Military service pension files reveal complicated afterlife of Irish revolution

Opinion: Enda Kenny went from a disgraceful performance in the Dáil over the McNulty affair to laud TK Whitaker’s ‘deeply principled morality’

 

The very welcome launch of another batch of the Military Service pension files in the Military Archives on Thursday (www.militaryarchives.ie) brought to mind the complicated life and afterlife of the Irish revolution and the diverse range of definitions of patriotism that resulted.

While immersion in this archive is a reminder of the many battles fought over status and recognition by the revolution’s veterans and those bereaved, as they sought compensation for their efforts and losses, it also reminded me of those whose presence is not recorded, including those who, on principle, would not apply for financial recompense.

PS O’Hegarty, for example – the Cork writer and civil servant who had been a member of the supreme council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in his younger days, and who supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty, as well as publishing his partisan The Victory of Sinn Féin in 1924, which castigated the anti-Treatyites – insisted in 1945 that the quest for monetary reward for veterans amounted to “a sorry tale of patriotic degeneration and lack of public spirit”.

Jaundiced eye

Amongst Women

McQuaid says to Moran: “It makes no sense your not taking the IRA pension. You earned it. You could still have it in the morning”. Moran replies: “I’d throw it in their teeth . . . many of them who had pensions and medals and jobs later couldn’t tell one end of a gun from the other. Many of the men who had actually fought got nothing. An early grave or the emigrant ship. Sometimes I get sick when I see what I fought for.”

Perhaps both O’Hegarty and Moran, largely based on McGahern’s father Francis, who served three years in the IRA during the War of Independence, do not do justice to the veterans and their claims, but they were surely entitled to their views.

Different reactions to motivation and outcome go to the heart of the legacies of this period, as underlined, not just by cynicism about the pensions process, but also the many heartfelt and heartbreaking claims of those left wnded and impoverished as a result of the revolution and which are laid bare in the pension files.

It has long been contended that the revolution transformed Anglo-Irish relations but that, in the words of historian Michael Laffan, it “did not change the relationship between one class of Irishmen and another. Its impact was nationalist and political, not social and economic”.

As a result of the revolution, some clearly fared better than others. The way writer Francis Stuart, interned during the Civil War, saw it: “We fought to stop Ireland falling into the hands of publicans and shopkeepers and she had fallen into their hands.” In the revolution’s aftermath, some found themselves living as mental “internees”, a description used by nationalist writer Alice Milligan, disappointed by the new state created in 1922. Adaptation was not easy for many, perhaps because, as recalled by Ernie O’Malley, a leading IRA figure who wrote the best literary accounts of the revolution: “We had built a world of our own, an emotional life but with no philosophy or economic framework.” Attempting to provide such a “philosophy” in the decades after the revolution was ignored by too many of the post-Civil War generation in favour of cronyism and a deliberate sidelining of the revolution’s aspirations. Making such an assertion is not about romanticising the revolutionary generation, who made many mistakes and could be damagingly tribal, but it is surely legitimate to wonder, in reacting to Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s pathetic carry- on recently, what his “philosophy” is.

Solemn declarations

But the Taoiseach, it appears, is not capable of connecting what he enunciates at these events and how he handles power. Surely, however, even he was aware of the irony of his words on Wednesday night, when he went from one of his disgraceful performances in the Dáil over the McNulty affair to launch a biography of TK Whitaker, and lauded Whitaker’s “deeply principled morality”, and his public service “that transformed a country”.

Irish patriotism, it would appear, belongs to history and the Whitaker generation, and is not part of the current philosophy.

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