Diarmaid Ferriter: We have not yet reached an era of mature Civil War commemoration

There is no unanimity on how or when to mark a grim chapter of our history, but there are some hopeful signs

Fifty years ago, the Department of Defence had no desire to commemorate the Civil War. Responding to suggestions it should mark the 50th anniversary of key events in 1922, including the taking over of Dublin Castle from the British administration and the occupation of the Four Courts by anti-Treaty republicans, the response of the department was that “it would not be appropriate to have any state commemoration of any of the events which were part of the aftermath of the Treaty, up to and including the Civil War”.

In 1968, Taoiseach Jack Lynch had suggested he would facilitate an all-party committee to see how best to commemorate the Civil War, but there seemed little appetite for this, and the outbreak of the Troubles further dulled the possibilities.

References to civil war in the following few years were just as likely to relate to contemporary events; this week in 1972, for example, Bob Cooper of the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland warned in Derry of the possibility of a new civil war and the ongoing difficulty of the “shadow of the gunmen”. This was also a dominant theme in the politics of southern Ireland during and after the creation of the State; indeed, it was one of the dominant slogans of the 1932 general election that resulted in the losing side of the Civil War ousting the other side from power.

The reluctance was also about a disinclination to recall some of the ringing declarations of a century ago, including chief of staff of the IRA Liam Lynch threatening “very drastic measures” against TDs who supported the government’s executions policy, which resulted in the killing of TD Seán Hales on December 7th. Or WT Cosgrave’s insistence after the retaliatory execution of IRA prisoners Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Richard Barrett, that “terror will be struck into” the IRA.


Historian Anne Dolan has highlighted how, almost 50 years after these events, former Free State soldier Seán Irwin wrote to Fine Gael politician Michael Hayes and wondered “will any regard be paid to the human emotion, to the dreadful duty imposed on the army personnel called upon to carry out those executions… it fell to our lot to see this gruesome work carried out”.

More gruesome work followed. Recently, I listened to historian Síobhra Aiken describe the trauma that was involved for the women who had to try to collect body parts after one of the most notorious events of the Civil War: the tying of nine republican prisoners to a mine in Ballyseedy that was then detonated, killing eight of them in March 1923.

In 1938, Sally Sheehy described how she was a “chronic invalid” surviving on her mother’s old-age pension due to her Civil War efforts. Her doctor summarised her condition: “suffering from severe nervous frustration amounting to that of a nervous wreck. She is getting progressively worse.” He knew her “previous to” the Civil War “to be an active healthy girl”. Sheehy gave a statement in support of a disability pension in 1937: “After the Ballyseedy Mine Tragedy I was one of the party that gathered the remains of the dead bodies, brains, clothes.” Ellen Bourke did a similar job: “I helped to try and get bits of their remains. I don’t like to talk about it… I don’t like thinking about it.”

Of course, those scenes never left them. Families of National Army soldiers killed also felt sore about the treatment of their dead and what Anne Dolan described as the “mean and dreary” plot of remembrance for them in Glasnevin; James Langton has referred to those soldiers as “the forgotten fallen.”

Trauma and silences

We have not reached a comfortable era of mature Civil War commemoration. Remembering the Civil War, as pointed out in recent weeks by some journalists and politicians, is still a delicate matter with no unanimity on how and when to do it. But it is not being ignored. I have witnessed powerful commemorative events in recent months organised by local authorities in Wexford, Cavan, Mayo and Kildare, where the children of the Civil War generation have spoken with clarity, sorrow and usually without rancour about the trauma and the silences.

Numerous academic conferences, with more to follow next year, have offered insight, context and the fruits of archival releases. An event in the National Concert Hall in September to remember the Civil War – with music, poetry and speeches by the President, Taoiseach and Tánaiste – was sincere, but curiously under the radar and not enough to confront difficult legacies.

There is still time, however, for the State to do more. Before it jumps to the commemoration of Ireland joining the League of Nations in 1923, regarded by many as an uplifting end to a commemorative decade, there is an onus on the Coalition Government to find a meaningful way to mark the dark days of 1922-3.