Contesting the silence: Irish language writers on the Civil War

Notable exceptions were made to widespread desire to forget conflict

While the Irish Civil War is widely believed to have left a legacy of silence in its wake, Irish-language writers were strongly represented among those who contested the silence.

Many early accounts of Ireland’s revolutionary period had little to say about the contentious events of 1922 and 1923. Charlie Dalton’s With the Dublin Brigade (1929) is not untypical in this sense: the memoir comes to a sudden end at the announcement of the Truce in July 1921, concluding with the words: ‘Unbelieving, blissful’.

But there were notable exceptions to this widespread desire to forget the civil war. Colm Ó Labhraí’s 1955 account Trodairí na Treas Briogáide details the activities of the third Tipperary brigade and traces the events of the revolution from 1913 right through to 1923. Though the author’s interpretation of the shelling of Dublin’s Four Courts in June 1922 caused some friction, the account was well received and some 3,000 copies were sold within the first month.

However, despite being both lengthier and more detailed regarding the civil war than other accounts of the Tipperary area - such as Dan Breen's My Fight for Irish Freedom (1924) and Desmond Ryan's Sean Treacy and the Third Tipperary Brigade (1945) - Trodairí na Treas Briogáide (reprinted in 2013 by Coiscéim) has been largely forgotten.

The neglect of such an intriguing historical account reflects the omission of the Irish language from dominant monolingual approaches to the understanding of Ireland’s history and culture. (These approaches are, of course, at odds with the historical evidence given the wealth of revolutionary autobiographies and personal memoirs published in Irish during the early decades of the Free State.) However, the neglect of this chronicle is also indicative of the prevailing belief that the events of the Irish Civil War were shrouded in silence - a belief that has occluded numerous writings from scholarly consideration.

That is not to say that writing about the Irish Civil War was without its challenges. Indeed, Trodairí na Treas Briogáide was published under a penname: Colm Ó Labhraí was actually the Cistercian monk Séamus Ó Conbhuidhe. Not all his fellow clergymen approved of his interest in this controversial period of recent history.

Was Ó Conbhuidhe’s decision to write in Irish motivated in part by a need for increased narrative protection? And, if this was the case, did Irish-language writers enjoy more freedom to address the civil war than their counterparts writing in English?

There is indeed a strong tradition of Irish-language writers using their marginalised position to tackle contentious questions sidelined from the mainstream. Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s explosive poetry collection Margadh na Saoire (1956) - which both celebrates female sexuality and conjures up images of infanticide - would probably have found itself on the banned books lists had it appeared in English. The Connemara-based priest Pádraig Standún similarly caused a stir with his bestselling novel Súil le Breith (1983) (published in self-translation as Lovers in 1991) which traces the turbulent relationship between a priest and his housekeeper, who is pregnant with his child. More recent examples of this taboo-breaking include Celia de Fréine’s poetry collection Fiacha Fola (2004/ Blood Debts 2014), which is one of many Irish-languages texts to address the succession of recent scandals in the Irish healthcare system.

The range of publications in Irish regarding the Irish Civil War - written from various pro-, anti- and neutral perspectives - certainly suggest that the language offered an increased sense of protection from social and political censure.

Nevertheless, writing about the delicate question of civil war still required caution and it is not coincidental that many early accounts appeared in fictionalised forms. Both Piaras Béaslaí and León Ó Broin - prominent supporters of the treaty who held positions in the Free State army - teased out the civil war split in Irish-language plays staged in the Abbey in the 1920s. However, both veterans chose to locate their plays in other time periods and geographic locations.

Béaslaí’s play An Danar (1928) was situated in Viking-age Dublin and reflects on the tensions between Vikings who embraced assimilation with the native Irish and those who were hell-bent on retaining their own cultural norms. However, audiences surely wondered if the ‘war of brothers’ referred to in the play hinted at the more contemporary split. Though Béaslaí took the pro-treaty line, the protagonist, Olaf, is sympathetically represented for his dogged unwillingness to renege on his principles - a nod, perhaps, to Béaslaí’s opponents who rejected the treaty.

Ó Broin's play An Mhallacht (1927) was set during an uprising in Warsaw in 1925. However, reviewers saw past the flimsy Polish disguise. The play relates to two half-brothers who execute a foreign soldier but later find themselves on the opposite sides of a political divide. If the trope of brothers divided wasn't enough to hint at Ó Broin's real interest, the location of civil war Dublin was revealed in the 1931 print edition of the play.

Ó Broin’s play emphasises the distress of the volunteers’ wives as they find themselves living to a soundtrack of gunshots in the capital city. The need to break the silence regarding the experiences of women during the revolutionary period was also addressed by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, a later IRA volunteer and one of the most significant Irish-language writers of the twentieth century. Writing in the 1960s, Ó Cadhain acknowledged that the hair-cropping of women by the IRA was seldom mentioned in veteran accounts, but predicted - in this case somewhat accurately - that this would be ‘an ghné dár gcuid cogaíocht is mó a gcuirfidh ár sliocht suim ann’ (the aspect of our war that future generations will be most interested in).

Even if Ó Cadhain acknowledged that there was a silence about the plight of women during the revolutionary period, some women revolutionaries attempted to record the suffering of ordinary people. In the poetry collection Áille an Domhain (1927), Úna Ní Fhaircheallaigh - a founder of Cumann na mBan - directly tackles the tragic legacy of internecine strife. The poem ‘Éire Chum Dé’ was written on the death of a young child during the civil war and hints at the profound disillusion felt by the poet:

Íodhbairt uaim minic a thug

Mar luach ar an rud nach bhfuair;

An saoradh cheannuigheas go daor;

Meath’ mo shaoghail - ró-mhór an luach.

I made many sacrifices

For the thing that was not achieved;

I paid dearly for freedom;

The decline of my world - too much the price.

Máiréad Ní Ghráda's short-story collection An Bheirt Dearbhráthar agus Scéalta Eile (1939) offers even sharper criticism of the devastating impacts of war on ordinary people. Ní Ghráda is widely known for the play An Triail (1966) which is ground-breaking for its challenge to the silence surrounding the institutionalisation of unmarried mothers. This same boldness shines through in her earlier gothic short stories which draw on some of her own revolutionary experiences. A member of the Gaelic League and Cumann na mBan, Ní Ghráda supported the treaty and served as secretary to government minister Ernest Blythe throughout the civil war. In addressing the lingering psychological legacies of the civil war, Ní Ghráda does not hold back from referring to the violence suffered by women and is harshly critical of the hostility towards women within the new state.

Not all Irish-language writers had success in publishing about the civil war, however. The state publishing company, An Gúm, famously rejected Seosamh Mac Grianna's novel, An Druma Mór, in the 1930s. Mac Grianna had been interned as an ant-treaty republican and the publishers feared his novel - which portrays the schism between Catholic nationalists and republicans in early twentieth-century Donegal - might reignite civil war tensions. Mac Grianna's novel didn't appear until 1969.

Of course, the 'spiritual wounds' of the Irish Civil War were not confined to the revolutionary generation, as evident from the many writings by later generations. We could point to Annraoi Ó Liatháin's novel Luaithreach an Bhua (1969) which teases out the turmoil of civil war in the Waterford Gaeltacht, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc's experimental novel An Lomnochtán (1977) (recently translated by Mícheál Ó hAodha as i am Lewy, Bullaun Press 2022) which records the events of 1922 and 1923 through the eyes of a child, Seán Mac Mathúna's play Duilleoga Tae (2007) in which civil war invades domestic life in rural Co. Kerry, or Réaltán Ní Leannáin's novel, Cití na gCártaí (2019), which addresses violence against women in 1920s Belfast.

In Irish there is a saying ‘Is binn béal ina thost’ – a sweet mouth stays silent. Yet for all the sealed lips, there were also many who attempted to break the silence.

Síobhra Aiken is the author of Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony and the Irish Civil War (Irish Academic Press, 2022).

Read More

Recommended