Drama and archives: The Bulletin & Persons Unknown

To support further public engagement with our collections, since 2016 we have been leading on a series of projects mixing audio drama with a close reading of our archival records. Our previous collaborations with Fin Kennedy and Tamasha Theatre Company explored pivotal moments in British and global history. Starting with our project on South Asia and the First World War culminating in five short audio plays on the themes of loyalty and dissent, we then worked on a series of three further audio plays on Caribbean, Yemeni and Indian seafarers against a backdrop of turbulence and uncertainty in the interwar period. We have now worked again with Fin, and his new company, Applied Stories, on this new departure for us.

Last year, in the summer of 2021, the Outreach Team started exploring how, in light of the major centenaries in Ireland, we could respond in our own way to such a significant set of anniversaries. We knew that our collections held a rich source of records and that these histories were very relevant not only to those here but elsewhere both of Irish heritage and others. Our education colleagues were going to work on resources about the Partition of Ireland, for us the focus became what preceded this, what is now widely referred to as the Irish War of Independence.

Working with The National Archives military historian, Will Butler, who offered records advice and sage guidance we started to sketch out the parameters of our research which led to us focusing on two key aspects of the war. The first was propaganda, and the desire to explore both the efforts of the British administration in Ireland and the Republicans attempts to win that war. Secondly, we focused on the nature of conflict and the efforts of the British state in dealing with the insurgency, in particular through the Courts of Enquiry records that Will had introduced us to.

As in the past, these collaborations hand over a lot of autonomy to the writers and producers to find their voice in response to our records. In the stories Fin Kennedy and Barbara Bergin tell, there may be much that will shock, and there will be others who would present these stories differently. What is undeniable is that these are vital histories that require facing up to.

What follows is a Q&A with both writers, giving us an insight into what it was like for them to visit The National Archives and research their plays and how it shaped what they ultimately wrote.

©Imperial War Museum Q71708

Listen to The Bulletin and Persons Unknown

Please be aware that the plays focus on themes of violence, prejudice, hatred and military occupation and may evoke strong emotions.

Fin, can you tell us more about your experience of visiting The National Archives, what you found and how it led to your play, Persons Unknown?

The National Archives is a fascinating place to conduct research. Archives researchers Will Butler, Michael Mahoney and Iqbal Singh had done the legwork in focusing on a very specific set of themes for us two to look at. They presented us with several boxes of once-classified correspondence between Dublin Castle and Westminster, which revealed the inner workings of the colonial administration’s attempts to control the information side of what was clearly a ferocious guerrilla war spiralling out of their control in an age long before social media, or even mass media really.

I spent about two weeks in the archives earlier this year, and was totally blown away by what I found. The backdrop was the Irish War of Independence 1920–21, a time I knew very little about, despite my Irish roots. The team at the archives knew that the story about the youthful Irish Bulletin team was a play on its own (they were right) but were also keen to explore the nature of the military conflict that could also reflect more on what was going on for the British side, ideally based on the transcripts of the military Courts of Enquiry, which had been set up under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act.

The Courts of Enquiry were intended to replace coroner’s courts into unexplained deaths, essentially as an information management tool to restrict information about the large uptick in unexplained deaths which was occurring as a direct result of the policy to flood the country with the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans. The records held by the Archives are many and varied, though all make for grim reading. The language is quite sparse and factual, even for the most brutal murders, and seemed intended to downplay what was going on. They certainly didn’t seem to be interested in inquiring too deeply. Most conclusions read ‘died as a result of shock and haemorrhage due to bullet wounds caused by person or persons unknown’ – this latter phrase provided my title.

I became very interested in the fact that these Courts were staffed by just three Army officers of different ranks, none with any prior legal or medical specialism. That number seemed to be a great cast size for quite a tense psychological drama about what were (mostly) honourable men, who had fought in the Great War, but were now being asked to take part in a much more nakedly cynical exercise.

I was reminded of a stage play by David Hare called Plenty, set in the 1950s around the Suez Crisis, in which characters who had fought with honour in World War Two suddenly found themselves caught up in an indefensible aggressive imperial venture, which caused them to question the moral character of their superiors, and even of Britain itself. I wanted to do something similar here, and to follow those men on their lunch breaks and cigarette breaks, as they mull over what they have been tasked with.

In my play, the different ranks offered a neat cross section of ages and war experiences, which could be compared and, within that, different motivations or justifications around duty and honour to try and cling onto the idea that they are on the right side. The truth was a lot murkier of course, and the theme of loyalty quickly emerged: to what extent each was prepared to go along with such a cynical imperial exercise. Barbara was a brilliant sounding board for all this, she was already an expert in this period due to another project.

Barbara pointed out that one of the major figures behind all this, General Sir Henry Tudor, did very well out of it, and went on to enact an identical policy in Palestine and Transjordan, then British Protectorates, with similarly tragic results. This blindness or official obfuscation about the human cost of such policies became the framing device for my play, and located it within a much larger imperial timeline.

Barbara, how does the archive in London compare to Ireland? Can you say more about your research for your play The Bulletin, and about the propaganda war?

It’s been said more than once that Irish Revolution is one of the best documented in the world. In Ireland a vast digital archive is freely available online. Incredible work emerging from a new generation of historians is illuminating previously overlooked narratives, the role of women, workers and the Irish diaspora. In addition to this are manifold oral histories, anecdotes, songs, the stories passed down – the connection to the history of this period still lives and breathes. So, I arrived at The National Archives in London already pretty well versed in the history of the period.

However, seeing the other side of the story was fascinating on many levels. When I spent the first day with my fellow writer, Fin Kennedy, and the Archives team looking through files they had set aside for us, I thought a week is never going to be enough… or even a year! It was overwhelming in the best sense of the word.

It was quietly exhilarating to physically touch hand-written pieces of paper, police intelligence reports, documents captured in raids, death threats, hastily scribbled notes and private letters from one hundred years ago.

I was clearly struck by the random nature of what was contained in a lot of the files; it seemed to indicate they didn’t have a very clear idea of what was going on in Ireland or how to deal with it. It’s also possible that there was a lot of missing information: there are well documented reports of fires out the back of Dublin Castle before the British withdrew.

Before I arrived at the Archives, I’d assumed this big imperial power would somehow have it all together when it seems the opposite was true. War is always chaos, but when the policy is to pretend it’s not a war, it becomes even more complicated.

The military Courts of Enquiry files made for grim reading. Unsettling and with the same outcome most of the time, killed by person’s unknown. Then there were missing files as in the Ellen Quinn case, featured in both plays and which Fin’s play Person’s Unknown reimagines.  Ellen was shot by Black and Tans while sitting on a wall nursing her baby but the file from the military court of enquiry had disappeared. Upon further investigation, I found her name in another file the Archive Staff helped me locate. This was an application made by her husband seeking compensation for her death, written on the front of the file in red letters was “Not to be sent to Ireland”. Inside, calculations of what a life was worth are argued back and forth, a woman’s life as a non-wage earner meant she was worth nothing. But then, intriguingly, the correspondence states that the details in this case are so horrific that the claim should be paid. The file, therefore, made reference to the missing court of enquiry file.  Even though that file had “disappeared”, the archive held a footprint, and yet another perspective on a tragic story.

Fin and I spent an afternoon looking through propaganda materials, a folder that had “Propaganda Ideas” written on the front, contained suggestions that reveal just how badly the British were losing the propaganda war. These included planting a letter in a British newspaper from a psychic medium who claimed to have met the ghost of Kevin Barry. In her vision, Barry had seen the error of his ways and renounced his beliefs.

Propagandist Basil Clarke’s efforts to build credibility by occasionally issuing reports unfavourable to the British were sabotaged by his own side. His letters revealed his many attempts to explain his policy, often repeating the same points. I guess they must have been falling on deaf ears. Among his letters I found little scraps of paper with doodles on them, and in an instant, he became humanised to me – randomly doodling as he speaks, or thinks, or talks on the phone.  This is the great power of this kind of work, how a scrap of paper can reveal nuance, humanity and complexity, just like our histories.

Warren Fisher’s report on Ireland made for a fascinating read, some of his observations were quite enlightened, and he advocates granting Ireland Dominion status in early 1920. However, he is also disparaging about the Irish who he describes as “mischievous children”.

The Mark Sturgis diaries provided an excellent insight to the British administration in Dublin Castle. He was a witty and engaging diarist. Though the diaries were written to be published and read, they reveal much of an administration at odds with each other as well as the enemy. Sturgis knew little about Ireland before he arrived but his attitudes change as the war goes on. While he becomes critical of British policy, he too, is contemptuous about the “mean, dishonest, insufferable Irishmen” who, in his opinion, need a good whipping.

This attitude to the Irish intensifies as the situation spirals out of British control. In many ways, this discriminatory view of the Irish caused them to underestimate their enemy. This is evident in relation to the propaganda war.

By heavily censoring all the newspapers it was impossible to get news about what was happening out of Ireland. For Irish Republicans, this was an imperative. The Irish Bulletin was written and printed in Dublin but was sent to international journalists and opposition politicians. From an initial mailing list of 30 names it quickly became the most reliable source of news about Ireland. Before long, it was being quoted in the House of Commons. The ingenuity and success of The Bulletin in turning world opinion against what the British regime was doing in Ireland was influential in bringing the British to the negotiating table.

In a global context, what was happening in Ireland was inspiring to other nations in their independence struggles. The Bulletin was quick to make connections with Indian nationalists and link the Croke Park massacre with the Amritsar massacre.

So, how to bring the story together? 

The archives team were interested in focusing on the propaganda/information war and so I thought the story of The Bulletin could provide an overview of the war while the diary entries of Sturgis would be a great counterpoint. Using as much of the archives collection as possible I hope the play will provide stepping stones into the archive for listeners who are interested to know more about this fascinating period.

In bringing stories to life we humanise them. Once we locate characters in everyday life, they become more like us, more nuanced and complex. Hearing other people’s stories and being listened to opens us up in profound ways. It makes it harder for us to polarize when our perceived enemies are not so very different from us. That is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago.

Iqbal, why do these projects, and what do you hope to achieve in terms of how you would like the general public to engage with the records you hold?

In my role at The National Archives I help design and lead on the delivery of these audio drama projects. I am always seeking new directions aiming to draw out more of the complexity in how we tell what are too neatly termed empire stories. The British Empire was not just one thing, and context is important in understanding its many facets, many of which can also appear contradictory.

I want to end by echoing Barbara’s words. That the use of drama when done well, allows us to see matters from different perspectives, and allows us ultimately to achieve a degree of warmth and humanity that a straight reading of the records can hide. Audio drama has proved a powerful tool for the archives to reach out to new audiences in a way that reaches many more not only here but around the world. Inevitably what is shared will be subjective, and at times very troubling, but it’s the opportunity to work with those at the top of their craft, who are able to deliver something that is in and of itself beautiful that is part of the prize. 

Read more about our records relating to the Irish War of Independence

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