From Turmoil to Truce: A mature reflection on the War of Independence

National Library exhibition makes space for civilian experience of intense conflict

Hats off to the National Library of Ireland, whose current exhibition, From Turmoil to Truce, maturely confronts a difficult challenge that caused a political storm this week: how to remember the centenary of the War of Independence.

The Anglo-Irish conflict grew increasingly brutal in 1920, and this exhibition lays bare some of the relevant themes.

The war about much more than the IRA, RIC, Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. In reality, there were numerous battles going on at that time – political, military and propaganda – but the exhibition also makes space for the civilian experience.

The photographs and newspaper reports are a reminder of the intensity of the contest to control the public narrative. In a letter to George Gavan Duffy, the Dáil's representative in Paris, Michael Collins wrote, "real progress is much more to be estimated by what is thought abroad than at home".


Britain had its own methods of manufacturing 'fake news' and staged photographs that sought to depict Irish republicans as barbaric

That could be problematic too; Eamon de Valera continued his journey around the US but it was plagued by factional disputes regarding who was the voice of the declared Irish republic there, and he failed to get official recognition of the republic. Meanwhile, the Government of Ireland Bill that partitioned Ireland was proceeding apace.

The death of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney in October after a 74-day hunger strike in Brixton prison was harrowing and generated sustained international interest. His death was also a golden propaganda opportunity for the republican movement, which it did not waste.

MacSwiney was well aware of the symbolic power of his solitary protest against what was frequently referred to as “the might of the British empire”.

He had written to Cathal Brugha from prison the previous month: "If I die I know the fruit will exceed the cost a thousand fold". But none of these gestures were without consequences for the families left behind.

Terence’s daughter Máire was just two years old when her father died; her grieving mother Muriel was charged with making the most of the political capital accruing from his death and travelled extensively; she also suffered serious mental illness. Máire, who became a victim of custody battles, was later to rue “history deprived me of my father; my mother deprived me of herself”.

Press photographer

That we have such close-up images of some of the scenes of violence and its aftermath in Dublin has much to do with the work of W D Hogan, a commercial and press photographer based in Henry Street who had the official sanction of Sinn Féin and therefore a ringside seat.

Britain had its own methods of manufacturing “fake news” and staged photographs that sought to depict Irish republicans as barbaric to divert attention from its own mistakes.

It is also a period of history well documented through private correspondence. After the burning of Cork in December 1920, Charles Shultz, an Auxiliary, wrote to his girlfriend: "we took sweet revenge . . .many who had witnessed scenes in France and Flanders say that nothing they had experienced was comparable with the punishment dished out in Cork".

The IRA had its own vulnerabilities and viciousness, and civilian fatigue was growing

There was an enormous economic cost to this kind of terror, including the loss of an estimated 2,000 jobs. The attack by the IRA on the Customs House was another high-profile event, designed to be a demonstration of its strength in Dublin, but it went badly wrong. It was referred to by Henry Robinson, the vice president of the Local Government Board, as "probably the stupidest thing Sinn Féin ever did"; five civilians were killed and it left a hefty bill for Dublin ratepayers.

Bloody Sunday in Croke Park in November 1920 left both sides reeling. Tipperary newspapers the Tipperary Star and the Nationalist used the words “holocaust”, “slaughter” and “massacre” to describe what happened, with the Nationalist suggesting “the vicious cycle must be allowed to run its course”; a recognition, it seemed, that this was a defining but not a final tragedy.

It may have forced a reassessment of the nature and objectives of the war, but even though CJ Philips in the British Foreign Office had referred two days before Bloody Sunday to a “slender link” established through dialogue with more moderate republicans, it would be eight months before the truce because of concerns by both sides that peace talk was a sign of weakness.

The IRA’s Ernie O’Malley insisted the British campaign “was defeating itself”. In many ways it was, but the IRA had its own vulnerabilities and viciousness, and civilian fatigue was growing.

One thing we are getting closer to is an accurate figure for the number of fatalities during this period; the work of historians Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí O Corráin will reveal this year that of 2,344 people who died due to political violence between January 1917 and December 1921, 919 or 39% were civilians. It will be interesting to see how much space is created this year to commemorate them.