Taoiseach Micheál Martin TD, National Civil War Conference, UCC
Published on: 15 June 2022
The Irish Revolution left behind it countless tales of heroism, of idealism, of sacrifice and of hardship. They have ensured that for a century families and communities throughout our country have maintained a deep personal link to those times.
Through countless retelling of stories and the exploration of every new piece of information, our revolutionary times have continued to engage the imagination of each subsequent generations.
In my own family, as children we learned of the incredible determination and bravery of our grandparents. We heard of our grandmother’s service in Cumann na mBan – of her deep commitment to the cause of freedom, of how she smuggled arms in her clothing and of how she helped Seán Moylan and many others to escape.
We also heard of our grandfather’s service in the Galtee mountains, his role as a member of the rescue party which spirited Seán Hogan away from Knocklong and how he met so many of the great figures of those days.
But there are things of which we weren’t told.
What we didn’t hear were stories of the events between June 28th 1922 and May 24th 1923.
The civil war was not a time to be celebrated. It was remembered in very different ways and without enthusiasm.
In this my grandparents were a reflection of the rest of their generation – where those who were most touched by the civil war were the people least likely to talk about it.
And yet, in spite of this, it cannot be said that the civil war has been forgotten. In fact it is quite the opposite.
More than any other event marked during the past decade of commemorations, our public discourse is very clear about what it sees as the core narrative of events and themes of the civil war. Within this, it has effectively been reduced to a handful of elite decisions and has been presented as having a fixed impact on politics.
Unlike popular engagement with the history of the tumultuous decades before 1922, there has been little or no change in the public understanding of the civil war.
We are the poorer for this.
During the War of Independence, people who had come from many different traditions had ultimately formed a highly united campaign for independence.
After the Treaty there were many different emotions and perspectives which motivated people. Passionate and sincere debates continued over a wide spectrum of views and actions.
At no point in the following year and a half could it be said that the country was divided neatly into two separate groups.
There were near constant efforts to reconcile different opponents – and in contrast there were also many efforts to further radicalise actions.
It did not have a single cause or a pre-determined progress. Its protagonists were not all defined by a fixed will and rigidity. It cannot be understood by reference to the actions of a handful of individuals. And its legacy is not meaningfully understood by applying a one-dimensional view of subsequent party politics.
In contrast to the personal level, nationally we have never stopped talking about the civil war, but we have done too little to try to understand it.
The questions we ask, the lenses which we apply when reviewing it, have remained largely unchanged.
As we saw in 2020 during the formation of the current government, the civil war is still regularly used as a means of simplistically dismissing political divisions and avoiding an engagement with much more challenging and informative perspectives. As Fergus O’Farrell wrote in his study of Cathal Brugha, we are constantly confronted with “the civil war legacy of lost nuance”.
In truth, the civil war has often been used to block a deeper debate about the course of much of our modern history.
The use of history to delegitimise others in contemporary debate and to limit perspectives is not new. In fact, it has often been a central part of the popular use of Irish history for at least three centuries. For example, John Curry’s mid-eighteenth century historical writings were motivate to try and tackle what he saw as the pervasive misuse of Irish history in popular debate to prevent relief for Catholics.
The civil war is a formative event which has in many ways been robbed of the essential elements of popular historical understanding – context and complexity.
As a country, we need to make fewer assumptions about the civil war and be far more willing to engage with all of the events of that time.
We need begin to understand the many pressures felt by all involved, their diversity and the fact that the divisions between them were simultaneously both narrow and broad. We need to consider a much wider set of contexts from both European and colonial experiences.
Ultimately, we have to do far more to engage with how the state which was formed in 1922 has changed radically and has maintained one of the world’s longest records of continuous democracy. It did not freeze us at a moment in time and it has not prevented the remarkable development of the state.
I believe we can do this - we can begin to more fully engage with and understand our civil war.
And we can do this because of the remarkable depth of historical research which has been undertaken in the last twenty years.
Just over thirty years ago Joe Lee challenged historians of modern Ireland to seek out new perspectives on the civil war. He pointed out that, no matter how sincere, presenting the Irish civil war as unique in terms of bitterness and impact was getting in the way of an honest and informed understanding of one of the most important periods in our history.
There is no doubt that a new generation of scholars has taken up this challenge and produced a body of work which we as a country should do far more to engage with.
Using many different approaches and emphasising diverse elements of the cause, course and legacy of the civil war, this scholarship is united with one great strength – a willingness to disagree and to seek new perspectives.
There are a remarkable number of examples of this work, so I will just mention a few.
Here in UCC the Atlas of the Irish Revolution has gathered an extraordinary amount of information which weaves together the local and the national – showing the progress of events as well as providing essential snapshots about the society, culture and economy of the time. Its great success has provided widespread access to many new themes.
The both theoretical and practical work of Bill Kissane has set our civil war within the framework of a deep exploration of the dynamics of civil wars in general – allowing us to see similarities with others and therefore to better identify unique traits. He and others have helped put ideas back into a discussion which had often excluded them.
Ann Dolan’s often very moving work has helped open a challenging exploration of commemoration – and her examination of the social and cultural bonds which ultimately helped rebuild our society deserves to shape debate for years ahead.
The comprehensive opening of various state archives has underpinned the deeply humane stories explored by Diarmuid Ferriter – reminding us of the social reality and long-term impacts of the civil war in many parts of a diverse society.
He, and others drawing on these sources, has shown us the many faces and fates of those who fought the civil war.
In recent years we have benefitted from the discussions which President Higgins has led on the idea of ethical remembrance – and the duty of a modern society to engage with its past in an honest way which recognises and respects, but does not exploit, trauma.
I also think we should be proud of the fact that some of the most influential work internationally on the violence found through much of Europe in the years after World War One has been led from UCD – and that this work has placed 1916, the War of Independence and the civil war within the research agenda of scholars throughout Europe.
And of course, there are many more themes which have benefitted from this new era of research – and many more scholars who have contributed to this work.
The remarkable quality and breadth of the contributions to this conference is testament to the vitality of what should be seen as one of the great eras of Irish historical research.
Critically important in this has been the creation of research funding mechanisms which ensured that the humanities and social sciences have had access to secure funding awarded through independent and expert procedures.
Unlike the situation in many countries, from the moment we put in place new research programmes over twenty years ago, there has been no effort whatsoever to impose any agenda or ideology into state-funded historical research. We did this because we believe that a successful democratic society needs a wide, diverse and independent range of historical research. We cannot allow partisan agendas to play a role – where justification rather than understanding is the objective.
This is not something to be taken for granted.
At the forefront of the assault on free democracy in Europe and around the world has been an effort to limit research and impose state narratives of history.
Putin’s imperialism draws heavily on this – bringing to mind the words of John Curry from nearly three hundred years ago when he railed against the use of history “to oppress the living by the abuse of the dead”.
Russia is the worst example, but this period of rising populism and growing threats to liberal democracy has seen many countries try to limit freedom to explore history. Laws which criminalise expression of different views of history are becoming more common – and a standard weapon of the populists is an attempt to impose a simplistic national narrative. Equally they seek to excuse their own excesses by reference to their version of history.
It would be naïve in the extreme to believe that efforts to manipulate history are not found in our country. As Richard Bourke has pointed out, the fallacy of continuity has often played a distorting role in our approach to history. To combat this, we must do more to value and engage with the diversity of advanced historical research available to us.
The success of the various conferences, such as this, which have provided the intellectual spine to the decade of commemorations, is something we should build upon.
The advisory committee which reports to Minister Catherine Martin has been incredibly valuable, and we should certainly look at continuing its work. I think we should also look for new ways of supporting and expanding funding for academic research on Irish history both here and abroad.
The community of scholars and students interested in Irish topics internationally cannot be taken for granted, and I want us to do more to support conferences, networks and projects.
The level of interest in Irish studies is a tremendous strength for our country and its position internationally. It’s not something which we can take for granted and it deserves our fuller attention.
In engaging with our civil war, the biggest task is to add to this period of diverse scholarship by creating public space where its context and complexity can be respected.
We need fewer certainties and more debate. We need to engage with it in a manner which challenges us and gives us a greater understanding of a formative event in our modern history.
There are many aspects to this, but there are a few themes from recent research which I believe deserve a bigger place in how we remember and discuss our civil war.
In broadening the popular understanding of the civil war an important starting point needs to be a move away from a highly limited understanding of the underlying causes of the war.
It is remarkable how often the nature of the Treaty split has been reduced to a clash between elite personalities – leaving out the dominant pressurefrom London which insisted on provisions which all involved understood would not be welcomed universally.
The Treaty was the conclusion of negotiations with a power which asserted its continued right to insist on certain provisions relating to the crown, empire and defence. It was not a clean break and it included a mix of different models of independence.
And the threat of “terrible and immediate war”was both central to the Treaty and the opening shots of the civil war.
It was sincerely and successfully argued that the Treaty achieved key national goals – but even its strongest advocates acknowledged its limits and the context in which it had been agreed.
Kevin O’Higgins accepted that the threat of force which lay behind the Treaty meant that the status of the two islands was not really equal but he felt that it could evolve.
Erskine Childers in contrast argued that the threat of force would always be there because the proximity of the islands and therefore that equality of status was not possible under the Canadian model.
This point has been made in different ways in recent years, particularly with the idea that the unity of the separatist movement would have been maintained in either rejecting or accepting the Treaty if had given fewer or more concessions.
Given how central the idea of self-determination was in the War of Independence, particularly for active participants, as well as the different political traditions involved, a split on the Treaty as agreed was inevitable.
I am very struck by the idea which some scholars have explored that the work of key personalities actually made the differences seem smaller than they otherwise would have been and that they came very close to finding workable compromises.
There is every reason to believe that the war itself could have been avoided, and I believe that the tragedy of the first six months of 1922 was that the key figures in Dublin were never allowed a free hand to find a shared route forward.
Constant interference and inflexibility from London was central to the fact that nothing came of these efforts. The implied and open threats made to the Provisional Government directly escalated division – and reinforced the views of those who questioned the good faith of London.
The insistence that an electoral pact would abridge the Treaty had no legitimate basis – and the constant effort to force confrontation did great damage.
It is very striking that the only offer of assistance made by the departing power to a new government facing enormous hurdles related to weapons and ammunition.
If it is true that Irish divisions arose from an outsized focus on the impact of the crown and empire on Irish self-determination, then it must also be understood that it was London’s inflexible insistence on its interpretation of these provisions which gave them their importance.
How different could things have been if Collin’s draft Constitution had been supported rather than vetoed by London? Instead what emerged was another example of rigid inflexibility.
It is quite right that we have questioned the overreliance of looking to a former colonial master as the cause of every historical ill. However, I see no positive way of describing London’s behaviour in those critical months and the repeated direct push for an opening to the conflict.
We also need to do more in our public discourse to understand the highly distinct phases of the civil war. I think it is in this that we find many of the questions which are most challenging for all sides in the war.
The two months following the shelling of the Four Courts saw the effective victory of the Provisional Government and its control of all major population centres. While this was the phase of the war which was strategically decisive, much of the impact of the conflict is to be found in the following nine months of lower-level and more deadly events.
It was during this phase that restraint was removed and the participants began to more uniformly see each other as enemies. It was a period when we began to see the dehumanising stereotypes so often used against the Irish in history including during the War of Independence.
In this spirit Kevin O’Higgins later described the republicans as having a “savage, primitive passion” which had been thrown up during the War of Independence as part of what said was “a weird composite of idealism, neurosis, megalomania and criminality”.
On the other hand, the new government and its troops were dismissed as no different from the previous administration and their contribution to the independence struggle was belittled or dismissed entirely. They were painted as a caricature of opportunistic cynicism.
Obviously, the new powers introduced in September 1922, their use and the severe actions taken at local level was and remains central to how the civil war is remembered. We have not done enough nationally to engage with this.
It is a failure found in societies throughout history that actions taken as part of a successful campaign can be presented as justified by the overall success.
The powers taken by the new state and the scale of the executions which it carried out went beyond those of the British state during the War of Independence or to those seen in comparable civil wars. I think it is perfectly reasonable to question the place of these executions in achieving security for the new state. This also includes other actions like Ballyseedy and the great cruelty seen in many localities. No positive cause was served by the murder of Noel Lemass in a manner so brutal that the coroner was shocked almost into silence.
When Dick Barrett, Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey were executed it was manifestly illegal and it damaged the standing and authority of the new state. They had each been in custody for over 5 months and in the case of Dick Barrett he was executed without trial or court martial as a reprisal for an IRA policy which he known to have opposed.
I think we need to find a way of talking about our state formation while admitting the radicalising and destructive impact of such actions.
But it is also essential to acknowledge the full picture. For example, the murder of Deputy Seán Hales was manifestly wrong and promoted no positive cause – something which Dick Barrett, his old acquaintance from Cork, understood.
As a young research student I spent many hours with the writings of Liam de Roiste, a pro-Treaty TD for Cork who was subsequently at the centre of civic politics in this city.
In April 1923 his diary records him reflecting on the events of the war, saying with deep regret “both sides [are] silent when the murder is committed by their own supporters”.
To this day this remains a deep problem in conflict resolution on this island. It is truly remarkable how often we only hear demands for investigation of the crimes of the ‘others’.
I think we also need to complicate our public narrative of the civil war with a recognition of just how many efforts were made to try and prevent its outbreak and to restore peace. It was never the case that either side lacked any ‘peace party’ or that there was an embracing of the conflict as positive.
Following the tragic death of Michael Collins, while the government prepared new powers and a new approach, Richard Mulcahy, from his own initiative, met with de Valera to see if there was an opening for ending the conflict. While he had a special place in the demonology of republicans after the war, I think he has been treated as unfairly as have many figures on the republican side.
Underpinning these peace efforts was a core of people who never forgot how much both sides had shared in previous years – and for many those bonds were never completely sundered.
It is in the peace efforts and private complexity of the views of many of the leaders that you find a motivation for behaviour after the war which actually downplayed its divisions.
At local and national levels there were many continued points of contact which complicate the idea of a clear and deep division.
Tom Garvin has made the point that sociological factors did not cause the war but they did give it bite.
Less appreciated is that many of the resentments which formed part of this were found within the two sides.
Todd Andrews’ autobiography contains a trenchant view representative of many republicans that a small academic elite had been preparing for power for decades and were now pushing aside those who had actually secured independence.
Less well appreciated is how elements on the pro-Treaty side agreed with this. For example, Richard Mulcahy railed against what he felt was the takeover of government by lawyers and professors personified by what he called “a Ballsbridge complex”.
The Role of Women
We also need to find a place in our narrative of the civil war concerning the impact which it had on the place of women in Irish society and public life.
Women were central to the radicalism of the 1918 election and the following years. Newly admitted to the franchise, they were less likely to conform to established patterns of allegiance. Without women the scale of the 1918 victory would have been impossible.
Following that election, while still a tiny minority, they played an important role in Dáil Éireann and the government.
And of course, the Proclamation had been one of the first nationalist declarations of independence to explicitly refer to women as part of the political nation and holders of rights.
Unfortunately, the bright progressive moment which suggested that Ireland could be a leader in this field was dramatically extinguished.
There are many reasons why women within the separatist movement were more radical during and after the Treaty debate, but it is inescapably true that this radicalism was used as a basis for a deep and unfortunately long-lasting misogyny.
There are many examples of women being dismissed and marginalised during the civil war. One of the more extreme is to be found in the words of Batt O’Connor, later a TD himself, who said of women TDs, that they were guilty of “mudslinging and name calling and spitting and frothing to the mouth like angry cats…. I think the Irish people will not be in a hurry again to elect women to represent them.”
That last prediction was unfortunately true and is a largely unappreciated legacy of the civil war.
Perhaps the biggest gap in our popular engagement with the civil war relates to the place of Northern Ireland.
The ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland was a central concern during 1922, particularly for Collins. The overt and aggressive use of the security agenda for sectarian ends was both understood and condemned.
Once again, the inherent bad faith of London showed itself in the complete failure to insist on protecting the minority as well as the creation and funding of a new sectarian policing group.
The nature of the 1920 partition and its subsequent strengthening is that it created two administrations based on a sectarian headcount, it sundered historic connections within the island and it undermined the ability to build a more diverse and prosperous state.
The administrations were designed in a way to make the issue of partition almost unsolvable and to promote a steady drift apart. Those early years are critical and we should do more to understand them.
Civil War Politics
Unquestionably the civil war did have a deep impact on our politics – though, as I have said elsewhere, the phrase ‘civil war politics’ has been consistently used to block an understanding of many changing elements of our politics and to rob individuals of the agency which they showed in changing their patterns of support.
It is a phrase which effectively dismisses a century of politics and ignores the fact of the many divisions and choices made during that time.
I think this has blocked a deeper understanding of what has worked in developing independent Ireland and how the legacy of the civil war has been part of this.
After 1923 no party contesting an Irish election while advocating armed conflict won more than 4% of the vote. That is a remarkable fact given the extreme political ideologies of the last century and the efforts of small groups here to promote conflict.
When the civil war finished there was no significant body of people in favour of restarting it and the later examples we had of extremist ideologies and street violence were ultimately marginal.
This state became a moderate, centrist European democracy. It has the only example in Europe of a defeated revolutionary force which won power and introduced new constitutional limits on this power.
We never developed a politics which conformed to the simple idea of a clean left/right division, but we certainly did have a politics where large numbers of people changed their allegiance. Equally, as detailed work published in recent years has shown, we produced governments which had significant differences in their policy programmes.
And, at critical times, the democratic republicanism which defined the century after the civil war showed itself to reject the backward-looking and defensive nationalism often found elsewhere.
No greater testament of this can be found than in the fact that the last major act of our revolutionary generation in our parliament and government was to set Ireland on a determined course of joining what is now the European Union.
Over the last century we have made many assumptions about our civil war but we have never systematically engaged with it.
Deprived of its complexity and context, we have rarely ventured beyond set opinions about personalities and inevitable outcomes.
I think it is past time that we went beyond this.
We need to listen to the stories of that time as much as we have those of the War of Independence.
We need to do more to understand its events and impacts – particularly because breaking a cycle of division and building understanding between all who share this island remains the great challenge of our generation.
Tags: Micheál Martin