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Catriona Crowe: ‘Ireland grew up a lot in the last 10 years’

Archivist and author on her childhood, 40-year career at the National Archives and her ‘problem’ with Sinn Féin

She’s always slept late, but recently Catriona Crowe seems “brainwashed by Morning Ireland to wake at seven to turn on Mary Wilson. D’you know what happens then? ... I go back to sleep with the radio on and dream I’m having a long discussion on some serious topic with a bunch of people, and they won’t listen to me. I keep saying, ‘please let me in, I have something really serious to say about this. Mary, you’re not sharing this properly.’ Then I wake up and realise I’ve been fighting with the people on the radio in my dreams. It’s insane.”

She tells it well, and the amusing story from this seriously impressive woman seems somehow emblematic of the mix that is Crowe. She has much to say, on tonnes of subjects, but is also great fun, with a mischievous humour.

You can’t not notice Crowe. She is the former head of special projects at the National Archives who managed the Census Online Project, putting the 1901 and 1911 censuses online and making them freely available to everyone, as well as an author and media regular. Usually wearing black, with long silvering hair and a distinctive, mellifluous voice, she is a well-connected, outspoken public intellectual who’d leave you breathless with her breadth of knowledge. She’s also warm and great crack, full of gossipy asides and colourful observations. No stuffy archivist buried in an eyrie, she’s a great communicator, bringing history alive, democratising knowledge with humanity.

She retired in 2016 after 40 years at the National Archives, where she was its public face.

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“Everybody thinks I was director of the National Archives. No, no, no, no. No.” She started at the bottom rung, recruitment grade, remaining there for 30 years. Eschewing administration, she didn’t apply for promotion. By retirement, she was one level above recruitment grade. All the same, she managed high-profile projects. “I was doing what I wanted. I had freedom.”

For a retiree, she’s fierce busy. On the Royal Irish Academy’s (RIA) Michel Déon Prize judging panel, she’s assessing nearly 100 books in two months. She curates Galway International Arts Festival’s First Thought talks strand.

Crowe is a great woman around town, a presence at events and theatre.

She grew up in a semi-D in a new “garden estate” in Stillorgan, south Co Dublin, the eldest of five. Her civil servant father worked up from clerical officer to assistant secretary. The family “went from lower middle class to middle class”; steeped in public service and “serious trade union people. One of the last of the great civic society movements.”

The siblings (Matthew, Máirín, Patrick; Michael died aged 46) still gather regularly, specialising in “major disputes after lunch, which go right back to my father, who would say on a Sunday, having listened to the radio, ‘Conor Cruise-O’Brien is a ganat’.” Ganat was “gnat”, “meaning a complete eejit you couldn’t pay any attention to. And a debate would ensue after my mother’s beautiful roast beef. We still do that.”

Born in 1952, she missed free secondary by one year, but won three scholarships, “because my mother told me I better”. At Sion Hill, one of the first things she learned about was class. “I was a scholarship girl. I was class-distinguished already.” She recalls a nun, presuming she mightn’t have extra shoes, “suggesting ‘you can tell your mother we have spare indoor shoes you can wear’. I realised instantly this was an insult and I was not going to tell my mother. I said no thank you Sister. I’m fine. Still, I did get to read The Communist Manifesto in the school library.”

She was the second in her extended family to go to college. She recalls history professor Ronan Fanning later remarking how you’d recognise boys coming from Gonzaga, Clongowes, Belvedere, “because they look as if they own the place. And they do. To me that was a really strange concept. I didn’t come from a family with a sense of ownership of the country. My father came from a small farm on the banks of the Shannon, by no means rich.” Her mother was from Co Monaghan, daughter of a seamstress and a postman. They hadn’t middle-class Dublin’s sense of entitlement, for which she’s glad.

English and history was “the most useless degree in lots of ways. But in other ways the most useful. First, English literature is where it’s at. The best corpus of literature in the world, gigantic and magnificent and fabulous, and you never get to the end of it. And history teaches you how to evaluate evidence, now more than ever a really important skill.”

She’ll “always be connected into the north inner-city”, foremost through the SAOL Project “for women fighting addiction, crime, bad housing, poor education”, which she chairs. “It’s a really important part of my life.” She’s also involved in the Inner City Renewal Group.

She bought her North Strand home in 1996. “I half believed property was theft” but changed her mind “when I realised I’d be renting for the rest of my life and there was no rent control”.

Part of her role in the Decade of Centenaries was the Bureau of Military History archives release, particularly the “extraordinary” Military Service Pensions Collection which “complicated the narrative” during the Decade of Centenaries. “First-hand testimony from people active at the time. No other country has anything like this, where they can look back at a revolution” socially as well as militarily. “People like me were able to put immense pressure on ministers and civil servants to get this stuff out. There’s been resistance for decades. Everyone is afraid of the Civil War. Scared to death feuds would reignite. They didn’t. We grew up quite a lot during those 10 years. People looked at the stuff and thought, ‘Gosh, that isn’t the story we were told’.”

The first World War “killed more than any of those conflicts: 40,000 Irishmen ... And that was buried under the pietistic Catholic anti-British miasma that covered everything after 1922.” All that “had to be, in my view, disrupted. I also wanted to look at violence, trauma, suffering and loss. Grim, grim, grim. But very important that people understand, when you blithely enter into armed conflict, the consequences are likely to be atrocious. And take responsibility for that instead of shrugging it off, as I’m afraid Sinn Féin still does these days.”

Is what we got from that violence worth it? “I believe it is. I believe the War of Independence was justified because it was mandated by the 1918 election. But the Civil War was a dreadful mistake, deeply stupid and completely anti-democratic, since the people voted in June 1922 overwhelmingly for the treaty.”

I’m not sure I would have been a good mother. I think often people fall into parenthood

Whether the Easter Rising was worth it, “I’m still not sure ... It woke people up, as Pearse wanted, to the concept of nation.” But “I’m not sure we’re that great at running a nation of our own.”

She continues, drawing the threads from there to here. “What kind of ideology rules this country? Are we social democrats? Are we neo-liberals? Are we developing a far right-wing conservative bent? What are we? Do we ever think about that? Not much.”

Crowe’s take is that “at our best, we aim to be social democratic, a very honourable tradition. At our worst we’re a sort of horrible mishmash of old Fianna Fáil vested interests, particularly towards developers and builders, and old Fine Gael conservatism and dislike of the poor ... Nobody admits to an ideology. If you mention ‘ideology’ to a politician, they just look at you. Nobody knows they’re thinking in a certain way for reasons bigger than them. Even the Labour Party has no ideology.

“My problem with Sinn Féin is they haven’t in any serious way renounced their violent past. I think they really have to do that.”

Crowe acknowledges that the new generation doesn’t remember the Troubles. “I lived through it. I remember horrible atrocities by all sides. The problem with Sinn Féin is the IRA was doing it in our name and claiming to be direct inheritors of the second Dáil. I don’t wish them to be in power until they come to a serious reckoning with the violence of those 30 years, and just stop regarding it, as Michelle O’Neill does, as a war for which there was no choice. There was plenty of choice. John Hume and Seamus Mallon and Bríd Rodgers kept a non-violent party going all those years, and in the end got peace. Sorry lads, you have to apologise and stop the sly, sneaking regard for your fallen heroes, as you call them.”

Current concerns include the mother and baby home institutional archives, which are part of our social history, and should be public records. “They should not be the private property of religious congregations.” And also the Grangegorman Histories project, to preserve Irish mental hospital records back to the 1840s, and make them accessible.

In January 2009, Crowe’s partner, painter Padraig O’Faolain, died after a heart attack. Shortly afterwards she spoke about the lack of “ordinary human decency” in the hospital emergency department. A contributory factor to the stress around his death was A&E being unable to access his records, she says. And “we still don’t have a digital record system despite all the f**king money spent on our health service”. (Shortly after this interview took place, plans for an electronic record system were announced by Government.)

“His death was very traumatic,” and is still painful to recall. “What I can say is I lived with this man for 32 years. And I miss him still greatly. I’ve been living on my own for 15 years now. I actually love living on my own.” If a prospect of not doing living alone emerged, “I wouldn’t take it. But if you’re living alone, you have to be very careful not to become isolated. That means for me, don’t spend all weekend on your own.

“I’ve an amazing family, fantastic friends, which makes me very happy. I have no shortage of people to meet and chat and get drunk and eat dinners and fight with and go to movies and theatre. I’m very, very lucky. I’m not lucky I lost my partner when he was 61. But I am lucky I can survive so well as a now single woman with such extraordinary friends.”

She met historian Diarmaid Ferriter when he was 20, “exactly 20 years younger than me. I could be his mother. I’m not thank God. We’ve been close friends ever since.” Colm Tóibín is “a brilliant friend” since college.

Crowe did not have children. “I’m not sure I would have been a good mother. I think often people fall into parenthood. I think regarding children as people to look after you in old age is highly transactional and I don’t approve.” She became very good friends with her own mother after her father’s death. “Reconciliation, I suppose. We’d fought quite a bit, especially when I left home to live with a man and wasn’t married. She ended up loving him to pieces and sat beside his coffin for hours when he died.” She laughs, recalling a friend trying to tuck a joint into his coffin, without her mother seeing.