‘Shooting the Visible Army’: Using Dublin Archives to think about the Irish Civil War through a different lens

‘Shooting the Visible Army’: Using Dublin Archives to think about the Irish Civil War through a different lens


Tim Ellis (Teesside) discusses his trip to military and state archives across Dublin.

‘the tracking down of raiders, looking after suspects and the other multifarious duties of Oriel house made it necessary to have the best and quickest photographic apparatus…’

(Letter from the Department of Finance, 24 March, 1923. National Archives of Ireland FIN/1/27/47).

This summer, I was very fortunate (thanks to the generous bursary offered to me by the British Association for Irish Studies) to spend several weeks researching the significance of visual culture, specifically photography, in the Irish Civil War. This will form the subject of the first chapter of my PhD, which examines the broader role of visual culture in the politics of Interwar Ireland. I wanted to examine two particular themes a) the extent to which contemporary politicians and soldiers laid importance on photography and public visibility and b) debates surrounding the visual appearance of National Army soldiers during the Civil War of 1922-3. I carried out research in four principal archives: the National Archives of Ireland, the National Library of Ireland, the archives of University College, Dublin and the Irish Military Archives.

The Irish Military Archives is a particularly interesting collection, perhaps because it is situated within a working military barracks, which is currently occupied by the Irish Defence Forces. Each morning I was greeted by a soldier who checked my ID and ushered me into the archives building. There I browsed the Department of Defence ‘A’ files, which offer fascinating insight into military affairs in the early Irish state. I was able to find several useful files. A particularly illuminating file covered the hiring of an Official Army Photographer to take both publicity photos and photographs for surveillance purposes. Significantly, the Department of Defence was prepared to clash with the (notoriously) fiscally conservative Department of Finance to back the scheme. Surprisingly, the Department of Defence actually succeeded, and was able to hire a photographer within a few months.

On the subject of uniforms, several files detailed anxieties about whether Ireland’s new army uniforms would be produced in British or Irish factories. Opposition politicians alleged in in the Dáil that the uniform was being produced in factories in Yorkshire, whilst the secretary of the Irish Tailor’s Union wrote to the Minister of Defence to beg for more contracts due to under-employment amongst union members. The National Army uniform was green, and not khaki (as was British practice), and was thus symbolically potent, but the concerns expressed about producing the uniform in Ireland suggest that it was a means of demonstrating practical, as well as symbolic patriotism.

I supplemented my trips to the Military Archives, with visits to the archives of University College, Dublin. Here the papers of Richard Mulcahy (Minister of Defence in the latter stages of the Civil War) supplemented my work on the ‘A’ files at the Military Archives. Here, I also found plenty of useful material. I found a particularly enlightening comment from Arthur Griffith (one of the political leaders of the pro-Treaty side in the conflict) which suggested that the censorship of films was particularly urgent ‘as the pictures have greater personal affect’ than newspapers. This helped to support my hypothesis that Ireland’s political leaders were as concerned about visual propaganda as the textual.

A particularly interesting file in Mulcahy’s papers is a detailed report by a disgruntled army colonel to an official Enquiry into army discipline in the aftermath of the Civil War. The author expresses particular concern about soldiers’ personal hygiene and appearance, laying particular emphasis upon whether or not soldiers’ had shaved. This suggests that soldiers’ personal hygiene and appearance constituted a major aspect of the new state’s priorities in projecting an image to the world. This example got me thinking in greater detail about the connection between outward image projection and surveillance. Telling soldiers to dress smartly and behave politely in public was as much a means of enforcing internal discipline upon soldiers as it was displaying Ireland’s new army to its citizens and the world. In formulating these ideas, I drew upon Foucauldian theories of visual culture, which I had read up on at the beginning of my PhD.

I explored this connection between image-projection and surveillance further in the National Archives of Ireland, where I was lucky to chance upon a file which highlighted the importance of photography in drawing up maps. New, better maps, it seemed, not only helped the newly established Irish Free State make an effective case at the promised Boundary Commission (which eventually took place in 1925), but also allowed the Irish state to better record and observe its citizens and the landscape in which they lived.

With the archives closed during the weekends, I made good use of this time to visit some of Dublin’s museums. As I discovered, museums are often well-stocked repositories of material and visual culture. The National Museum of Ireland at the Collins’ Barracks had an excellent collection of soldier’s uniforms, which further stimulated my thoughts about how the meaning and symbolism of uniform can shift over time.

Michael Collins
Image: (Author’s photograph) A portrait of Michael Collins in a Dublin pub- demonstrating the enduring potency of visual images of the Civil War.

The time I passed in Dublin this summer was therefore very useful. I was able to find more than enough material to help write the first chapter of my PhD, and I also spent some time looking up some sources that will hopefully prove relevant in the later stages of my research. This was also a very useful learning experience in using time wisely in Dublin for archival research. I was able to make contact with two very good AirBnBs, found the cheapest places to eat on both the North and Southside and even sussed out a handy system to get through security at Dublin airport more quickly!

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