The Irish Civil War part 2: into the grisly heart of brother killing brother

Television: The tragedy is obvious but the documentary misses out on the experiences of those who lived through it

Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries has been going on for what feels like 100 years. But finally, daylight is in sight. As we emerge from the tunnel of remembrance and reconciliation, though, there is the matter of the Civil War, a tragedy chronicled in epic if stodgy fashion in a new three-part documentary airing over consecutive evenings.

In part one of The Irish Civil War, director Ruán Magan delivered a thorough recap of events leading up to the outbreak of hostilities between pro and anti-Treaty forces. In the second episode (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm) it is headfirst into the grisly heart of the conflict with the fledgling Government, egged on by Churchill, opening fire against the rebels installed in the Four Courts.

From there, things spiral, as Brendan Gleeson conveys in his stony narration. Rebels take de facto control of the South, establishing a semi-official Munster Republic, largely funded by commandeering the Port of Cork (which yields more than £100,000 in just five weeks). Fearful of the war spinning even further out of control, Britain supplies Michael Collins and the administration in Dublin with weapons. The Army goes west and south to reassert its supremacy. Battle is joined, brother fights brother, to the horror of the war-weary citizenry.

“Civil wars have long been seen as particularly corrosive and destructive and traumatising to communities,” says Harvard’s Professor David Armitage. “[There is] the horror of recognising oneself in the eyes of one’s enemy.”


The tragedy is obvious. But Magan’s documentary can sometimes feel too granular – it gives you the facts, but perhaps misses out on the experiences of those who lived through the war. It has seemingly been decided, moreover, to prioritise talking head historians – golly there are a lot – over archive interviews with those who witnessed hostilities first-hand. This feels like a missed opportunity because when figures from the past are on screen they are riveting.

“I thought I heard a voice calling me. Where’s the Big Fellow? He had been shot. He was lying there. A gaping wound at the back of his head,” says a frail Emmett Dalton, the Free State general, revisiting the scene of Collins’s death in west Cork decades later.

The Irish Civil War could have done with more of those perspectives: people who had seen the tragedy unfold up front – who heard the rifle cracks, smelt the cordite, saw the blood. The constant use of drone footage of contemporary Dublin begins to wear too – did we need another Apprentice-style shot of the IFSC twinkling in the gloom? How the film cried out for something more inventive. That isn’t to suggest Magan pull a Lucy Worsley and have Diarmaid Ferriter cycle around Dublin dressed as Countess Markievicz – though it would have made you sit up and pay attention.

But, then, perhaps the stilted timbre is the only means of doing justice to the Civil War. Feelings about the conflict run strong to this day and the documentary is at pains to not come off as flippant about the suffering or disrespectful to the victims. Worthy, even slightly dull, has been the default tone throughout this Decade of Centenaries – and maybe that is just how it has to be. A “hot take” on this dark chapter is the last thing anyone needs. If Magan’s film plays it safe, it is possibly because, now and for the next 100 years, there is no other way to tell the story.