Charles Haughey’s Civil War trauma: ‘The country owes them more than starvation’

The war created a generation of lifelong politicians and ultimately shaped Charles J Haughey

Numerous veterans of the Irish Civil War, who had endured a humiliating defeat in 1923 as part of the anti-Treaty side, went on to enjoy remarkably long political careers in Fianna Fáil, including Frank Aiken, who had served as commandant of the 4th Northern Division of the IRA.

Aiken had been keen to prevent civil war and was somewhat in the wilderness after its end but, as he wandered around, private wealth meant he did not experience some of the material hardships endured by other republicans.

Aiken’s father had been a successful builder and farmer and in 1928 Frank bought a dairy farm at Sandyford, County Dublin, where he lived and farmed for the rest of his life while serving as a TD and minister, subsequently acquiring further property.

Some of those described as the “austere republican founding fathers” enjoyed a material comfort far removed from the experiences of those from more humble backgrounds who they had fought with and against in 1922 and 1923.

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Aiken held his Dáil seat for 50 years; as well as his closeness to de Valera, one of the reasons he was appointed minister for defence in 1932, according to historian Joe Lee, was because “his heart was not in the Civil War and he . . . was probably more acceptable to the Free State officers than any other possible appointment. He soon reconciled the army to the new regime”.

His was a delicate and crucial ministerial appointment less than 10 years after the end of the Civil War, but it was also the case that his first visit as minister was to IRA prisoners in Arbour Hill, who were released the following day.

Deeply Anglophobic, Aiken became independent-minded and imaginative while remaining thick-skinned, gruff and insensitive, but ultimately made his mark as the state’s longest-serving minister for foreign affairs. His biographer Matthew Lewis has argued that his predilection for politics was “as much a part of his character as his propensity for violence”.

The reprisal killing of six innocent Presbyterians in Altnaveigh, County Down in June 1922 by the IRA’s 4th Northern Division in Aiken’s command area had caused outrage. The Civil War was a matter that distressed him long-term, and in 2008 his son Frank broke down at a seminar in Dublin and said “I still get emotional when I remember how much he hated it”.

A number of senior politicians, including Aiken, were awarded military service pensions based on their War of Independence and Civil War activities, though some were loath to engage with what they regarded as demeaning demands for proof of their military service or fulfil the administrative requirements of regular form filling.

Gerard Boland, a founder of Fianna Fáil who served from 1939 to 1948 as a steely minister in the Department of Justice, where he took a hard line against the IRA, including internment without trial, had briefly been commander of the IRA's 3rd South Dublin Brigade active in Wicklow at the beginning of the Civil War and was captured in July 1922.

The following month his anti-Treaty TD brother, Harry, was killed. Gerard was in prison for two years, participated in the 1923 Kilmainham hunger strike (he attributed his self-discipline to yoga) and also spent time in the Curragh internment camp, not being released until July 1924.

He withdrew his initial military service pension application in 1942 (he was deemed to have had 11½ years’ service) and reactivated it in 1954 after Fianna Fáil left office; he was entitled to £231 per annum (the salary for a minister at that stage was £2,124 per annum).

Boland took issue with the pensions declaration required under the 1962 Pensions Act, involving a signed, witnessed declaration ("I declare that I am entitled to receive payment of the pension granted to me") and returned this form: "I consider this an insulting letter. I was reluctant to apply for a pension but was persuaded to do so by my old friend Oscar Traynor. You can keep it from now on".

In this case, status won out; a senior civil servant cancelled the planned formal reply reiterating the terms of the Act: “We need not reply to Mr Boland. The cert may be accepted as it stands without witness.”

Oscar Traynor had been the most senior IRA officer not in the Four Courts in June 1922 when it was occupied by anti-Treaty republicans; instead he was in Sackville Street before retreating to Wicklow.

On his return to Dublin at the end of July he was arrested and imprisoned in Gormanston internment camp until 1924, a reminder that, as with Boland, imprisonment during this period by default ensured a solid political future.

Traynor was a Fianna Fáil TD from 1932 to 1961. Nor was he shy about his war claims and was quick out of the blocks in January 1935 to apply for a military service pension; in that year he styled his 1922 self as “in virtual control of the republican army in 1922 . . . a lone executive officer”.

He secured a Grade A, 14 years’ service pension, worth £350 a year (about €22,000 today), abated when he was appointed a junior minister in July 1936: full ministerial office quickly followed. He too was to serve as minister for justice and also had to wrestle with the issue of stringent measures against the IRA.

Charles J. Haughey replaced Traynor as minister for justice in 1961. Twenty years previously, Traynor had been made aware of the dire circumstances of the Haughey family owing to the Civil War and its aftermath, when Charles was just a teenager.

In time, Charles would become the most controversial politician of his generation, and exceptionally venal, acquisitive and ostentatious, but it is interesting that this future leader of Fianna Fáil and taoiseach came from the opposite side of the Civil War divide from many of his party colleagues and biographers have linked his later greed at least in part to his family’s impoverishment as a result of the events of that period.

As a young politician Haughey was surrounded in his party branch by the sons of Civil War veterans on the other side to his father, John (Seán), including George Colley and Harry Boland, with whom Haughey ran a successful accountancy practice.

Just before Charles’s death in 2006 he referred to his father as “a committed supporter of Cumann na nGaedheal . . . very [Michael] Collins”.

His father’s allegiance to the Free State side was said to have enraged Frank Aiken, and “this greatly influenced Aiken’s detestation of Haughey’s son whom he saw as a “Free Stater” opportunist in Fianna Fáil clothes”.

From Swatragh, John Haughey had been a member of the 2nd Northern Division of the IRA in Derry during the War of Independence and at one point was seen by Crown forces as “the most dangerous man in the county”.

Haughey then became a commandant in the National Army and served in Mayo during the Civil War; he also married Sarah McWilliams, a Cumann na mBan member, in Derry in August 1922.

He retired from the army in 1928, was granted a Grade E pension for six years’ military service (£90 per annum) and acquired a 100-acre farm at Dunshaughlin, County Meath. But, when he developed multiple sclerosis, this was not a viable option and in 1933 the family moved to Donnycarney, County Dublin, and lived in straitened circumstances.

Haughey was suffering from some form of trauma during the Civil War period, later referred to by his wife as “a nervous breakdown [in] 1923 and 1924”.

His second-in-command, JJ Flynn, referred to the “onerous and very often almost superhuman duties” undertaken by Haughey in 1923 involving continuous raids, administrative work and inspection of outposts, frequently travelling for two or three days in wet conditions as OC of the 61st Infantry Battalion when 400 National Army men had been transferred to Mayo.

A medical officer who attended him in Castlebar in 1926 noted he “frequently suffered from fits of marked moroseness and depression and now that the question of decimated sclerosis has arisen I can well recall that Comdt Haughey’s gait was definitely ‘spastic’ in character”. This moroseness meant he was not well liked and “not very sociable”. His battalion’s medical officer thought it was a form of “mild hysteria . . . he was a very hardworking, zealous and sober officer and it is quite likely that army work and especially the over zealous way in which he overworked himself, may fairly be said to have facilitated the onset of DS [decimated sclerosis] . . . the question of trauma, or trauma due to active service or war as an aetiological factor in the genesis of DS or Insular Sclerosis is moot and debatable but the thesis of such traumatic origin in the case of DS has not been disproved and it may be that the board decide to give him the benefit of the doubt”.

This came two days after a note from the Pensions Board, which was considering Haughey’s application for a disability pension (separate from his service pension) indicated some of its members were “not satisfied . . . Haughey’s disease was excited, accelerated or aggravated by service in the National Army”, but two others disagreed and found in his favour and it was noted his disability was “final”.

That was certainly the case and the letters of Haughey and his wife had become increasingly desperate in the late 1930s; in 1938 Haughey wrote to Frank Aiken to tell him he was resigning as a reserve officer:

“I have devoted the best part of my life to the national cause and fell into bad health as a result . . . I am a married man with 7 children, the eldest who is 16 years of age is still at school. I have had a very hard struggle to feed and clothe my family since I became an invalid and now that I am to lose my reserve pay I am left without any earnings or income.

By July 1939 things were worse, and he told Aiken regarding his children, “I think the country owes them more than starvation”.

In 1942 Sarah informed the Department of Defence that John was now aged 43 and had to be "carried up and down stairs . . . he is not able to write owing to his sickness; his hands are very shaky".

She also wrote to Oscar Traynor: “The doctor told me last week that he is sinking fast . . . requires constant attention day and night. The strain of caring for him over this long period has played up with my own health . . . our funds cannot afford a nurse.”

Sarah could not get funded hospice or hospital treatment for her husband, despite requests, as there were no provisions for that in the pensions legislation.

That year he was granted a disability pension of £100 per annum. The medical report for 1942 was devastating: “complains of complete loss of power of arms and legs . . . confined to bed. Defective vision. Memory impaired. Slurring speech, tremor . . . applicant is confined to bed and incapable of any co-ordinated movement”.

John Haughey died in 1947. Sarah, who had been awarded a very small pension in 1941 for just under two years' military service, wrote to the Army Pensions Board in 1957: "Since my husband's death I have no means of support but the widow's pension of 22/6 per week and a small Cumann na mBan pension of £13 per annum and I find it very difficult to live on this since my sons got married", though she subsequently benefited from allowances paid under new pensions acts.

She remained a widow for 42 years, dying in 1989 when her son was Taoiseach; her most fervent wish remained "to see Ireland united". After she died, her daughter Maureen donated the £300 funeral grant payable to military service pension recipients to the army benevolent fund.

Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War by Diarmaid Ferriter is published by Profile Books