Hearts of stone in Ireland’s civil war

During the Irish Civil War the National Army executed more Irishmen than the British had during the War of Independence. In an extract from his new book Diarmaid Ferriter documents this ruthless military strategy

In the aftermath of the sudden death of Arthur Griffith and the killing of Michael Collins, in August 1922, William T Cosgrave became chairman of the provisional government to which the British had transferred their powers after the Dáil’s ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Cosgrave and his colleagues remained wedded to a ruthless military and political strategy that ensured, by May 1923, a decisive win over the republicans and the end of the Civil War.

In September 1922 the Public Safety Act empowered military courts to impose the death sentence. This development marked the end of any faltering hopes for compromise between the pro- and anti-Treaty sides.

In February 1923 Cosgrave’s analysis was that “the executions have had a remarkable effect. It is a sad thing to say, but it is nevertheless the case”; he could also be chilling in his resolve: “I am not going to hesitate and if the country is to live and if we have to exterminate 10,000 republicans, the 3 millions of our people are bigger than the ten thousand.”

Perhaps this realism was also beginning to affect the republican self-declared “men of faith”. Dan Breen, who led an IRA column in Tipperary during the Civil War, told his fellow republicans: “in order to win this war you’ll need to kill 3 out of every 5 people in the country and it isn’t worth it.”


Official executions

A measure of the ruthless resolve of the National Army council was evident in its order of February 1923: “In every case of outrage in any battalion area, three men will be executed . . . No clemency will be shown in any case.”

The previous month 32 had been executed, and by the end of the Civil War the government had authorised the execution of 77; this was 53 more than the British had executed during the War of Independence; 11,480 republicans were jailed under the public-safety legislation.

One of the arguments used by Richard Mulcahy, as minister for defence and commander-in-chief of the National Army, was that permitting official executions would prevent National Army troops from carrying out unofficial killings. But unofficial killings occurred anyway, including those of three teenage Fianna Éireann members from Drumcondra who were arrested for putting up anti-Treaty posters and then killed.

There is, nonetheless, evidence that the National Army was instructed to treat republican prisoners being prepared for execution “with the utmost humanity”, the words used in one National Army HQ communication.

While the provisional government could rely on the support of a number of vocal Catholic bishops who were conveniently mute on the issue of executions, republicans were not without their clerical supporters at home and abroad, which meant complete alienation was never a possibility. Throughout the revolution there were responses to political and military controversies that were complex and variegated.

One republican prisoner, Frank Gallagher, publicly criticised the bishops for their “partisan excess” and a pastoral that “presses into theological use the catch-cries and terms of abuse of the Free State party . . . I see here in prison the injury done to the souls of splendid men by the reckless attitude of the hierarchy.”

Happy to suffer for Ireland

The Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Edward Byrne, also exerted pressure when it came to the issue of the hunger strikes of republican prisoners. The Cork republican Mary MacSwiney was notable in this regard after her arrest, and her plight in November 1922 attracted much attention and sympathy.

Women even protested in the grounds of Dr Byrne’s residence. Many who wrote to Cosgrave invoked the ghost of her late brother, Terence, who had died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison during the War of Independence; in the words of one letter writer, “I pleaded with English people to use their influence to try and save the life of the late Lord Mayor of Cork when he was hunger striking in England. So I venture to plead with you to save the life of Miss Mary MacSwiney now hunger striking in Dublin among her own people.”

Not allowing her sister to visit her was another controversial decision; MacSwiney twice managed to embarrass the government into releasing her, after a 24-day hunger strike in late 1922 and again in April 1923.

Archbishop Byrne had suggested that the request of her sister “does not seem to be unreasonable and to be on the side of humanity”. Cosgrave demurred, but Byrne also had his own strictures; MacSwiney was refused Holy Communion, and when she complained Byrne informed her that she was breaking a divine law by hunger striking and that “all who participate in such crimes are guilty of the gravest sins and may not be absolved nor admitted to Holy Communion”.

But one factor Cosgrave and his government had to consider was which was the lesser of two evils; one of his supporters wrote to Cosgrave: “If she dies she will live forever.” MacSwiney embraced her martyrdom to an almost messianic degree, announcing to her supporters in the United States in November 1922, “whether I am released or whether like my brother my sacrifice is to be consummated, I am happy to suffer for Ireland.”

Many other republicans went on hunger strike, surviving on Turkish cigarettes, lemon sweets and chewing gum; “surely such suffering cannot go unrewarded either here or hereafter” Phyllis Ryan wrote to her brother James as she enclosed the hunger-strike “provisions”.

After the Civil War had ended, republican prisoners in Mountjoy Prison, via Sinn Féin, complained to the Catholic bishops that “a plague of flies from rotting rubbish heaps under the windows of the two wings has come as added torment to the bed-ridden men.”

For Todd Andrews, as a young republican activist, the greatest challenge of internment was boredom. The writer Francis Stuart, however, interned for 18 months in various prison camps, later romanticised the incarceration; he had decided, he declared, to step outside of history: “one can open one’s arms to life more widely in a cell than anywhere else perhaps . . . Those days were not unhappy.”

Contrast that with the recollections of the Lismore IRA officer (and, later, GAA president) Michael O’Donoghue: “Weeks passed and no word of release. I became infested with vermin – lice and fleas, but especially lice. A large abscess formed inside my cheek, the result of infection from my diseased gums. A doctor came and advised me to submit to medical and dental treatment from the Free State army medicals. I refused, demanding release. The abscess burst.”

Eating flesh off the trees

At the end of the Civil War the writer and republican activist Dorothy Macardle, who was also imprisoned during the conflict, wrote of “dark, fearful and secret happenings”, cold-blooded revenge killings and psychological torture.

In her Tragedies of Kerry (1924) she also focused on the Ballyseedy massacre of 1923, when nine republican prisoners were tied to a landmine that was detonated, in revenge for the killing of five Free State soldiers at Knocknagoshel, in Co Kerry.

Macardle’s account of Ballyseedy was powerful: “One of the soldiers handed each of them a cigarette: ‘the last smoke you’ll ever have’, he said . . . The soldiers had strong ropes and electric cords. Each prisoner’s hands were tied behind him, then his arms were tied above the elbow to those of the men on either side of him. Their feet were bound together above the ankles and their legs were bound together above the knees. Then a strong rope was passed round the nine and the soldiers moved away.

“The prisoners had their backs to the log and the mine which was beside it; they could see the movement of the soldiers and knew what would happen next. They gripped one another’s hands, those who could and prayed for God’s mercy upon their souls. The shock came, blinding, deafening, overwhelming . . . For days afterwards the birds were eating the flesh off the trees at Ballyseedy Cross.”

Massacre survivors

Remarkably, there was a survivor, Stephen Fuller, who was blown into an adjoining field; he went on the run and was treated by a doctor who, according to documentation compiled for his application for a military-service pension in the 1930s, “found him in a dug out on a mountain”; he was, after it, “a complete and permanent invalid”.

Fuller was awarded a wound pension of £150 a year; most of those who testified on his behalf were remarkably understated – “I understand his health has been greatly impaired as a result of his activities . . . is now suffering from shock received from a mine explosion at Ballyseedy” – though one was moved to declare that he was “blown up in the Ballyseedy massacre providentially escaping alive”.

As well as tuberculosis, an X-ray “also reveals the presence of several fine bodies embedded in the musculature of his back”. Fuller, however, went on to outlive many of his contemporaries, dying at the age of 84.

The survivor of the Knocknagoshel tragedy was not so lucky. Annie O’Brien in Dublin received a telegram on March 13th, 1923: “Regret to inform you that Vol Joseph O’Brien No 1596 lies badly wounded at the infirmary, Tralee. Should you desire to visit him a free voucher will be issued.”

Her husband was the only National Army soldier who survived the triggering of the mine that killed five of his colleagues; both his legs had to be amputated below the knees, and he had severe loss of sight in both eyes.

A year after the end of the Civil War the recommendation of the army pensions board was that he receive a wound pension of 42 shillings weekly, “and artificial limbs”, but thereafter his wife had to go to great lengths to find suitable accommodation, as he was “living in a top room” and “is unable to get up the stairs”.

The Department of Defence curtly replied to her pleas for help: “the question of suitable housing accommodation is not one that can be dealt with by this department.” His wife also had to plead for a wheelchair – “it is the only means I would have of getting him out for air each day” – which took six months to be provided, his brother stating, “It is a shame for him to be treated in such a way.”

The archive of the military-service pensions process is filled with other tales of Civil War woe. Thomas Roche, a National Army soldier, was wounded during the Four Courts explosion in June 1922, and “after the very heavy strain of all the fighting” he was admitted, in December 1922, to Clonmel mental hospital, where he stayed for five months.

He was discharged from the army as medically unfit and was destitute by the end of the Civil War. “I certainly lost good opportunities in my young life” was how he succinctly and mournfully summed up his Civil War experience.

Other battles for material survival were also relevant to the period. The playwright Lennox Robinson, when editing the journals of his fellow playwright Lady Augusta Gregory for publication in the 1940s, observed that during the Civil War – Gregory’s estate was Coole Park, in Co Galway – the journals “are filled with accounts of grabbing of land, driving of cattle and general confusion. These doings are merely of local interest and I do not record them.”

Conservative revolutionaries

This was an insight into why many of those themes have been unjustly neglected; after all, they were precisely the sort of happenings that prompted Kevin O’Higgins, one of the staunchest defenders of the Treaty, now minister for home affairs, and whose father was killed in a republican raid on his home in February 1923, to assert in the Dáil in March 1923: “We were the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution”.

The remark was made during an ill-tempered Dáil debate about the seizure of cattle by the National Army after the cattle had been stolen and were being grazed on illegally captured land. For O’Higgins the cause was “greed; the desire to get rich quick on the part of people who think they have a vested interest in disorder; to get rich quick regardless of law human or divine; to get something for nothing; to get the fruits of work without work”.

As the socialist republican Peadar O’Donnell saw it however, this was about a new social polarity and a perpetuation of the theme of the “rabble” versus the comfortable, which had been relevant throughout the revolutionary period: “city minded” Sinn Féiners, suspicious of the “wild men on the land”, with Civil War republicans, in O’Donnell’s analysis, the champions of the dispossessed and the small farmers.

Such social unrest had also endured because the promise that things would change had begun to wear thin; the previous year a National Army soldier in the western division wrote to Patrick Hogan, the minister for agriculture: “the number of disputes about land in this divisional area are increasing daily. Very many volunteers and volunteers’ friends are concerned in the disputes. They don’t recognise that all that can possibly be done for them will be done in due course.”

Undoubtedly there was a new emphasis in Civil War and post-Civil War Ireland on hierarchies and people knowing their place; this was also evident in the army, where, in July 1923, Richard Mulcahy issued an order to officers demanding that there be no more of a sense of fraternal and equal brothers in arms.

There was to be no repeat of “discourtesy or smartness” or correspondence using the term “a chara”; correspondence to the minister for defence and army council should now end with “I have the honour, sir, to be your obedient servant.”

This was true in other walks of life also; the power vacuum was being rapidly filled, and the “rabble” would know and be required to acknowledge its place.

The washing of southern hands

Northern nationalists, who felt abandoned after partition, in 1920, also had reason to be suspicious of southern political intentions and promises to fight for the reunification of the island.

In October 1922 a nationalist deputation from Northern Ireland arrived in Dublin to the provisional government, including priests, solicitors and local councillors, looking for funds to counteract unionist propaganda. They got short shrift from Kevin O’Higgins: “We have no other policy for the North East than we have for any other part of Ireland and that is the Treaty policy”.

He suggested that what northern nationalists needed was not just funds but also “a great deal of strenuous voluntary work – just the same sort of strenuous work that brought the national position to the stage it has reached.”

The washing of southern hands could hardly have been more apparent. An interned teacher in Belfast in January 1923 wrote to the Free State minister for education Eoin MacNeill: “the bitter part is the reflection that when I do get out I shall probably be forgotten.”

He was right.

This is an edited extract from A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-23, published by Profile Books