Speaking on RTÉ this week, two of the sons of anti-Treaty IRA members at the centre of atrocities in Kerry this month one hundred years ago displayed little interest in the idea of official apologies for what happened to their fathers. They are Paudie Fuller, the son of Stephen, who survived the Ballyseedy massacre that killed eight of his fellow prisoners, and Tim Coffey, whose father Tadhg escaped from the explosion at Countess Bridge where National Army officers had placed a mine which killed four IRA prisoners. The sons concurred that it is too late for apologies.
It is not too late, however, for the State to engage with the issue of the truth about responsibility - a State that, to its credit, has done much to render vital archival material accessible in recent years. Tánaiste Micheál Martin is accurate in maintaining that it is not a simple matter of correcting the lies that were read in the Dáil by minister for defence Richard Mulcahy in April 1923.
He stated the IRA had placed the mines at Ballyseedy and Countess Bridge and “in view of the abnormal conditions which have prevailed in this area, and of the inordinate and malignant nature of the fight carried out against the Army in their effort to restore peace, the discipline by the troops is worthy of the highest consideration”. The official account needs to remain as a monument to the lies, but there is too much tiptoeing around the option of other accounts being read in to the Dáil record for the centenary so that the testimony of survivors can be officially recorded.
This is ultimately about dignity and maturity, not certainty, trenchancy or righteousness. Micheál Martin, who recently met Paudie Fuller, has rightly highlighted the gracefulness of the Fuller and other families in dealing with the legacy. Paudie has recalled how his father insisted to him “the Civil War divisions should not be passed on to the next generation”. That stoicism and courtliness need to be matched with a gesture of decency by today’s politicians. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil in November 2011 “people killed without trial by the first government were murdered”, but he needs to revisit that question in more detail in this of all years.
When reappointed Taoiseach in December last year Varadkar made Civil War commemoration a plank of his acceptance speech and promised to find “an appropriate way of ending a century of hurt on pro- and anti-treaty sides, allowing us to finally move to reconciliation”. There has been too much vagueness around this and he needs to provide more concrete detail; otherwise it will be fair to draw the conclusion that the Government instead is keeping its gaze more firmly on the centenary of Ireland joining the League of Nations in September 1923 as a more uplifting focus (“the fulfilment of a dream that inspired generations of patriots and marks a fitting end to the decade of centenaries” said Varadkar).
The advisory group on commemorations, of which I am a member, has offered advice in relation to Civil War commemoration, recommending “a solemn, formal, inclusive, stand-alone national commemorative event, which would be broadcast live, making it as accessible as possible to a broad public audience at home and around the world”. We have also advocated “a key role for the President and political leaders”.
Paudie Fuller made a noble and magnanimous gesture in 2013 in attending the unveiling of a memorial devoted to the five National Army victims of the IRA trap at Knocknagoshel in March 1923. He was also measured this year in suggesting in relation to the Kerry massacres, “in today’s terms they were war crimes”. But they were also war crimes in 1923 terms.
Evidence of the cruel lottery of 1923 was manifest for decades afterwards. Richard Mulcahy’s son Risteárd was later to recall that his father, who lived until 1971, and who had a firm commitment to public service, despite his political wilderness years, was able to travel the country unimpeded to build up the Fine Gael party he became leader of while honing a historical narrative that was uncomplicated.
Stephen Fuller, though he served eight years as a Fianna Fáil TD, ultimately retreated to his farm and while he occasionally wondered about justice, thought it better to let the perpetrators live with their deeds. Tadhg Coffey spent a decade in the United States before returning, suffering like so many, including poorly treated National Army veterans, from what was described in that era as “neurasthenia”, a post-traumatic stress disorder that included anxiety, depression and deep exhaustion. But Coffey, like Fuller, kept his counsel amid decades covered in the blanket label “Civil War politics”. That politics may be formally over, but it should not be beyond those in politics today to give meaning to their solemn promises about commemoration priorities.