I would really like to say something about the past and how it relates to the present and the job we do. The Four Courts were destroyed in 1922. When I was an undergraduate, I used to say that the Four Courts were burnt but as my lecturer reminded me, "no-one knows exactly what happened." Anyway, the Four Courts were destroyed. It was like burning a hole in the memory of the entire island because like all colonising powers, when the British were here, they were very good at controlling history and that, of course, meant that they tended to centralise everything so they centralised everything in the Four Courts just in time for our Civil War. Since then, under the first chair, Eoin MacNeill, the work of the commission was, essentially, to put out the fire in the head of the Irish people - in other words, to try to find what was left. As bits and pieces of paper and parchment rained down over the greater Dublin area in the wake of 1922, the first thing was for people to bring in the burnt bits and pieces. In fact, we are engaged in a project at the moment with the National Archives to recover the burnt bits, as it were. Since then, there is a great opportunity for us and Ireland in what we have been trying to do because what the British had assembled was the official record and now we are left with the unofficial record and that includes the voices of the poor; the marginalised; women, whose voices have been increasingly recovered; and all sorts of other groups who would not have got a hearing at all if all our stuff had remained.
I have been working on manuscripts in this area for over 20 years. My work in UCD is concerned with taking care of the National Folklore Collection; the massive collections of the Irish Franciscans, including the Annals of the Four Masters; and some of the earliest and most important material relating to the Irish language. That is where I come from and what I want to do with the Irish Manuscripts Commission. To finish my initial statement, the Irish Manuscripts Commission is an act of retrieval. What we are trying to do is get our memories back. The commission has been working away and produces about four or five volumes per year online and in print, essentially to give back the first draft of history to people.
I will close by saying that I think this is really important now because the commemorative cycle started with 1916, which we could all get behind, but we are entering the Civil War period and civil wars are terrible and awful. Countries like Spain have tried to deal with civil wars. The initial Spanish response to the civil war was one side won and tried to wipe the memory of the other. Then one entered a period of Spanish history where socialists tried to retrieve the anti-Franco side. What the Spanish ended up doing is what I propose we do, namely, simply putting all the evidence out there, contextualising it and letting people make up their own minds on what is out there and try to get past all the pain, hurt and feeling we have about the Civil War period.