So when complaints about Irish Water and politicians run out of steam, recently we’ve been inevitably turning back to the commemoration of the Easter Rising, an unsuccessful insurrection against British rule in 1916. Of course nothing in Ireland is ever simple.
History in Ireland tends to be intermingled with myth. Folk memory clashes with facts and even in school, the history we learned was that the road to independence was a popular struggle, whole-heartedly supported by all the population of the island. Or by all “true” Irishmen anyways. Coming up to the centenary of our independence, it’s time we fully acknowledge what happened in the name of independence and sovereignty. And the bloody aftermath with regards to our own civil war.
Our own complicated relationship with our larger neighbour has influenced our reluctance to acknowledge the true situation on the island in the violent decade of 1913-1923, the formative years of what is now the modern state. From gun-running into Larne and Howth, two armed militias willing to fight both for and against Home Rule, battles on the Somme and at Gallipoli, rebellion in Dublin and independence and a civil war, the country changed over the course of a decade that no one could have predicted.
Bloody Sunday 1913, the DMP and RIC baton charge and engage in street battles with the strikers during the Dublin Lockout.
Nearly a third of the government forces killed during the Easter Rising were Irish. Roger Casement’s plan to form an Irish Brigade amongst POWs to fight for the German Empire (akin to the Czechoslovak Legions) managed to recruit about 55 volunteers. Over 200,00 Irishmen served in WW1 for the Empire from the Western Front to Mesopotamia. They were no different than Poles fighting for Germany, Algerians for the French or Czechs for the Austrians. The Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police were comprised mostly of Irishmen and while in the former, most of the officers were Protestant, a large majority of the rank and file were Catholic. Ireland had been ruled from mainland Britain since the Act of Union in 1800 and while the spirit of revolution had never died out, there were many who were happy with their lot in the Empire.
The man there is my great grand uncle, Gerald John Fitzgibbon. During the Great War, he served with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers on the Western Front, as part of the 10th (Irish) Division. Gerald from his writings didn’t appear to be too political a man. His writing is simple, honest and always with a cheerful, optimistic tone. Days where his company only suffered from shellfire were described as “quiet”. He would also comment positively on the weather sometimes with a wistful reference to home.
On the 20th of November, 1917, the battle of Cambrai saw the German lines shattered in a stunning assault by the first effective use of tanks in warfare. After three years of bloody stalemate, it was an unparalleled success even more so than the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge. That evening Gerald escorted a column of around a hundred prisoners back to the British lines. Evidently they’d not been searched as one of them shot Gerald with a concealed handgun. He was just one of 4,000 Allied casualties on the day.
Gerald was nothing special, just one of thousands of Irishmen who’d enlisted, from all over the island and one of the roughly 40,000+ Irishmen who paid the ultimate price. While the 36th (Ulster) and 10th/16th (Irish) Divisions were generally speaking split alongside Unionist/Nationalist and Protestant/Catholic lines, it made no difference on the field. At Messines and Wijtschate, Orangemen and Home Rulers fought and died together. At 3rd Ypres the divisions lost more than 50% of their strength, nearly 8,000 men. Even the much maligned Haig was critical of Gough for “playing the Irish card” (Gough incidentally was also one of the officers central in the Curragh Incident, where British officers said they would resign rather than enforce Home Rule).
These veterans returned home to an atmosphere of increasing hostility towards the government, particularly after the executions of the 1916 leaders and the Conscription Crisis. Largely distrusted, some still joined the IRA, most famously Tom Barry, the west Cork flying column leader. Their conflicted loyalty and feeling is best shown by the poet Francis Ledwidge who wrote that
“I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy of civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing but pass resolutions”.
The Easter Rising was a shock to his system, he was court-martialed for drunkenness in uniform being sent back to the front.
“If someone were to tell me now that the Germans were coming in over our back wall, I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them. They could come!”
Ledwidge died at 3rd Ypres.
Many demobilised veterans emigrated, in search of employment and also to avoid rising nationalist sentiment at home. Less admirably, some turned to alternative employment, some 10% of the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans were Irish. With divided loyalties, they struggled to find a place in Ireland. Generally ignored in Irish history and their role downplayed by British historians after the War of Independence, it’s only been in recent decades that we’ve begun to acknowledge their experiences.
British officers pose with the GPO flag after the Easter Rising. On the far right is Lt. Dick Burke MC, a Kerryman from Dingle, Royal Irish Regiment. After the Rising, he fought at Wijtschate, 1917. Three battalions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers fought to put down the Rising.
The War of Independence was never a widespread affair. A quarter of the country was put under martial law with conflict mostly confined to Munster and Dublin. Smaller flying columns operated in the Midlands and Connacht and Belfast was the scene of frequent sectarian rioting. Commanders were largely independent and columns centred on local loyalty, the ambush at Soloheadbeg was done without the approval of the Army Council.
The casualty figures for the RIC alone could give rise to the argument that it was our first civil war. The majority were ordinary men making a living, not a colonial gendarmie oppressing the populace . Their reputation had been tarnished through their association with landlords and evictions but the force was still acknowledged as a legitimate one. Police service was nothing strange, similar to the large numbers of Irish serving in the British military. In mainland Britain, 25% of the police were Irish-born. Subject to a boycott and shunned by their neighbours, the RIC paid a heavy price for their chosen occupation during the War of Independence. No one denies the numerous British atrocities committed during the War of Independence. But we seem to cast a blind eye to ones committed in the name of independence, such as those soldiers and policemen executed while off-duty or murdered in their homes.
1916 and the War of Independence are relatively safe topics for us to salve our conscience because despite the atrocities committed by both sides, it was in the name of independence and pursuit of sovereignty. The Civil War is largely ignored, school history books sidestepping discussing topics such as illegal executions and murders. And yet this bloodier conflict has shaped the Ireland of today, the scars of the war still living on and at the roots of our oldest political parties.
The same bloody, dirty conflict continued. Except this time it was Irishman against Irishman. Units had divided loyalties, even families were split. But both sides were ruthless in their efforts to assert control. The IRA men who seized the Four Courts were no less determined than the National Army soldiers who used borrowed British artillery to blast them out, six years on from 1916.
The National Army stood at nearly 60,000 strong by the close of the war. A large number of WW1 veterans had joined though substantial numbers of IRA men had also chosen to support the Treaty (the Dublin Guard being the best known). Men who’d been on the same side a year before were now picking sides and preparing for a war.
Bombarding the Four Courts, 1922.
Outside my local GAA pitch is a simple white cross to a Flynn, shot by Free State troops after their landing at Fenit. A few miles further from Tralee is another to an O’Sullivan, killed the same day. With the exception of Listowel, the majority of the IRA in Kerry were anti-treaty and refused to recognize the authority of the Provisional government.
In Kerry, the Civil War was fought to the bitter end, the local IRA and National Army conducting bloody reprisals in response to any success by the other side. The Free Staters are remembered vehemently, being seen as worse than the preceding British forces. Kerry saw more conflict and death during the Civil War than it did during the War of Independence. The actions of the Dublin Guard in Kerry were comparable if not even more deplorable than the worst excesses of the Auxiliaries or the Black and Tans. Paddy Daly, their commander, later commented
“Nobody had asked me to take kid gloves to Kerry, so I didn’t”.
The Dublin Guard beat and tortured prisoners while the IRA in Kerry, reduced to guerilla warfare at this stage, responded by targeting medical orderlies and killing two local National Officers, the O’Connor brothers after separating them from other prisoners.
National Army troops during the Civil War.
At Ballyseedy Cross outside Tralee on the night of 6/7 March 1923, nine Republican prisoners were tied to a mine by Free State soldiers before it was detonated. The survivors were machine-gunned. It was a reprisal for the death of five National Army soldiers in Knocknagoshel from a booby-trap. Four more Republican prisoners were blown to pieces that same night in Killarney, while five days later another five were blown up in Cahersiveen. Other prisoners had trials before their executions while some were just shot out of hand when captured.
The memorial at Ballyseedy to the eight killed. Stephen Fuller was miraculously blown clear and survived.
The deaths were covered up as accidental, the result of mine-clearing operations. Richard Mulcahy defended it in the Dáil and an enquiry absolved those responsible. It was another wretched chapter in a pointless conflict one that had less than two months to run. The Free State was dogged in its attempts to crush all resistance while the IRA were just as determined to draw out the conflict, even if they’d now lost all hope of victory.
I met the last survivor of the War of Independence, Dan Keating, for a school project in TY. Unrepentant to the end, he never recognized the authority of the Irish Free State nor the successive Republic. He’d been engaged in a shoot out the day before the Truce in Castleisland, where five Tans and four IRA men were killed. Yet his condemnation of the Dublin soldiers was even more damning, a sentiment that was shared by many in Kerry. Clad in borrowed British uniforms, armed with British weapons and with an unfamiliar accent, it’s no wonder they saw little difference between the Dubliners and the British. The soldiers coming from the largest city on the island, they’d have little in common with the inhabitants of the mountainous, rural county. Many of the anti-treaty forces felt they’d fought their own war, independent of the Army Council, so why now should they accept a treaty they hadn’t fought for?
IRA members patrolling Grafton Street before hostilities.
The Guard was also officered mostly by ex-members of the Squad and ASU. They were loyal to Collins in the same way that a local flying column was to their commander. His assassination stripped away any restrictions. His successes and failings have been debated endlessly but it’s clear he’d been a restraining influence on his men. The weekend after his death, four Republicans were found shot, their bodies dumped around the city. The CID (Criminal Investigation Department) was officially, a plains-clothes detective unit but they began to act with single-minded brutality. Attacks on their men were answered with the finding and killing of known Republicans in simple reprisal.
The Dublin Guard are singled out here just with relation to the conflict in Kerry. Irishmen from all backgrounds, counties and walks of life proved themselves capable of acts of barbarism and savagery during the Civil War. In Wexford, three Republican prisoners were executed on March 13th. The local IRA commander retaliated by capturing and executing three National Army soldiers. In response again, the Free State had two known local Republicans killed. In Donegal after the death of a soldier in an ambush, the National Army by executing four prisoners. The Republican forces were no different, they too abducted and committed extra-judicial killings.
Internment, normally connected with Northern Ireland, was used to great effect by the Free State during the Civil War. Censorship too was invoked, forcing the media to refer to the IRA as “irregulars” or to “armed gangs” of men, further de-legitimizing them in the eyes of the public. While a mere side-show to contemporary conflicts like the Russian Civil War or later ones such as in Spain, the Civil War in Ireland was nonetheless a dirty one. Both sides proved themselves to be motivated by revenge, when all that mattered was ‘sending a message’ to the other side.
IRA prisoner being escorted by Free State troops.
The reluctance to remember the Civil War is akin to the repression of an uncomfortable memory. But we can’t ignore the reality, that it did happen, the final chapter in the creation of our state. Everyone admits that it began with violence, the “popular” struggle of 1916 and the War of Independence. Not so many are willing to acknowledge that our state began with internment, state executions, censorship and if the actions of the Dublin Guard are anything to go by, death squads.
1916 has to be commemorated but understood with it’s relationship to the events preceding and following it, it’s only one of several formative events in the creation of the state. Examining them in isolation gives us nothing. We can’t just focus on the glory and popular view. Our rose-tinted view of the past has to be tackled along with our tendency to romanticize and ignore the darker aspects of the past. Particularly that of the brutality and savage actions that Irishmen were capable of committing against their own countrymen.
As Shaw said “Put an Irishman on a spit and you can always find another one to turn him”.