Anne Gilliland: Rebuilding Irish Heritage Through Community Archives

Renowned scholar of post-conflict community archives and Northern Ireland native addresses Irish Manuscript Commission, advises on digital archives of the Troubles.

A native of Derry, Northern Ireland, Anne Gilliland, who serves as the UCLA Associate Dean for Information Studies, recently presented her ethnographic research on post-conflict community archives in Croatia and Bosnia and the roles that they are playing in these newly independent nations with historically ethnically divided communities.

Professor Gilliland delivered the third annual Eoin MacNeill Lecture in Dublin, at the invitation of the Irish Manuscript Commission, which was established in 1928 to document native Irish culture. Presenting her paper on “Sustaining Identity and Peace-building Through Community Archives,” Gilliland shared her research on the potential of community archives to aid newly formed nations in efforts to “… take control over their own narratives, grieving over their losses, and trying locally and virtually to rebuild a sense of community after it has been fractured by displacement, genocide and diaspora.”

The aim of the Eoin MacNeill Lecture, which is named for the Irish nationalist Gaelic revivalist, and Minister for Education after Irish independence, is to present international scholarship on archives and records within Ireland and support its efforts to preserve its own history. In sharing her ethnographic research in Bosnia and Croatia, Gilliland illustrated the “…the role of community archives in promoting grassroots voices in countries that are ethnically divided, and what the contribution of community archives can be both to peace-building and to the development of new or newly independent nations.”

“Modern Ireland is now almost 100 years old,” says Gilliland. “Many other formerly colonial nations have since become independent, so it is important to look at the historical experience of Ireland as well as that of more recent examples… across different ethnic groups, and from the left and the right … to understand their role and impact.”

“In 1922 in Ireland, after independence and partition, they burned their own records –state and church records held in the Four Courts in Dublin were were burned following an explosion,” she says. “Because of that, much was lost. The National Archives of Ireland was not established until 1988 and many of the records about Ireland still reside at the UK National Archives in Kew.”

Upon independence, Gilliland says, “You want to create the history that is the history of your country, not the history that is the colonizing country’s history. A lot of what was done in the early days following independence involved documenting rural life and stories, to try to gather local knowledge about the countryside, agriculture, and that sort of thing. 

“Irish history is obviously very complicated. They not only had to rebuild what was lost– but also they had to develop a history of a country through its own sensibilities and communities.”

Gilliland is also providing expert advice regarding the future of CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet), a digital archive of the Northern Irish Troubles that was founded shortly after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and is based in Magee College, University of Ulster, in Derry in Northern Ireland. Gilliland met with the Provost of Magee College and several of the academics involved with CAIN, during her recent trip. 

“I don’t think anybody in Derry expected someone who comes from their city and who lived through The Troubles to have ended up a prominent figure in the international community archives movement,” laughs Gilliland in an interview. 

CAIN is facing being taken offline due to insufficient funding and is undergoing a broad-ranging consultation involving academics and community members about its future. The process has raised considerable concern in academia and locally. 

“Many see the archive as an integral part of what is still an ongoing peace-building process, and with Brexit looming, and Derry being geographically particularly vulnerable if the border with Ireland is reinstated, there is particular concern about the fate of the archive at this moment,”says Professor Gilliland. “As someone who grew up through the Troubles, moved to the U.S. as an adult, and has worked within ethnically divided communities in other parts of the world with long complicated histories, I have, perhaps, a bit of a different frame of reference on the continuing importance of CAIN to the people of Derry and the peace-building process.” 

This summer, Gilliland will bring a cadre of international archival scholars to Magee to explore ways to preserve and redevelop the archive as part of a wider tour of Northern Irish post-conflict archival endeavors and memory sites that is sponsored by the Archival Education and Research Initiative (AERI), which Gilliland directs. 

Photo by Todd Cheney, UCLA