Coming to Grips With Ireland’s Civil War

Following the centenary of the short but brutal conflict, historians and the public are questioning received narratives

Coming to Grips With Ireland’s Civil War
Armed members of the Irish Republican Army in Dublin during the Irish Civil War. (Walshe/Getty Images)

Under a lichen-speckled Celtic cross, in the graveyard of Kilflynn village, are the remains of three men who, a century ago, were brutally killed in Ireland’s Civil War.

The short and brutal conflict swept Ireland for 10 months in the wake of independence from British rule. Young men who were brothers in arms against colonialism turned on each other, fighting for different visions of an independent Ireland, amid bitter disagreement over the terms of independence from the United Kingdom.

Earlier this year, as villages and towns across Ireland commemorated the centenary of the war’s worst atrocities, the state released archival material that forced a reevaluation of the conflict’s imprint on Irish politics. Often dubbed Ireland’s “silent war,” the trauma of the conflict was muted in the national narratives of the political elite. It is only now, as academics broaden the official discourse to include the stories and writing of everyday people, that the depth of the war’s reverberations, and the scale of its cruelty, are being grasped. Academics are questioning whether there really was an immediate silence surrounding the war, or whether the “noble silence” was introduced later as part of the republic’s state-building.

In Kilflynn, it is the brutality of the deaths and subsequent suffering that is best remembered. The village in southwest Ireland sits in a bucolic setting, nestled among rolling green hills that are dotted with grazing cows and crisscrossed with yellow Scotch broom and blossoming white hawthorn. A limestone church and graveyard lie at its center, across from Parker’s Pub, which has served the community for at least a century, and Zam Zam Kebab, which has not.

“The thing I knew growing up, but that was not in the history books, is that certain families in this parish didn’t talk to each other because of the Civil War,” says Dr. Richard McElligot, a historian from the village who is working on a Civil War oral history project. “There were farmers going to the creamery who would time their runs to make sure they’d not cross each other’s paths. If they saw each other walking down the street, they’d turn around. If one of them was in Parker’s and the other one walked in, then straight away it was drink finished, out the door. That uneasiness. And you felt that around here. A lot of people must have felt that growing for the decades after, you know. Silent but there, just under the surface.”

In March, the people of Kilflynn placed a pair of wreaths upon the gravel of the tidy grave known simply as “the republic plot,” marking a century since Irish Free State soldiers strapped nine prisoners to a land mine and then shot them with a machine gun. Two of the nine rest here, Timothy Twomey and George O’Shea. The third man buried in the plot, Timothy “Aero” Lyons, died at a siege in caves on the Atlantic coast a few weeks later.

“And there’s Stephen Fuller, he died just a few weeks before I was born,” McElligot says, motioning to a nearby grave, black and shining. Fuller was the only man to survive the explosion by the Ballyseedy woods. Blown aside, he escaped through the forest and went on to live another 60 years and serve in the Irish Parliament.

McElligot teaches Irish history at Dundalk Institute of Technology, a four-hour drive to the northeast. For many of his students, most in their late teens and early 20s, the Civil War is an abstract coda to the Irish War of Independence from the U.K.

But in Kilflynn, which had a population of about 124 people, the war is well remembered. When soldiers returned the remains of the Ballyseedy victims to families, the military band played ragtime music. McElligot looks back at the stone cross. “I saw that growing up. That history is still here, you couldn’t not know about it. Whereas you go probably anywhere else in the country and it’s long forgotten.”

Even today, “the silent war’” is a taboo subject for many families. The conflict is traditionally remembered through the lens of military tactics and the actions of leaders in Dublin, but the recent release of state records has prompted a national reevaluation of its legacy through the voices of ordinary people, thanks to more than 270,000 files and handwritten letters. Historians are revisiting whether the “unspeakable war” was ever really that, how the war fits within wider European upheavals and fears of a “peasant republic,” and the critical role of women.

This year, the Irish government winds down its Decade of Centenaries, a program marking the tumultuous years that formed the Republic of Ireland. Initially, Civil War commemorations were not part of events, but their inclusion has seen community-led programs across Ireland and a recalibration of history. The anniversary also saw political debate and newspaper inches about the official government record of the Ballyseedy Massacre, which claimed victims were accidentally killed when clearing a road. Historians suggested politicians read further testimonies in Parliament, which indicated deliberate extrajudicial killing by government forces.

“That generation were so committed to a republic because they were fed this idea that everything was the British’s fault and once we got our own country, once we were in charge of our own house, this country would thrive,” McElligot says. “But it’s a very uncomfortable reality because look what happened straight away. You tore yourself apart in the Civil War.”

The Irish Civil War began in June 1922, after a three-year guerrilla war for independence from the U.K. The Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed in December 1921, ended British rule in most of Ireland but left it divided, splitting the island between six predominantly pro-British counties in the northeast, which remained part of the U.K. as Northern Ireland, and the self-governing Irish Free State, which remained a dominion in the British Commonwealth, like Canada or Australia. Under the treaty, Britain would keep its Royal Navy at three ports and Irish parliamentarians were to pledge an oath of allegiance to the British monarch.

Supporters of the treaty considered it a stepping stone, “the freedom to achieve freedom” as one of its negotiators and an Irish Free State leader, Michael Collins, put it. Those against the treaty felt it betrayed the fight for an independent republic.

Dail Eireann, the Irish Parliament, voted on whether to accept the treaty, which passed by 64 to 57 votes in January 1922. But not everyone accepted the vote and, in April, 200 anti-treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) fighters occupied buildings in Dublin, including the Four Courts, the center of Ireland’s judiciary.

Collins tried to avoid the bloodshed of his countrymen by delaying the use of force, but Winston Churchill, then the U.K.’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, issued the new Irish government an ultimatum to clear the Four Courts. Collins, averse to the return of British guns to Irish soil, gave the order for bombardment. The Civil War had begun.

The Free State Army quickly controlled Dublin and urban centers. In rural areas, guerrilla warfare by the anti-treaty IRA set in. Fighting was considered particularly brutal in Ireland’s remote southwest. Parliamentarians from the western seaboard had voted overwhelmingly against the treaty, considering it a betrayal of a united, liberated Ireland. The view from the north and east of Ireland was that this region had not sacrificed as much during the War of Independence and its rejection of the vote was undemocratic.

In the southwestern county of Kerry, the Free State Army could not control the area by land and so deployed nearly 1,000 troops by ship, landing in the small seaside villages of Fenit, Tarbert and Kenmare in August. The soldiers, primarily from the Dublin Guard and outside counties, were portrayed as an invading foreign force. A siege mentality descended.

The region’s mountainous geography suited guerrilla warfare, and protracted fighting disrupted all aspects of daily life, creating tit-for-tat violence in tightknit rural communities. To turn public opinion against the new government, IRA fighters blew up trains, interrupted food and postal deliveries, and looted ships and businesses.

As the war lingered, Kerry came under the command of Maj. Gen. Paddy Daly, a member of an elite assassination unit during the War of Independence. Daly set a precedent for extreme violence and extrajudicial killings by Free State Army soldiers, famously saying, “Nobody had asked me to take kid gloves to Kerry, so I didn’t.”

While the war waned elsewhere, its most vicious moments played out in March 1923, with events like the Ballyseedy Massacre. By the war’s end in May, thousands had become refugees or were forced to emigrate due to financial destitution. But perhaps because of its brevity, and fewer deaths compared to contemporary European conflicts, historians traditionally downplayed the Irish Civil War and its reverberations throughout society.

That is changing, thanks in part to the recent digitization of military pension applications penned by thousands of citizens. Handwritten letters by fighters and their dependents, particularly widows and elderly parents, detailed not only individuals’ actions in the war, but the economic hardships endured afterward in every part of the country. These testimonies have had a “transformative effect” on the country’s understanding of the Civil War, says historian Owen O’Shea.

“I think, for the very first time and a hundred years on, people are confronting the Irish Civil War by leaving aside their preconceptions and looking at the firsthand accounts of the participants and survivors, developing a more nuanced understanding,” O’Shea says, in a busy cafe in downtown Tralee, not far from the barracks where Free State Army officers were known to torture detainees. “It wasn’t black-and-white and there wasn’t a monopoly of suffering for one side or another.”

O’Shea spent years trawling the Military Service Pensions Collection for his book, “No Middle Path: The Civil War in Kerry,” and continues research for his doctorate on Irish Civil War politics. Initially, pensions were only open to Free State Army veterans but later extended to anti-treaty fighters in 1932. Thousands of records continue to be published.

“What I think has been probably forgotten or overlooked in Ireland for a long time is that enormous legacy of dreadful hardship for those left behind and that manifested itself, too, in financial hardship,” O’Shea says. “If you look at the archives of those who were involved in the conflict, there were very high levels of emigration, particularly among anti-treaty republicans who ‘lost the war’ and who were, in many cases, forced to leave the country because of their inability to find employment because they had been involved in the war.”

He spotlights the immense suffering of survivors on both sides:

“We are near starving, I cannot afford to pay a workman in my stead on my little farm,” wrote Michael O’Connell of Castleisland in 1933.

“I find it impossible to keep the children in bootwear,” wrote Christina Noone, a widow whose husband died in 1922.

And Kathleen Horan, the widow of a Free State Army officer from Tralee and a mother of six, ended one application letter succinctly, “What in God’s Holy name am I to do?”

Archival accounts of systematic, tactical violence against women have also deepened the understanding of women’s active roles in the Civil War and its political repercussions. These include newspaper articles and contemporary firsthand accounts previously overlooked by historians who focused on exceptional incidents of violence, which excluded systematic gendered violence. The influential women’s paramilitary association, Cumann na mBan, was anti-treaty, and newly released pension applications highlight how women played a critical role in intelligence, dispatch deliveries, arms carrying, propaganda and monitoring urban centers under the control of the Free State Army. But women’s personal histories were often untold by families ashamed of what they endured.

Politicians on both sides of the Civil War went on to form Ireland’s two leading political parties. Today, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail share power in a coalition government.

“I think the biggest legacy of the Civil War is the fact that, unlike other European countries, we don’t have that sort of left-right divide because, for generations, politics was dictated and dominated by which side of the Civil War you were on,” O’Shea says. “Unfortunately, that was at the cost of any meaningful debate for decades in Ireland about social and economic policy. Elections were dominated by Civil War politics rather than bread and butter.”

Academics are also reflecting on another persistent myth: Was the war really followed by silence? Maybe not, says Dr. Siobhra Aiken, a lecturer at Queens Belfast University and author of “Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony and the Irish Civil War.” She points to a proliferation of literature — theater, poetry, personal testimonies and fiction — written in the years immediately after the conflict. These works by combatants and civilians, in English and Irish, present an alternative archive almost entirely overlooked.

While politicians endorsed silence as the best path forward for the young country, autobiographical novels were a deliberate way for survivors to process their experience. Women, particularly, authored many fictionalized accounts by the end of the 1930s and addressed controversial topics by cloaking them in traditionalist settings.

“They got away with a lot more,” says Aiken, who compiled the works for her doctorate. “It was maybe not taken as seriously if you wrote your experience in a romance novel, it wasn’t seen to be as threatening. But also, women were struggling to get publishers within this very competitive commemorative culture.”

“Hunger Strike,” a play published in 1933 by County Kerry writer Mairin Cregan, centered on a woman whose anti-treaty husband was on hunger strike in 1923, and raised questions about the ethics of hunger striking and the erasure of women from the revolutionary narrative. Cregan herself was extremely active in the war, traveling around Europe to dispatch anti-treaty IRA messages to key international leaders. But she set her protagonist in a conformist, domestic environment, drawing praise from contemporaries for conveying the Irish woman “in her correct setting.”

The war, notes Aiken, was “already pegged as something best forgotten before it even occurred.” Leading male political figures supported the idea of a noble silence and kept reticent about their own experiences for the sake of political stability or their ideals.

“Politicians on both sides politicized and weaponized silence, so would accuse each other consistently of not being virtuous enough in their use of silence,” says Aiken. “They both advocated for forgetting, meanwhile not forgetting at all.”

Silence-breakers were usually the marginalized and anti-establishment. Women, for instance, were publicly shamed for having traditionally male fighting roles. This likely contributed to the loss of the political prominence they previously held. Their political sidelining had ongoing effects through the 20th century.

“Up until that point we have very radical feminist activists in various major visible positions in society, as part of this revolutionary effort looking at cultural revolutions, social revolutions, the right to vote for women,” Aiken says. “If we fast forward 10 years, those women have been pushed aside from the major institutes of the new state, and I think a lot of that does come down to the shaming of women through those stereotypes.”

Silence varied with geography and still does. The Civil War’s social history in Northern Ireland and border areas is yet to be addressed, Aiken says. “Across the country, there’s this sense of disappointment. Nobody came out happy with the Civil War but in border areas it’s a different level, because you have nationalist communities who feel that they were abandoned by the 26 counties.”

Even today, people are reticent about events a century ago. Aiken struggled to get testimonies in Northern Ireland, where tension persists between unionists who want to remain in the U.K. and republicans who want to join the Irish Republic.

“There’s a lot of narratives that haven’t been fully integrated into the broader narrative, where you had refugees from Belfast all around Dublin and all across the country in the Civil War,” says Aiken. “This is a period of intense violence and one of the most violent areas on the island between 1920 to 1922. About 500 civilians were killed in Belfast alone and the majority were civilians hit in the crossfire. So it’s a very devastating period for the city and you have huge numbers of the Catholic population evicted from their homes and rehoused or forced to flee as refugees.”

History always oscillates with the politics of the day. Narratives of the Civil War were less prevalent during both World War II, with concern over Ireland’s neutrality, and during The Troubles, the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland that ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

One hundred years later, the COVID-19 pandemic may have quelled discussion on the centenary, as has Brexit, which flared tensions in Northern Ireland and strained British-Irish relations after raising questions about a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the U.K.

“Ultimately, commemorations are always about contemporary politics, and in Northern Ireland at the moment politics are so fraught that there certainly wouldn’t be a time where it would be in the leading political party’s interest to host commemorations of that sort,” Aiken says.

“History,” she notes, “is always about what’s happening in the present.”

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