Diarmaid Ferriter: We must confront reality of our Civil War
Mindful of those who suffered, State must consider whether it could have been avoided
Éamon de Valera: “England is the aggressor. Once the aggression is removed there can be peace. If the aggression and interference is maintained, it will be resisted.”
Exactly a century ago, Irish republicans were being asked how long more the war of independence could last. In an interview with American journalist and British spy Carl Ackerman in April 1921, Michael Collins stuck to the republican line, insisting “the same effort that would get us dominion home rule, would get us a republic . . . compromises are difficult and settle nothing”. Collins had also spoken to Ackerman the year previously and when Ackerman reported to Scotland Yard, he noted that, off the record, Collins seemed more accommodating, saying “no one has ever defined a republic”.
Éamon de Valera was also handling tricky questions in April 1921; what he referred to as “new peace rumours” were to be met, he averred, with the assertion that they were “this ruse of the British”. His attitude, he wrote, “is very simple and plain – England is the aggressor. Once the aggression is removed there can be peace. If the aggression and interference is maintained, it will be resisted”.
But the pressure was mounting; the following month, British prime minister David Lloyd George stated he would meet de Valera “without condition on my part”. Some sort of end game was approaching which meant that for all the focus on identifying external skulduggery, Sinn Féin would have to begin to examine its own bottom lines and internal cohesion.
Historian Peter Hart has suggested Collins’s alliance with de Valera was “undoubtedly the most important, and perhaps the most complicated of his relationships. He would spend the rest of his life trying to deal with it.”
‘Challenging and sensitive’
Compromise ruptured their relationship and “the rest of his life” was to be just 16 months. The chasm that opened between the two men was to be replicated across the republican movement and, after the treaty was signed, reflected in deep political and societal divisions. It is no wonder the politicians who this week unveiled plans to commemorate 1921 stressed caution by suggesting “we are now entering the most challenging and sensitive period” of commemoration.
Remembering 1921 should also be about dissecting the intricacies of negotiating and the struggle for definition
Analysis of the politics of compromise, with all their implications for the unity of Sinn Féin, Anglo-Irish relations and North-South relations, should form part of those centenary reflections. We understandably focus a lot on violence but remembering 1921 should also be about dissecting the intricacies of negotiating and the struggle for political definition.
When speaking of commemoration of the revolutionary era, contemporary politicians rightly emphasise the endurance of Irish democracy, which also raises a challenging question, summed up in this contention of the Australian historian Calton Younger in 1968: “The Irish civil war ought to have been fought with words on the floor of the Dáil and it could have been.”
We need to debate the veracity of that claim while also looking closely at the implications of the fight moving beyond the Dáil. This is where the Taoiseach’s assertion this week that we can get “too focused on major individuals” is particularly relevant.
Tied to a mine
Consider, for example, the trauma that faced the family of Patrick Hartnett, killed at Ballyseedy in March 1923 when the National Army tied nine republican prisoners to a mine and detonated it; eight of them died, including Hartnett. He was an agricultural labourer from Listowel earning 15 shillings a week and his homestead consisted of “10 statute acres – bogland – 2 cows”. Patrick’s brother, John, died in June 1923: “This boy was practically an invalid and died as a result of being taken out of bed by Free State troops in that year.” Their father died in 1932 – “He suffered a complete breakdown after the death of his son and died practically of a broken heart.”
Joseph O’Brien was “living in a top room” and his wife had to beg for a wheelchair, which took six months to be provided
Or consider Annie O’Brien, wife of Joseph O’Brien, one of the victims of the Knocnagoshel outrage that preceded Ballyseedy, when National Army soldiers were lulled towards an IRA mine; when it was exploded, body parts were “strewn in all directions”. Five were killed and, as a survivor, Joseph O’Brien’s two legs were amputated below the knee and he was almost blinded. Annie subsequently struggled to find suitable accommodation, as he was “living in a top room” and she had to beg for a wheelchair, which took six months to be provided.
We know these kinds of details now because of the release of digitised army pension claims held in the Irish military archives and we need to confront and absorb many more of them. The focus in this week’s plan on the release of archival material, research and the role of our cultural and archival institutions, as well as initiatives by local communities and libraries is to be welcomed. While there is trepidation about the coming centenaries offering an opportunity for crude hijacking, there is also an opportunity to confront the reality of our civil war by focusing on those who took its brunt or lived through its traumatic aftermath, raking over the consequences of the decisions of their political and military masters.