Tim Desmond, producer of this weekend’s RTÉ Documentary on One, An Unholy Trinity, reflects of the value of archive material to help sort the fiction from the facts of history.

Listen to RTÉ Documentary on One, An Unholy Trinity here.

The centenary commemorations and remembrance of the 1916 Rising was an important and successful experience for this country. Stories of heroism and loss were brought to light, often for the first time. It seemed to inspire a confidence in us that we can understand our past in order to move forward as a modern country.

The 1916 commemorations also began what amounts to almost a decade of remembrance, looking back at events connected with the War Of Independence and the Civil War. During that time, families, historians, archivists and storytellers like myself will try to sort out the reality from the fiction of many of the stories already heard and yet to be told. Most people accept that the somewhat straightforward narrative of the Rising gives way to an increasingly complex and sometimes brutal war of independence and on to that most divisive period, the Civil War.

An Unholy Trinity: Doctor Paddy Muldoon (Pic: Muldoon Family) 

This weekend’s Documentary on One, An Unholy Trinity (RTÉ Radio 1 Saturday 1.00pm, repeated Sunday 7.00pm), deals with two specific events towards the end of the civil war. One is the abandoning of a two-week old baby on the streets of Dublin. The other is the murder of a local doctor, Paddy Muldoon in Mohill, County Leitrim, five weeks later on the 18th of March 1923. The events are connected through the involvement of a priest, father Edward Ryans, who was taken to court in the child abandonment case and has long been suspected of involvement in the killing of the doctor. It is a deeply personal story, and a tragedy for the families involved. It remains a divisive issue for some people in the local area. The way the two incidents were dealt with by the state authorities, anti-treaty rebels and the Catholic Church provides lessons in how we struggled to come to terms with self-governance and independence.

Many different versions of stories become part of the folklore, the collected memory of an area. This story and this part of the world is no exception. People with Republican sympathies take a particular view, placing the doctor on one side of a divide (unjustly so) in an attempt perhaps to defend and deflect from any wrongdoing on their own side. Supporters of the church refuse to accept the wrongdoings of the priest, casting aspersions at the young woman and other mysterious forces. The relatively young and inexperienced free state government come under pressure to never properly pursue the murder case and with the agreement of the church hierarchy, facilitate the priest to move to the United States. Without material evidence, this particular story was rarely spoken of locally and the truth became lost in the versions given over time.

An Unholy Trinity: the scene of the shooting, in Mohill, Co. Leitrim

One of the few people to research the story properly is local historian Cormac Ó Súilleabháin, who included the incident in his book Leitrim’s Republican Story. He spoke to local people who had information they were reluctant to share previously, and his record of the case was crucial to exploring the story further. His work pointed myself and another researcher, Ken Boyle (a distant cousin of the Muldoon family) in the direction of archive material (both private Muldoon family archive and publicly accessible material) that shows how the free state government knew about the serious allegations against the priest, but agreed that facilitating him to leave the country was the best solution to the problem of Father Edward Ryans.  

Much of the archive material came from a nephew of the doctor, Thomas William Muldoon. As a child, he became fascinated by what had happened to his uncle in 1923. Although Thomas William spent much of his adult life working in England and Scotland, he always came back to the story and eventually moved back to the family home in Leitrim. He spoke to most of the people involved in the events including investigators, Republican officers and members of the clergy. He approached people directly implicated in the killing. Thomas William gathered a large cache of documents, letters and reports. He wanted to write a book about the injustice of his uncle’s murder and how nobody was ever put on trial for it. Thomas died in the late 1990s without ever writing his book, but he left behind a recorded oral history interview and this personal archive. This proved invaluable when making the documentary, because when matched against other archive sources, it helped to corroborate elements of the story that were previously hearsay and rumour.

An Unholy Trinity: The grave of Doctor Paddy Muldoon, in Fenagh, Co. Leitrim

While the full story and motivation of everyone involved in this story can never be fully known and the main protagonists are long dead, the documents from Thomas William combined with the papers of the doctor’s widow, Rita Lee Muldoon, and other material supplied by the Muldoon family, have allowed people like Ken Boyle and myself to put together a plausible and verifiable proposition regarding what happened, and who was involved. More importantly, this material could be corroborated by official records such as those in the Military Archives, The National Archives of Ireland, The National Library and other archives available for research.

Sometimes, reports and letters can appear in a number of collections, revealing their value further. The archive research and verification tells how the free state authorities in those early years of the state appeared to be in thrall to the power of the Catholic Church and determined to avoid a scandal at all costs. It seems little consideration was given to the widow and family of the doctor or for that matter the young woman who had given birth and to the baby abandoned in Dublin. It also appears to be an early indication of a pattern and extent of the relationship between Church and State.  

As the documentary goes to air, we have discovered even more supporting evidence, which will be included in a book being written by Ken Boyle, a longer and more detailed examination of the story. There are many more stories from the early days of the modern Irish State to be uncovered and unraveled in the coming years. The value of archive material, private and public, cannot be underestimated in teasing out the truth.

RTÉ Documentary on One, An Unholy Trinity, RTÉ Radio 1 - Saturday 1.00pm, repeated Sunday 7.00pm