Wednesday 15 August 2018

Book a 'Labour of Love' for Siobhra Aiken

Great granddaughter of Frank Aiken co-authors book which sheds light on period of conflict

Siobhra Aiken who contributed to ‘The Men Will Talk To Me’
Siobhra Aiken who contributed to ‘The Men Will Talk To Me’
The book ‘The Men Will Talk To Me’, which Siobhra Aiken contributed to

Margaret Roddy

Siobhra Aiken, a great granddaughter of the legendary nationalist and politician Frank Aiken, says she learned about aspects of his life while researching a new book on Ernie O'Malley's interviews with the Northern Divisions.

A former Fulbright Scholar, she is a co-author of the book 'The Men Will Talk To Me' which will the launched in the Oriel Centre in Dundalk Gaol on Thursday 17th May at 7.30pm.

Siobhra grew up in Ardee, where she lived next door to her grandparents. 'I grew up being brought to local history events by my granddad, Frank Aiken Jnr,' she says.

Being of a generation which was more removed from the bitterness left by the Civil War, she says 'I learnt much more about Frank Aiken's IRA activities as a child than my aunts and uncles who grew up during the Troubles at a time when there was more of a reluctance to consider these historical events.'

She was just a young teenager when the Bureau of Military History archives were released in 2003. 'This was an emotional time for us as a family as it was the first time we heard about much of Aiken's activities as Aiken himself was reticent to speak about this period with his children.'

After doing her Leaving Cert at Ardee Community School, it was no surprise that history was one of her subject choices when she went to Trinity College Dublin.

'I was always interested in history and languages, so for my undergraduate I studied European Studies in Trinity College which was a perfect combination of European Cultural History, French and Spanish.'

After graduating, she spent a year teaching Irish and Irish history as a Fulbright scholar in Springfield, Massachusetts.

'I then pursued my MA in Irish Studies in NUI Galway, and am currently completing my PhD dissertation which considers how the trauma of the Irish Civil War is articulated in various personal and literary testimonies.'

She was asked to get involved in writing the book by Cormac O'Malley, whose father Ernie O'Malley had conducted interviews with survivors of the Northern Divisions of the IRA during the 1940s and 1950s. O'Malley, who had travelled the country interviewing those who had been involved in Ireland's fight for freedom and subsequent Civil War, famously commented that 'Irish history has not been written: it is the history of the underdog.'

His work and that of subsequent scholars such as Siobhra has helped to shed a light on that turbulent period of Irish history.

'I was approached by Cormac about four years ago to help transcribe the interviews for this collection and it really was an intense labour of love!' she says.

It was not easy task however, as historian Eve Morrison notes 'Though long recognised as an essential source for the anti-Treaty perspective on the Civil War, O'Malley's notoriously illegible handwriting has been it difficult for all but the most diligent to make effective use of them, and virtually impossible to construct an accurate overall assessment of his aims and methodology.

'All of the fourteen interviews had to be transcribed, edited and endnoted, and biographical sketches for all the interviewees had to be written,' said Siobhra.

The book also contains extensive endnotes 'so that readers not familiar with the context of the interviews can follow the narratives, and also to provide more information and insights to the more eager historian.'

Naturally, given that her great grandfather was one of key figures interviewed in the book, Siobhra found it a fascinating challenge, although the book notes that he was 'reticent to speak about the revolutionary period for fear that would only 'bring the whole thing up again'.

Born into a sturdy nationalist Catholic farming family from Camough, Co Armagh, Aiken had joined the local branch of the Gaelic League and Camlough Volunteers in 1914. He was just 23, when in March 1921, he was appointed Officer Commander of the 4th Northern Division of the IRA, which spanned across South and West Down, all of Armagh and North Louth, and was one of the more active and organised divisions in the North. It was also an area in which extreme acts of violence were committed by both sides. For Aiken, this period was traumatic and was marked by a number of deep personal losses. His family home was burnt down in December 1920 which meant he was on the run from this time on. His sister Nano was interned without trial during the Civil War and was one of the last female republican prisoners to be released in May 1924.

'It is not surprising, therefore, that he refused to speak about this period and even burnt his Civil War papers,' says Siobhra. 'Much of our family conversations about Frank Aiken are attempts to understand and unearth stories that have been hidden for two generations.'

She says that 'when working on this book, for example, I discovered that Aiken's first cousin, Annie Cardwell (a Cumann na mBan member) was accidentally shot during the civil war when aiding Anti-Treaty escapees from the Curragh Camp. This was never passed on and we would never have know about this incident if it weren't for the fact that Ernie O'Malley took it on himself in the 1950s to conduct the interviews included in this book.'

'Another aspect of the book was making contact with all of the families involved and tracking down photos of all of the interviewees, six of whom were active in the area of the Fourth Northern Divisions,' she explained.

These were Michael O'Hanlon from Mullaghbawn, Michael Donnelly,from Lower Creegan, John McCoy, from Mullaghbawn Michael Murney, from Killowen, Co Down, Patrick McLogan, from Clady, Co Armagh, and her own great grandfather Frank Aiken.

'These interviews provide fresh and frank insights into the centrality of the North of the country in the War of Independence and the slide towards Civil War and will be essential to our understanding of this period as we continue with the decade of centenaries.'

The book will the launched in the Oriel Centre in Dundalk Gaol on Thursday 17th May at 7.30pm which is a highly apt location given that Frank Aiken was a prisoner in the gaol himself, but escaped along with 105 of his men after a mine was detonated outside the gaol's wall.

The Argus