Confronting our blood-soaked, vicious past the best tribute to Irish Republic
Remembering the horrors of the Civil War in the South could help illuminate and heal divisions in the North where peace is still under threat
Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30
What will you be doing on June 28, 2022? It is some way away but the date is worth thinking about. It is an anniversary that denies us the easy collective swoon of 1916. There is unlikely to be any programme of cultural events to celebrate the moment when the artillery opened up to save the newly born Irish Free State. If you were depressed with the fulminating about the sight of poor John Redmond's face gazing out over College Green in Dublin - what Professor Adams of Rosa Parks fame called "a historical nonsense" - then it would be wise to brace for some spittle-flecked partisanship in 2022.
The centennial of the outbreak of the Civil War is every bit as important an anniversary as 1916 or the outbreak of the War of Independence three years after the Rising. I will not indulge in a hierarchy of significance here. That truly is an historical exercise.
One event could not have happened without the other. On this, republicans, revisionists, our handful of arid rationalists, and the legions of the apathetic can hopefully agree. The bitterness of the Civil War defined the party political structures of the modern State.
It gave us Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, Sinn Fein - in its official and provisional manifestations - and a fair few splinter groups who banged and sparked and then vanished. But it did not, define our politics. This is a crucial distinction.
Corruption, conservatism, clericalism and cronyism have been part of the Irish political tradition for at least two centuries. Colonial rule gave us a civil service and some strong institutions, including an independent judiciary, but it also embedded some very unhealthy 'traditions'. Corruption has been coiled within our politics since the Act of Union in 1801 when bribery secured the votes to end the Ascendancy parliament on College Green. It has slithered under the stones ever since.
The slaughter and repression that followed the 1798 rebellion left the mass of the population traumatised and fearful of radicalism.
The first great political mass movement in Irish history was, understandably under the circumstances, exclusively confessional. Daniel O'Connell's struggle for Catholic emancipation had a standing army of bishops and priests as the most effective party whips in Irish history. It would take a century-and-a-half to begin disentangling that Gordian knot. A history of dispossession and hunger might, you would think, have inclined the rural masses towards communism. But people whose forebears starved and emigrated in their millions inherited a hunger for land and security.
That word security is central to understanding our country. The Ireland that emerged from colonial rule was never going to be the romantic land of the Gaels envisioned by Pearse or the socialist utopia for which Connolly fought.
So the current impasse over forming a government has nothing to do with the Civil War and everything to do with the domination of our national politics by a conservative vision inherited from the 19th century. The only real choice is between different strands of this vision.
We are not on the verge of a radical renaissance led by the heirs of Wolfe Tone, even if we could figure out who they are these days.
The Civil War is worth remembering, not because of any lasting political legacy, but on its own brutal and shameful terms.
A few weeks ago I attended an inspiring day of talks around 1916 at University College Cork. One of the most striking presentations was from Dr John Borgonovo, noted historian of the 1919-23 period in Cork city and county.
He spoke of the atrocities of the Civil War period and wondered if the nation was ready to confront what had happened when the centennial rolled around. Dr Borgonovo was doubtful. Too many national legends did too many nasty things.
There were still living relatives of the torturers and executioners, as well as the murdered and maimed. Borgonovo has investigated the torture and killing of republican prisoners but he is quick to acknowledge the war crimes of the other side. It is the very scale of the horror in this conflict that makes him doubtful of the possibility of a season of honest retrospection in 2022. I see his point. I am in the middle of writing a book about the War of Independence and Civil War in north Kerry.
It is a story in which my own family was intimately involved. My Cumann an mBan grandmother took the Free State side. Collins was the lost leader. Our inherited narrative was of republican irredentism and Dev's treachery. Only as I grew older and read the history did I sense that the path to war was more complex. I look back on that period now with a great sense of compassion for all involved.
That might be a good starting point for the anniversary. Let us not look, as Louis MacNeice put it, to pigeonhole the dead as "traitors and heroes or sheep and goats" but as men and women who believed passionately in their respective causes. What I have read and heard of the war in north Kerry ranks in viciousness with some of the worst conflicts I have covered in my reporting life. The scale of casualties may have been smaller but the hatred was every bit as great.
The history wars of the Troubles era, when academics battled to find a narrative that would not legitimise Provo violence, are behind us. I believe the Republic is confident enough to face the past honestly. Remembering is no guarantee against repetition but for the South to face the horrors of those times with courage would surely encourage the North. There, the unresolved and the unspoken still threaten the peace. There is something bigger at stake here than the judgments of history. We have an opportunity to illuminate and to help in healing. That is the work of true children of the Republic.