by Gavin Finlay

The American Civil War of 1861-65 is one of modern history’s most catastrophic conflicts. With approximately 750,000 fatalities and 400,000 wounded, it remains the deadliest war in US history. Yet relatively little is known in Ireland, or indeed officially recognised here, in this the sesquicentennial of the war, that it was also arguably one of the most significant conflicts in Irish history. Over 1.6 million Irish people lived in the United States by the 1860s and approximately 170,000 Irish-born men fought, and perhaps tens of thousands died, during the conflict (the vast majority for the Union). These figures almost mirror the numbers of Irish who fought in World War I. In other words, the American Civil War represents the second largest deployment of armed manpower in the history of Irish militarism. Indeed, recently it has been described as Ireland “great forgotten conflict”. The Irish experience in the American Civil War is a popular theme amongst American historians, and the Irish-American community in general, where it continues to be studied and commemorated across the Atlantic.

In the coming decade of commemoration, the Irish state will, and rightly so, remember those who participated in the calamitous and tragic 1914-18 war (and of course the revolutionary 1916-23 period). While recent commemorative gestures have been welcome, such as the Irish Defence Forces partaking in the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg last December, there is still no official memorial to the tens of thousands of Irish emigrants who perished in the American Civil War. In this year of The Gathering, when we reach out to the global Irish diaspora, perhaps a proper acknowledgement of Irish who fought in America’s defining conflict is long overdue.

The National Library of Ireland has a number of documents, as well as dozens of books and memoirs, on Irish participation in the American Civil War that will interest any scholar or enthusiast of this fascinating period of (Irish) American history. What follows is a focus on just one set of documents the library has in its possession…

Listed as Ms. 18,327 are papers in the NLI’s manuscipt collections relating to John O’Neill, originally of Portarlington, Co. Laois, who served in the Federal Army during the American Civil War, and who died in Andersonville, Georgia in 1864. The letters and documents date between c.1860-1880s, and include some correspondence between John and his family in Portarlington. Most fascinating is a detailed and protracted correspondence between John’s mother, Dora O’Neill (and her legal representatives) and the US War Department, War Pension Agency, Sanitary Commission and US Treasury in Washington regarding her claim for a dependent’s war pension for her “missing presumed dead son”. Dora was ultimately successful.

In this letter, Private O’Neill writes to his mother in May 1964 during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia. This battle was the second major battle of Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s Overland Campaign and in total involved around 100,000 Union forces and 52,000 Confederates. The resulting casualty toll of 32,000 makes the Battle of Spotsylvania one of the top five deadliest battles of the Civil War.

Manuscript 18,327

Letter from John O'Neill, Army of the Potomac, to his mother on 10 May 1864. NLI ref. Ms. 18,327

“Doubtless you will hear of the great battle in the papers”, he writes. “Now as I write to you we are … in the rifle pits about two miles from Spotyslvania Court House; the shots are beginning to be fired at the advancing rebels by our men. I do not know what way it will end yet, both parties are equal at present…”

 Concerned for her son, Mrs O’Neill wrote to the US War Department on 12 September 1864. In the response from Washington below, Mrs O’Neill is informed that “Private John O’Neill of Co. 26 30th Regiment New York Volunteers, appears from the latest information received at this office, (dated August 31, 1864) to be as follows: “Missing in action, supposed to be a prisoner”.”

Manuscript 18,327

From Assistant Adjutant General at the War Department in Washington to Mrs Dora O'Neill on 6 October 1864. NLI ref. Ms. 18,327

There was very little comfort for Dora O’Neill at the start of 1865 in a communication from John Bowne, Superintendent Hospital Directory in Washington, D.C. Her son John is still taken as missing and “is supposed to be a Prisoner of War”.

Manuscript 18,327

Letter from the U.S. Sanitary Commission to Mrs Dora O'Neill, February 1865. NLI ref. Ms. 18,327

More than twenty years after the war, Mrs Dora O’Neill received correspondence from the Bureau of Pensions enclosing a Certificate (No. 251.154) for a pension “this day issued in your favor”. She is told that when she returns the “properly prepared vouchers” to a recognized attorney in the US, she will be sent a check  for the “pension then due”. For his trouble, the recognized attorney who was based in Winsted, Connecticut, was to receive $25.

Manuscript 18,327

From the U.S. Bureau of Pensions to Mrs Dora O'Neill, January 1889. NLI ref. Ms. 18,327

A document from the office of Sidney L. Willson of the US Pension Agency, For Payment of Pensions in Washington, D.C., enclosed the O’Neill’s original pension certificate and instructions. It is noted that the pension will be payable quarterly, on the fourth day of March, June, September and December.

Manuscript 18,327

From US Pension Agency. NLI ref. Ms. 18,327

More than 20 years after the O’Neill family of Portarlington, Co. Laois started their campaign to receive a pension following the death of John O’Neill, soldier in the Union Army, at Andersonville, Georgia in 1864, we see this memo from Goodbody and Webb, Stockbrokers of Dame Street in Dublin. Dated April 1889, it confirms an accompanying cheque for £492 14s 2d “being proceeds of American draft $2419.4. We have allowed you 48 [and] 7/8 d per dollar.”

Manuscript 18,327

From Goodbody & Webb on Dame Street, Dublin, April 1889. NLI ref. Ms. 18,327

If you have any information about John O’Neill, we’d love to hear it…

(Gavin Finlay is an M.Phil Public History graduate of Trinity College Dublin. As part of the M.Phil programme he completed a short research internship here at the National Library of Ireland. An article based on his research on Irish experience in in the American Civil War will be published in History Ireland later in 2013. He works for Historical Walking Tours of Dublin.)


Noel Bannon is a teacher at St. Michael’s Holy Faith Secondary School in Finglas, Dublin 11, which is a designated  DEIS school (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools), and he talks about his school’s experience of Poetry Aloud…

I have been involved with Poetry Aloud for the past three years and it has been a tremendously positive experience for the students who have participated and for me as a teacher. For those who volunteered to take on the challenge, the process of preparing to speak poetry in a venue like the National Library of Ireland fosters confidence and self-belief. Helping to prepare students – many of whom I don’t normally teach – has given me an opportunity to get to know them, encourage them, and value their uniqueness.

Poetry Ireland

Poetry Aloud is back! This annual poetry speaking competition is organised by the NLI and Poetry Ireland. Last year, over 1,600 post-primary students from all over Ireland took part.

In our first year of entering the competition, I invited students from my third year and Transition Year classes to get involved. Twelve students reached the agreed standard for competing in the National Library. That year was a learning experience for all of us and students were proud of their achievement in speaking their poems to the best of their ability.  A number of students were commended by the judges and one student was picked for the national semi-final. In our second year, I invited all students to participate. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, approximately 20 students (ranging from first years to fifth years) stayed the course and spoke their prepared poems in the NLI. Three of these students reached the national semi-final standard. In our third year, 32 students (ranging from first years to sixth years) competed in the National Library. Six students reached the national semi-final stage. Three students (two seniors and a first year) reached the national final. Shauna Hession, 5th Year, was chosen as the winner of the senior category and overall winner of the Poetry Aloud competition 2012.  Emmanuella Pomah, 5th year, was awarded second place in the senior category.  First and second place in the senior category to students from our school!

Overall Winner of Poetry Aloud

Shauna Hession, overall winner of Poetry Aloud 2012, pictured with her proud teacher Noel Bannon and Fiona Ross, Director of the National Library of Ireland

My advice to any teacher thinking about entering the competition is to jump right in. Begin with a smaller group and gain knowledge and experience by attending the Poetry Aloud competition. Check out previous participants on the website. I had concerns about diction, accents and the type of pronunciation that might be expected. I made a conscious decision to let the students be themselves and concentrate on the emotions of the poem while insisting that every word should be audible.

Poetry Aloud 2012

Emmanuella Pomah, runner-up in the Senior Category of Poetry Aloud 2012 with Shauna Hession, overall winner. Both are students at St. Michael's Secondary School in Finglas, Dublin 11.

Participating in Poetry Aloud has certainly raised the profile and awareness of poetry across our school community. Students who did not enter the competition almost certainly had participants standing before them reciting poetry. This year, Shauna and Emmanuella spoke their poems at our school talent show before an audience of 400 people each night, and you could hear a pin drop! Finally, as the competition involves a mixture of being prepared to learn the poems, controlling nerves when speaking in public, and some dramatic presence, you may be surprised at the students who turn out to be exceptional performers.

Poetry Anthologies

In addition to the prescribed poems, competitors can choose to speak a poem from these anthologies

Bean an Phoist says: If you’re a teacher thinking of entering your students in Poetry Aloud 2013, then you’ll find the entry form (and more information) here. Closing date is Friday 27 September!



by Louise O’Connor, Conservation

For most of us, paper is an everyday, throw-away thing. We may hang on to concert tickets, or precious letters, some old photographs or important family certificates. But what if you had to keep those things for ever and ever? Maybe you’re the family historian or an avid comic collector – then paper is a problem, as it’s not really built to last very long, and it’s all got to do with acid.

Paper is made from cellulose. Until the late 19th century, this was sourced from linen or cotton rags. With the industrial revolution came new methods of making paper from woodpulp, which proved a very cheap solution for everyday short-life items like newspapers, magazines or writing paper. However, woodpulp cannot make strong paper as its fibres are not long like cotton or linen, and it contains lignin. To make paper strong enough for a short lifetime of a few days’ use, various chemicals are added to the pulp. These chemicals degrade very quickly, turning acidic (something is acidic if it has a pH of less than 7) and breaking the cellulose fibres. The paper then yellows and releases a distinctive smell, like that from old paperbacks. This ‘brittle paper’ is a huge problem in libraries across the world, and of course here at the National Library too.

Brittle paper

When we say brittle paper, we really mean brittle!

But it’s woodpulp paper that many of us have in our family or hobby archives, so how do we protect and preserve our family papers? Here’s some tips…

  1. Hands off!
  2. Lights out!
  3. Avoid sticky situations
  4. Box it
  5. Absolutely no pongy plastics
  6. Fitting in counts!
  7. Location  Location  Location

Hands off!

Keeping your family collections absolutely pristine would mean having to lock them away in cold dark storage for ever! But that hardly makes much sense if you want to enjoy your collection… However, it’s important to limit handling, as this causes damage in two ways. Firstly, the natural oils on our skins can be transferred onto paper surfaces. These oils are absorbed into the porous paper and slowly turn acidic. A well-thumbed book will often have dark fragile edges, whilst fingerprints are especially problematic for some types of old photographs. There is a huge debate in the library world on whether to wear gloves when using library collections. While gloves can prevent oil transfer, they also dull your sense of touch, which you need when handling delicate things. Clean hands are the best compromise, and remember rough handling will lead to creases and tears, which only get worse with even more handling.

Light damage

Light damage to a watercolour

Lights out!

Light will permanently damage any colours and will cause the paper to age more quickly, turning it yellow and yep – more acidic! In this stark example, the edge of the drawing was protected from the light, but the centre has been changed as light damage has caused the blue pigment to fade.

Avoid framing your most treasured documents and putting them on display forever. The best thing is to take a photograph and put this on display or use it as a reading copy…

Avoid Sticky Situations

If you have something that is torn – DON’T repair it yourself … and NEVER use Sellotape – or any other tape! The tape may ‘fix’ your documents for now– but it’s BAD in the long-term! If you want your object to last forever the repair needs to last forever too. Everyday stationery supply tapes (and glues) can vary a lot but in most cases, it’s the glue that’s the problem. It’s often a rubber that degrades very quickly. As a thermoplastic polymer it ages and goes through three stages – from gooey > to yellow > to crispy. The glue often ends up looking like toffee, hiding the text underneath and becoming seriously stuck to the porous fibres in the paper.

Gooey (technical term) tape residue

Gooey (technical term) tape residue

It is acidic (acids+paper = bad if you haven’t guessed already) and will turn the paper see-through and will eventually crack and breakaway. It’s also best to avoid document tapes and glues that are sold as ‘archival’, as previous form has shown us that this isn’t always the case! If it needs repairing, always consult a conservator and keep the tape for your Xmas wrapping!

Dail Eireann

See what we mean!

BOX it!

It may seem simple or even pretty boring, but putting your precious family archives in boxes will help their preservation! At the very least a box will guard against dust collecting on your paper, eventually sticking to paper fibres with weak chemical bonds. But not any old cardboard will do – ideally your box needs to be acid-free, lignin-free and with an alkaline buffer for ‘permanent’ storage. Normal cardboard boxes will be made from woodpulp paper that will turn acidic very quickly, creating an acidic ‘micro-climate’. Your paper collection will absorb the acids, speeding up its degradation. It can be tricky to source specialist boxes, but one way around this is choosing archival folders and sleeves as a barrier. Normal stationery supplies are not suitable for long-term storage. If you can’t get your hands on archival card folders, then use non-bleached, acid-free, lignin-free artists’ card to make your own folders.

Absolutely no Pongy Plastics

Plastics sleeves are great for storing single sheets of paper. But there is good plastic and there is bad plastic. Most commercial stationery plastic sleeves are made from non archival ‘bad’ plastics. Bad plastics such as PVC (think budget plastic raincoats) degrade very quickly – within 30 years! PVC and other bad plastics contain other chemicals called plasticisers, that will also decrease the preservation of your papers. As the plasticisers degrade, they cause the plastic to become sticky and yellow and to pong!

Non-woven polyester (traded as Mylar and Melinex) is a see-through ‘good’ plastic and will not degrade. It is used for storing some printed papers, as the static will keep tears in place, and the polyester will prevent acids transferring from one paper to another by providing a barrier. However it’s not a one-stop-shop for all of your needs – don’t use it to house fragile photographs, prints or drawings!

Fitting in counts!

If your box is too big, then the documents and prints will slouch and crease; if it’s too small, they will be cramped and the pressure can lead to sticking. If you store things in smaller boxes or folders with the edges sticking out then they’ll quickly get tattered, torn and will fall apart. So if you have lots of paper, organise it all by size. Unfold sheets if you can. Don’t use paperclips or staples to keep items together, as they rust and eat into the paper. It’s also best to remove Post-its, rubber bands, twine, paper clips and any staples you find from the paper if you can. Next – it’s time to divide, folder up and label everything – yep, may not be exciting – but will protect fragile items and make it much easier to find things later.

Rust damage

Rust from metal paper clips on the left, and from metal staples on the right...

Location  Location  Location

Now that you’ve “housed” everything, you need to find your collection a permanent home. Paper is extremely sensitive to ambient temperature and relative humidity and so it needs a location that’s consistently cool, dry and away from direct sunlight or heat sources (like a radiator or a chimney breast). Water can seriously damage paper collections, and damp places can cause mould to break out … in all colours of the rainbow! Sometimes mould isn’t visible, but you’ll get a distinctive smell (like a damp cloth) and the paper will have a gritty powdery feel. So don’t put your precious things in the shed, attic or cellar. They’re your family’s heritage!

Mould damage

A book with mould damage

For more advice, explore some of these links below, or leave me a comment!