Wednesday, April 05, 2017


I was very much looking forward to this event. Catriona Crowe is a legend in her own time and Myles Dungan is a consummate broadcaster.

Catriona is appropriately billed under the title Archivist and Activist and I cannot think of a better billing. She has devoted herself to "preserving and providing access" to a host of both old and newly emerging archive material, and if it comes to a choice between the terms in that description, while she clearly sees the need to preserve, without which you've nothing to share, she happily describes herself as an access junkie.

I have experienced Myles as an interviewer. He does his homework, but unlike a certain other well known broadcaster, he doesn't show it off to the detriment of the interviewee. He uses it to nudge you in the right direction from time to time in a non-intrusive way. I suspected, however, that Catriona wouldn't need too much nudging.

Roisin Higgins did the introductions in the course of which she gave us some background to the Irish Association of Professional Historians who are co-sponsoring the event along with the National Library of Ireland.


Before we launch into the subject matter, Myles has to make contact with the NLI's recently installed radio mic system, normally a task for a studio crew. Catriona had already pushed her own button and was able to guide the veteran broadcaster onto the airwaves.

The first thing we learned, when it all got underway, was that Catriona was a rebellious, albeit a thinking, child. While this may have caused her some bad moments in her schooldays and when she eventually got a job, these two qualities have stood her well in later life.

She has fought hard for her archives, pushing and conspiring with her funders as appropriate. That she got such cooperation in her conspiracies along the way is testimony to her own obvious dedication to her cause and her ability to persuade others to support her.

Gordon Brewster's family in the 1911 Census

Catriona is a great advocate of public service, both in the giving and in the using. The project for which she will be most remembered is surely the magnificent digitisation of the 1901 and 1911 Censuses.

She recounted the fascinating story of her cooperation with the Canadian census from which the Irish took their template, her conspiring with the dreaded Irish Department of Finance, both for hosting and technical structure, and her hiring the cheapest tender which turned out to be a magnificent Polish tech team. Thrilling stuff all round.

But the point to come out of it was that if the whole operation had been contracted out, rather than run within the public sector itself, we would have nothing approaching the quality product we have today.

The dedication of the public servants, here and abroad, who completely bought into the project, combined with an outside team whose objective was to provide a quality service rather than just milk the system, produced a magnificent product and all within a very tight budget.

The big problem confronting the National Archives is a lack of space. This is a dynamic institution in the sense that every passing year adds mightily to the store of documents which should be handed over to it and which need to be safely stored, catalogued and made accessible to the public.

Currently the Archive is having to refuse documents from State departments and it doesn't have a conference or exhibition space, not to mind adequate staff.

Catriona recalled a momentary aberration by the Department of Finance, late in the last century, when, out of the blue, they authorised the hiring of five archivists, including Catriona herself. This seems to have become a frozen moment in time as far as the Department is concerned and the Archive is now considered looked after in perpetuity.

The other thing Catriona will be remembered for is the Adoption Contact Register.

This all started when she came in contact with an Irish lady who had been adopted by an American family way back. The lady was perfectly happy with her adoptive parents but a lingering question of identity led her to try and seek out her birth mother.

Catriona poked around in the archive and came up with a Department of Foreign Affairs file reference. When the files were dug out of a big uncatalogued pile, they revealed lists of thousands of American adoptions with information linking birth mothers to adoptive families.

Clearly this information could not just be released but Catriona felt that people should know of its existence. The files were closed to the public and she felt that this would have to be made clear to avoid an army of birth mothers freaking out at the thought of a corresponding army of adopted children turning up on their doorsteps.

The Department (Tánaiste) put out a press release but omitted to say the files were closed. Joe Duffy, then a researcher, got Catriona onto the Gay Byrne show where she quickly reassured the birth mothers of Ireland. This launched Catriona into the world of public speaking and, as Myles wryly observed, she hasn't shut up since.

The current mother and baby home scandal along with the assertion by the religious orders that they have more than adequately discharged their obligations towards redress, brings into sharp focus the records still largely held by these congregations. Catriona is vehement that these records, along with those of HSE, for example, should be handed over to the Archive.

You would never think, from her continuing passionate advocacy, that Catriona has just recently retired from the Archive. But when you're taught history by Robin Dudley Edwards and T Desmond Williams, and women's history by Sr. Ben, it clearly becomes part of your DNA.

So The Powers That Be can brace themselves. They are far from having heard the last from Catriona Crowe.

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