Diarmaid Ferriter: We still do not know how many lives were lost in Civil War

No systematic, national tabulation of death toll has been undertaken in past century

To mark the centenary of the end of the Civil War there will be a formal “ceremony of reconciliation and remembrance of all those who lost their lives” in that war this Sunday at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin.

What is notable, however, is that, even after a century, we do not know how many people lost their lives in that conflict, as no systematic, national tabulation of all the Civil War dead has been undertaken. When I was studying history in the 1980s, one of the standard surveys of southern Ireland after 1922, Ronan Fanning’s Independent Ireland (1983), suggested “estimates of military casualties alone run at between 4,000 and 5,000″. This is now regarded as more than double the actual number.

Fanning was working on the common assumption that republican losses were “far heavier” than those on the National Army side, but the opposite was the case. Recent estimates suggest close to 500 IRA dead and 800 National Army fatalities (dying from a mix of combat, accidents, illnesses and executions) with more than 300 civilian casualties; there were also more than 300 killed in the new Northern Ireland in the first half of 1922.

Much has been achieved in recent years to shine light on neglected areas of the revolutionary decade and revisit old assumptions and figures. County studies have delved into the regional dynamics and specifics and historians, including John Dorney and James Langton, have sought to document the “forgotten fallen.” There is also a University College Cork project, The Cork Fatality Register, that seeks to give accurate figures for that county by looking at the frequency and geographic spread of killings there; one of its researchers, Andy Bielenberg, has recorded “538 taking place in the War of Independence, 53 during the Truce, and a further 236 in the Civil War”.


One of the landmark publications of the period of commemoration was Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí Ó Corráin’s The Dead of the Irish Revolution, published in 2020, which does not go beyond the War of Independence. It took nearly 20 years to bring this project to completion and it established that 2,850 people lost their lives due to political violence between 1916 and 1921, of which 504 were killed during the 1916 Rising and its aftermath and 2,346 between January 1917 and December 1921. The book documents the backgrounds of the dead, why they died and who was responsible for their deaths and it is a reminder of the scale of the challenge in seeking to exhaust research avenues and the need to make judgment calls when evidence is contested or contradictory. Inevitably there is doubt about the nature of some casualties. It is also a project of reclamation and dignity and reminds us how an excessive focus on combatants can skew the wider perspective on death; of the 2,346 who died between January 1917 and December 1921, for example, 919 or 39 per cent were civilians (and civilian deaths were proportionately higher in Belfast).

The emphasis on statistical data can inure us to the consequences of these deaths unless consideration is given to the context in which they occurred; what historian Anne Dolan referred to as the nature of “a local, intimate kind of violence”. The question of when the sources relating to these deaths were generated is also relevant. There is little evenness in all this; as O’Halpin put it, “narratives of individuals’ actions and fatalities vary greatly in depth. The entries are a mixture of the bald and the extensive”.

But final Civil War fatality figures remain elusive. This matters; as O’Halpin argues, “an accurate picture of who died where, why and by whose hand is a necessary starting point for holistic research on and analysis of Irish society in those years and in the following decades”. Being able to provide names, ages, places of residence, place and date of death is also of profound importance to the families of the dead and a reminder of the need for extensive research of this period to continue long after the decade of commemorations.

A towering monument to the importance of the systematic recording of fatalities was provided in 1999 with the Lost Lives book by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, and Chris Thornton, detailing the 3,636 Troubles-related deaths from 1969-1999, 56 per cent of them civilians. As the authors observed: “We have set out the tales of those who died in a manner which is as unemotional and objective as we could devise. Yet these facts, even when presented as dispassionately as possible, have great intrinsic power. The words we have written may read like journalism, but readers will quickly become aware that between the lines lie much grief and tragedy. We hope readers will be affected, as we have been, by the powerful message they convey of what violence can do to individuals, and families and communities”.