I admit I wasn’t familiar with General Richard Mulcahy when I was offered the opportunity to work with his collection in the UCD Archives. A search of Wikipedia and the thirty-pound Atlas of the Irish Revolution – note: when researching Irish history, bring a sturdy bag and visit the library last – gave me the impression of an austere disciplinarian. This perception was reinforced when I arrived in Ireland and passed through the breezeway where the photo of his sharp eyes peering over his long nose examines the students of his alma mater in perpetuity.
During a visit to Dublin in the summer of 2018, I stumbled upon the Long Room at Trinity College. I’d only intended to peer at the Book of Kells. As an American, anything older than my own country is fascinating to me: cobbled streets, a pub dating to the fifteenth-century, medieval masonry. After examining the ornate insular illumination, the path for visitors then led me through the room that altered my life’s direction. The stacks of books were breathtaking, but what remained entrenched in my mind were the people in lab coats behind the rood screen caring for the codices. This is how I discovered Preservation. At my home school, I took a job in the Preservation department, but I would also work several hours per week in the Archives.
Originally, I thought the idea of working in archives was as interesting as it looks upon first entering a strong room: halls of shelves, filled with…boxes. In other words, severe, stern, tedious: exactly like my first impression of General Mulcahy. I knew he was controversial, but was there more to his story? Was there more to Archives?
I’ve learned that archivists discover the things even historians don’t mention. The doodles scrawled through General Mulcahy’s policy drafts indicate an occasional boredom that’s familiar – perhaps even universal. The sardonic humor in a response to a journalist’s inquiries indicates a relatable lack of patience. The comments written around a photo of the General and his wife in a newspaper indicate sarcastic self-effacement. General Mulcahy also invented his own shorthand. While I don’t understand it, the spots where it flowers in the margins shows me what was important to him.
The most poignant document I encountered, however, was his personal account of his meeting with Padraig Pearse at Arbour Hill Prison on April 30, 1916. He writes with unusual eloquence and detail about what he experienced: the temperature of the room, the glass of water on the table, his Commander-in-Chief prostrate on the bare floor.
“The picture of a man in peace,” he writes of Pearse, “…[was] filled already with all the beauty of creation that lay behind the fuss, the fright and friction that disfigured the face of the daily world.”
The shift in his normal brusque manner to one of melodic reminiscence reminds me of my own changes on this journey. I have now worked as an archivist for a year, and my attitude has grown from reluctance into intrigue. There are occasional days where I’m stuck on a single document for an hour, poring over its weight and detail. When I finish a collection, I mourn the loss of a companion. In Archives, it is our job to link the personalities of the past with students of the present. We’re liaisons between memory and discovery. I can’t comment on the controversial aspects of General Mulcahy’s career, but he spent decades in service to the people of Ireland. It has been a privilege to discover the humanity beneath history’s narrative, and I am grateful to Archives for the opportunity to discover new secrets each day.
- This guest blog was contributed by Kate Foster, an exchange student in UCD for Semester 2 and an intern in the Archives. Her home school is the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she studies Irish history and raises two daughters.