Idiosyncratic, fragmented and chaotic discourse

Surprisingly few new works have appeared about the conduct of the Irish Civil War in recent years

Surprisingly few new works have appeared about the conduct of the Irish Civil War in recent years. This is despite the fact that since the early 1990s many vital records have become available in government archives on both sides of the Border, and researchers expect that much more of the detail of the 1916-1923 period will emerge with the opening next January of the crucial Bureau of Military History papers. Nollaig O Gadhra's handsomely presented The Civil War in Connacht 1922-1923 is consequently to be welcomed in so far as it brings into the public domain notes on aspects of the Civil War compiled in 1972 by J.J. Waldron, a Tuam man, and based on conversations with protagonists and other local witnesses and on contemporary newspaper accounts. These usefully reflect how the war in east Galway - if the term can be applied to a conflict in that locality largely confined to a few skirmishes, a good deal of destruction of roads and bridges, some house burnings, and the execution of captured IRA volunteers - was recalled at a time when many of those involved were still alive and able to tell their stories. Waldron's notes are supported by some interesting photographs, and by the text of courageous letters of some of those captured republicans awaiting execution. In other respects, however, the book is a disappointment, even within the framework of unabashed traditionalist republican analysis which O Gadhra favours.

The notes take up less than 100 pages of the work, and the remaining text consists of an idiosyncratic, fragmented and at times chaotic discourse presenting the Treaty settlement as the unnecessary creation of British bullying and Irish pusillanimity. Antistate violence during the Civil War is by contrast firmly based on the high moral ground of republican idealism. Included in the book are no less than 18 appendices, in which an eclectic selection of key documents are reproduced without comment, elaboration, or indication of where they are drawn from. These take the reader far beyond the book's declared focus on east Galway.

If O Gadhra's renditioning of the text of the 1921 Treaty is any guide, the material should be treated with particular caution: in his version of Article 1, the not unimportant words "the Dominion of Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia" are omitted, presumably by accident rather than by design. So much for the author's ambition to produce "a useful resource for students in the future".

Its admirable production values and the episodic narrative of events in east Galway apart, this book belongs to a recognisable genre in which individual memory, republican folklore and circular arguments about the illegitimacy and inadequacy of the 1921 settlement are presented in a self-sustaining jumble. This is a pity because, in order to understand the Civil War, we need more personal testimonies from those involved on both sides and on neither, and the Waldron material is worth having for those reasons. What we can do without is the accompanying dry filling which Nollaig O Gadhra has unfortunately chosen to provide.


Eunan O'Halpin's most recent book, Defending Ireland, was published earlier this year.