The society belle and the IRA shoot-out

Joe Humphreys grew up hearing the story of the day his grandaunt survived being shot in the head

Joe Humphreys grew up hearing the story of the day his grandaunt survived being shot in the head. Now it has become a documentary

What makes someone take up arms for a cause and be willing to kill or be killed? It's a question that troubles each generation, all the more so when the someone is a member of one's family, for then it can become literally a matter of life or death. So it is for the film-making brothers Ruán and MancháMagan, whose granny - my grandaunt - was Sighle Humphreys, republican idealist and freedom fighter.

She lived a double life as a "society belle and crackshot Irish rebel", in the words of her grandsons, until November 4th, 1922, when Free State soldiers raided her mother's home on Ailesbury Road in Dublin. In the shoot-out that followed, Sighle's aunt took a bullet through the head but, miraculously, survived. Ernie O'Malley, the IRA's assistant chief of staff, who had been hiding upstairs, was peppered with bullets as he fled across the well-manicured lawn. Private Pete McCartney of the Scottish Brigade was shot dead. My grandfather Dick, who had fought in the 1916 Rising alongside his slain uncle The O'Rahilly, emerged from the house unscathed. So too Sighle, but not before having a gun thrust into her mouth by a soldier.

Had things worked out differently the Magan brothers might not be here today.

Nor, indeed, might I.

"One can't help thinking that had my grandmother died there would be no next generation, that it would have been the end of the line," says Manchán. "Instead Private Pete McCartney might have had a wife and kids to whom he could have told stories about the day he shot the dirty rebel insurgents."

History is truly written if not by the victors then by the survivors, and Sighle was one of them. A leading figure in Cumann na mBan, the women's wing of the IRA, she spent four years in prison and 61 days on hunger strike in the 1920s and 1930s. A half-century later she could be found visiting IRA prisoners and hunger strikers in Long Kesh, such was her loyalty to the cause.

That said, her story jars with the acceptable face of republicanism. Were she alive today, Ruán concedes, in something of an understatement, "she would probably not agree completely with the Good Friday Agreement".

Her extremism makes it all the more interesting that she has been chosen as the subject of an RTÉ documentary on the Civil War produced by the Magan brothers, best known until now for their series of travel documentaries on TG4. Ruáadmits: "It might be difficult for a lot of people to accept RTÉ commissioning a documentary about two republicans who are involved in a shoot-out and have no regrets about killing a Free State soldier." But, he says, one shouldn't ignore figures in history just because they have become unfashionable.

"We are the product of a revolution. It's easy to forget that in a world of credit cards and traffic jams." Of people like his grandmother, he says: "We have lost contact with who they are. By telling their story almost exclusively in their own words we hope to change that."

The project is even more intriguing when one considers that the Magans are "in no way nationalistic or republican", according to Manchán. "Both of us would be a lot closer to Redmonites, pacifists, always thinking there has got to be a peaceful solution."

Using actors to play the parts of Sighle, Ernie O'Malley, and others, The Struggle recreates the shoot-out at Ailesbury Road, a "critical turning point in the Civil War", according to the documentary. Number 36, now home to the French embassy, had been built by Sighle's mother in 1919 with a secret room to house republicans in the War of Independence. It was there O'Malley was hiding on the morning the soldiers called. He came out firing, flanked by Sighle, who "definitely emptied out a couple of barrels of a revolver", says Ruán. When the shooting ended, those left standing were served breakfast in the parlour. Sighle used the opportunity to pinch some weapons from the resting soldiers, owning up to her theft only at gunpoint. But who shot McCartney? "My granny or Ernie? You decide," says Manchán, borrowing a phrase from reality TV.

A running theme of the film is the distortion of history and whether one can ever rise above myth. In the story Mancháheard as a child it was a "Stater" who shot Sighle's aunt in the face when, in fact, it was O'Malley. In the story I learnt it was Dick, not Sighle, who was made to taste the barrel of a gun. In trying to reconcile such differing accounts, the brothers reach their own conclusions. But, in doing so, are they merely creating their own myth?

"That's exactly what we're doing," Ruán replies. "Although every documentary is rooted in truth, and we can stand by every fact, yes, we have created a myth. We wanted to show how you can have different accounts of a story so that people might reflect on history and see that it's not dry or boring. It's a game."

Hidden History: The Struggle is on RTÉ 1 at 10.10 p.m. today