The Bureau of Military History was set up in 1947 for the purpose of gathering firsthand accounts from the surviving participants of the movement for Irish independence between 1914 and the Truce of 1921.
By then, 25 years had passed since the ending of British rule. Many of those involved were growing old, and the State was anxious to record their memories before it was too late. A great many took part in the project, which ran for ten years; others opted against, preferring to let the past bury the past, some dismissing the idea as a license to rewrite history.
Reading the written statements now, one is struck by a number of common threads running through the different narratives. One is the almost-detached matter-of-factness of how the stories are told; there is little boasting or chest thumping or claims of extraordinary valour. Then there is the impartiality, the reluctance to speak harshly of comrades who, in the later civil war, would find themselves on opposite sides. And another is the astounding youthfulness of those – many in their early teens – who took to the hills and mountains to fight a relentless battle, at huge danger, against Crown forces.
One such was a Castlebar publican who, to most of us, led an uneventful, everyday life, immersed in family and the GAA, and whose persona gave no hint of the stirring times in which he played such an active part.
Paddy King was aged 15 when he joined the Irish Volunteers in 1917. Like so many of his Ballyheane neighbours, he was driven by the injustice of an absentee landlord who resorted to large scale evictions of the tenants on his estate. The success of the Volunteers in finally forcing the landlord into relinquishing his estate to the Congested Districts Board for distribution to the smallholders gave the people a taste of what greater things might be achieved against superior forces.
Two years later, at just 17, Paddy King was at the centre of the action, pitching his lot with the IRA brigade, actively engaging in all types of guerilla operations, sleeping in dugouts on cold hillsides, evading the dragnet of police and military, and joining the lightning raids on army convoys, barracks and military installations.
The boy had quickly become a man, entrusted with organising drilling, arms storage and logistics. Like so many others of that age group, he knew no fear of danger, but it was a time when life was cheap, and there were others who failed to survive to tell the tale.
When the war ended, Paddy King and his brothers emigrated to the US. After a decade, he returned home to buy his pub in Spencer Street, a popular hostelry where talk of football and GAA and plans for Castlebar Mitchels and MacHale Park was central. And what was remarkable was that – again, like his colleagues of old – he rarely spoke of his experiences and declined to be drawn into recalling his memoirs.
I am indebted to Paddy King’s grandson, Alan King of the library service, for reminding me that the witness statements of the Bureau of Military History are available in Castlebar Library (as well as being accessible online). Also in the library, available on microfilm, are British records of the Dublin Castle administration in Ireland, including RIC and County Inspector monthly reports.
For anyone with an interest in the dramatic times that shaped our country 100 years ago, these firsthand, unembellished accounts of the struggle on the ground are truly priceless.