What’s your family secret? We all have one. That skeleton in the closet that we can’t help but be fascinated by, despite the refusal of other family members to acknowledge their existence. Sometimes it can be something personal, an addiction or an illness that was always referred to euphemistically. Perhaps it could be the lack of a marriage certificate, or the date of the wedding coming a bit too close to when the first child was born. Then there are the other types of omissions, the ones that might have resulted from an ancestor being caught on the wrong side of history. Every country has this because it is human nature to try and simplify our historical narrative. This side was ‘good’ and the other side was ‘bad’.
With the Decade of Centenaries in Ireland and all the various discussions taking place, it is easy to assume that Ireland has put all our historical hangups behind us. That we have learned to accept our past and any of the uncomfortable truths hidden there. To some extent this is true. Irish soldiers who fought in WWI now get the recognition they deserve for their bravery and sacrifice. While those who served as members of the pre-independence police forces haven’t been rehabilitated to the same extent, their role in Irish life during the period is better understood.
I have come across some of this myself when looking into my own family history. Most of my maternal side of the family would have considered themselves to be of Irish Republican lineage. However, that wasn’t the case for everyone in the family. I had one great uncle from Co. Waterford who had served in WWI and was also a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary. He was stationed in Co. Wexford where he died in 1921 during the Irish War of Independence. His death wasn’t particularly glorious, being accidentally shot by a fellow constable while on patrol. To me and some of my cousins this proved fascinating, but other members of the family weren’t as interested. Perhaps because his role as a servant of the British administration in Ireland during a contested time doesn’t fit with how the family see themselves. This is not to criticise. It is simply who they are. All of us have our inbuilt biases.
A recent visit to the National Archives of Ireland also put me in mind of another aspect of Irish history that is often overlooked and it’s connection to my own family. Ireland maintained an official policy of neutrality during WWII, although a number of Irish did enlist with the British army and the armed forces of other Allied forces. On the home front there were those who believed in the old maxim that Britain’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity. The IRA launched a bombing campaign in Britain. In order to maintain their position of neutrality, and avoid a potential invasion by Britain, the Irish government felt the safest course of action was to intern all those suspected of IRA membership. This was certainly not the first or last time such a policy was carried out on this island. The internees were placed in a camp in the Curragh, nicknamed ‘Tintown’. Among those internees, was my grandfather, his brothers and some of their friends. My grandfather never liked to speak of his time in the Curragh and it is a period rarely discussed in Irish history. I suspect there is a certain shame when it comes to the history of internment without trial.
This being my first research visit to the National Archives, I wasn’t entirely sure of how I would find the appropriate records. Were they considered criminal records? Or were they military? Or perhaps they fell under another category entirely? I guess I’ve been spoilt by the easy access to online catalogues. I approached the archivist on duty and sought her help. I think it shows how rarely these records are consulted that it took her some time to figure out what they were held under. We eventually located some of the records related to the Curragh under the Department of the Taoiseach. Although I didn’t locate anything specifically connected to my grandfather on this visit, I did come across one illuminating account of how order was maintained in the camp. Some of the guards carried guns and during one particular disturbance, they opened fire on the internees. A number were injured and one died of his wounds not long afterwards. I don’t know if my grandfather was present for this disturbance or if he had any involvement in it. I can tell I have more research to do and I have become curious about delving into this period. If anyone reading this does have more information or photos of internees from the period, please send me a message.
All of this has made me realise that genealogy doesn’t stop within recent memory. Just because we knew a previous generation, doesn’t mean that there is nothing more to uncover. Sometimes these secrets may be uncomfortable but that is the inherent risk with delving into our family history.