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Divided legacy: From Treaty to Civil War - how will we remember the Decade of Centenaries?

The big read: From ambushes and executions to civil war, the State is facing some awkward anniversaries. After the RIC row, will there be more controversy? Kim Bielenberg reports

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Tragedy: Michael McElhatton as an Irish Free State soldier in a scene from the 1997 RTÉ Television drama-documentary Ballyseedy about the 1923 massacre

Tragedy: Michael McElhatton as an Irish Free State soldier in a scene from the 1997 RTÉ Television drama-documentary Ballyseedy about the 1923 massacre

Family history: Michael McDowell with the portrait of his grandfather Eoin McNeill, founder of the Irish Volunteers, at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.  Photo by Arthur Carron

Family history: Michael McDowell with the portrait of his grandfather Eoin McNeill, founder of the Irish Volunteers, at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. Photo by Arthur Carron

Family at war: Eoin MacNeill (centre) with sons Niall and Brian (right), who fought on oppositive sides during the Civil War

Family at war: Eoin MacNeill (centre) with sons Niall and Brian (right), who fought on oppositive sides during the Civil War

Kevin Barry: hanged at Mountjoy Prison

Kevin Barry: hanged at Mountjoy Prison

Personal divisions: Kevin O'Higgins, centre, on his wedding day with Eamon de Valera, left and Rory O'Connor. A year later, O'Higgins would sign O'Connor's execution order

Personal divisions: Kevin O'Higgins, centre, on his wedding day with Eamon de Valera, left and Rory O'Connor. A year later, O'Higgins would sign O'Connor's execution order

Catriona Crowe. Photo by Tony Gavin

Catriona Crowe. Photo by Tony Gavin

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Tragedy: Michael McElhatton as an Irish Free State soldier in a scene from the 1997 RTÉ Television drama-documentary Ballyseedy about the 1923 massacre

It was a scene of horror that is almost unimaginable nearly a century later. In Ballyseedy, Co Kerry, nine republican prisoners were tied to a land mine and the aim of their captors was to blow them all apart.

The writer Dorothy Macardle described the dark and sinister events that happened in the quiet Kerry townland.

The nine men, some of them already injured, had been bundled into a lorry and carried to the area two miles from Tralee.

As Macardle put it: "Their feet were bound together above the ankles and their legs were bound together above the knees. Then a strong rope was passed around the nine and soldiers moved away.

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Family history: Michael McDowell with the portrait of his grandfather Eoin McNeill, founder of the Irish Volunteers, at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.  Photo by Arthur Carron

Family history: Michael McDowell with the portrait of his grandfather Eoin McNeill, founder of the Irish Volunteers, at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. Photo by Arthur Carron

"The prisoners had their backs to the log and the mine which was beside it; they could see the movement of the soldiers and knew what would happen next.

"They gripped one another's hands, those who could prayed for God's mercy upon their souls. The shock came, blinding, deafening and overwhelming."

Eight of the republicans were blown to smithereens and, according to Macardle's account, "for days afterwards, the birds were eating the flesh off the trees at Ballyseedy Cross". By some freakish chance, there was one survivor, Stephen Fuller, who was blown into a ditch and managed to escape.

This macabre happening was not an episode during the battles between crown forces and the IRA during the War of Independence. It had nothing to do with Black and Tans. It was an atrocity perpetrated by Irishmen against Irishmen in March 1923 during the Civil War - the forces of the Free State killed their former comrades. Only a few months previously, many of these combatants had fought side by side.

The Ballyseedy Massacre will be one of the events that will be commemorated towards the end of the Decade of Centenaries, one of many dark and harrowing incidents during the revolutionary period.

At the start of this year, a plan to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary, the police force from a century ago, became engulfed in controversy, which almost spilled over into the General Election campaign.

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Personal divisions: Kevin O'Higgins, centre, on his wedding day with Eamon de Valera, left and Rory O'Connor. A year later, O'Higgins would sign O'Connor's execution order

Personal divisions: Kevin O'Higgins, centre, on his wedding day with Eamon de Valera, left and Rory O'Connor. A year later, O'Higgins would sign O'Connor's execution order

The next government, whatever its political complexion, will have to tread warily as it organises upcoming commemorations to mark the centenary of events from a century ago that are equally controversial. Or perhaps it will prefer not to go there after the recent RIC row and its damaging political fallout.

How will we mark incidents such the Kilmichael Ambush of November 1920, when RIC Auxiliaries were killed. According to various accounts, some of these men had already surrendered when they were shot.

How will the 10 Protestants killed in Dunmanway in just a few days in April 1922 be remembered? Historians still debate whether the killings were sectarian or carried out because victims were perceived to be spies or informers.

From a diplomatic point of view, the Government will have to work out a response if there are invitations to functions north of the border to mark the centenary of the birth of the Northern Irish State. And to what extent will that historical event be part of our Decade of Centenaries?

DUP leader Arlene Foster said: "On May 3, 2021, Northern Ireland will be 100 years old. This will be a day and a year that we can celebrate. For all our trials and tribulations over those years, we have endured, and we have succeeded."

Whoever the Taoiseach is, whether it is Micheál Martin or Leo Varadkar, they are unlikely to be whooping it up with Arlene. And what odds on the leader of Sinn Féin attending, whether she is in or out of government?

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Family at war: Eoin MacNeill (centre) with sons Niall and Brian (right), who fought on oppositive sides during the Civil War

Family at war: Eoin MacNeill (centre) with sons Niall and Brian (right), who fought on oppositive sides during the Civil War

The Government's Expert Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations has recommended that the centenary of partition and the foundation of Northern Ireland be remembered with an academic conference.

That may be seen by historians and the powers-that-be as a safe way out of any political awkwardness.

After the row over the RIC and the Black and Tans, a new government is likely to proceed cautiously when it comes to marking the Civil War, which ran from the summer of 1922 until May of the following year.

Outrages on both sides

The conflict shaped the future of the country: the side that supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 backed by Michael Collins, which gave 26 counties a limited form of independence, became Fine Gael; and many of those who opposed the treaty, led by Éamon de Valera, formed Fianna Fáil.

Families and friendships were torn apart in the war. In the past month, there has been a concentration on the excesses and cruelties inflicted by the Black and Tans, but there were similar outrages in the Civil War on both sides.

And the trauma was all the greater because the combatants had fought alongside each other only a few months before war broke out. Prisoners on both sides were shot with little regard for due process.

An example of the deeply personal divisions of the Civil War period was the execution of one of the leading anti-treaty figures, Rory O'Connor.

In December 1922, alongside three other anti-treaty activists - Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joe McKelvey - O'Connor was executed by a firing squad as a reprisal for the killing of the TD Seán Hales.

The order for the execution was signed by the Minister for Justice Kevin O'Higgins. O'Connor had been best man at his wedding the previous year. O'Higgins was himself later assassinated.

If Micheál Martin takes office in the coming weeks, his government may have to decide how to mark the centenary of the assassination of Michael Collins in August 1922, if it chooses to mark it at all. The centenary could prove divisive, but it could also be a focus for reconciliation between the two most powerful parties in the history of the State.

The Expert Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations has recommended that there should be a State commemoration, "focusing on themes of remembrance and reconciliation, to take place on a neutral date for all of those who suffered and died during the Civil War".

Professor Eunan O'Halpin of Trinity College, a member of the advisory group, told Review: "I don't think the State will do a lot directly. What it will do is support events at local and county level because it avoids trouble."

O'Halpin's own great-grandfather, PJ Moloney, was a Sinn Féin MP and, later, a TD with three sons in the IRA and a daughter in the women's republican group, Cumann na mBan. The youngest son Paddy was shot by crown forces during the War of Independence.

Another great-uncle of Professor O'Halpin was Kevin Barry, the 18-year-old IRA man who was hanged at Mountjoy Prison for his involvement in an ambush which caused the deaths of three British soldiers. The centenary of his execution falls on November 1.

Senator Michael McDowell, the former Justice Minister, said we are now entering a period of commemoration in the Decade of Centenaries that will be difficult to deal with.

McDowell is a grandson of Eoin MacNeill, a founder of the Irish Volunteers. MacNeill had a son, Brian, who died fighting on the anti-treaty side in the Civil War, and two other sons fought on the side of the Free State.

The former minister said this week: "We are now entering a tricky period. There are some things that are well worth commemorating, but there are other events during this period that are slightly darker.

"There were many bad things that were committed on either side, and they are not really things that we have to wave flags about." McDowell has explored the story of the uncle he never knew, Brian MacNeill, the young IRA man who found himself on the opposite side in the Civil War to his two brothers, Niall and Turlough.

MacNeill had been sent to Sligo to help to reorganise the IRA in the area, and took the anti-treaty side when the movement split. He was involved in a guerrilla campaign of attacks on Free State forces.

Even though his brothers fought in the Free State Army and his father was a leading figure on the pro-treaty side, Brian continued to keep in touch with the family. The IRA man and three comrades were surrounded on the slopes of Benbulbin by Free State soldiers in September 1922.

"I think it's fairly clear what happened. He was shot while taken prisoner," MacDowell says. "He himself had shot Free State people in his time, so we have to have both sides of the story."

Three other men were shot in the same incident and, two hours later, two more republicans were captured and gunned down. MacNeill and his comrades were later revered as 'Sligo's Noble Six'.

What happened after the killing revealed the strange effect of the Civil War on families. Brian's coffin was carried by his brothers, who were wearing Free State uniforms, to his family grave at Kilbarrack in Dublin.

Showing the complexities of that time, a MacNeill cousin, Hugo, was in charge of the firing squad that executed Rory O'Connor and three other anti-treaty activists on December 8, 1922.

Having studied these events, McDowell says: "These were tough occasions and the rule of law had very little to do with it. It was very real and very visceral."

The former minister says he hopes there will not be too many wreath-laying ceremonies during the remaining period of the Decade of Centenaries.

"All we need to do is to be factual about what happened, and we don't have to be judgemental. We should let ordinary people form their own judgments."

If Fine Gael wins the election, how will it navigate its away around the centenaries of the 77 executions carried out by its political ancestors in the Free State government in the Civil War period?

Professor O'Halpin says a lot of attention is paid to those who were executed by the Free State, but less attention to those killed by the anti-treaty side in the name of the republic.

Until now, the State has tended to shy away from any official commemoration of the Civil War, and that may not be surprising because of all the divisions it caused. Fine Gael has commemorated the assassination of Collins at Béal na Bláth in August 1922, while Fianna Fáil celebrated the memory of the anti-treaty commander Liam Lynch, shot dead towards the end of the Civil War.

"The famous thing that is always said about the participants in our Civil War is that they never talked about it," says the historian and archivist Catriona Crowe. "There was a very dark silence in a lot of households about what happened in the conflict. It is hard and difficult to go back and confront those stories - events like the Ballyseedy landmine and the many other atrocities on the other side.

"We should do it respectfully and quietly with the maximum amount of information at our disposal."

Other countries also go through periods of historical soul-searching. In Spain, the civil war has become a topic of feverish debate in recent decades and there have been moves to exhume bodies of victims shot by the fascists.

"It is causing no end of difficulty in Spain, but it has to be done," says Crowe. "You simply cannot bury that level of violence, bereavement and trauma and expect it to go away.

"We will have to confront the fact that there are two states on the island, and deal with that respectfully without getting our knickers in a twist. That won't be easy, but it's doable," she adds.

The botched plan for an RIC commemoration may have caused an almighty political row, but other events in the Decade of Centenaries have passed off peacefully.

Crowe says the centenary of the Rising was "a doddle", largely because it was over quickly and relatively few people were killed.

"It could have focused a lot of attention on the use of violence as a political tool, but it didn't because there was a lot of focus on unusual victims such as children. The story of women in the Rising was also told.

"The War of Independence is much more difficult, because it went on for much longer and it ended in a catastrophic Civil War."


Decade of Centenaries: the main events still to come

Autumn/winter 2020: State Ceremony in Cork

A State ceremony will be held to remember Cork’s involvement in the War of Independence. This will be based around the centenary of the death of the city’s Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney in the autumn. Cork was at the centre of events late in 1920, with the Kilmichael Ambush and the Burning of Cork.

May 2021: Partition and the Foundation of ­Northern Ireland

The Expert Advisory Group recommends that the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the foundation of Northern Ireland be remembered with an academic conference.

2021: Commemoration of War of Independence

The advisory group recommends a State commemoration for all those who lost their lives during the struggle for independence. July 11 is a suggested date.

1922: Birth of the Free State

It’s suggested the centenary of the foundation of the State be remembered in an event to mark the symbolic transfer of power to the Irish State with the handover of Dublin Castle in January. This would be followed in December by an event recognising the leaders who helped embed the democratic tradition in the emerging Irish State.

1922/23 Civil War

A State commemoration, focusing on themes of remembrance and ­reconciliation, to take

place on a neutral date for all of those who suffered and died during the Civil War.

September 1923: Ireland joins League of Nations

A State ceremonial event to mark the centenary of the admission of the Irish Free State into the League of Nations. Local authorities, community groups and other organisations will hold other events to mark the Decade of Centenaries.

These include the Burning of Balbriggan, Bloody Sunday and the Ballyseedy Massacre.

Indo Review