available would put the entire UK covert human intelligence system at risk. A very sensible minority dissent on the tribunal described this argument as “self-evidently absurd”.

The other reason for refusal, that descendants of those named in the file might be in danger, or exposed to opprobrium, is less absurd. Maybe Cork is now all forgiveness and sweetness and light, but I’m not so sure about elsewhere in Ireland. After a talk I gave in Armagh a few years back, one of the audience questions was from a woman who wanted to know where the historic files naming “the touts” were stored. I don’t think she was researching her own ancestors.

I’m with the tribunal majority on their decision. In Ireland, some things just take longer to become history.

You can make up your own mind: the full official transcript of the hearing is on the tribunal website.

13 thoughts on “We have history”

  1. Thanks for this, John. When I was researching my thesis, there was some local information that even 130 years later, was too sensitive to reveal.

  2. MY great grandfather, John Gribbin, came to the US several times from County Antrim about 1868-1875. His whole life in the US was secretive. All property was in his wife’s name and he remained very close mouthed about his history. We have been piecing his life together for years but he hid his time in Ireland well. I have always thought he was involved in very secret doings in his home country. He was a RC, married a Protestant he met on one of his trips to the US and named his first son Robert Emmet.

  3. Thank God (?), Aboriginal Australians don’t think and act upon the past wrongs of my Irish ancestors or, we would all be dead or living in fear, just like you guys seem to be doing, ever given a truth and justice commission a thought ?

    We will if, you do !!


  4. The biggest problem in rural Ulster is that most of the families are still living cheek to Joel with one another like the Hatfields and McCoys and one never knows how they feel about their hundred year old interactions till something goes wrong. I generally hold everything I find disturbing for the next generation after me to deal with if they do wish.

  5. John,
    As always, your posts are fascinating and SO informative. As someone who lives in the U.S., and recently discovered my cousins living in County Limerick (following a 17 day trip to your beautiful and welcoming country), I am so amazed at the history of what Ireland has endured. This post just further confirms things I have seen and recently learned. Amazing insights for a neophyte such as myself.
    Thank you for adding to my knowledge and understanding!!

  6. Ireland is far from alone in this. As a American from the northeast, there is still a definite chilliness, and occasionally outright rudeness, when traveling in the American south. Civil wars and their legacy are definitely not an Irish-only phenomenon. It is worldwide.

  7. Family legend has it that my Great Grandfather knocked out a man in a pub who suggested he’d served in the Black and Tans. I wondered if it was anger at the insult that prompted the violent response or maybe a guilty conscience. So I attempted to investigate, but met a blank wall.

    1. I had to explain Irish history 1912-23 to someone with an Irish name but of Anglo Indian heritage, whose ancestor fought in WW1, then in Ireland, so that they understood why it was that there were unlikely to be any publicly available records of the ancestor’s service in Ireland.

      When the penny dropped, there was a silence, then they asked if the British behaved worse than they did in the Indian Mutiny / Rebellion of 1857?

  8. i’m interested in all of these comments. In present-day USA race is a loaded word. What we have to remember is that whites were prejudiced against each other because of ethnic background or religion. My own mother who was Scottish-English was raised by her Scottish mother after her English father died when she was 11. Both parents and their parents were born in Canada but probably learned the prejudices from their parents. When my mother encountered something that did not work quite right she would say “This was probably invented by an Englishman”. I have to admit that I heard this often enough that I sometimes think it when I encounter a challenging situation, even though my husband tells me that I am the most unprejudiced person that he has met.

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