If this were 1922, which side in the Civil War would you be on?

The Irish Civil War, a three-part series, concludes tonight (Tuesday Dec 13), writes Kathriona Devereux
If this were 1922, which side in the Civil War would you be on?

Free State troops after their capture of Cork city from Republican forces in August, 1922

ONE hundred years ago, the last of the British troops were leaving Ireland in December, 1922 - but instead of celebrating the longed for liberation from the British Empire, the country was embroiled in a “cruel, brutal and unnatural strife”.

The front page of this newspaper a century ago is full of reports of calls for peace alongside stories of captures of Irregulars in Kerry and Waterford, and a failed attempt to take Carrigtwohill Barracks from the National Army.

One report outlines how the chairman of the Cork Harbour Commissioners, Mr Frank Daly, called for a public meeting to negotiate peace.

“It is the bounden duty of every Irishman to unite at once in an endeavour to bring peace to our distracted country,” he declared. “We are giving pain, grievous pain, to every friend of Ireland throughout the world.”

He said there was a general demand for peace around the country and lamented “the crushed and bleeding hearts of the mothers of Ireland whose sons are being slain from day to day”.

The Evening Echo is full of sad stories throughout December, 1922. Emmet McGarry, aged 7, died from burns received when his home, the residence of his politician father Sean McGarry TD, was set on fire. John Moriarty was taken from his house in the middle of night in Tralee for being a “Free Stater” and was found dead in a field by his mother the next morning. A “soldier boy”, Private John Travers, from Cloyne, died in hospital after being shot in Youghal the night before - the report stated John’s mother forgave whoever killed him.

After the ordeal of the revolutionary years and the hard-fought victory against Britain, it is heartbreaking to read about the self-inflicted trauma perpetrated because of disagreement over 1,800 words on seven typed pages that became known as the Treaty.

The Treaty promised a new Irish state existing inside the Empire while having the status and levels of autonomy of Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

During the Dáil Treaty debates, Michael Collins said “this Treaty gives us, not recognition of the Irish Republic, but it gives us more recognition on the part of Great Britain and the associated States than we have got from any other nation... it gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it.”

But for many of his Dáil and revolutionary colleagues, abandoning the Irish Republic and maintaining a connection to Britain was an unbearable prospect.

RTÉ’s three part history series The Irish Civil War, made in collaboration with UCC, concludes tonight (Tuesday Dec 13). Based on UCC’s book Atlas Of The Irish Revolution, the series tells this brutal chapter of Irish history. As one of the producers on the project, it was a privilege to play a part in bringing the sad past to the small screen.

While there have been documentaries and films about the War of Independence and Ireland’s struggle for freedom, there was much silence about the Civil War.

The glory of Ireland’s success at bringing Britain to the negotiation table was sundered by the dark and painful period of the civil war, no- one really wanted to go there. However, recognising the deep inter-generational impact of civil war is essential for understanding Ireland today.

When considering the Civil War, it’s hard to resist the thought experiment of what side you would take if transported back to 1922. Would you have been a pragmatic Free Stater, willing to accept dominion status in order that “Ireland be allowed to develop her own life in her own way, without any interference from any other Government whether English or otherwise”, as TD Commandant Sean MacKeon put it during the Treaty debates.

Or, after all the sacrifices of the previous years, would the abandonment of the Republic and acceptance of incomplete freedom from Britain be too much to bear?

It’s hard now to imagine an Irish TD saying the oath as laid out in the Treaty: “I do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established and that I will be faithful to H.M. King George V., his heirs and successors by law, in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain and her adherence to and membership of the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

But it is impossible to put ourselves in the place of those one hundred years ago. Some considered the Anti-Treaty side’s actions “an insolent challenge to democracy” and others thought Free Staters traitors to the ideals of Ireland.

We lament that the Treaty could undo the solidarity, allegiances, camaraderie and shared vision of the War of Independence, but we have no concept of living through years and years of war and oppression and what that might do to our psyche and spirit.

We live with the intergenerational pain handed down over decades as a consequence of the civil war, and despite all the serious problems Ireland faces today, we must recognise and appreciate how far we’ve come.

In 1922, about a quarter of the world’s population was under British rule. Thanks to the sacrifices of Irish revolutionaries and generations of Irish people, our imperfect country now enjoys the freedoms of an independent European country as dreamed of by our ancestors.

The Irish Civil War, a three-part series, concludes tonight (Tuesday Dec 13) on RTÉ1 at 9.30pm, with previous episodes available on the RTÉ Player.

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