The National Archives: An Appointment with History

By Eoin Glackin

The Irish delegation at the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty December 6, 1921, now in the care of the National Archives. Seated from left, Arthur Griffith, Eamon Duggan, Michael Collins, Robert Barton. Standing from left are Robert Erskine Childers, George Gavan Duffy, and John Chartres.

When standing at the entrance to The National Archives I felt slightly out of my depth. My wandering mind had conjured up the notion of a dusty place for academics and historians, with an almost Freemason-like exclusivity.

Within seconds of being inside the reading room, the main area open to the public, I saw a man unassumingly approach the desk. He told the archivist that his brother-in-law had been a very successful competitive Irish dancer and was wondering was there any information on him and his dancing career. The archivist answered him straight away with a helpful, “Let’s have a look.” The would-be family historian and, by osmosis, myself were instantly set at ease by the affable archivist. That is the mission of the National Archives after all: to offer the public an insight into the dustiest corners of Irish history. You will find anything from forgotten family wills to treasures like the original Anglo-Irish treaty, signed 100 years ago on Dec 6th 1921 by historical icons such as Michael Collins and Winston Churchill. Here the devil is not in the detail, Ireland is.

Signatories of the Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921, image courtesy of The National Archives

In conversation with one extremely personable archivist, Elizabeth McCoy, about the type of things the archive holds, she brought something startling to my attention. It was an artefact from such a dark occurrence in recent Irish history that I was shocked to have never even heard of it.

The Cavan Orphanage fire of 1943 saw 35 young girls and one elderly cook lose their lives in St. Joseph’s Industrial School, run by the nuns of the Poor Clares. There was ample time to safely evacuate but out of fear of the girls being seen by the fire fighters in their night dresses, the nuns instead locked them in a hard-to-reach dormitory on the top floor. Some girls who fled on time survived but the majority, following the nun’s orders, met a gruesome and unnecessary end.

Elizabeth produced folder after folder of documents connected with the tragedy. I found myself losing an hour or more reading through the transcript from the official inquest in 1943. I found myself in awe and horror at the official attempts to exonerate the nuns, into whose hands the care of these poor children was entrusted.

There is not even a permanent monument to the victims in Cavan town and it seems only a few articles have popped up over the years in national press to little attention. There in my hands, however, was a direct link to the facts of that tragic night.

That was the profound moment of my visit to the National Archives, the realisation that I was standing in a library unlike any other. It is a library where every word in every book adds up to one grand, ongoing tale. It is the story of our shared national identity in which we all play a part, generation to generation.

If you are curious to pay a visit to the National Archives on Bishop St. Dublin 8, be sure to bring two forms of photo ID and a proof of address. Once you present those items you are instantly given a “reading card” with your membership info and you are set. 

Due to current COVID-19 protocols, you must book a slot ahead of your visit. New slots are made available every Friday morning at 9am from

The service is completely free and a right to every citizen, so take advantage. What piece of the great Irish story can you unearth?

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