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?
Fintan O’Toole :
How are we going to do the centennial of Civil War?
There’s deep anxiety about it. It’s unprocessed. In Ireland’s reckoning with many things in the past, this is the one thing we don’t want to talk about. It’s about bitterness and shame, because we were doing this to each other, hence the silence. No one really wants to dig up the history of the Civil War; there’s that feeling: ‘We can’t talk about it, because it is going to start arguments’.
The Civil War undermines the narrative of heroic Irish nationalism. It’s rooted in the imperial complex that ran deep into the nineteenth century. First, there was an IRA campaign so successful that it forced the British to the negotiation table. And what do we do with that? We sign a treaty, and then appear to prove the imperialist stereotype: ‘You don’t know how to rule yourselves. You won your freedom, and the first thing you did with that freedom is to start killing each other’. That is one of the overarching problems, that is invariably the shame of oppressed people.
There’s interplay in Irish history between memory and amnesia. You remember things you can remember safely, and you are less inclined to remember things that are unsafe.
So that in a way, the most exaggerated thing in our history is Easter 1916. It had to be sacrilised – this is the thing we will commemorate. It was the one thing on which we all agree. We don’t have to ask each other: which side were you on?
And you are disinclined to remember the Civil War, so that even as you remember, you are forgetting.
Ireland is a small place, and was then a largely rural society. People mostly lived in villages; and it was like the Balkans in that way. This was happening in places like Cahersiveen, rather than Dublin, in little places, of social intimacy: you know the family over the road, you know their history. The sense of place is strong, as is the sense of pride—but what happens if you start tearing all this apart? It was one thing to shoot a policeman during the War of Independence—they made the wrong choice, and suffered the consequences. But quite another to be shooting your neighbour.
People adjust their memories. Even their own. For instance: my grandfather lived with us when I was a child. He was a fanatical supporter of De Valera, Fianna Fáil, and the republican side in the Civil War. He had to have been in the IRA, we thought. Then I found a photograph of him, in uniform, but it wasn’t the IRA. He was a corporal in the Free State Army. But he had let everyone believe another story, that he was on the other side. Why? Well, he worked in the Jameson distillery in Dublin, where all his colleagues were republican; it was his social group, when he moved to Dublin, and he was able to reinvent himself. I wonder how many households that kind of thing may have happened in?
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
Diarmaid Ferriter :
The pensions archive is astonishing in its scale—it’s a unique source that unlocked the story of this cruel bloodletting, and what Ireland did with it. It conveys the scale of the hurt, because it lasts a lifetime. The submissions are moving, for economic and personal reasons. Some of them have ten, twelve, fourteen changes of address—these restless people, trying to find a home after their experiences, struggling to make a living. There is real trauma here, mental health trauma on a level that had not been previously addressed by historians or by history. They have to make their point: what they have given, and what they have endured. They are looking for as much proof as possible. And who is going to provide that proof? Can you find a friend, can you find a contemporary, who will vouch for you?
And so the wounds are opened up: who has survived? And who is willing to come forward?
For me, the most striking thing is the texture of the archive, we are invited into their room: widows, mothers who lost young sons. There are those who are approved, as the so-called ‘killing men’, they have their own category, and the bar was very high. At another level, all this is a way of talking about all those taboos over women—that silenced women—in Ireland, and the brutal way in which women were treated. It’s a completely different story to the war of independence: women were interned, women were on hunger strike…
In his book, Ferriter cites the story of Ellen Carroll, a former member of Cumann na mBan, who was turned down for a disability pension but “eventually after appeal received a paltry Grade E service pension in 1943”. Carroll needs the pension to return home from her job working at a sorting office in Shepherds Bush, London: “From hour to hour to hour”, she writes, “you are only waiting for death, it is just hell on earth… I am stuck over here for this, but I may thank the Irish government for that. I could be home now if they granted me that service pension” (Between Two Hells, p.175).
We get a sense of what the women went through, including the London blitz in the case of Ellen Carroll. All she wants to do is come back home. So we go to the heart of the intimacy of it. While those in the Bureau of Military History were very conscious of what they were doing—what a privilege to tell my story—these people had no idea they would become part of an archive.
It’s significant that most of the people who applied did not succeed. Partly through meanness of the state, partly through the failure of bureaucracy. There’s the case of Paddy O’Brien: he made it out of the Four Courts, and to Wexford, where he was killed in early July 2022. His mother applied for a dependent gratuity in the 1930s. The Departments of Finance and Defence go to great lengths to reduce the amount from £112 to £100 (per annum?); she was a ‘huckster’, they say – it was all that petty, that mean.
And you get the class gulf in pensions. Ernie O’Malley is captured in Dublin, and got a state pension I’m not sure was deserved or needed. The soldier who died in the same engagement had eight children, and his mother, who pleaded that: “My son died in the service of the state” – she got £50. (DF: per annum?) Seventy per cent of pensions were awarded at the bottom level, Grade E, which was between £15-30 per annum. Grade A was £300 per annum or over, mostly to top class people.
Another way of looking at it is this: people did get some amount, for a lifetime, well in advance of the welfare state. But it’s very intimate, and very raw—so we need to be very careful with this centennial, for a number of reasons. There has been a deliberate amnesia, and now we have to muster the ability to acknowledge that we treated each other very badly indeed. One General said that if he had to execute 1,000 republicans to ensure the state, he would do so. (DF: Who?) Once you think like that, everything, every atrocity, is for the greater good. You cannot baptise a state in this way.
However: I think it’s important to remember that however awful it was, we didn’t reach the levels of savagery as in the Spanish or Finnish Civil Wars. Irish prisoners were in the main treated quite well – look at the amount of stuff they were allowed, look at O’Malley’s increasingly demanding lists! People were not prosecuted for what they did during the Civil War, in order to indemnify the Free State. But they then extended the Amnesty to the other side, so you don’t get any legal accountability, even if it was the right thing to do. There was this idea: we cannot get the state up and running with this hanging over us.
There can be noble reasons for silence: “I don’t want to talk about this in front of the kids”. There is a generation that could not communicate with their parents. Now we have the opportunity to confront these issues, but again: all this is very private, and intimate. Not everything we have here is sacrosanct truth. People have their own reasons to tell a story a certain way, or to be silent.
So there was a deep deception going on in Irish politics, but at the same time they took the business of politics seriously. And for all its flaws, the democracy has endured for 100 years, with some stability, when you consider what it was founded upon. The most interesting figure to illustrate this, in a way, is Séan Lemass: he was a realist, and epitomises that silence over the Civil War; he never wanted to shout from the rooftops about his impeccable republican credentials; he let it be known privately that he never wanted to wave the flag. In all the interviews he gave, he always talked around the Civil War; he never even mentioned his brothers. There was a man, from a party that specialised in hoisting the flag, with more reason than any to do so, who refrained – who realised, for deeply personal reasons, that the Civil War was a political cul-de-sac.
[Lemass’ younger brother Noel fought alongside Séan in the 1916 Rising, and the anti-treaty IRA. He was imprisoned, escaped to England, but was kidnapped on his return by Free State agents in July 1923, and his mutilated body later found. There is another tragedy in the family: the death in January 1916 of two-year-old Herbert Lemass, probably shot accidentally by the future Taoiseach. Writing on the tragedy in The Irish Times, Peter Murtagh, posits: “One distinctive aspect of Lemass’s political persona was his disinclination to hark on about the past. In an era where political discourse inside and outside the Dáil was often marked by bitter references to the wrongdoings of Free Staters or Irregulars, Lemass was notable for his refusal to attack opponents in terms of their “national records” or alleged Civil War misdeeds”.
Ferriter also addresses the strange case of Stephen Fuller]
Look at Ballyseedy: they were called ‘Irish bastards’ by fellow Irishmen: “Smoke your last cigarette, you Irish bastards”. Then the sole survivor, Stephen Fuller, enters politics. But does he become a poster-boy for the Civil War? No way. This is how it was buried – crucial players in the Civil War just did not want it to be part of public life.
So what will happen to commemorate the centennial? Ferriter is a member of the Advisory Group on Commemorations, which, he says: “aims to have these occasions guided by historical research and independent scholarship, not hijacked by politicians.
The state will mark a day of national reconciliation, at some form of state ceremony. Sinn Féin will do its own thing and will criticise the state for not confronting these difficult issues, perhaps use November 2022 as some kind of launch pad. Absent from this will be the Church, which is interesting, given that the Proclamation opens with “In the name of God…”
Neither side has much to boast about. You cannot celebrate a Civil War, you can’t hold an elaborate commemoration as the state. What we need is a kind of flexi-commemoration, unlike 2016, when we all went to the city centre. There has to be a sense of humanity about it. I think this has needs to be done primarily at local level, where the centennial has already begun. Local communities are better at this than the state, and they’re already doing it: organising library seminars, essay competitions for students, local historical societies digging deep—these are all important forms of commemoration. And it’s quite complicated: I’ve been down in Kildare and Wexford, where there is so much interesting material in the local libraries. In Wexford, only 23 people were killed in the Civil War (DF: fighting?), but they executed a lot of people (DF: prisoners?) there. In Kildare, the evacuation of the British army from the Curragh was a serious economic blow, to the local economy, families and individuals. It’s all more complex than we think.
In another way, reckoning with the Civil War has only just begun. The pensions archive is the most important we have, and will take decades to emerge in full. And that is fitting, as modern Ireland begins to understand itself as a nation, and shake off years of exceptionalism. They get us into the medical history, the social history, and what I would like to come of this centennial is for us to get a detailed sense of what Ireland was really like a hundred years ago.
And what about the British aspect of this centennial? Partition caused the Civil War, but I wonder whether they even know it’s happening? If there was then an element from the British side of ‘You are not fit for self-government’, as Ireland tore itself apart, that has of course collapsed, with the complete dumbing down of—well, it’s flattering to call them ideas, across the Irish Sea. Who are the grown-ups now? Certainly we in Ireland have developed a political maturity in recent years, more so than our supposedly sophisticated neighbours, who seem bent on deliberately ignoring the lessons of 1921 to 1923, and a wilful desire not to educate yourself. And here we are: Ireland in the European Union, realising who we are at an interesting time, in an interesting way—and suddenly we have to get dragged back to a hundred years ago!
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.
Cécile Chemin :
It feels to me as though opening each file is like opening a sealed box into the story of the civil war, sometimes it feels almost strange, rather than intrusive. We get to read a lot about the general issues, but here are also the supposedly ‘little’ stories and you know the way the small things are not small at all?
Stagnating national narratives will be bound up with who is going to be the most republican, the most legitimate and who carries the real republican legacy. Somehow the aftermath of the Rising is much easier to handle and perhaps even the aftermath of the War of Independence to some degree…until Partition…
If we leave the politics aside….(is it possible?)
Civil Wars are incredibly destructive. They’re cluttered, it’s only made of grey areas and although many participants do realise they’re going through something traumatic, not many do have an understanding about what it’s about to do to them post-conflict. We, the reader, the archivist, we know. Thanks to the files staying open for long as the claimant is alive.
So for me, at this stage of our understanding of the period, it’s all about the aftermath. This is why collections like the pension files are so important because not only do they talk about the events themselves (applicants had to give detailed accounts of their activities between 1916–1923), but significantly, they say something about the ripples created by these events, the impact of those waves on those who had to keep on living.
And it’s a more intimate matter. Like all trauma, it’s deeply personal, rarely political.
The inner world of a national trauma is not convenient, it’s certainly not comfortable, it’s entirely chaotic. The aftermath perspective is probably more thought-provoking and interesting than focusing over and over on such or such military operations.
It’s very hard to find patterns at the very least more refined than pro/anti-Treaty. Pro and Anti are such convenient labels. June 1922 to September 1923 is such a convenient and neat time span. A pension schedule is a form made of nine very clearly defined time slots used to assess a claimant’s service. It’s controlled. In a way, creating a database is also about control, categorising things and people so information can be retrieved.
Sometimes it is incredibly difficult because we do have to put people in a box so we can find them again but we also want to treat them with care and tell their story or at least relate as much information as we can from the file. A civil war is not neat. Many of these people did not influence the course of the war in a major way. They are the unrecognised, perhaps only known locally. But the fact that we now have their names, the fact that their testimonies exist, the fact that we can get an appreciation of how people get their life back together or not, or who ends up damaged, physically or mentally, is incredibly important.
Obviously new names emerge through the noise of claims. For instance, many women were in charge of preparing the bodies of the IRA prisoners following Ballyseedy. I don’t remember seeing their names in many books. They literally had to pick up parts of bodies. Do we know how they lived with that? What’s the experience of those left behind with this savagery? Looking at the ripples instead of the actual event, takes nothing away from the study of the revolutionary period itself but there is still so much that is not known and it’s better to tell those stories than not.
Some of the most harrowing files in the collection here are the claims lodged by the dependents of those who lost their lives during those years. It will take a long time for those files to be digested but they will help us shift the focus from the events to the ripples of those events.
The parents who have lost their sons, the widows, the children, are they still in Ireland? How do they get by? How do they rebuild a life?
A widow living in Wales with her three of four children is asking for money as she has nothing to feed them with, is suicidal and has sold all the clothes in the house in exchange for food. Some stories are incredibly difficult to read but as an archivist, they are crucial to the main story, they belong there and our work puts them there. People are absolutely working through trauma without knowing it or having the words we now know to put on what they feel, many have no support of any kind, but there’s also this feeling: the poverty and the need to go on so if pension money puts food on the table, then it doesn’t matter on which side you were on.
The local prejudices during verification are terrible. Being asked for information, a parish priest offers his opinion that this lady is a ‘loose woman’ or uses ‘foul language’, that she’s a drinker: “if she gets this money, she’ll drink it all”. It’s awful, and of course very sad.
In terms of service pensions, there were two acts: the Military Service Pensions Act 1924, authorising pensions for the Free State Army and the MSP Act 1934, after Fianna Fáil came to power, this act opens the legislation to recognise service of the anti-Treaty side as well as women from Cumann na mBan. For the women, it’s more complicated to give evidence: the legislation was vague in their case and this was compounded by the fact that many had been active under the cover of secrecy…and if nobody knows what you have done, what reference supporting your claims can you offer the Referee? This has the unexpected/unfair impact that many belonging to the hierarchy of Cumann na mBan got a pension while others who may have been involved in more dangerous situations could have a much more difficult time, unable to provide evidence or maybe unable to sell their case appropriately.
The process of claim verification is strict (for service and dependency claims alike); the categories in which applicants must be classified under are narrow and rigorous, excluding many seemingly deserving cases which could not tick all those small boxes established to satisfy the Army Pensions legislation, the Board of Assessors (1924 Act) or the Referee and its Advisory Committee (1934 Act). The process is callous and exacting to an insensitive level at times but in a handful of cases, we see that rules can be bent if the will is there. There is a lot of disillusionment.
As a service pension applicant, men are asked: what have you done between 1916 and 1923? What dispatches did you carry, to whom? How many rounds did you shoot? How close were you to the action? What barracks did you burn? They’re not asked: what happened to you? And how will you live now? What’s going on in your head? But some of this comes through in the files and it is significant because it makes it a truly human collection. A collection of human tragedy that is to be looked at closely.
As a project team, we’ve been working on this for fourteen years and every day, it’s total immersion. We truly live and breathe this collection. The material offers many different stories that transcend the primary purpose for which the files were created and there lies the power of the Archive. It is through varied, creative uses and even artistic responses…like a cantata! that archives find some of their true value. If you look at the Civil War through the lens of commemoration, it will be in the smaller stories that we may find a bit more forward movement rather than remaining fixated on the inertia of the big lines. Different perspectives and a multiplicity of uses will help us move on and will help release the anxieties of the traditional commemoration.
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”.
First, and obviously, what is a ‘spiritual wound’?
The term is taken from Desmond Ryan who contended that ‘the deepest wounds of the Civil War were spiritual wounds’. His use of the word ‘wound’ points to the need to resort to metaphor for describing what was intangible and yet familiar. And there are many kinds of wound. It could be closed or gaping. It could be oozing, lightly bleeding, or covered up with a bandage.
One of the first things was to deal in the language of the period; there’s a tendency in histories of the revolutionary period to apply the language of the present, to talk in terms of ‘PTSD’ and trauma in that way. I think understanding is tied up with language, and I try to see how people at the time grappled with something that would take generations to confront.
There were, we can see, the beginnings of psychological awareness, and interpretation. But we also need to think in terms of religious beliefs, which went beyond conventional Catholicism or Protestantism – which were of course very important – towards a mix of beliefs. There was also a personal spirituality beyond what was said at Mass; there was an interest in the esoteric, there’s a gothic element to much of the writing I consider. People turned to folklore to try and make sense of things; they did things to keep the ‘good people’ (the fairies) happy.
I think we can consider the trauma of the civil war, and the silences around it, in those terms.
This idea of trauma passed from generation to generation in the context of a perceived great silence. I’m interested in the people who wanted to shatter that silence, the anti-silence.
At one level, it’s political to be against the state narrative, that it is better not to address the Civil War. But what is driving these people is not necessarily political – it’s a response to trauma, and a traumatic process. Their experience was so profound, they were driven to tell it, and share it.
If you look at post civil war societies, there is often this repression of narrative. Spain is the obvious example – a wholesale implementation of silence to protect the status quo.
And so the breaking of silence becomes accommodated into a counter-culture, at a literary level, a family level, a political and personal level. Irish society did not want to dwell on it. Sometimes it comes up: in election speeches, politicians will talk about the healing of Civil War wounds, but not the wounds themselves. There are a lot of calls to forget the Civil War, but if you are calling for something to be forgotten, it’s not forgotten!
We did not even want to discuss the war within the family. Sometimes people wanted to write about the war, but they didn’t want to pass it on. They don’t want to hold their children responsible for the damage. George Lennon was writing about his experiences in the Civil War, but was reluctant to speak to his children about it. I would say that the two generations that followed the Civil War felt the silence far more profoundly than those who lived through it.
Lennon’s “experience of perpetrating violence”, writes Aiken, is related in his radio play ‘Down by the Glen Side’ and memoir ‘Trauma in Time’. The “urge to tell was an ‘all-consuming life task’ for Lennon”, she writes.
In conversation, Aiken invokes her section on Patrick Mulloy, who dedicated his 1936 book ‘Jackets Green’ to “THE RANK AND FILE OF EVERY NATIONAL MOVEMENT AND SECRET SOCIETY IN EVERY COUNTRY, TO REMIND THEM THAT MANY A PATH OF GLORY LEADS TO A GRAVEYARD OF SOULS”. His, he insisted, was “not a story of a movement; nor of martyrs – nor of heroes”.
Mulloy was determined to confront the tabboos, he wasn’t going to hold back. There are references to soldiers going to brothels in Dublin, and to homosexuality. His novel was repressed, but he deposited the original manuscript in the National Library so it would remain somewhere. He defended the veracity of his account in an unsuccessful libel case. He wrote a play retracing the same plot that was staged in London in 1968. Mulloy went to extreme lengths to make sure his story survived for the telling one day.
Aiken considers Francis Carty’s book ‘Legion of the Rearguard’, and quotes him – self-aware – saying “Though he ‘couldn’t say he liked it [writing]’, he confessed that his novels were a project of ‘emotion remembered in tranquility’, and that he had a strong urge to document his experience: ‘I feel that I have to record the Civil War because it made such an impression on me and I must work it off my system”.
There’s this urge to tell. Here there’s an overtly therapeutic motivation, a psychological dimension. Most of the times, these veterans didn’t directly express these therapeutic aims, but there are clear ideas of narrative therapy woven into many of their writings. My book was almost written when I came across Carty’s unpublished interview (cited above) with Niall Montgomery in which he explicitly addresses his almost uncontrollable urge to write about the Civil War. There was an interview listed on the National Library catalogue with a ‘Francis Carty’ and I made a rare trip up to Dublin in the height of the pandemic with the hope it might be of interest. I was taking a risk as there were two Cartys in the IRA, one from Sligo, more famous and senior-ranking than ‘my’ Francis Carty from Wexford. The risk paid off: and there he was, contesting the silence.
Much of Aiken’s focus is on women writers, and their counter to dismissal by society distinct from that towards men. Women engaged in the Civil War, she writes, were demeaned as “’furies’, ‘die-hards’ and ‘neurotic girls’…’Amazons’. “Much of the rhetoric employed by journalists, church leaders and politicians to condemn female revolutionaries was couched in the pseudomedical language of madness and lunacy”.
If women were demeaned and gaslighted, it was for leaving their ‘natural’ role; going against ‘nature’ by getting involved in a war, going into a war zone. P. S. O’Hegarty wrote a whole chapter on the ‘deviations’ of women in his 1924 pamphlet The Victory of Sinn Féin. You can see it in De Valera’s later statements. For women to feel or covey real pain, to have real feelings, they must be ‘unhinged’ or ‘unstable’. Their trauma is associated with hysteria, the reproductive cycle.
And so the writings by women emerge in unconventional forms – women are more private about their motivations, and their experiences become quite subversive – in the case of Annie Smithson, told in the context of popular romance.
She was a member of Cumann na mBan, worked with the Red Cross, and wrote about her experiences of the Civil War in a best-selling romance, The Marriage of Nurse Hardy, published in 1936. Three chapters of a highly successful book deal with her own experiences, for a mass audience.
There are other examples of breaking the silence in this way, in counterpoint to the dominant narrative. Recollections of the Civil War were not only being widely read, they were also debated and discussed by readers. It’s a counter-social-memory, telling and talking about things, but not necessarily in public places or spaces. Other related taboos emerge with it: alcoholism, unhappy marriages, and shell-shock. And often in writing by women. Writings that are different from the Bureau of Military History or the pensions department.
Applying for a service pension could often be an undermining or even humiliating experience – especially for women, whose contributions were not seen to be as worthy as men’s. While they had to detail what had happened in these compensation forms, there is much more agency in the literary writings. They are taking control of the record they want to leave.
When dealing with this testimony as a researcher, you do feel a sense of responsibility. It’s a matter of presence against disappearance. The un-listened-to story. So many of these writings were overlooked, neglected, sometimes dismissed outright. One hundred years after the events took place, you just hope you listen attentively enough.
This silence breaking is not incorporated into the mainstream. There is still a view there was a blanket of silence around these events until the military archive was opened. But the silence was contested again and again by veterans, and then by journalists and popular historians, before serious scholarship. People like Eoin Neeson’s popular histories of the 1960s, and popular historical novels like Eilís Dillon’s The Bitter Glass (1958) or Walter Mackin’s The Scorching Wind (1964). These historical novelists were doing their own oral interviews by way of research. There was not a full academic study of the Civil War until the 1980s – [Michael] Hopkinson’s Green Against Green.
Until recently, people might say: ‘Why are you working on the Civil War? There’s no material! No one spoke about it!’ I think it is changing now. The Decade of Commemorations has brought more willingness to address this contentious period of history and we are privileged as historians to have such an engaged public who are interested in our past.
In the book, Aiken refers to the character of Liam Daly, who appears in a story written by Dorothy Macardle: Daly confesses that ‘there is a story I have to tell – sometime, somewhere’, but he is only willing to speak ‘if you’ll listen’. She cautions:
Do not forget, for a story to be fully told, it needs someone to hear it. In telling, you step up to testify, and you need a listener.
To those of you kind people hearing our Cantata: that listener is now you, for whom the story is now set to music.
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