“Weapons, have you got any weapons?”, the journalist Andrée Viollis was asked when boarding a boat at Holyhead bound for Ireland 100 years ago. She recounted her visit of autumn 1922 in one of France’s best-selling newspapers and painted a picture of a deeply divided country.
The Civil War began in June 1922 and by the time Viollis visited Dublin in late October 1922, things had reached a sort of crescendo. At Dún Laoghaire, she noted that new arrivals were patted down from head to foot, the men that is. The women had their pockets checked discreetly.
All around the country, Free State forces were on the offensive and in an effort to get the upper hand, the government made it a crime for anyone to carry a gun. In the evening of her first night in Dublin city, Viollis heard explosions and gunfire near her city centre hotel.
Ever the dutiful journalist, she went to investigate. Obviously immune to the sound of bombs and bullets by that stage, the lift operator in her hotel passed it off as “just a couple of explosions”, before adding that it “happens three times a day”.
Viollis was partial to the republicans and even claimed to have acted as a messenger for them by hiding a message on her person. Her article in Le Petit Parisien, whose masthead boasted that it had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the whole world, was translated and reprinted in the Daily Mail, thus earning it an even bigger audience.
She observed that armed soldiers were posted outside public buildings, banks and other commercial establishments, even outside her own hotel. Despite the heavy militaristic atmosphere, the shops were full and the trams were packed during the day. Life continues, she said.
Viollis witnessed a protest march composed entirely of women that was headed by Maud Gonne and Charlotte Despard. Viollis claimed that the majority of women who were involved in the War of Independence were now on the anti-Treaty side. While one Daily Mail reader thought that she captured the country brilliantly, others were of a different opinion. Michael Collins’s sister, for example, felt that Viollis had “mistaken a few people in Stephen’s Green for the Irish nation”.
If Dublin was relatively calm, apart from the sound of explosions, the situation in the south was more bleak. A witness who returned from there told Viollis that it was “worse than the time of the Black and Tans” on account of the violence and killings. Of all the foreign journalists who visited Ireland during that turbulent period, Viollis is one of the more unusual ones.
She was one of the few female foreign correspondents to report from Ireland. A volunteer nurse in the first World War, she witnessed the effects of war at first hand at the front. After studies at Oxford, she wrote for the Times of London and the Daily Mail. She also reported on the Paris peace conference that silenced the guns of war (temporarily at least).
Fluent in English and petite in stature, Viollis had the appearance of a kindly school teacher or respectable elderly aunt. British journalist Claud Cockburn, who had reported with Viollis from Spain during that country’s civil war, recalled that “she looked like everybody’s idea of a dear old Victorian lady”. However, he countered that she was “one of the toughest and most erudite” journalists that he had known.
In Cork, Viollis managed to visit the redoubt of a group of anti-Treaty forces, or the “on the runs”, as she notes they are called. She met Seán MacSwiney, the younger brother of Terence MacSwiney, who died on hunger strike in London a couple of years previously.
Viollis seems surprised by the youth of the men and describes them as “the boys”, even if the group consists of doctors, an engineer, a lawyer, and some students. Her description of their appearance brings to mind one of Seán Keating’s paintings. A trench coat covered in cartridge belts, a felt hat pulled down over their ears, a rifle over their shoulder and a revolver at their side.
After the capture of Erskine Childers by Free State soldiers in November 1922, Viollis wrote to him commiserating with him on his plight and pledging to support him as best she could. When she heard the news of his arrest, Viollis said that she felt “grief, horror and indignation”. She went on to say that “my thoughts, my heart are with you, I have seen enough of you to know what courage you are bearing the awful shock”. Viollis told Childers that she was returning to Paris and that she would “try to make them understand”.
News of Childers’s death made the front page of her newspaper.
The article was headlined “In the land of eternal war”.