‘It was disastrous, I was wrong’: 50-year-old tapes of interviews with Civil War veterans are made public

Fascinating insights into the thinking of 32 people, including Frank Aiken, Seán MacBride and Máire Comerford

Researcher Harlan Strauss with Fergus Hilliard, whose father, Michael Hilliard, was interviewed about his Civil War experiences by Mr Strauss in 1972

Fifty years ago Harlan Strauss was a student at the University of Oregon on the west coast of the United States. He had a “grand idea” to do a dissertation on the type of people who make revolutionaries.

It quickly became apparent to him that he needed to speak to real live revolutionaries. But where? He was not fluent enough in Spanish to go to Cuba or in Russian to go to the Soviet Union. There was only one English-speaking country that had carried out a revolution in living memory: Ireland.

Strauss says he was “not even 1 per cent Irish”, neither Catholic nor Protestant and knew very little about Ireland initially. But he turned his outsider status into a strength

His task was “to ask people not what they did, but why they did it”. Being an ingénue allowed him to ask questions from which others shied away. Was the Civil War worth it? Do you regret anything you did? What is it like to be on hunger strike?


The result was 30 hours of previously unheard audio recordings of 32 prominent figures in Irish life. The list of interviewees reads like a who’s who of Irish revolutionaries who were still alive in 1972, including Frank Aiken, Dan Breen, Robert Barton, Christopher Brady, the printer of the Easter Rising Proclamation, Peadar O’Donnell, Máire Comerford, John A. Costello, Ernest Blythe and Seán Dowling.

Some of the material was eventually collated for an unpublished PhD with the snappy title The Revolutionary-making process: A socio-psychological study of the leadership of the English, American, Russian and Irish Revolutions.

The tapes have now been deposited in the National Folklore Collection in Ireland and will be of huge interest to students of the Irish revolution.

“I soon found when the doors open for most of these guys, I was the first person ever to want to get their stories,” recalled Strauss.

“They didn’t share the information with their family, but I was an outsider. I had no biases and I was a young student. In fact I was rather naive about everything. Most of them opened up and allowed me to tape-record from a half an hour to three hours.”

The public will get the first chance to hear excerpts from the tapes in The Silent Civil War, which will be broadcast across two episodes starting on Wednesday. It examines the legacy of the Civil War and its impact on families down the generations.

Strauss asked Sean Dowling, the IRA director of organisation during the Civil War, whether violence was ever justified. “Nothing but violence ever achieved anything. No foreign invader has ever been argued out of a country,” Dowling replied.

“Looking back now, do you think the Civil War could have been avoided?” Strauss asked.

“Yes, it was disastrous and although I took that side, of the anti-Treaty side, I think I was wrong. I think Mick Collins was right that he was prepared to use the Treaty as a stepping stone to complete independence.”

Michael Hilliard was also anti-Treaty and was arrested during the Civil War. He went on hunger strike as did many republican in that period, lasting 35 days. He gave an extraordinary account of the mind of a hunger striker.

“It’s a tremendous experience to have. Your mind gets crystal clear and you [are] in a sort in an ecstasy after about 21 days. You have day dreams and night dreams, you have such beautiful dreams. I can’t really explain it, but you can recall it as if you were looking at a film as to what happened to you from the very early days of your life,” Hilliard said.

Seán MacBride spoke to Strauss about how he felt insufficient efforts were made on either side to avoid the Civil War or to stop it as soon as it began.

His granddaughter Iseult White told the documentary of how her great-grandfather Major John MacBride, Seán’s father, was venerated as a martyr after being executed for his role in the Easter Rising despite the fact that he could be a violent drunk.

Another of Strauss’ interviewees was Aiken, the former IRA chief of staff, whose “dump arms” order in May 1923 ended the Civil War. Aiken, who went on to become a long-standing minister for foreign affairs in Fianna Fáil governments, refused to be taped for posterity, so Strauss had to take notes.

During the documentary, his great-great granddaughter Siofra Aiken spoke about it to her grandfather Frank Aiken jnr, who was Frank Aiken snr’s son. Why did Frank Aiken snr never speak about the Civil War, nor the Altnaveigh massacre, in which six Protestants were killed in June 1922 in an area where he was in command of the Fourth Northern Division?

“I did ask him about the Civil War a little bit, but he wouldn’t answer,” Frank Aiken jnr said. “He’d give me an answer like terrible things happen in wars and worse in civil wars.”

While he was in Ireland Strauss also interviewed more contemporary figures from the time, including the former Northern Ireland prime minister Basil Brooke just before he died.

“He was very interesting. I never experienced anybody of that kind of prejudice before. To his dying days he held a strong anti-Catholic, uber-Ulster position,” he said.

* The Silent Civil War will air on RTÉ One and the RTÉ Player on Wednesday 26th April, 9.35pm and continues Wednesday 3rd May

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times