My two grandfathers, the Civil War split and a union

The one thing they had in common is that they both joined the IRA – and they met only once, after the war


One day, some years ago, while holed up in The Irish Times library, trawling through acres of microfilm for the Irish Times Book of the Century , I felt a sudden pang of regret: “If only I’d listened.”

Why didn’t I pay attention when Granda Drew told us how he “stood guard for Sean Moylan before the Civil War – or how, after the war, “Dev’s men” fired several shots into his family home in Boherbue, Co Cork?

I thought of him tucked into his comfortable brown armchair, his eyes shining and his Cork accent almost indecipherable at the deliciously dangerous memory of it all.

And if only I’d probed into the family legends of Granda Morgan’s life on the run with the IRA during the Civil War, or the time when he was arrested in Ardee, Co Louth by one of the O’Higgins brothers (history doesn’t relate which one). Why didn’t I even ask about his time in Mountjoy in 1922 at the same time Erskine Childers was executed?

Now all I’m left with is a patchwork of half-remembered stories.

Not that my grandfather’s stories are unique; many men of their generation would have had similar stories to tell (though few have been recorded for posterity). But between them, Granda Drew and Granda Morgan encapsulated the ordinary man’s experience of the Civil War – the experience of those who helped to make the news but who never featured on the news pages themselves.

Their backgrounds could hardly have been more different.

My maternal grandfather, Edward Drew, was from a family of 13 children whose family businesses – the forge and the undertakers – had suffered due to a scarcity of wood after the first World War. The other, Sean Morgan, was born in Gosport in the south of England but brought up in Co Down, the only child of a well-to-do merchant navy captain.

The one thing they had in common was that, like many young men of their generation, they both joined the IRA. Drew and several of his brothers would chop down trees to waylay British soldiers in Boherbue, and two of his brothers spent time in Buttevant jail.

But Drew and Morgan took opposing sides during the Civil War. The former was staunchly pro-Treaty. The story goes that after the Civil War his arthritic grandmother, who lived with the family, told him and his brothers that they couldn’t “live like that with no proper jobs”. They had to start somewhere so why not help to set up the new State and join the Civic Guard? Five of them took her advice and some time later a volley of shots was fired into the house by “Dev’s men”, leaving the walls pockmarked with bullet-holes.

Drew used to say that Sean Moylan, although a staunch nationalist, understood that the Drews wanted to make a life for themselves. He was grateful to them for all the hours they had spent guarding his house in the old days and told the perpetrators that if they ever attacked the Drew house again, they’d have him to answer to.

My granny, Jane Drew, liked Eamon de Valera and the story goes that when she and my granda were courting, they were out for a walk in the Phoenix Park one day when they saw Dev approaching (probably in a car). She remarked to my granda: “Isn’t he a lovely simple man?”

“A simpleton more like,” he replied, before adding: “I don’t know why you like him anyway. Sure didn’t he destroy the pig industry?” My granny’s family had been wealthy pig traders.

Had he been alive to see it, he would have loved Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins – I sometimes suspect that he was some kind of posthumous script adviser. He would call de Valera “an oul’ turncoat”, believing that Dev stayed in Ireland while Collins and the other Treaty delegates went to London to meet the British prime minister, because he reckoned they had little choice but to accept what was on offer.

“Don’t forget what really happened when Collins was killed,” he would say, discounting any notion that Collins was accidentally caught in crossfire at Béal na Bláth in August 1922.

Morgan, a much quieter man, rarely spoke about the Civil War, but we do know he believed that Collins “sold out” with the Treaty. While on the run during the Civil War he was arrested by one of the O’Higginses at Ardee after the fellow on sentry duty fell asleep while he and others were sleeping in a barn.

After the Civil War, Drew spent the rest of his working life in the Garda Síochána. A tall, imposing Cork man, he used to say that he wasn’t paid for quite a while after joining the Free State’s new police force in 1922. He would also recall how de Valera would refuse to salute the first gardai on duty at government buildings.

Morgan became a teacher of English and geography in Dundalk CBS . He refused the IRA military pension when he retired because he said he didn’t do it for the money.

Thankfully, despite their great differences, they managed to eke out enough common ground to avoid the thorny subject of politics for one whole day when they met for the first and only time at my parents’ wedding in June 1967.