The National Museum of Ireland holds a collection of over 15,000 objects relating to the revolutionary years of 1914 to 1923, telling the story of the foundation of the Irish state and the men and women who fought to achieve it. 

However, there are fewer objects associated with the War of Independence, and also a difference in the type of object collected from these two different phases of the revolution. 

Objects collected from the Rising tended to be mementoes of the participants, particularly personal objects of the leaders (now kept as a form of relic), contemporary commemorative ware, the material culture of the military organisations involved, and souvenirs of the destruction of Dublin.

Instrument of the new state

A key difference in the material culture between the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence is the geographical locations they are associated with. Most Rising material is connected to Dublin, whereas the War of Independence was characterised by guerrilla warfare conducted across the country with a strong focus in Cork, Tipperary, Limerick and other areas of the west and south. 

The collections of County Museums suggest that those who fought in the War of Independence often chose to donate their personal stories to their local museum or the county museums closest to the participants' brigade area. 

There is also some anecdotal evidence that some felt that the National Museum of Ireland was an instrument of the new state which they did not fight for, and chose to donate to other museums such as Kilmainham Gaol. While there are many stories in the NMI's collections from this phase of warfare, there is also a wealth of information in museum stores around the country to explore.

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Automatic pistol, concealed in a book, possibly one that had been the property of Sir Thomas Grattan Esmonde (of the Irish Parlimentary Party) and left in the Gresham Hotel whence it came into the possession of donor's father, who worked in the hotel at the time. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

Firearms and wepaons

The weapons of the War of Independence is a large proportion of the collection. They are striking in their variety; scarcity meant any weapon was useful and they range from shotguns used on the land, to the handguns bought abroad and smuggled in to Ireland, often by women. 

The few weapons available were passed from person to person as needed for operations by those in charge. This has resulted in many firearms coming to the collection with the label of being Michael Collins' or Eamon de Valera's gun. 


Image - Luger pistol, ammunition and cleaning kit found stashed in a Allensbury's Rusk tin, c. 1922. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland HA:2012.25

Luger pistol, ammunition and cleaning kit found stashed in a Allensbury's Rusk tin, c. 1922. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland HA:2012.25

Firearms were hidden rather than surrendered at the end of the Civil War. In the decades since they have emerged from attics and underneath floorboards of houses, found buried in gardens, dredged from canals and rivers, and brought to the museum. 

They capture the story of events such as a raids, ambushes and smuggling, and many are listed as the personal weapons of key figures.

A theme of this collection is innovation. The lack of weapons and ammunition, especially weapons that could face the powerful Lewis and Maxim machine guns of the British Army, was a consistent problem for the IRA. The collection holds a vast array of Irish made grenades, manufactured around the country to different patterns in foundries and underground workshops. 

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Experimental mortar or Big Gun, 1920. Made by Peadar Clancy and Dick McKee of the Headquarters Staff, Dublin Brigade, I.R.A. A metal tube mounted on a trestle. Described as the only piece of artillery used during the War of Independence. It was tried out by Captain Mat Furlong of the Dublin Brigade. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

One such workshop, the munitions factory in the basement of Heron and Lawless' Bicycle shop at 198 Parnell Square, also produced an experimental trench mortar (the IRA Big Gun), which was tested at Batterstown in Co Meath and misfired, resulting in the death of IRA Volunteer Matt Furlong. 

Innovation in explosives were led by the IRA's Munitions section, where chemistry student Seamus O'Donovan created 'Irish War Flour' and 'Irish Cheddar' for use in under-road land mines laid to blow up military vehicles. An example land mine case is held in the collection, made for the 9th Eastern Division (Louth), and deposited in the Museum by the maker with instructions for use. 

Guerilla warfare and the intelligence war

The nature of the warfare influences that type of material produced and used. The guerrilla warfare operated in Ireland in the War of Independence was characterised by small force of fighters mounting surprise attacks such as raids and ambushes on the British forces and police, and disappearing back into the general population. 

Such methods meant that, for example, there was no use of uniform as there was previous to 1916. There were, however, objects used in 'uniforming', such as bandoliers and Sam Brown belts, these are often seen in photographs of brigades and flying columns. Other 'uniform' items include body armour designed to be worn underneath civilian clothing, generally issued to and worn by British Intelligence Agents. 

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Imitation Glengarry cap and whistle used by several prisoners in escape from Mountjoy Prison, 12th November 1921, when seven prisoners disguised as Auxiliaries got clear away. The prisoners were Messrs. Smith, Byrne, O'Brien, Rigny, Dickson, Fitzgerald and the lender. Fitzgerald was the originator of the plan. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

A key component of guerrilla warfare is the gathering of information on the opposing force's identities and movements. As any material that would be produced from intelligence activities would likely be quickly destroyed, little has been found. However, the National Museum recently acquired an IRA Intelligence File of photographs and information on British agents, RIC and possible informants which has been a valuable addition to how we understand intelligence operations and methods during this time. 

The new government

Another large section of the collection relates to the setting up of new government bodies such as Dáil Éireann. Such material includes correspondence from government department circulars, loan bonds issued to finance the new government, military orders, papers relating to the new Dáil Courts and other organisations such as new policing bodies. 

 The Limerick Soviet of April 1919 is also represented through workers' passes and currency tokens.

Civil disobedience and incarceration

Objects of civil disobedience generally represent the refusal to acknowledge any authority of the British administration in Ireland. Government papers can be regarded as this, but another large proportion of the collection is comprised of the material culture of internment and imprisonment. 

Autograph books record the names and details of the incarcerated, carvings from beef bone and other artworks fill the collection.

Image - Ballykinlar Players theatre programme, August 1921. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

Ballykinlar Players theatre programme, August 1921. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

Publications such as The Barbed Wire news sheet and theatre programmes of the Ballykinlar Players were produced by the incarcerated, and photographs taken of music bands and football teams. There are also souvenir objects used in prison escapes, such as bolt cutters and padlocks from Kilmainham, and dummy revolvers and fake Auxiliary hats used to escape from Mountjoy. 

Another form of protest against the imposition of British authority took the form of hunger strike; undertaken by many of the incarcerated, most notably Cork Mayor Terence MacSwiney. His life mask, taken a couple of days before his death, is an iconic object of this period. 

Image - Terence McSwiney life mask, plaster. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland HE:EW.793

Terence McSwiney life mask, plaster. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland HE:EW.793

Commemorative items and personal relics

Objects saved as relics of loved ones and commemorative items are plentiful, such as postcards and memorial cards, printed and distributed as both memorial and propaganda. 

Other objects are more personal; religious artefacts which belonged to the dead are common, or an everyday object left in someone's possession after a death or execution, for example, the toothbrush which belonged to the executed Thomas Whelan, or the suit in which Peadar Clancy was killed at Dublin Castle on the night of Bloody Sunday 1920. 

Image - Kevin Barry's rosary beads and case. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland HE:EWT.346

Kevin Barry's rosary beads and case. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland HE:EWT.346

Propaganda

As well as the memorial postcards produced after a Volunteer's death, there is a vast amount of material specifically produced as propaganda. Some of the most common items are copies of the news sheet The Irish Bulletin, the official newspaper of the new Irish Government, distributing news of British raids and atrocities. 

However, many of the images produced during this time also served as propaganda, particularly those taken by W.D. Hogan (probably commissioned by the Irish Government) of protests against executions, IRA funerals and the destruction of Irish homes and business by the British forces. 

Image - Commemorative postcard for Martin Savage, 'Died for Ireland, Dec 19th, 1919' Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

Commemorative postcard for Martin Savage, 'Died for Ireland, Dec 19th, 1919' Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

Hidden histories and unusual artefacts

While the collection is ever growing, it is only recently that the National Museum has begun to make changes to its collecting in this area. It have been actively seeking out objects which tell the more varied stories not already represented. 

Such histories include stories of the female experience. However, while activities of the Cumann na mBan are represented, such as the propaganda material and objects produced as a result of incarceration, the experiences of non-participant women are absent. 

Mothers, family and friends often collected relics of the loved ones executed or killed in the conflict, and while they are an expression of her pain and loss the object mainly represents the male relative. 

Image - Photograph of Mr. Joseph McGrath in carved frame. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland HE:EW.598

Photograph of Mr. Joseph McGrath in carved frame. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland HE:EW.598

A story which is more conspicuous in its absence is that of the women who were shorn of their hair as a punishment for any perceived crime; these punishment 'bobbings' were carried out by men of both British and Irish forces. 

Cumann na mBan and other women were shorn for their association with members of the IRA. The IRA sheared women for being in a relationship with a member of the British forces, being or suspected of passing information to the British authorities, or generally associating with the British as a warning to others. 


Image - Hair shorn by the IRA during the War of Independence, with letter to Mrs Barry. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

Hair shorn by the IRA during the War of Independence, with letter to Mrs Barry. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

Artefacts of these actions were thought to not exist until 2019, when such an object came to light. This was the shorn hair of a woman which was found in the possession of Michael Barry, a Carlow born IRA member (and brother of the executed Kevin Barry), when he was arrested in late 1920.

At his trial he contended that it was his aunt's hair, cut as she joined a nunnery, though he later stated that it was the hair of a women who had been shorn as a punishment.

The hair is now on display at the National Museum of Ireland's re-design Irish Wars gallery in Soldiers and Chiefs in Collins Barracks to represent the women who suffered this kind of violence. Its unusual nature and discovery reminds us that there are still many stories hidden across the country.  

The civilian experience

Also conspicuous in its absence is the civilian experience of the conflict, which the NMI is trying to address. A recent acquisition was a partial set of breakfast china, telling the tragic story of the Smith family of 117 Morehampton Road on the morning of 21st November 1920, known as Bloody Sunday. 

The set was a prized possession of Mrs Smith, having been a wedding present to her when she married Thomas Herbert Smith. It was used as a breakfast service for the family and the tenants residing in the house. In November 1920 the family had let rooms to Lieutenant Donald Lewis MacLean, a British Army Intelligence Officer. Both MacLean and his landlord Smith were shot by a number of IRA gunmen who came to the house that morning.

The breakfast set is incomplete and the serving platter is broken, having been set for breakfast the night before and damaged on the morning of the murders. It was the only surviving object from the family home, and was kept as a memento by the family's only daughter, Cecile Smith. 

Cecile was a young child at the time, and witnessed the murder of her father and Lt MacLean from her position on the stairs. She kept the set on display in her home and told the story of seeing her father killed whenever the set was commented on. 

This witness object speaks about her father's loss and her family's trauma, and reminds us of the losses suffered by the civilian population during this conflict.

If you have artefacts which tell the untold stories of the War of Independence and Civil War, contact your National Museum of Ireland