by Ed Vulliamy
Glorious sunshine bathed the parades past Dublin’s General Post Office, occupied for the week of the 1916 Rising, on its centennial commemoration that Easter Sunday in March 2016. But as the last band crossed the Liffey, dark clouds gathered, and as the marching musicians reached the statue of Charles Stewart Parnell at O’Connell Street, the now leaden sky unleashed a downpour of unwelcome rain. Most people gave thanks for the fact that the drenching had not come earlier; a few others found in it a metaphor of sorts: the commemoration of 1916 was the easy bit, a great day out with family and friends listening to Danú. But how to commemorate the Civil War that followed, now in its centennial year? Not a heroic uprising against the colonial power and yoke, but a war between Irish and Irish? Violence with a macabre intimacy to it: neighbour against neighbour, even family against family; people often knew those they were fighting and killing.
Well, we—Kate Manning, Anne-Marie O’Farrell, Ciarán Crilly, Wolfgang Marx and myself, later gratefully joined by Kellie Hughes—thought a piece of music might be a contribution to this moment. A piece of music that set voices and texts from the time, from both sides, staking no claim and allowing those voices to speak for themselves.
But there’ll be more to it than that. Around the Cantata, we’ll present a symposium, and other events, other ideas. And on this page of our Cantata website, between now and the premiere on September 30, we’ll be posting interviews with leading Irish commentators and historians, to heed and hear their thoughts, their words of wisdom and suggestions on the centennial and commemoration of Civil War, and its place in Irish history and memory.
Fintan O’Toole is Ireland’s foremost political author, commentator, editor and essayist—for the Irish Times and other newspapers around the world; his analyses of American and global affairs are a regular, essential feature in the New York Review of Books, The New York Times and The Guardian. O’Toole also holds a chair as the Milberg Professor of Irish Letters at Princeton University. The latest of O’Toole’s best-selling books is a personal history of Ireland (he insists it is not a ‘memoir’) since his birth in 1958, casting a critical, but largely hopeful, eye over the transformation of the country during his lifetime.
We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958
by Fintan O’Toole
The #1 Irish Times bestseller
WINNER of the An Post Irish Book Awards
We convened to talk in June, at the Borris Festival of Literature and Ideas, in Co. Carlow. O’Toole had spoke at a number of sessions, including a discussion of his book with the historian Roy Foster.
O’Toole’s book discusses the dichotomies between stability and instability in modern Ireland; the “power of shame and sin” giving way to crumbling “the wall of ignorance” during the 1960s and 70s; the impacts of JFK, Muhammed Ali, U2 and the EU. In the session with Foster at Borris, O’Toole contrasted a recent time when “the most interesting place in Ireland was the queue at the American to embassy to get out”, to that in which “the second most common language spoken at home in Ireland is Polish”, and with his now being able to say: “I love Irish modernity… I love the transformation. The feeling that the country is coming home to itself”.
But he also talked about a tendency of “deliberately not knowing”, which applied to Magdalene laundries, industrial schools, and elements of The Troubles, though not others. “Society”, he said, “collectively decided not to know these things”. How does the civil war fit into that?
O’Toole considers the Ballyseedy massacre of March 1923, when a number of republican prisoners were tied together and to a mine, which was then detonated. One man, Stephen Fuller, survived—he became a Fianna Fáil TD. O’Toole’s book contains a chapter on what he calls a “potent weapon: the pride of shame and sin” in Ireland, and its gradual demise. There, he examines the case of the ‘Kerry babies:’ the body of one newborn infant found on White Strand, Cahirciveen, in 1984, and another buried at a nearby farm. In conversation, O’Toole makes an astonishing connection…
The massacre at Ballyseedy was the most famous, egregious incident of the Civil War. But it has such a strange aftermath. In the case of the dead baby—or dead babies as it turned out—we have people making statements and confessing to things they may have done or did not do. But here’s the twist: it is the same family. The aunt of the woman who confessed to both burying a still-born child and killing the baby on the strand she has nothing to do with was Bridie Fuller, Stephen Fuller’s granddaughter. It’s the same family, but no one wanted to make the connection—it was all too weird. There’s something fascinating about a family that must have talked about a whole lot of stuff behind closed doors. It’s interesting that as a TD, Stephen Fuller hardly spoke about Ballyseedy, let alone make it a political platform. And there’s the Fuller family deep in this macabre episode. Which stories do you tell? And which stories do you not tell? Because they are so difficult, because the surrounding context is so complex, it’s safer to say: let’s not talk about it”.
The Civil War as a culture was institutionalised into politics, when the state was founded on a bloody Civil War, by sclerotic politicians. What are Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael without the Civil War? A strong tradition of Irish Labour was spewed out by the Civil War; without it, we’d have had a more powerful Social Democratic party in Ireland. But you end up with a false polity, not between left and right, as it should have been, but Civil War politics, not real politics.
In terms of politics or economics, there’s not a cigarette paper between the two political parties that have governed Ireland, apart from their professed division over the treaty. It’s been: let’s channel the Civil War into formal, democratic politics, in order to not talk about it. Or rather that the phrase ‘Civil War politics’, is the only way you can talk about the war in public discourse. The Civil War is the myth of separation between these two interchangeable parties.
Except that now, the split over the treaty and civil war is meaningless—now that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are in power together, to stop Sinn Féin. It’s also be interesting how Sinn Féin deal with this centennial. In recent years, there’s been more emphasis on policy and less on the glamour of the IRA in history, and this has been their success. Are they going to hark back to a heroic IRA narrative?
Then, of course, there’s the problematic figure of Michael Collins. Everyone wants him: for Sinn Féin, he is the military hero of the War of Independence, but for the Treaty side, he is a signatory, who led the battle for the Free State and was killed by the IRA.
So who’s claiming what? To be honest, no one should claim or disclaim any of it. We should just be honest about it. End the silence for God’s sake—we should be capable of this. After 100 years, modern Ireland can deal with the Civil War.
Diarmaid Ferriter is among the most important and respected historians of Ireland—especially modern Ireland, a status and reputation he established with the landmark publication in 2005 of The Transformation of Ireland 1900–2000. The book is about just that, or—in its way—the many transformations from colonial subject, through birth, independence, theocracy and Troubles to a “post-Catholic pluralist republic”.
The Transformation Of Ireland 1900-2000
by Diarmaid Ferriter
‘This is one of the most important books to be published this year’ John Bruton
The Border :
The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics
by Diarmaid Ferriter
Shortlisted for the An Post Irish Book Awards Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2019
Between Two Hells
by Diarmaid Ferriter
Shortlisted for the An Post Irish Book Awards Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2019
Cécile Chemin has positioned herself at arguably the most interesting street corner from which to observe the unfolding narrative and historiography of the Irish Civil War, as the centennial approaches, and our Cantata premiere is nigh.
Cécile is project manager of the Military Service Pensions Collection at the Military Archives. What may sound like a dry day’s work is quite the reverse: as Diarmaid Ferriter has explained, this is the cutting edge of insight into the true story and history of Ireland’s internal tribulation a century ago, that of the people who lived it, talking with a raw honesty not to be found elsewhere. The reason is plain: these testimonies are provided not by invitation to stake a self-conscious claim in history, as per the Bureau of Military History archive, but in pursuit of a few pounds on which to live, scrimp and save—in most cases. The closer to the war you were, the better the chance of success.
Cécile is Chemin by name a nature, in position as result of an interesting and adventurous trajectory. A native of Lyon, she qualified in linguistics, literature and history at University, and explored the planet far and wide before settling in Dublin to study the metier of curation, excavation and deployment of historical archives at UCD. She became a professional archivist in 2005.
In terms of our libretto, this archive contains its ‘cousin’, in a way. Our text is drawn, rightly and overwhelmingly, from the archive at UCD, where this endeavour was hatched and whence it came. But if any other group of friends and colleagues like us were to consider a similar project for some other landmark in the civil war’s history, this still unfolding archival adventure would be your ideal source material.
We meet at the best place in Dublin in which to talk: bay window of the lovely first-floor café at Books Upstairs, home to the best collection of books on Ireland for sale, and the Dublin Review of Books journal.
Síobhra Aiken deals with what one might call the ‘subconscious’ or our endeavour, perhaps even its Id. Not so much historical record, military narrative or pension application, but the intangible legacy of Civil War; what she calls, in the title of her ground-breaking book, ‘Spiritual Wounds’. Her approach is novel and bold. She takes the word ‘wound’ as “a metaphor” for trauma and memory of the war, as smothered by a “blanket of silence” imposed over them. And she then hears voices that pitched themselves against that silence, largely in literature – often a kind of ‘Samizdat’ literature that insisted on presence against disappearance. Her work is itself an assertion of those who asserted themselves, by demanding to speak, and to be heard. An enterprise that strikes to the heart of our own here.
One element in the origins of our Cantata was a book I attempted to write for the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of war in Bosnia, published in 2012, which considered not with the war itself, but the reckoning – or rather un-reckoning – with it, and the lives of those who had survived concentration and rape camps it had been my accursed honour to find in 1992. Who could be said to have ‘survived’, and who not – though hey still lived – over those 20 years I followed them. It was a journey through a diaspora shattered and scattered not just geographically, but in history too, condemned by a silence wrapping their trauma – muted and thereby forgotten. The echoes in Ireland, and in Aiken’s travail, could not be more cogent.
Hardly anyone bought, let alone read, the Bosnian volume, but among the few was Kate Manning at UCD. This got us talking, and everything that tied my project then to this one is exactly Aiken’s material. What she here calls the “anti-silence”, a “counter-social-memory”, whereby those who experienced the Irish Civil War find ways of communicating those experiences, in a way that conveys not its facts and dates, but its complex and painful, intangible quintessence – something that was too much for society to bear.
Aiken – a former Fulbright Scholar, and regular contributor on radio and television – is a lecturer at Queens University, Belfast. ‘Spiritual Wounds’ is based on her doctoral research at NUI Galway, which was awarded the American Conference for Irish Studies Adele Dalsimer Prize for Distinguished Dissertation, in 2021. She deals with radical ideas on trauma, memory and expression closely related to the aims of this Cantata: “the imperative to tell”, and an Irish literary inheritance of the appalling notion, cited during the Civil War, that “Roman was to Roman more hateful that the foe”.
Presented by UCD Archives and UCD School of Music
Supported by Arts Council, UCD Ad Astra Academy, UCD College of Arts and Humanities, UCD Decade of Centenaries, UCD University Relations, RTÉ Lyric FM, RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Resurgam