County Offaly in the Military Service Pensions Collection: an exploration by Cécile Gordon

Cécile Gordon is Senior Archivist and Project Manager of the Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Project in the Military Archives of Ireland. She will give a lecture on Offaly in the Military Service Pensions Collection on Monday 21 October, 8pm in Offaly History Centre, Tullamore. The talk will include an overview of the records available in MSPC for county Offaly and will illustrate how they interconnect. The highlight will be put on the IRA Brigade Activity Reports for Offaly Brigades. A selection of some of the most interesting pension cases will be presented with a focus on newly catalogued records and claims lodged by the women involved in the independence movement in Offaly.

The Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection – General

 The Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection (MSPC) Project is one of the leading projects of the Irish government’s plan for the Decade of Centenaries, led by the Irish Department of Defence and supported by the Defence Forces. With around 250,000 files, it is the largest collection in the Military Archives and the largest collection covering the revolutionary years, anywhere.

In a nutshell, the MSPC records are the pensions applications lodged by over 80,000 people who took part in the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War.  Veterans applied under various legislation from 1923 onwards, enacted to recognise active military service or to award gratuities for wounds or injuries contracted during active service. Dependants of deceased members of certain organisations could also claim in respect of their relatives.

The strength of the collection resides in several key aspects that set it apart: representation of the rank-and-file as well as the leadership, representation of the dead (through the claims of the dependants), unprecedented representation of women and high quality of evidence of networks either through family ties or organisational structures. The files also offer a fresh possibility for an in-depth look at the Army Pensions Board procedures revealing the political and legal context of the time.

The decision to fully catalogue and digitise the collection to afford quality access to files online is to be celebrated for several reasons. The quality and quantity of the material means that the collection will continue to yield information well after the last file is catalogued, feeding into all kinds of research (genealogy, family history and local studies of course, but also medical, political, social, military history, women’s history, research in demography or geography and more).  A project of this size and nature is also to be celebrated as it will help support difficult commemorations. It is hoped that what the files reveal will enable the elaboration of a more nuanced view of the successive events that led to the formation of the modern Irish State. Stories of hardship, disappointment, anger,  injustice, but also myth-busting revelations or confirmation of family tales, everything can be found in the files. Their existence is a powerful physical representation of this accumulation of stories and will be the MSPC’s most potent asset to make it the archive of the generation that brought about Irish independence.

County Offaly – Brigade Activity Reports

County Offaly features well in the collection and although activity cannot be compared to the busiest spots such as Cork or Dublin, some very interesting files offer great details on major and lesser-known local operations. The Brigade Activity Reports (BARs) were compiled by Brigade Committees, established in the mid-30s and in charge of compiling listings of engagements for each brigade and a significant amount of other details, including the names of participants for each operations and sketches.

1. Brigade Committee_ 1 Offaly Brigade_A17
Brigade Committee Names, No 1 Offaly Brigade (MSPC/A17). 

Those reports were intended to support and speed up the process of verification of individual claims by the Referee and his Advisory Committee. Along with the Nominal Rolls and the references requested from the applicants, the BARs would be used as evidence of participation in X or Y ambush, raid or attack.

The activities of 1 Offaly and 2 Offaly Brigades are well documented in the BARs (files A17 and A18, respectively) compared to other brigades. The file for Offaly 2 Brigade lists and gives information on the participants of operations in Clara (joint effort with 1 Brigade for attack on RIC barracks), Belmont, Banagher, Ballycumber, Kinnity and Birr.

The documents compiled by the Brigade Committee for 1 Offaly Brigade are submitted by Seán Kelly (himself ex-Commanding Officer Tullamore Company and ex-Brigade OC). The material lists some early activities of the brigade area, broken down by battalion (4 battalions + 1 ASU), showing, at first, activities indicating preparation for action (mostly raids for arms and ammunition, deliveries and moving of arms,….). In general the files focus heavily on the War of Independence years but some battalions give description of operations undertaken in 1922 and 1923 during the Civil War.

2. Brigade Staff-1 Offaly Brigade - RO172
Brigade Staff – Nominal Rolls No 1 Offaly Brigade (MSPC/RO/172)

The companies of the 1 Battalion were located in Tullamore, Gurteen, Killeigh, Ballycowan, Kilbeggan and Durrow & Bracklin. Looking at the Tullamore Company, the record shows that activities intensify from early 1920; the number of names attached to each operation can also give an idea of the size and type of the event. File lists and describes major operations such as attacks on RIC barracks (Clara, Tullamore…), and also gives valuable details on supporting activities: scouting, road-blocking, rail-lifting, along with the names and addresses of those involved. The shootings of targeted people are also included along with a fascinating section on ‘Police Work’ conducted by IRA officers and members.

3. attack Clara_support work
Support activities (MSPC/A17)

The Offaly BAR files are accompanied by sketches. Some are contained in a notebook complete with descriptions which was submitted by Seán Kelly on 2 April 1941, illustrating scenes of ambushes in the 1 Offaly Brigade area: attack of military men at Ballycommon, attack on Geashill RIC Barracks and other operations at Mountlucas, Newtown, Kilbeggan and Tullamore, among others.

Sketch of Geashill activity (MSPC/A17)

It would be prudent to add here that the BARs need to be examined closely and the user will need to use other sources in order to confirm some dates and correct other inexactitudes included in the files. Some brigade committees found it very difficult to comply with the heavy demands some 15 years after the facts and some files do contain errors.


County Offaly – Individuals

The MSPC database currently shows 131 cases lodged by people with an address in Offaly, including 22 women* (some of them might not have been active in Offaly during the years 1916-1923 and would have moved there post-conflict while others may have an actual connection with the county without having resided there). Some claims are submitted by the relatives of deceased members applying as dependants. Among them, Patrick Kane residing on Kilbride Street in Tullamore, claiming in respect of his deceased brother, Matthew, shot dead by the Crown Forces during the War of Independence.

5. MatthewKane_Offaly
Claim in respect of Matthew Kane (MSPC/3MSRB81)

Those files are significantly different from the basic service pension application. Dependants had to give evidence of their level of financial dependency, a means-test would be conducted and a report would be issued by an Garda Síochána. This process populates the file with information of a more social nature (income sources, family situation, occupations, work and previous employers…etc..).

If the collection contains the files of well known IRA members (Bracken, Kelly, McGuinness), it reveals its true strength in the quantity of rank-and-file cases, including women’s claims.

Despite a handful of mentions, the BARs were not designed to record the work of the members of Cumann na mBan therefore the main MSPC sources to study their role during those years are the Nominal Rolls and the individuals’ files. The names of Bridget Mooney (Tullamore), Mary Kennedy (married name McCormack), the Meleady sisters, Mary McBrien (married name, Poland), Annie Duffy (married name Grogan) and many others should be added to any history book dealing with the period in Offaly.

6. Statement of Annie Grogan_MSP34REF26082
Statement of Annie Grogan (MSPC/MSP34REF26082)

* The MSPC is an ongoing project and therefore that figure will change at the next official release (database accessed on 8/10/2019 for the purpose of this article. Latest release was on 2/10/2019).

For more on dependency claims, see article of relevance on MSPC Blog here: Dependency Claims for the Civil War Executed in MSPC.

Cecile Gordon_InArchiveThe MSP Collection contains around 250,000 unique records covering the period of the Irish struggle for Independence. The Project’s core mission concerns the preservation of the material and the provision of access to this major primary source. Cécile has been involved in the MSP Project since its inception (2008) and prior to her current position, she worked as a Local Authority Archivist for counties Meath, Kildare and Wicklow. Her areas of interest include archival theory, the impact of the work of the archivist on the use of archives and the connection between archives, commemorations, collective memories and individual identity building.