Jim O'Brien: It's time to move on from the Civil War divisions that have scarred our history

Michael Collins
Michael Collins
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

I was in Soloheadbeg last weekend, at the site of the attack reputed to mark the start the War of Independence. A few months ago I discovered the memorial to the event. Last weekend I found the actual site where two RIC men were shot dead in an IRA operation to commandeer gelignite as it was being transported to a local quarry.

My grandfather was an old republican and a great admirer of Dan Breen, whose IRA unit carried out the attack. Our house was a safe house during the war, and when my grandfather took the republican side after the Treaty it became a safe house for 'republicans' or 'irregulars' hiding from 'Free-Staters'.

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I grew up listening to names, nicknames and labels like these; many in my generation did. We knew the political traditions of most our neighbours.

We knew who the (Michael) Collins people were and who the Dev people were. I remember once somebody asking what affiliation a particular family had and my grandmother replying, "They're as blue as B on the side of a bluebag."

In the local shop your political affiliation was revealed by the newspaper you bought.

As a young teenager I played cards with my grandfather most nights; 'rummy' was our game of choice. Each night I bided my time until the game ran out of steam and he turned to talk about the Troubles and the Tans.

He would tell me of his time as a scout in the IRA, describing raids on our house by the Tans and how members of the household would be ordered to their knees with their hands behind their heads. "If you dropped your elbows even a fraction you got a rifle butt in the ribs," he recalled.

He spoke once of his shame at having to carry out a punishment on a female informer convicted in an IRA court.

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When it came to talking about the Civil War there was sadness, bitterness and confusion; sadness that it happened, bitterness at some of the things that happened and confusion about Collins (below) and why he signed the Treaty.

The issue of partition was the bugbear for my grandfather. "It was all or nothing, Jamesie," was his doxology at the end of every discussion about that period.

Certain issues, which in retrospect appear relatively minor, caused him to be cross. He was particularly exercised about the loss of the lofts in the house at home. "The Tans searched them inside out but the Free Staters pulled them down and threw them out around the yard," he would recall bitterly.

I remember him telling me about a man (whose name I cannot remember) who came looking for shelter and a revolver on his way to the battle for Kilmallock. He got both.

One of the most extensive, prolonged and decisive engagements of the Civil War, the battle was fought between Kilmallock, Bruree and Bruff beginning on July 25 and ending in defeat for the republicans on August 5.

When the order came to dump arms in 1923, my grandfather wrapped his last revolver in an oil cloth and hid it in a culvert in a crag behind the cow house. The milking parlour now stands there. He refused to show me where it was but told me he would go to the spot every so often, and poking in one of his walking sticks would make sure the gun was still there.

That is all a long time ago and much has changed. Dan Breen's My Fight for Irish Freedom was one of the first adult books I read, but now I am a father of three children and when I visited Soloheadbeg last weekend my first thoughts were for the those who died there - Patrick O'Connell, a 36-year-old RIC constable from Co Cork, and Constable James McDonnell, a Mayo man, a widower who left seven orphaned children.

Breen became a celebrated national hero; Sean Treacy, a local from Soloheadbeg who fired some of the fatal shots in the attack, was killed during a street battle in Talbot Street, Dublin in October 1920.

I wonder what became of the seven McDonnell orphans.

A number of years ago I found myself working for my good friend Mairead McGuinness on her first Euro election campaign to win a seat in Leinster for Fine Gael. I was a long way from the bedside of my republican or 'irregular' grandfather.

Indeed Fine Gael was a strange country, with an iconography directly at odds with the one that had surrounded me since I was born. But my friendship with Mairead was more important and we had a job to do, so I learned to genuflect at all the right statues and bless myself at all the right times.

After the successful campaign I accompanied the new MEP to Strasbourg to take her seat. At a reception in the parliament building for incoming and outgoing Irish Euro parliamentarians, I met my fellow Limerick man Gerry Collins, a Fianna Fáil party luminary who had just lost his European seat in Munster.

Gerry's father Jimmy, who had served as a TD in West Limerick prior to his son, was a friend of my grandfather and our house was once fertile electoral territory for their political dynasty.

In Strasbourg in 2004 as I shook Gerry's hand under the glass and steel splendour of the Hemicycle, I wondered aloud what my grandfather might make of my latest venture.

"Ah sure, Jim," Gerry Collins said, "these are different times and it's a different generation."

Diarmaid Ferriter's excellent programme, Keepers of the Flame, broadcast on RTé last week featured a remark by President Higgins, who described the commemoration of the 1916 Rising as a 'doddle' compared to what is facing us in terms of commemorating the Civil War.

It may not be that difficult. As the names and nicknames fade into history and as the human stories overpower the political narratives, is it too much to hope that we have moved on and there is no need to even talk about burying the hatchet?

Like my grandfather's revolver maybe it is already buried, and no one knows where it is.

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