Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War Diarmaid Ferriter Profile Books, (paperback), €11.75
Between June 15 and 18, University College Cork is hosting The Irish Civil War National Conference to mark the centenary of the Irish Civil War.
The genesis of the conflict goes back to April 14, 1922 when the anti-Treaty IRA, led by Rory O’Connor, set up a military headquarters in the Four Courts in Dublin. They wanted to spark a new conflict with the British. In fact, the bold move by the anti-Treaty IRA began a bitter and bloody civil war between former close comrades of Irish republicanism. The Irish Civil War thus officially started on June 28, 1922, when Free State forces bombed the Four Courts.
Between Two Hells begins with a brief overview of why the conflict arose in the first place.
Diarmaid Ferriter, a professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin, first recalls the Irish War of Independence — fought between the IRA and British Crown forces from January 1919 to July 1921. Both sides accepted neither could inflict a decisive defeat and agreed a truce.
This eventually led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, which created a 26-county free-state dominion within the British Empire. The Treaty also generated a split within what hitherto had been an united Irish republican movement. The Treaty’s supporters said it would build towards Irish unity. The anti-Treaty side claimed it betrayed the Irish Republic that was proclaimed during the 1916 Easter Rising.
The conflict’s most high-profile martyr was Michael Collins. The 31-year-old chairman of the pro-Treaty provisional government had led the IRA during the Irish War of Independence.
Ironically, though, an IRA bullet killed him in August 1922.
The fighting intensified after Collins’s death. But as “a military contest [the civil war] was almost over” by December 1922: when the Irish Free State came into official existence. The anti-Treaty IRA campaign hadn’t the resources, military planning, or public support to destroy the Free State’s legitimacy. They tried through guerrilla warfare, robberies, intimidation, and economic sabotage.
Free State forces retaliated by executing IRA members. The IRA’s chief of staff Frank Aiken called for a suspension of IRA offences and an arms dump in late May 1923. But there was no official surrender or negotiated peace settlement to formally end the civil war.
Using documents only recently made available from the Military Service Pensions archive, the book investigates the lives of rank-and-file soldiers who fought in the civil war to see how they fared personally and financially in its aftermath. He goes into a little too much detail here on occasion.
The historian also provides a brief analysis of how the civil war shaped the wider political landscape. A conservative-Catholic state emerged. In its early years, the Irish Free State invested most of its energies on democratic survival.
The anti-Treaty side managed an astounding political comeback, via Fianna Fáil. The populist republican party formed in 1926 and was led by the former president of Sinn Féin, Éamon de Valera, who forged the path for militant Republicans to become moderate democrats.
Many historians have been highly critical of the divisive Machiavellian figure. Ferriter is a fan. He points to de Valera’s greatest political achievement: dismantling the Treaty and removing the British crown from Irish affairs, when Fianna Fáil ruled continually in Dáil Éireann from 1932 to 1948.
This saw the British-imposed Constitution of 1922 being replaced with the Constitution of Ireland in 1937. The latter document discriminated against women and embraced fundamentalist Catholic doctrine too. Catholic clerics even checked the Constitution’s legal clauses: these were then sent to the Vatican for approval.
The Republic of Ireland Act of 1949 officially ended the 26-county state’s status as a British dominion and cut ties with the Commonwealth for good. However, the bold move which gave Ireland its Republic status in 1949 actually came from Fine Gael. The pro-Treaty party formed in 1933, following the merger of its parent party, Cumann na nGaedheal, The National Centre Party, and the Army Comrades Association. The latter group was a quasi-fascist, right-wing paramilitary organisation commonly referred to as “The Blueshirts”.
Ferriter also looks at the conflict in a wider European context. Compared to internal conflicts in Latvia, Hungary and Finland from the same period, it was “small scale”. The fatalities of the civil war are still widely debated: estimates range anywhere between 1,200 to 4,000. Still, the violence could be bloody and brutal.
We read one disturbing example. In 1969 a journalist from the Irish Press asked Seán Lemass to speak frankly about atrocities committed during the Irish Civil War. “I’d prefer not to,” Ireland’s fourth Taoiseach replied. He had fought with the anti-Treaty IRA side during the conflict. So too had his brother, Noel, whose mutilated body was found in the Dublin Mountains in October 1923. The armed forces of the Free State were involved in his bloodthirsty murder, where torture was used, and the victim’s teeth, fingers, and feet were removed.
A certain amount of stoic silence was probably necessary in the decades that followed. It ensured that both sides could put their guns down, try to move on, forget about past atrocities, and focus on a larger goal. Namely, the fundamental survival of a free and democratic Ireland.
As the centenary of the Irish Civil War approaches, Ferriter believes it is now appropriate and timely to have a more open and forthright public discussion about a conflict that coincided with the birth of Irish democracy.
As the volume is turned up on that national conversation, over the coming months, Between Two Hells will no doubt become an important point of reference.