Commemorating division: the continuing relevance of the Civil War

Image Credit: William Murphy

With the centenary of the Irish Civil War taking place this year, Michael Bergin examines the war’s enduring legacy, and how best we can come to terms with a fractious period in Irish life.

This June will mark the 100th anniversary of the attack by Free State forces on an anti-treaty garrison in the Four Courts, effectively beginning the Irish Civil War. For a generation, it was the moment where siblings turned on one another, and Irish society divided itself based on pro- or anti-treaty loyalties. However, for modern audiences, this division can seem less stark. Today, both “civil war parties”, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, sit on the same side of the Dail, and the relevance of the treaty division often seems trivial when compared to concerns around housing and healthcare.

And yet, the culmination of Ireland’s “Decade of Centenaries” programme will focus on the Civil War, and the ensuing divisions that it harboured. This will undoubtedly spark controversy on both sides of the political aisle, as recent commemorative events such as a service to remember partition in Northern Ireland have done. As such, we have to reflect on our own approaches to understanding the Civil War, if we are to learn its lessons, and appreciate its place in our story.

Sitting down with UCD’s leading expert on Modern Irish History, Professor Diarmaid Ferriter agrees that the age of “civil war politics” is largely over, though notes the robustness of the division between the two parties. Recalling the 1980s, Professor Ferriter cites that between them, the two civil war parties accounted for over 80% of votes cast during this decade. He notes that rather than a collective need to “bury the civil war hatchet”, it was the “shrinkage in their respective votes that forced both parties together”. As such, the dulling in civil war passions seems to stem from the passage of time, rather than a political desire for reconciliation.

How then, is the peculiarity of Ireland’s recent “civil war politics” system viewed by younger members of these parties’ ranks? What does the civil war represent to them? Speaking with Bryan Mallon, president of Ogra Fianna Fail, I asked him about the importance of his party’s stance during the civil war, and how this affected his decision to join Ogra Fianna Fail. 

“First and foremost” he asserts, “I joined Fianna Fail as I’m a Republican”.

Though asserting that he would not have voted for the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1922, this view is only one part of what defines his Republicanism. “Obviously the anti-treaty stance during the Civil War has a part to play”, he points out, “but Republicanism is about more than just the Civil War. It’s also about equality for all of Ireland’s people, developing a distinct national identity through our language, heritage and culture, promoting social responsibility, and of course sovereignty among other things.”

The chief peculiarity of Irish politics up until the present has been that both parties, while embracing opposing viewpoints on the treaty issue, have been described as essentially centrist. As such, I was curious to see what role the treaty played for Bryan Mallon, in differentiating his party from Fine Gael, 100 years later. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the treaty is of little importance to him in distinguishing the two. 

“No, the Civil War stance is not important in distinguishing Fianna Fáil from Fine Gael, there are numerous other factors”. Citing opposing views on the degree to which the government should interfere in public life, Mallon maintains that his party is markedly different to Fine Gael, and that the civil war stance should not be the chief method used to differentiate them.  

This view then perhaps represents the ideologically-driven differences between the two that will mark them out as unique going forward, however, as Professor Ferriter reflects, these ideological differences were not so pronounced in our recent past.

Today, both “civil war parties”, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, sit on the same side of the Dail, and the relevance of the treaty division often seems trivial when compared to concerns around housing and healthcare

In his view, a “legacy of distrust” is what maintained the parties’ rivalry after the civil war. Professor Ferriter posits that by coming into power in 1932, and subsequently dismantling the treaty, proving the veracity of Michael Collins’ assertions that the treaty was a “stepping stone” to greater independence, Eamonn DeValera became the man that pro-treaty TD’s “could not forgive”. Professor Ferriter mentions pro-treaty disbelief that a civil war had been waged, only for the one-time enemies of the state to be governing it ten years later, as having left a bitterness in Irish politics that “helped the trenches to endure”.

Professor Ferriter also notes that in the past, both parties reached a broad consensus on most major issues, such as the policy of neutrality, EEC membership, and the economic development plan of the late 1950s. Citing “the narcissism of small differences” as a way political scientists have characterised the two parties’ relationship, he notes that ultimately, civil war hostilities were a deeply personal affair.

How then are we to go about commemorating such a deeply personal affair in a responsible manner? Does a decade of centenary commemorations such as the one we are now approaching the end of, risk reopening old wounds in a painful way?

“Well, of course it does”, Professor Ferriter emphatically states. “Just as any period of commemoration is bound to”. Citing the example of the United States, and the prolonged debates over how that country’s civil war is to be commemorated, as well as the Spanish experience after their civil war, he notes that it is extremely difficult to achieve full reconciliation. 

“Commemoration is not history” he adds, “and they are really a better reflection of what is happening in 21st century Ireland than what happened at the time”. He takes care to mention that for a lot of people, public displays of commemoration are not as important as their own private ways of remembering, particularly with regard to such a personal war. He stresses the importance of a fact-based, evidence-rich examination of these topics, and to use reliable sources to confront these public traumas with reason and objectivity, while also not diminishing, simplifying or “hijacking” their importance to the people who lived through them.

Bryan Mallon’s views on commemoration differ. “I can’t see a situation where such commemorations open old wounds” he tells me, “All those involved in the war have long since passed away. That’s not to say the relatives of the victims of these atrocities don’t care”. However, he references some families’ continuing struggle for justice, yet qualifies this by saying “We can’t tell them how to feel but we can’t sweep the truth under the rug for fear of how some people might take it. I’d imagine they’d prefer to know the truth and they’d rather the public knew it too”. 

Perhaps this belief that commemoration is unlikely to reopen old wounds is a sign of overconfidence, though just as likely this could be seen as optimism for the possibility of reconciliation. However, both viewpoints agree that an unflinching examination of the evidence is what will help us to remember the period in the fairest light.

But what of the atrocities? At Knocknagoshel in County Kerry, five national army soldiers were killed in an IRA trap, which led to reprisals such as at Ballyseedy, in which eight republican prisoners were killed by a bomb while being forced to clear roads. How does a coalition government of both parties commemorate such awful happenings?

Commemoration is not history

It is Bryan Mallon’s view that intrigues me the most. “I think it’s important for Republicans to commemorate atrocities such as Ballyseedy” he explains. However, he adds that “As for Knocknagoshel, it’s up to pro-treatyites to commemorate them”. He explains that commemorating these events is important, as in his view, “It can help challenge the narrative that the pro-treaty side were always right”. 

In this I sense the passion that a century-old conflict can ignite, even in a generation that is three or four times removed from it. It speaks greatly about the enduring impact of the war that people still feel rooted on a side, and will still defend that side vociferously, as opposed to approaching it objectively as an historical event.

While many would be uneasy with the use of commemoration to gain political points, (or rather take them from your rival), he did note an important point, which Professor Ferriter echoed; the prevalence of silence amongst the revolutionary generation.

Both Professor Ferriter and Mr. Mallon quoted Sean Lemass’ reflection on the period; “Both sides did terrible things, I don’t want to talk about it.”

And so, throughout the year, we will see colourful commemorations of the British leaving Dublin Castle, and perhaps at the remembrance ceremony for Michael Collins on his 100th anniversary. However, at Ballyseedy and Knocknagoshel, a pervasive, deafening silence is likely to fall. And perhaps, that jarring quiet is sometimes the most judicious way of recalling the trauma of the Civil War.