How do you trace ancestors who fought in the Irish War of Independence?

By Editor, 25 July 2018 - 9:10am

If your ancestors fought in the Irish Revolutionary War, there may be records of their involvement. Nicola Morris, WDYTYA's Irish researcher, explains where to look

Free State soldiers Irish War of Independence
General Richard Mulcahy inspects Free State soldiers at Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin, 1922 (Credit: Getty)

As Ireland continues to commemorate the centenary of the revolutionary period, a wealth of records documenting the men and women who fought for Irish independence have been made available by the Irish Military Archives for family historians investigating their revolutionary ancestors.

Get the full version of this article and much more top family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine August 2018, on sale 31 July

The Irish Volunteers were formed in November 1913 to counter the threat posed by the recently mobilised Ulster Volunteers, who were committed to resisting the introduction of Home Rule – by force, if necessary.

Companies of Irish Volunteers were organised in parishes across Ireland. With cobbled-together uniforms and wooden guns, they mobilised, marched and were trained, often by Irishmen who had served in the British Army.

At the outbreak of the First World War the Irish Volunteer movement split, the majority responding to a call to join up and help England in her hour of need. The minority who remained were closely aligned with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society created in the 19th century who planned the 1916 Easter Rising.

Although the Rising was not widely supported, public outrage at the subsequent execution of its leaders increased support for the Republican movement. After the victory of Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election and the formation of the first Irish Parliament (the Dáil), the ranks of the Irish Volunteers were filled once again.

With the first shots of the Irish War of Independence in 1919 the Volunteers mobilised and became the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who fought a guerrilla war against British forces in Ireland until the truce of July 1921.

Here are some of the records you can use to trace your Irish ancestors.

1911 census of Ireland

Available for free at census.nationalarchives.ie/search, the 1911 census records can be used to establish where your ancestor was living in the second decade of the 20th century. Use the enumerator’s return to identify the civil parish in which their townland was located.
 

Bureau of Military History Witness Statements

These records are available online and can be searched by any term, although using a common surname will often elicit too many results to be practical.

Volunteer companies were officially identified by a letter, and were also known by a local place name, often the name of their parish. Searching the witness statements by place name can sometimes be more productive. As your research bears fruit and your ancestor’s story expands, returning to this source to search for newly found terms, such as the name of a comrade or the site of an ambush, may reveal more illuminating statements.
 

Easter Rising and Ireland under Martial Law 1916-1921

Available via Findmypast, this is a vast collection from series WO35 at the UK’s National Archives and comprises British government and military records relating to British soldiers, Irish nationalists and civilians during the revolutionary period. This includes records of courts-martial, internment and imprisonment, war diaries, claims for damages and reports of outrages.

IRA Nominal Rolls

These records can be hard to find. Starting at the Military Service Pensions Collection of the Military Archives, select either ‘Easter Rising 1916’ or ‘Search The Collection’ for nominal rolls for the War of Independence. Select the link for ‘Organisation and Membership’, or use bit.ly/ira-nominal-rolls-map and bit.ly/organisation-membership. Under IRA Nominal Rolls you will find an interactive divisional map of Ireland, which will take you to the nominal rolls for each battalion area. The rolls must be downloaded and searched manually.

Newspapers

The Irish Newspaper Archives has published digitised copies of some Irish newspapers for the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Death notices and obituaries may refer to the deceased’s revolutionary past, while contemporary reports can detail specific ambushes, raids or skirmishes. Arrests, internments and prisoner releases were also reported in the local press.

A subscription to the website, which has more than nine million pages dating back to 1738, costs £29 a month or £149 a year. An alternative collection of Irish newspapers for the revolutionary period can be searched at britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk, and can also be accessed via findmypast.co.uk if you have a Pro-level subscription.

Military Service Pension Collection

These records, which are available at militaryarchives.ie, can be searched by name. There is a brief description of each file that also names referees who supported the application and key events described. A search using the ‘Subject Information’ field will locate any names, such as referees, or other terms found in the description of the file.

 

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